If I Were A Bell, I’d Go Ding

Surely, Daniel Dennett is one of the most useful philosophers out there. If he’s not fighting religion as the reasonable one of the four horsemen of new atheism (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the now sadly deceased Hitchens), he’s in the field, either farming (he owns a farm) or doing fine, commonsensical work on explanations, consciousness, free will, evolution and AI. And in the process, he’s knocking down some of the most annoying arguments in philosophy.

Knock knock. Who’s there? A really bad argument about Chinese.

Like John Searle’s Chinese Room argument, which I always thought was just incredibly bad. Dennett has a knock-down counterargument on Philosophy Bites which is not just a good criticism in that it picks apart the original argument, but it’s also a great meta-argument, I guess you could call it, a work of meta-cognition. He shows you how the argument works and what you can learn from why it’s wrong.

This is the sort of thing Dennett seems to really excel at. He’s great at showing you how you think and at constantly giving you new tools for how to think better. And it’s one of those I want to pick up here: the surely klaxon. An app which he installed in my brain during a talk of his I had the pleasure to see.

I mentioned in the last post that I have something called The Gladwell Examination in my head, which is that alarm bells go off whenever a thinker sounds very convincing when talking about things I don’t know anything about and very unconvincing whenever he’s on topics I have examined myself. Surely this is someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Dennett’s idea is something like this, but even better. It’s really simple: whenever you read the word “surely” in an argument, hear a klaxon — a loud, intrusive alarm — stop and examine carefully what is really being said here. There’s more likely to be something wrong at that exact point in the argument.

Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about and hopes readers will also be sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning.) Being at the edge, the author has had to make a judgment call about whether or not to attempt to demonstrate the point at issue, or provide evidence for it, and—because life is short—has decided in favor of bald assertion, with the presumably well-grounded anticipation of agreement. Just the sort of place to find an ill-examined “truism” that isn’t true!

These sorts of little tools often turn out to be just incredibly helpful over time, saving you from countless errors. They return the brief time invested to learn them. I actually have a few others I use which I should do follow-up posts on.

Maybe I’ll just do one more really quick which I recently found: Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. It’s a rule of journalism which says that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered with a “no” and should therefore be viewed with great skepticism. If there is need for a question mark in the title, the story either doesn’t provide you with answers or has the answers but is trying to seduce you to click the piece. Both are big no-nos in journalism.

There’s even an unbelievably funny Twitter account dedicated to the law, called @YourTitleSucks

Surely, this same technique can be expanded to also be used when reviewing more formal arguments? If philosophical or political essays or memos or theses or whatever kind of formal work you happen to work on have vaguely suggestive questions as titles, it’s a healthy indicator of work to be skeptical of. “Can Ayn Rand’s Ideas Really End Big Government?” (No.) “Does Kant Have A Theory of Punishment?” (No.) It’s a healthy way of superficially finding your bearings in relation to an argument before going in. A way of setting your credibil-o-meter.

(Oh, and there are three surelys in this blog post. You only caught the one. Go back and find the other two.)

  1. Release said:

    Ha ha, that’s great. Also: Darwin is Dennett’s big hero. You should read Dennett’s excellent book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. Mindblowing on every page.

  2. Release said:

    (I mean since Darwin was in the comic)

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