Daniel is a very reasonable man.
Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of America's foremost thinkers. In this extract from his new book, he reveals some of the lessons life has taught him
The Observer, Saturday 18 May 2013
Daniel Dennett: 'Often the word "surely" is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.' Photograph: Peter Yang/August
1 USE YOUR MISTAKES
We have all heard the forlorn refrain: "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!" This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say: "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!" is standing on the threshold of brilliance. We human beings pride ourselves on our intelligence, and one of its hallmarks is that we can remember our previous thinking and reflect on it – on how it seemed, on why it was tempting in the first place and then about what went wrong.
I know of no evidence to suggest that any other species on the planet can actually think this thought. If they could, they would be almost as smart as we are. So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It's not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves) and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions.
Try to acquire the weird practice of savouring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities just so you can then recover from them.
In science, you make your mistakes in public. You show them off so that everybody can learn from them. This way, you get the benefit of everybody else's experience, and not just your own idiosyncratic path through the space of mistakes. (Physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously expressed his contempt for the work of a colleague as "not even wrong". A clear falsehood shared with critics is better than vague mush.)
This, by the way, is another reason why we humans are so much smarter than every other species. It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.
I am amazed at how many really smart people don't understand that you can make big mistakes in public and emerge none the worse for it. I know distinguished researchers who will go to preposterous lengths to avoid having to acknowledge that they were wrong about something. Actually, people love it when somebody admits to making a mistake. All kinds of people love pointing out mistakes.
Generous-spirited people appreciate your giving them the opportunity to help, and acknowledging it when they succeed in helping you; mean-spirited people enjoy showing you up. Let them! Either way we all win.
2 RESPECT YOUR OPPONENT
Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent's case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.
But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody's time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one's opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."
2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport's rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…
3 THE "SURELY" KLAXON
When you're reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for "surely" in the document and check each occurrence. Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word "surely" is as good as a blinking light locating a weak 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 favour 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!