I used to be a much more conscientious scholar than I am now. I would encounter a journal article or book that was relevant to my interests but forbiddingly technical (or, if the author was a philosopher, just forbiddingly badly written, convoluted, and jargon packed), and I would beat my head against it for hours and hours, running down and checking out all the references—a time-consuming library job in the old days before internet links. I made it something of a point of honor to arrive at a state of confident understanding; I kept at it until I owned that argument. Now I give such candidates for my attention a quick skim, remembering that life is short and if this novelty is worth understanding, somebody I trust will soon explain it to me in terms I can readily digest. These days I almost always outsource the hard work of comprehension when I encounter difficulties, and the policy works wonders—for me.
Distributed understanding is a real phenomenon, but you have to get yourself into a community of communicators that can effectively summon the relevant expertise. I don’t know if other philosophers have the same policy; many of them seem to me to spend their whole careers working largely alone and grappling with a few narrow issues, voluntarily giving themselves tunnel vision. Perhaps, I think, they cannot do otherwise, given their training. After all, many scientists are in similar trenches. I once asked a promising young neuroscientist, after I’d spent hours watching him run experiments on monkeys with chronically implanted electrodes, what he thought the implications of his research might be, and his answer was “Oh Dan, I don’t have time to think!”
All my early due diligence was probably good for me. It got me to confront the difficulty of the questions, seeing with my own eyes the pitfalls that trap many very smart and conscientious thinkers. This injected a small dose of modesty into my growing confidence that I had found—and partly invented—a prodigious explanation-device that reliably devoured difficulties, day after day. The insights (if that is what they were) that I had struggled so hard to capture in my dissertation and my first book have matured and multiplied, generating answers to questions, solutions to problems, rebuttals to objections, and—most important—suggestions for further questions to ask with gratifying consilience. I just turn the crank and out they pour, falling into place like the last pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps my whole perspective is a colossal mistake—some of my critics think so—and perhaps its abundant fruits are chimeras.
What if I’m wrong? Good thinkers frequently ask themselves this question, the way good doctors frequently check their practices against the Hippocratic oath they swore, and not just as a formulaic ritual.
What if I’m wrong? Good thinkers frequently ask themselves this question, the way good doctors frequently check their practices against the Hippocratic oath they swore.
My favorite chapter of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer tells of Tom’s brilliant stunt of getting his friends to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing the fence in front of his house, not just saving him a chore but enriching him. This inspired me to adopt the same strategy with my books: I invite Tufts students to help me write my books by sharing the penultimate draft with them in a seminar, where they are all encouraged to point out errors, challenge arguments, demand more clarity, and in general complain about anything that strikes them as amiss. They don’t get paid for this excellent editorial service—in fact they are paying one of the highest rates of tuition in the country—but they do get thanked in the preface by name, and they get an autographed copy of the book when it’s published. I believe everyone involved has been quite content with this arrangement.
I particularly cherish the intrepid naysayers who force me to expand, revise, or drop what I had thought were good points. Students often come to my office to discuss their term-paper projects in my courses, and a familiar combination of ambition and anxiety is the enthusiastic student who has a Big Idea—a Refutation of some well-regarded claim of mine or of some other writer we have read. They’re itching to go for it, but “What if I’m wrong?” I have some not-quite-foolproof advice: take courage and set out to write up the Great Discovery; if after many hours of red-hot thinking and writing you discover to your dismay a fatal flaw, something that you overlooked or underestimated, all is not lost. Go back to the first paragraph and write something along the lines of “It is tempting to think that . . . , because there seems to be a powerful argument to the effect that . . . , but as we shall see, this is an error.” Then make a few minor adjustments to the rest of the paper, pointing carefully to the error that you almost made, and you’re ready to submit it. If your Big Idea was tempting to you, it might well be tempting to others. Showing the field that this is a cul-de-sac to be avoided is a genuine contribution. The same strategy, writ large, is good advice for a whole career. Try your Big Hunch out on a few knowledgeable people; if nobody can knock it down right away, then take a leap, make a major investment of your time (bearing in mind the large cost of lost opportunities if you make a bad choice) and hope for the best. You may at least be able to salvage a definitive refutation of your hunch, all the more credible for having been composed by somebody who was initially a partisan.
Take courage and set out to write up the Great Discovery; if after many hours of red-hot thinking and writing you discover to your dismay a fatal flaw . . . all is not lost. Go back to the first paragraph and write something along the lines of “It is tempting to think that . . . ”
The Discovery Institute is the well-funded propaganda site for Intelligent Design, as creationism is now called. I have often scoffed publicly at the dismal ratio of propaganda to peer-reviewed science in its output and urged its directors to put their money into some real science that might, conceivably, prove them right. So when they announced in 2005 that they were setting up a serious research facility, the Biologic Institute, to do experiments aiming to refute the theory of evolution by natural selection, they asked me to express my opinion of this innovation. I wrote back that I applauded this move, since there are scads of unasked questions in evolutionary biology that are neglected by biologists simply because they’re sure they already know the answer: How did species X with feature Y come to be? It evolved, of course, but we don’t know the details. Nobody wants to sic a graduate student or postdoc on any of those questions, because the reaction among the influential workers in the field to the results would be along the lines of “Ho hum, what else is new?”—not a good way to start a career. If, however, the Biologic Institute wants to fund young scientists who are passionately committed to disproving evolution, this will harness their energy and training without our having any scruples about encouraging them to waste their precious time. They will see themselves as crusaders on a divine mission, and what could be more glorious than that? They will try to find hidden among these unasked questions embarrassing examples of “irreducible complexity” that couldn’t have evolved gradually. They will eventually discover that they’re wrong, and we will have yet further examples of evolution’s devious paths. In my terminology, their dogged search for skyhooks will uncover heretofore unimagined cranes. And precisely because their conclusions will be the opposite of what they hoped to discover, we will take them seriously. Good theories thrive on serious attempts to refute them that fail in instructive ways.
What, though, if my supposed insights are just generated by a prodigiously fertile mistake? It’s worth remembering that this has happened before, on a cosmic scale. Descartes wrote his retrospectively preposterous books—Le Monde (eventually published in full in 1667) and Principia Philosophiae (1644)—presenting the first detailed TOE (theory of everything). He had deduced (he claimed) the truth about everything under the sun and beyond the sun, including starlight and planets, tides, volcanoes, magnets, and much, much more, most of it dead wrong. It was Newton’s majestic Principia (1687) that decisively refuted Descartes. Descartes’s theory of everything is, even in hindsight, remarkably coherent and persuasive. It is hard to imagine a different equally coherent and equally false theory! He was wrong, and so of course I may well be wrong, but enough other thinkers I respect have come to see things my way that when I ask myself, “What if we are wrong?” I can keep this skeptical murmur safely simmering on a back burner.
Adapted from I’ve Been Thinking. Copyright (c) 2023 by Daniel C. Dennett. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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