Intuition Pump

An intuition pump is a thought experiment structured to elicit intuitive answers about a problem. The term was coined by Daniel Dennett. In ‘Consciousness Explained,’ he uses the term pejoratively to describe John Searle’s ‘Chinese room’ thought experiment, characterizing it as designed to elicit intuitive but incorrect answers by formulating the description in such a way that important implications of the experiment would be difficult to imagine and tend to be ignored.

Searle’s experiment supposes that there is a program that gives a computer the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation in written Chinese. If the program is given to someone who speaks only English to execute the instructions of the program by hand, then in theory, the English speaker would also be able to carry on a conversation in written Chinese. However, the English speaker would not be able to understand the conversation.

In the case of the Chinese Room argument, Dennett argues that the intuitive notion that a person manipulating symbols seems inadequate to constitute any form of consciousness ignores the requirements of memory, recall, emotion, world knowledge, and rationality that the system would actually need to pass such a test. ‘Searle does not deny that programs can have all this structure, of course,’ Dennett says. ‘He simply discourages us from attending to it. But if we are to do a good job imagining the case, we are not only entitled but obliged to imagine that the program Searle is hand-simulating has all this structure — and more, if only we can imagine it. But then it is no longer obvious, I trust, that there is no genuine understanding of the joke going on.’

In his book, ‘Elbow Room,’ Dennett used the term in a positive sense to describe thought experiments which facilitate the understanding of or reasoning about complex subjects by harnessing intuition: ‘A popular strategy in philosophy is to construct a certain sort of thought experiment I call an intuition pump […]. Intuition pumps are cunningly designed to focus the reader’s attention on ‘the important’ features, and to deflect the reader from bogging down in hard-to-follow details. There is nothing wrong with this in principle. Indeed one of philosophy’s highest callings is finding ways of helping people see the forest and not just the trees. But intuition pumps are often abused, though seldom deliberately.’

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