Seven tools for thinking #7: Beware of ‘deepities’

//Seven tools for thinking #7: Beware of ‘deepities’

This is the last of my posts on Daniel Dennett’s tools for thinking outlined in Intuition Pumps. You can read the others here.

Everyone wants to find meaning in their actions and the events which surround them; the idea that stuff just happens and there is no deeper meaning can be alarming. As such we are attracted to the profound. The Barnum effect – named after the American circus entertainer P.T. Barnum by the psychologist Paul Meehl in his essay Wanted – a Good Cookbook – is the observation that when we encounter vague, general statements we’re inclined to leap on them and say, “That’s me, that is!” This is perhaps why, despite any confirming evidence, astrology, fortune-telling and other kinds of personality tests are so enduringly popular.

Many arguments – especially in education – seem entropically drawn to this kind of pseudo-profundity. Dennett warns us against the tendency:

A deepity … is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity.

High profile New Ager and alternative medicine peddler, Deepak Chopra is the master of such superficially meaningful but ultimately empty mumbo jumbo. There’s some fascinating research into people’s inability to distinguish between Chopra’s weighty utterances and deliberate, unambiguous bullshit. Check out Chopra’s Twitter stream for yourself. It’s not all that different from some education Tweets, is it?

Consider the Twitter account of Alistair Forer*. This was an experiment conducted in late 2015 to see what sort of responses might be provoked by educational deepities. Here’s a sample:



One more

These all sound like they mean something and there may be a part of you that chimes in recognition, but they’re bland to the point of meaninglessness. Dennett’s advice is to avoid ambiguity wherever possible. Although abstract thoughts are often too complex to reduce to pithy one-liners, we should strive mightily to say exactly what we mean by being clear, precise and concise. It’s also an injunction against ‘truthiness‘: things which sound true without actually being so.

So, what can we do to avoid being taken in by deepities? One very useful critical thinking technique is reductio ad absurdum – the act of reducing an argument to absurdity – in order to see whether it can survive the process. Dennett models the process here:

Love is just a word. Oh wow! Cosmic. Mind-blowing, right? Wrong. On one reading, it is manifestly false. I’m not sure what love is – maybe an emotion or emotional attachment, maybe an interpersonal relationship, maybe the highest state a human mind can achieve – but we all know it isn’t a word. You can’t find love in the dictionary!

We can bring out the other reading by availing ourselves of a convention philosophers care mightily about: when we talk about a word, we put it in quotation marks, thus: “love” is just a word. “Cheeseburger” is just a word. “Word” is just a word. But this isn’t fair, you say. Whoever said that love is just a word meant something else, surely. No doubt, but they didn’t say it.

This is a similar process to one outlined in #4 in this series, answering rhetorical questions.

If we want to think better we must resist the temptation of the false comfort offered by platitudes. Carl Hendrik does a good job of inoculating us in this post. Just because something sounds nice doesn’t make it true. Sadly, what’s true doesn’t always sound nice, but we would do far better to se the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be. To that end, we should confront unscrupulous optimism wherever it arises.

*The Forer effect is an alternative name for the Barnum effect named after the psychologist Bertram R. Forer.

2018-02-10T09:10:28+00:00June 11th, 2016|Featured|


  1. […] The seventh and final post in this series is: Beware of deepities. […]

  2. chrismwparsons June 13, 2016 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    I’m with Dennett on this up to a point…

    For example, “Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable” was a truism I recall having enjoyed during my more ‘meaning seeking’ days. The perfect state that Jesus desires for us is WHAT then exactly…?

    The thing is though… this is life at its absolute core isn’t it? Anything we do could be reduced ‘ad absurdum’ if we poked at it hard enough. Underneath all of our rationalisations and logical reasoning, everything we do is fuelled at root either by a primal urge or a sentimental hunch which keeps us from just stopping in our tracks and saying ‘why bother?’

    Existence is fundamentally perplexing and indeed ridiculous when subjected to analytical interrogation. Truisms and deepisms simply reflect that unspoken core experience which has been programmed into us to keep going irrespective of the irrationality of it all. If you like, they are the intellectual cushions which have evolved to allow our species to become self-conscious and rationally reflective without then thinking “OMG” & “WTF” and committing mass suicide.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that every deepism or truism is valid – I’m sure most of them could be unpicked very successfully to get to the heart of the matter in a better way. But perhaps we’ll never quite be able to rid ourselves of them.

    • chrismwparsons June 13, 2016 at 4:26 pm - Reply

      Actually, if Ofsted’s role has to be ‘to disturb the comfortable’, perhaps it too could work to ‘comfort the disturbed’! 😀

    • David Didau March 10, 2017 at 5:12 pm - Reply

      Understanding that we lack free will is not a counsel of despair. Our thoughts and actions may all be algorithmic responses to biological imperatives but we still *experience* choice. Being taken in by the pseudo-profound strips away choice; it fools us into believing something false. I’ve no problem with people believing bollocks per se as long as they don’t expect me to a) value their opinion or b) allow them the uninterrupted opportunity to compel others to also believe their nonsense.

      • chrismwparsons March 10, 2017 at 8:07 pm - Reply

        Thank you for returning to this David. I agree with everything you just said, (though I don’t quite see the free will link in my comment – thrilling though I find such discussions!)

        Reading back – I’ll try to rephrase it more simply: We’re stuck with truisms and deepities. They reflect the compromise between the sense of ‘deep meaning’ inherent to our evolved conscious experience – and the more stark reasoning style of our (functionality focused and more recently evolved) rationality.

        Since ultimate existence IS unsolvable, we can’t shake the paradox this leaves us with, generation after generation. The consequence educationally is that we should revise our appreciation of why we can’t ever quite solve the question of the purpose of education, any more than we can solve the question of the purpose of life. And if we haven’t got a clear agreement as to what the purpose of education is, we’re never going to have a clear agreement to what the best ways to educate are (unless we accept a broad set of objectives and break them down…)

        • David Didau March 10, 2017 at 10:44 pm - Reply

          Words like ‘stark’ are pejorative. Clarity should be joyous and explaining complex ideas simply is a high art. We’re only ‘stuck’ with pseudo profundity if we’re pretending to an understanding we don’t possess.

          A statement like “ultimate existence IS unsolvable” is a deepity. It at once means nothing and is wrong. Evolution provides a compelling explanation for existence, it’s just that many people want it to mean more.

          And I do have a clear purpose for education: making children cleverer.

          • chrismwparsons March 10, 2017 at 11:00 pm

            Binary logic IS stark compared to the fuzzy logic of complex systems.

            Why there is something rather than nothing is beyond our evolved minds – evolution only describes the subsequent shaping of things.

            And you do indeed have a clear purpose for education, but – as I said – we can’t seem to get agreement on it. Why?

            I’m not pointing to religion, just the inevitable limits of our biological reasoning machines.

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