Computer Models as "Intuition Pumps"

Daniel Dennett coined the term "Intuition Pump" in his article of that name in John Brockman's fascinating Third Culture collection:

If you look at the history of philosophy, you see that all the great and influential stuff has been technically full of holes but utterly memorable and vivid. They are what I call "intuition pumps" — lovely thought experiments. Like Plato's cave, and Descartes's evil demon, and Hobbes' vision of the state of nature and the social contract, and even Kant's idea of the categorical imperative. I don't know of any philosopher who thinks any one of those is a logically sound argument for anything. But they're wonderful imagination grabbers, jungle gyms for the imagination. They structure the way you think about a problem. These are the real legacy of the history of philosophy.

The classical intuition pumps to which Dennett refers are designed to illuminate one thing – say the nature of the world, or the social order – by harnessing our familiar understanding of something else – shadows cast by a fire in a cave, or contracts between individuals. We are thus encouraged to see the one thing as relevantly similar to the other. Computer analogies can also work in this way, as for example when the mind is compared to a computer program, or religion to a computer virus. But computer models can go further than this, by providing experimental toys that enable us to acquire a sort of empirical understanding of novel and unfamiliar things through personal interaction with them. Hence we can acquire quite new "intuitions" over time, as we become habituated through experience with the behaviour of those models.

Computer Models as Educational

One nice example of the use of such models is to cultivate an understanding of exponential growth, which is beyond most people's experience. The image on the right, for example, shows a rabbit breeding simulation in which the various parameters can be set by the user, and "experiments" performed to see how rapidly the rabbit population grows – without disease or predation – under various assumptions. At the point shown, an initial population of 100 black rabbits has expanded at a modest rate of 10% every 60 days, continued for 296 generations (just 48.7 years). As a result, there are currently over 178 trillion rabbits, occupying the darkened land area at a density of 1 per square foot. Within another four years, they will have occupied the entire land area of the Earth! Playing with this system can help students to appreciate what exponential growth is all about, and to understand the level of competition implied by natural selection.

Another good example of educational models is to teach concepts of probability, an area where people's untrained "intuitions" are notoriously poor. This is the aim of the ProbLab initiative in the Center for Connected Learning (CCL) and Computer-Based Modeling at Northwestern University. For example the Dice Stalagmite application can be used to get an "intuitive feel" for the frequency distribution of the sum of paired dice throws, with a sum of 7, for example, being far more common than 12.

Other examples of CCL models that can be seen as having a primarily educational use, while being of significant philosophical interest, include the following:

However since one of the best methods of education is through personal exploration, the boundary between the "educational" and the "investigative" use of computer models can be very blurred.

Hobbes' Leviathan

Hobbes' "Leviathan": An Early Example of an "Intuition Pump"?

Rabbit breeding simulation

Rabbit breeding simulation to illustrate exponential growth and the inevitability of natural selection