Surely, rhetorical question?

Gustavo Bicalho
Jan 8, 2018

I just finished Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. In the book, Dan exposes the reader to several concepts, thought experiments and red flags one may find relevant to the quest of philosophy. I thought I’d share a couple I found very practical, along with an exercise where we can apply them.

Surely, it’s worth paying attention

One of these red flags is what Dennett calls “the surely operator.”1 One example from the book:

But surely it is nothing other than a biological fact about people — not a cultural construction — that some brain representations persevere enough to affect memory, control behavior, etc.2

Of course, the specific word “surely” may be replaced, like in these recent quotes:

Yet, without question, life isn’t algorithmic, which means that no computer can ever truly be alive.3

It’s undeniable that some reaction GIFs are so ubiquitous that the average internet user can likely picture them simply from reading a description.4

What are “surely” and its siblings “without question” and “It’s undeniable” doing here?

Each of the quoted excerpts makes a bold statement and asserts that, of course, it’s so obvious that it dispenses with further argument. “Surely” adds no substance at all to the point being made.

surely(obvious) = obvious

It’s like telling someone a joke, and immediately following with “Get it? It’s funny because pidgeons cannot eat pudding!” If you have call attention to the fact that something is obvious, well, maybe it isn’t!

The surely operator is a shortcut to get a statement from plausible to proven, by asserting its obviousness. Dennett appropriately call this move a “sleight-of-hand (…), whisking the false premise by the censors with a nudge and a wink.”5

If the statement at hand actually were so obvious as to not merit further discussion, the author wouldn’t have felt the urge to prepend “surely”. On the other hand, if it were easily demonstrated, the author could have shown the explanation or pointed to a reference.

Most uses of “surely” are innocent, and many times the highlighted obvious is, really, obvious. Even so, Dennett argues, looking for this pattern is a good way to find unquestioned assumptions, which might open the way to new ideas.

Why would anyone ask that?

Another closely related suggestion from Dennett’s book is to pay attention to rhetorical questions.

like the use of “surely,“they represent an author’s eagerness to take a short cut. A rhetorical question has a question mark at the end, but it is not meant to be answered. That is, the author doesn’t bother waiting for you to answer since the answer is so flipping obvious that you’d be embarrassed to say it! In other words, most rhetorical questions are telescoped reductio ad absurdum arguments, too obvious to need spelling out.6

So rhetorical questions can be used just like “surely”, but they rely specifically on a feeling of awkwardness projected on the act of answering. Dennett’s suggestion is to silently try to give the question an unobvious answer and, if found, surprise the interlocutor with it.

Another approach I find useful is replacing the question with a statement, representing the expected answer. In this form, it’s easier to see whether a position is too strong to be accepted without further evidence.

An exercise

Let’s try working out a “surely”/rhetorical question combo. You can think about it for yourself, then check my notes in the box below.

Cryptocoins improve on fiat currencies by providing decentralization, certainty and privacy. Everyone agrees these are lacking in the government-run monetary systems. Why would anyone want to have their money usage exposed to a third-party?

Comments on the cryptocoins example — Hide/Show

The “surely” operator appears here in the form of “everyone agrees” in the second sentence. We can remove it:

Cryptocoins improve on fiat currencies by providing decentralization, certainty and privacy. These are lacking in the government-run monetary systems.

It feels like a stronger assertion now. “These are lacking” means “these are either absent or worse than they should be”, which isn’t obvious.

Maybe current government-run monetary system provide enough decentralization, certainty, and privacy that we don’t really need to bother with improving them. Maybe they provide enough certainty and privacy, and we just need to worry about decentralization. Or maybe we really need to improve on all those dimensions. Surely, it is not true that “everyone agrees” on this matter.

The expected answer to the rhetorical question at the end is “There’s no reason anyone would want that!” Can we give it a different answer that’s still plausible?

Yes, it may be the case that having some visibility over what people do with their money is actually beneficial. That’s the whole point of AML regulation. The fact that they exist mean at least some people prefer a system without perfect privacy.

We can also turn the rhetorical question into a statement:

Nobody would want a system that exposes money usage to a third-party, because there is no advantage, in any scenario, over keeping it private.

It may also be that the downsides of breaking privacy are larger than the upsides, but that’s a different, weaker assertion than the one made here. Argument and evidence are required to settle the matter, but not provided.

  1. Dennett, Daniel C., 2014, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: Norton, pp. 53-54
  2. Block, Ned, 1994, “What is Dennett’s Theory a Theory of?” Philosophical Topics, vol. 22, p. 27
  5. Dennett, Daniel C., 2007, “Heterophenomenology Reconsidered.” Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, vol. 6, nos. 1 and 2, p. 252
  6. Dennett, Daniel C., 2014, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: Norton, pp. 55