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The term was coined by Daniel Dennett. In Consciousness Explained, he uses the term 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.
In the case of the Chinese room argument, Dennett considers the intuitive notion that a person manipulating symbols seems inadequate to constitute any form of consciousness, and says that this notion 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 1984 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.
- Baggini, Julian; Peter Fosl (2003). "Chapter 2". The Philosopher's Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 51–52. ISBN 0631228748.
- Dennett, Daniel (1980). "The milk of human intentionality". Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 3 (3): 429–429. doi:10.1017/s0140525x0000580x. ISSN 1469-1825.
Searle's form of argument is a familiar one to philosophers: he has constructed what one might call an intuition pump, a device for provoking a family of intuitions by producing variations on a basic thought experiment. An intuition pump is not, typically, an engine of discovery, but a persuader or pedagogical tool—a way of getting people to see things your way once you've seen the truth, as Searle thinks he has. I would be the last to disparage the use of intuition pumps—I love to use them myself—but they can be abused. In this instance I think Searle relies almost entirely on ill-gotten gains: favorable intuitions generated by misleadingly presented thought experiments.
- Dennett, Daniel (1991). Consciousness Explained. Allen Lane: The Penguin Press. p. 438.
- Dennett, Daniel C. (2013). Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393082067.
- Dennett, D. C., "Intuition Pumps", pp. 180–197 in Brockman, J., The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, Simon & Schuster, (New York), 1995.
- Computer Models as "Intuition Pumps"