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Experimental Philosophy

Interesting stuff. I feel like the article fails to raise the most salient point. Philosophers spend a lot of time talking about people's intuitions. The group of "people" in question, however, is somewhat eccentric, with professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students heavily overrepresented. At its broadest, you add undergraduates who take philosophy courses and the social peers of philosophy professors into the mix. It's possible, however, that at least some intuitions are differently distributed among sociocultural groups and the informal "ask people I know" method isn't going to pick this up, whereas formal survey methods might.

To take a research-free example, the Christian vision of the afterlife involves making bright-line distinctions between people who go to heaven and people who do not. My understanding of Hinduism is that it involves a much more continuous approach to the question of rebirth -- lives are better or worse, not good or bad. People, including non-Christians, who grow up in a culture heavily influenced by Christianity (or Islam for that matter) may, for this reason, be much more inclined to find schemes involving an obligatory/permissable dichotomy intuitive than are people who grow up in India. It would be at least worth checking.

March 3, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

Huh? The article ends with:

"What makes x-phi revolutionary, and horrifying to some, is that once philosophy opens up to the methods, and the irreducible uncertainties, of empirical science, its tenets can no longer be articles of faith. Philosophy is no longer something you believe in. It's something you test, and expect to change tomorrow."

Empirical science? What on earth does polling have to do with philosophy?

I'm personally fascinated with measuring the types of mass opinion that are being discussed. It's one of the reasons I'm interested in politics. But I fail to see the connection to philosophy.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 3, 2006 12:07:48 PM

People, including non-Christians, who grow up in a culture heavily influenced by Christianity (or Islam for that matter) may, for this reason, be much more inclined to find schemes involving an obligatory/permissable dichotomy intuitive than are people who grow up in India.

I don't think of myself as especially Indian, since I've only been in India for vacation purposes. But I am descended of Hindu villagers, and I've defended exactly the view you're talking about.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 3, 2006 12:34:46 PM

Neil,

I suppose I ought to check in at Ezra's blog every so often, not to mention your own blog. John Edwards is the solution to everything is indeed a quite adequate unified field theory of lefty politics.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 3, 2006 1:16:27 PM

Well, polling has to do with philosophy insofar as some philosopher (like, say, Aristotle) likes to refer to popular consensus on an issue as, at the least, a starting point for his discussion. As a philosophy undergrad, I saw appeals to "intuition" all the time (both in papers we read for the class and those written by my classmates).

What I've read about (in lieu of actually having read any) experimental philosophy strikes me as interesting, but interesting in such a way that I'm persuaded by the Slate article's summary of Ernest Sosa's critique. There's interesting stuff to be done here, but the types of questions I see asked in the article don't strike me as very sophisticated. My dad's a smart guy with, basically, no philosophical background, and I'd be willing to bet that his responses to some of these questions would vary depending on whether he were made aware of what precisely he was being asked, how the question was phrased, etc.

I tend to take a dim view of intuition, though, mostly because in my experience where philosophy has the power to be descriptive intuition tends to be shoddy, and where philosophy has the power to be instructive, it's instruction may well be to lead us counter to our intuitions.

Posted by: Quarterican | Mar 3, 2006 1:30:50 PM

Is there a single example of a philosophical argument that is shown to be unsound by the results of experimental philosophers? So what if everyone in India thinks that, e.g., in the Gettier case, Jones does know that someone in his office owns a Ford? So what if everyone in Sweden thinks that if Smith is forced at gun point to shoot Jones, Smith is still to blame for shooting Jones? No philosopher ever claims anything to the contrary. A philosopher making an argument claims, e.g., that Jones does not know that someone in his office owns a Ford, or that Smith is not to blame for shooting Jones. A philosopher making an argument does not claim that most people have the intuition that Jones does not know or that most people have the intuition that Smith is not to blame.

Or to put the very same point differently: when stating his argument, a philosopher may write some sentence as: 'in this case we have the intuition that Jones does not know that someone in his office owns a ford'. But surely when we reconstruct the argument this philosopher is making the relevant premise is: Jones does not know that someone in his office owns a ford. It is not: most people have the intuition that Jones does not know that someone in his office owns a ford.

So I agree with Petey. I fail to see how the results obtained by experimental philosophers are relevant to philosophy, if by that we mean that they show some philosophical argument to be unsound (or sound). Are their results supposed to be relevant in some other way?

Posted by: Ari Krupnick | Mar 3, 2006 2:19:35 PM

Yeah, we're in agreement on that, Petey. Convincing left-wing bloggers to support John Edwards will be a big part of the next two years for me.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 3, 2006 3:33:03 PM

Ari Krupnick, if philosophers are going to define concepts like "know" or "blame" which have no relation to the standard English usage then they should call them something else to avoid confusion.

Posted by: James B. Shearer | Mar 3, 2006 3:45:45 PM

the connection to philosophy is that much philosophy is predicated on ridiculous assumptions that we can all agree X. e.g., philosophers assert that we have qualia, we're not just zombie, we don't feel like chemical machines, so how do you explain qualia. and they do so based on their subjective sense, which they assume others must share. the error is obvious, but it persists. if we need surveys to demonstrate that philosophers can't blithely assume problems or solutions (to use qualia as an example again, i've never felt anything that would lead me to think my internal life is different from what a chemical thinking machine's would be or qualitatively different from a dog's perception, or whatever), then god speed. put another way, this seems little different from the philosopher who claimed to refute berkley by kicking a trashcan.

Posted by: dj superflat | Mar 3, 2006 3:53:27 PM

Apropos experimental philosophy, I'm reminded of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. In his universe, Jordan College is "the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford".

Some of the money [income from the college's properties] was put by for reinvestment - Concilium had just approved the purchase of an office block in Manchester - and the rest was used to pay the Scholars' modest stipends and the wages of the servants (and the Parslows, and the other dozen or so families of craftsmen and traders who served the College), to keep the wine cellar richly filled, to buy books and anbarographs for the immense library that filled one side of the Melrose Quadrangle and extended, burrow-like, for several floors beneath the ground, and, not least, to buy the latest philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel.

It was important to keep the chapel up to date, because Jordan College had no rival, either in Europe or in New France, as a center of experimental theology.

Posted by: Jonathan Lundell | Mar 3, 2006 4:29:02 PM

"the connection to philosophy is that much philosophy is predicated on ridiculous assumptions that we can all agree X. e.g., philosophers assert that we have qualia, we're not just zombie, we don't feel like chemical machines, so how do you explain qualia. and they do so based on their subjective sense, which they assume others must share."

I don't think that is an accurate characterization of philosophy of mind. Many philosophers of mind don't think qualia are all that important, and the ones that do don't argue for it the way you say they do.

Posted by: Patrick | Mar 3, 2006 5:16:56 PM

patrick:
my point is that philosophers often start or verify with what they themselves perceive or feel, and assume that others must feel or perceive the same. if you've got all sorts of evidence others don't perceive or feel the same, even upon somewhat suspect surveying, it's pretty clear the arguments from what one perceives or feels must fail, and you have to find other ways to support your position.

(this is really ancillary to my point but, as for whether philosophers of mind argue about qualia in the way i assert, um, yes, some do, and there are fairly obviously examples of philosophers asserting that there's a difference between us and zombies/automatons based on qualia, the magic of consciousness, etc.; since i don't perceive the differences they assert, believe in any magic of consciousness that needs to be explained, their "analysis" falls apart at the first step.)

Posted by: dj superfalt | Mar 3, 2006 6:02:04 PM

no serious philosopher of mind thinks that qualia are unimportant.

Posted by: casey | Mar 3, 2006 8:36:01 PM

As Petey says, if experimental philosophy means using polling techniques to support pet philosophical projects, then this x-phi revolution is timid indeed.

But two interesting points. One is the almost offhand acceptance of the notion that there is no free will (When did this become accepted fact?):

philosophers can just replace the answers to a few questions with different ones (moral responsibility doesn't always require free will, for example) and then carry on as usual.

Really? Is that all the adjustment most people's philosophies require to absorb the notion there is no free will?

Of course there is no free will. Free will is to psychology what spontaneous generation is to biology. And the link refers to interviewees saying that people can be blamed for things that they don't intend. We are tainted by bad things in a way our free-will dependent morality doesn't get. I've worked for over 20 years as a doctor to kids that are developmentally disabled. You can't convince their parents that this isn't a stigma, and the mothers from thinking they are responsible. And I'm not talking about fetal alcohol syndrome. In particular punishment is not needed for societal control, not childrearing.

The other issue is more to the point. X-phi sounds to me like it is an attempt to enlarge and forward Quine's program in Epistemology Naturalized. After Hume's demolishment of all epistemological certainty, some assumptions must be made. Perhaps the first is that our sensory data represent a real world out there. More germane and scientific than some psychobabble about the nature of the red quale, is the fact that our eyes miss ultraviolet, etc. How accurately do our brains model the real world? Studying the brain might provide a clue. How does our brain build logical syllogisms? Again, human psychology is the key. (Rational aliens would provide a nice challenge to many of our assumptions. Or maybe not).

The beginning of philosophy, not just epistemology, is the understanding of what kind of brain we are dealing with, and how the real world can be represented in it. The study of epistemology and morality is the study of psychology.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 4, 2006 12:21:11 AM

Oh yeah, and my 76ers kicked Matthew Yglesias Wizards' asses tonight. Who was that fool on the Wizards who landed on his ass after Iverson "broke" his ankles. Sweet revenge for the last two losses.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 4, 2006 12:24:43 AM

Of course there is no free will. Free will is to psychology what spontaneous generation is to biology.

Did you intend to reject compatibilism here? It seems to me that there are notions of freedom weak enough that we can be free in a determinist universe.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 4, 2006 1:06:51 AM

I reject free will (an invention for the purposes of assigning blame, essentially), and most certainly I reject determinism.

If protons and electrons were pool balls on a table and we shook the pool table wildly and let go, it would be problematical to say we could predict their final position based on the antecedents.

Factor in quantum indeterminacy and the problem becomes theoretically impossible. It is not a matter of untold numbers of bits of matter interacting, but an infinite number of probabilities regarding where the bits actually were. Any given electron at any time could potentially be in an infinite number of positions. These are not Newtonian calculations.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 4, 2006 2:18:37 AM

Is there a marked difference between, say, Catholics in America who are big into purgatory and, say, Baptists?

Posted by: Jaybird | Mar 4, 2006 8:31:39 AM

"Oh yeah, and my 76ers kicked Matthew Yglesias Wizards' asses tonight."

Oh, man. That was a helluva game. 48 minutes of tight basketball. As Korver said afterwards, "That was a crazy, ugly, exciting basketball game."

Props to Gilberto. I loved how he fouled out Kevin Ollie down the stretch. Watching Iverson, I've always loved counting the fouls he picks up on opposing guards to take them out of the game.

It was a typical Sixers game. They outshot and picked up fewer turnovers than the opposition, but got killed in offensive rebounds. If the Sixers ever learned to take care of the defensive boards without giving up anything else in the process, they could be a dangerous team. They've had Moses Malone helping out all season, but the lesson isn't getting picked up.

Iverson picked up the first back to back 40 pt 10 asst performance in the league in 15 years. It's hard to put into words how dominant he's been the last two games.

"Who was that fool on the Wizards who landed on his ass after Iverson "broke" his ankles."

Antonio Daniels. That was a deeply sick move.

Part of the Sixers' recent success has been in finally figuring out that Kevin Ollie can play the same role for the Sixers that Daniels plays for the Zards.

"Sweet revenge for the last two losses."

Yup. One nice thing about the recent roll is that we've taken care of both the Bucks and Zards who both killed us earlier in the season.

Indy on Sunday will be a real heat check for this team.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 4, 2006 8:58:07 AM

Yeah, I like Ollie, but we HAVE to have Dalembert, and ESPECIALLY Webber on the floor with Iverson during the playoffs.


Not that we have a shot to beat San Antonio or Detroit. Or even Miami. Well, maybe Miami if we get hot.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 4, 2006 10:55:07 AM

but got killed in offensive rebounds.

I went to the 2/16 game against Chicago (thanks, Paul); crummy game but it's always fun anyway, and we won, but got killed on the boards. Especially offensive rebounds. Each one is a dagger through my heart. Wasn't like that when we had Moses Malone.

Here in the East where defense is king (because we have what to defend and the upstart West wants a piece of it) on the offensive side of the court offensive rebounds are the greatest joy, and on the defensive side, blocked, in your face, shots are.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 4, 2006 11:05:20 AM

"I went to the 2/16 game against Chicago ... crummy game but it's always fun anyway"

Crummy game? I watched that one on the League Pass, and it was sweet. Chris Duhon got radioactive hot in the 4th quarter, but the Sixers kept their composure and maintained control down the stretch.

One of the really nice things about the post All-Star roll has been how composed and confident the Sixers look down the stretch of close games. With 6 minutes left and the score tied, I think they're going to win and they think they're going to win. That quality was missing in the first half of the year.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 4, 2006 11:28:12 AM

True, there was a confidence in the crowd you didn't see at the beginning of the year.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 4, 2006 8:47:18 PM

Hi :D

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