The Idea Lab section of The New York Times has an article on experimental philosophy – a new branch of philosophy where, for example, answers to philosophical thought experiments are tested on members of the public to find the most common answers and possible contradictions in everyday reasoning.
But now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. The newborn movement (‚Äúx-phi‚Äù to its younger practitioners) has come trailing blogs of glory, not to mention Web sites, special journal issues and panels at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. At the University of California at San Diego and the University of Arizona, students and faculty members have set up what they call Experimental Philosophy Laboratories, while Indiana University now specializes with its Experimental Epistemology Laboratory. Neurology has been enlisted, too.
More and more, you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what‚Äôs going on when people contemplate moral quandaries. (Which decisions seem to arise from cool calculation? Which decisions seem to involve amygdala-associated emotion?) The publisher Springer is starting a new journal called Neuroethics, which, pointedly, is about not just what ethics has to say about neurology but also what neurology has to say about ethics. (Have you noticed that neuro- has become the new nano-?) In online discussion groups, grad students confer about which philosophy programs are ‚Äúexperimentally friendly‚Äù the way, in the 1970s, they might have conferred about which programs were welcoming toward homosexuals, or Heideggerians. Oh, and earlier this fall, a music video of an ‚ÄúExperimental Philosophy Anthem‚Äù was posted on YouTube. It shows an armchair being torched.
Some of the highest profile work uses neuroimaging to look at the brain areas involved in making moral and ethical decisions, but some of my favourite are the most simple.
As we’ve discussed previously philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel’s work on whether being a professional ethicist makes you behave any more ethically is amusing, but also asks questions about the use of moral philosophy if it doesn’t seem to have any personal impact.
He’s recently taken this a step further and has begun to investigate whether political scientists vote more often than other people.
In a way, everything has come full circle. Before the word was invented ‘science’ was called ‘natural philosophy’, because it was the philosophy of how the natural world worked. It was distinguished from the rest of philosophy because it used experiments.