The science of theory

Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has written an excellent piece on experimental philosophy, the practice of testing out philosophical ideas by using experiments or gathering data.

Now, the more astute of you might be thinking, “isn’t that just science?”, and, you’d be right. Sorta.

Schwitzgebel makes the important point that lots of the things that are taken for granted in the philosophy of mind, like what it is like to have have certain conscious experiences, haven’t actually been examined to see how widely these assumptions or experiences are shared.

Partly, he notes, because psychology is too scared about being called unscientific to start returning to introspection, and partly because philosophers are the ones most concerned about these issues.

In the philosophy of perception, there‚Äôs a long-standing dispute between those who think that our concepts and categories thoroughly permeate and infect even the most basic perceptual experiences and those who hold that people with very different understandings of a scene may still have exactly the same perceptual experience of it…

Such phenomenological claims have two things in common with claims about what’s intuitive that make them ripe for inclusion under the umbrella of “experimental philosophy”: First, it is mainly philosophers who make such claims; and second, there is no substantial tradition outside of philosophy dedicated to the empirical evaluation of the claims.

These facts may be mere historical accident: Back in the days of introspective psychology, psychologists loved to dispute issues of this sort. But fortunately or unfortunately, psychology still has not sufficiently rebounded from the behaviorist revolution that such general phenomenological claims are broadly discussed by mainstream psychologists.

If you consider tradition of phenomenological philosophy, which aims to describe the subjective structure of the mind, it’s striking that it’s been almost entirely based on philosophers’ own intuitions about their mental states, which they then extrapolate to everyone else.

Schwitzgebel also suggests that experimental philosophy could be used for exploring an anthropology of philosophy. In other words, how culture affects our general assumptions about how the mind works.

I have looked at the relationship between culture-specific metaphors and the prevalence of certain views about conscious experience. To highlight some of my own work: Are people (including philosophers) more likely to say that dreams rarely contain colored elements if the film media around them are predominantly black and white? Are people more likely to say that a circular object (such as a coin) viewed obliquely looks elliptical if the dominant media for describing vision are media like paintings and photographs that involve flat, projective distortions?

Of course, there’s a big overlap with psychology here, but the fact is, psychologists just aren’t that interested gathering the data that philosophers would often find most useful, and so they’re setting about gathering it themselves.

The first book on experimental philosophy was recently published, and Schwitzgebel’s article is a fantastic introduction, as well as an eye-opening look at the possibilities of philosophers armed with clipboards.

Link to article ‘The Psychology of Philosophy’.

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