Gathering data for thought experiments

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 (“x-phi” 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’s 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 “experimentally friendly” 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 “Experimental Philosophy Anthem” 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.

Link to NYT on ‘The New New Philosophy’.
Link to Schwitzgebel on whether political scientists vote more often?

One thought on “Gathering data for thought experiments”

  1. There’s reason to be wary of this trend, though. Some of its practitioners are more versed in neurophysiology than in philosophy, or have come to believe that empirical questions can directly replace some traditional philosophical ones. It’s not at all clear that they can, but the gloss of scientific methodology may make us more likely to accept their conclusions anyway.
    To get a sense of what we should be wary of, consider an analogy of mathematical or deductive reasoning. There seems to be good reason to think that brains are really only “built” to do relatively simple tasks in these respects. Most of us don’t do well adding or multiplying anything but the smallest of numbers and most people are poor judges of the validity of an argument and are apt to make a slew of fallacies that formal systems are supposed to overcome. We might find that, say, just about everyone is apt to make a certain fallacy when certain kinds of premises are presented to them, but it would be madness to suggest that those results told us what a good inference would be in that case. Likewise, most people’s inability to do more complex sorts of mathematical procedures leads them to simply shrug their shoulders in defeat at larger problems. We’d be crazy to say that there are no facts about what those answers should be or lend some sort of legitimacy to their abrupt abandonment of the process.
    That sort of thinking is often implicit – or even explicit – in much of what I have seen in this field. There’s a sense that the experimental approach *replaces* non-empirical questions and methods without much apparent recognition of what motivated those original questions or even a sense that the decision to take up such a strongly empirical approach is itself a non-empirical question. You don’t have to assert that ethics or epistemology is a formalizable system comparable to logic or mathematics (which would be a mistake, I think) to assert that there are questions about how it *should* be done that are not answered simply by looking at how we *happen* to do things. Too much of what I’ve seen in this “new” area proceeds in an implausible direction simply because it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the difficulty of this question.

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