Surgeons have their scalpels, biologists their microscopes, physicists their particle accelerators. Each tool is a symbol of its discipline forged in listserv humor, department t-shirts, and popular caricatures. But none is as closely tied to a field’s sense of self as the wingtip armchair with philosophy. Philosophers’ most prized methods—thought experiments, Socratic dialogues, conceptual analyses—require nothing more than a couple of comfortable chairs, a bookshelf, and a glass of wine.
But there is an insurgent school of American philosophers to make philosophy a more materially demanding field. Instead of browsing for appropriately sumptuous leather recliners, the adherents of Experimental Philosophy are opening laboratories, running field tests, and crunching data. The websites of some leading philosophical labs are filled with imagery of both liberation—little people floating out of their armchairs—and destruction—armchairs in flames, an armchair about to be swallowed by a moray eel.
For professional philosophers, a group of academics accustomed to relying on pure logical analysis common sense, “x-phi” has been a controversial innovation. While it has generated a lot of excitement, especially among its mostly younger practitioners, the wider discipline has yet to pass a final judgment on x-phi’s value. The movement’s critics still ask whether survey results can be truly philosophical.
Can we be fair to corporate types?
Experimental philosophy’s most widely acclaimed result thus far is an ethical asymmetry known as the “Knobe effect,” after Joshua Knobe, a University of North Carolina philosopher who investigated the moral culpability of an imaginary corporate executive.
Knobe approached nearly 80 individual people in a public park in Manhattan and posed one of two scenarios to each. In the first, a corporate vice-president, whose only care is improving his company’s financial performance, suggests to the chairman of the board that he approve a new program that will be sure to make the company a lot of money. The vice-president also warns that the program will do considerable environmental damage. The chairman approves the program by saying “I don’t care at all about harming the environment; I just want to make as much profit as possible.” After this approval, the program commences and inflicts the predicted harm on the environment. In the second scenario, the program’s side effects help, rather than harm, the environment, though the chairman maintains that his decision to approve it is based only on the same all-consuming profit motive.
Knobe asked whether the chairman intentionally harmed or helped the environment, and how much condemnation or praise he was due. Though attitudes toward corporate responsibility would surely depend on which Manhattan public park he surveyed—a variable Knobe did not consider—the results of this experiment were conclusive. While about 80 percent of these randomly selected test subjects said that the chairman should be blamed for intentionally harming the environment, nearly an identical proportion said that the other scenario’s environmental benefits were unintentional, and thus unworthy of praise.
For analytic philosophy, the dominant school in the English speaking world, these were shocking results. The two scenarios were logically equivalent, so it was simply intuitive that they would suggest an identical degree of moral responsibility, regardless of whether one judged the side effects to be good or bad. To fans of experimental philosophy, Knobe’s data exploded this intuition by showing that people are more willing to assign both intentionality and blame for a decision’s harmful side effects than they are to shower praise on what they see as unintended external benefits of a different choice.
Experimental philosophy’s allure comes from its ability to play with the tension between the two driving forces behind contemporary analytic philosophy—grounding its theories in science and appealing to common sense intuitions. With its data, methodologies, statistical models, and laboratories, x-phi appeals to philosophy’s deeply rooted aspiration to be scientific.
Indeed, a desire to tie concepts to the solid foundation of mathematics has animated analytic philosophy since Gottlob Frege developed his anti-psychologistic theory of language in the 1890s. Rather than appealing to internal, mental accounts to determine the meaning of a word or sentence, Frege constructed a logical explanation of linguistic meaning that attempted to explain the links between words and their objects with mathematics.
The authors of most contemporary analytic philosophy articles seem to wish they were writing with numbers, rather than words. With the proliferation of Greek variables, mathematical symbols, and arguments printed in lists of bullet points, analytic philosophers aim to reduce what they see as the unnecessary confusion introduced by too much language. This style is viewed as clarification, allowing other philosophers to falsify a theory with counterexamples and rival arguments.
In recent years, this drive to adopt the tools and knowledge of hard sciences has increased, particularly in the philosophy of mind. As modern neuroscience has improved, some philosophers have begun to use fMRI scans to follow the neural processing of people as they make moral judgments. These researchers see cognitive science data as one way to empirically support theories about mind and perception. In addition to providing new arguments for some relatively old positions (don’t forget that neuroscientists consider René “Dualism” Descartes the first of their ilk), couching philosophy in scientific language and data likely satisfies some less philosophical desires related to academic politics and modern standards of intellectual rigor
Next to science, there are few things more appealing to an analytic philosopher than his own intuition, which usually comes as an appeal to common sense. Conceptual analysis aims to understand a philosophical problem by separating each constituent concept and subjecting it to independent scrutiny. For example, you can analyze the problem of moral responsibility in terms of the concept of moral responsibility itself, the criteria that designate moral agents, the conditions under which a moral agent acts, and the objects of that responsibility. After this dissection, analytic philosophers attempt to devise theories for each element of the whole.
In this endeavor, philosophers frequently appeal to simplicity and common sense as justifications for a particular proposition. For example, philosophical intuition suggests that logically equivalent choices should entail the same moral responsibility for their side effects, whether or not they are helpful or harmful. But if Knobe’s interviews in the park have any value, they indicate that this philosophical intuition might not correctly describe the way people think about morality.
This is where the philosopher’s position as armchair academic matters, since there is very little that is truly common about the sense deployed in traditional conceptual analysis. While he might appeal to common sense, the armchair-bound philosopher is actually restricted to his own intuitions, a set of ideas honed by decades of contentious debate and theoretical commitments. Using their intuitions, philosophers frequently brush away more complex theories in favor of straightforward explanations. In the name of theoretical simplicity, these intuitions are not only taken as correct but also considered universal.
Experimental philosophy challenges the standard intuitions of professional philosophers by putting these questions up for a popular vote. In Knobe’s corporate executive experiment, the public park responses challenged the existing philosophical intuition about whether the logical equivalence of two choices produced equivalent moral responsibilities. But what exactly is the meaning of the test subjects’ willingness to assign blame for a choice’s perceived cost but not give praise for another’s positive side effect? Many analytic philosophers chafe at the idea that their jobs can be outsourced to people on the street possibly unaware of the philosophical weight of any particular question.
An assault on the expert intuiters
The usefulness of professional philosophers’ intuitions is central to the ongoing academic debate over x-phi’s value, and this conversation hinges on the notion of expertise. It is sensible to assume that mathematicians have mathematical intuitions superior to random people polled on the street. Similarly, some critics of x-phi argue, it makes sense that professional philosophers should have more finely tuned philosophical intuitions than the hoi polloi, whose responses to thought experiments have been shown to be shaped by factors deemed philosophically irrelevant. Some philosophers see so-called folk intuition as plagued by a number of incorrect variables, including order of presentation and ethnic differences. Professional philosophers, they argue, are trained against irrelevance as they quest for truth.
Analytic philosophy aims to respond to long-standing philosophical problems like how to decide if a belief counts as knowledge or how language gains traction in the real world. It seeks answers that are both universally valid and logically sound. With conceptual analysis, philosophers attempt to strip away the inessential dross to hone in on a problem’s key elements. Usually, this means assuming the human subject in any philosophical investigation is an ideal individual, without any quirks that might be ‘biases’. In this view, knowledge is knowledge is knowledge to everyone, everywhere and always.
But in a discipline dominated by the intuitions of Anglo-American men, this strategy of ignoring differences deemed inessential often leads to a philosophy that claims to be universal without facing any real challenges from other backgrounds. For that reason, x-phi’s most important results might be from the experiments that test cross-cultural differences.
Indeed, a recent study aimed to test if English speaking undergraduates in the US and Hong Kong thought the name “Gödel” refers to the inventor of an important mathematical theorem (which he is) or a real person in history. Suppose the theorem was actually invented by a man named Schmidt, and Gödel stole all the credit, they said. The question was whether a math student talking about “Gödel” is referring to the real man named Gödel or to the real inventor of the theorem, Schmidt. Their results showed that Americans were more likely to say Gödel is Gödel, while students from Hong Kong seemed to think they were really talking about Schmidt. The philosophers chalked this difference up to Westerner’s “greater tendency to make causation-based judgments.”
The movement is growing rapidly, and many analytic philosophy conferences and journals are beginning to give these results some attention. Yet, it’s hard to know exactly how experimentalists will find their niches in American philosophy departments more accustomed to introspection than running statistical regressions. But x-phi’s greatest potential seems to lie in its ability to make professional philosophers a little less sure of their intuitions’ universal correctness and encourage them to take a subtler look at differences of all kinds.