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Overselling Experimental Philosophy March 3, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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This article on Experimental Philosophy (X-Phi) is overselling its capacity for innovation. Experimental Philosophy uses the techniques of empirical psychology (MRI scans, subject interviews and questionnaires, observations of behavior, etc.) to determine how ordinary people respond to philosophically interesting situations.

The authors rave about its revolutionary potential:

A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames.

They proclaim that it has the potential to settle philosophical debates and is taking philosophy back to its roots in empirical research

…for the x-phi fan, empirical research is not a mere prop to philosophy, it is philosophy.

But this hype is mostly nonsense. X-phi is interesting because it might help philosophers do one part of their job. But it cannot solve philosophical problems.

Philosophers have always been concerned to describe our “untutored” beliefs about the world, the reasons or lack thereof for holding those beliefs, and to suggest how those untutored beliefs can be made more intelligible, coherent, or in touch with reality. That first task—to describe our “intuitions”—can be controversial. Too often, when philosophers describe what “we” believe, they are describing their own allegedly “untutored” intuitions. But there is no reason to think that philosophers’ “untutored” intuitions are shared by ordinary people. (not to mention the cultural biases that might come into play)

Experimental philosophy may help us determine what people believe and how they respond to various situations. Thus, it can act as a check against unreflectively assuming our intuitions are shared. But brain scans can’t tell us much about why people think as they do, and tracking blood flow or electrical activity is not going to reveal very much about patterns of reasoning. Furthermore, questionnaires and observations of behavior are notoriously unreliable in explaining the motives behind our actions, and are hardly revolutionary.

Most importantly, X-phi could not begin to tell us how we ought to think about reality. It is rooted in what is, not what should be. It can be critical of philosopher’s pretensions but not of the beliefs it purports to describe. It will not be making philosophical discoveries.

The real problem with some contemporary philosophy is not the absence of scientific data but the use of odd and fanciful scenarios like the Trolley Problem to unearth how we reason. Most people are not trained or accustomed to  thinking philosophically about wild, hypothetical scenarios that they have never encountered. I’m not at all sure that discovering what their brains do when confronted with such hypotheses is revealing.

To invoke Nietzsche (or Aristotle for that matter) in such an enterprise is a bit rich. Although both were interested in psychology, they were interested in how people responded to the realities of life—not the daydreams of professors.



1. Paul Moloney - March 4, 2009

There is an experimental aspect to philosophy; it is called science, which has been with philosophy from the beginning.

There does seem to be a current trend in appealing to unrealities in order to understand reality, such as the appeal to question of zombies. The real does not follow upon the unreal. If unreality is understood at all it is only in terms of reality. There is no real connection between the real and the unreal.

2. Paul Moloney - March 5, 2009

Of course, science was not in the same state at the beginning of philosophy as it is now. At one time science was called natural philosophy and the scientist was a natural philosopher. It might be better for philosophers to retain that classification, so as to bring prestige back to philosophy. It seems that there are more better scientific thinkers than there are better philosophical thinkers. I think, though, that scientists want to distance themselves from philosophy because of what passes for philosophical thinking.

3. jonathan weinberg - March 5, 2009

Hi there — just put up a response over at the x-phi blog, which I thought you might be interested in! It’s here:

4. Paul Moloney - March 9, 2009

Thanks to Jonathan for the tip on the website and congratulations to Dwight for involving himself in controversy; it adds prestige to the philosophical community here.

5. Nina Rosenstand - March 12, 2009

I finally had a moment to sit down and read the X-Phi article, and I have to say that I found it far more intriguing than Dwight does. Edmonds and Warburton address the issues methodically and with a sense of both enthusiasm and caution. And good for them, linking their analysis to Aristotle and Nietzsche–if nothing else, it gives readers a chance to reevaluate their impression of two classic thinkers. I also applaud Jonathan Weinberg’s comment on the x-phi blog. Thanks for the link, Jonathan. Philosophers and scientists don’t often find common ground, and when they do, they seem rather astonished by it, as if the very linkeage between disciplines invalidates their findings. (You’ll find a similar uneasy relationship between philosophers and literary critics, by the way. Worthy of another post.) I find it arrogant and myopic for scientists to ignore the normative questions raised by philosophers. But I also think philosophers ignore the neuroscientific findings at their own peril, and to the detriment of our profession. As Paul pointed out, it is, in a sense, a homecoming for philosophy, back to its roots. But Dwight is right that scientific findings about human behavior/brain activity can only tell us the “how,” not the “why” (at least not at first glance), and most definitely not the “ought” aspect. I find that the same concern applies to the latest findings about the human natural empathy–something we’ve discussed in this blog before. We humans may be naturally empathetic (which is wonderful, and probably does away with solipsism and psychological egoism in one fell swoop), but sometimes being empathetic is a downright bad choice, morally. The trick is being able to evaluate each situation, rationally. (Because with all these scientific discoveries, we seem to have lost sight of reason–or it has resurfaced as the primary self-serving mechanism.) The article mentions Peter Singer and his words of caution about ignoring the role of reason. I don’t find myself agreeing with Singer about much, but in this case, I agree.

6. Nina Rosenstand - March 12, 2009

For interested readers, click on Jonathan’s link and read both his post, and Dwight’s comment. You have to scroll down 6-7 comments to find it. The entire debate is worth reading.

7. Paul Moloney - March 12, 2009

Nina makes a good point. Not all philosophical speculation is based on science, a point brought out by Dwight. It can be argued whether or not psychology is a science. Science looks for physical causes only. If human behavior has only physical causes, it can be a science. If one posits an immaterial mind as the cause of behavior, psychology cannot be a science. Psychology became more scientific and ended in behaviorism. There does not seem to be much going on in psychology, as a whole, at the present. There is, though , the mind/body debate

I must admit that I was not disposed toward Peter Singer, to say the least. I read an article in one of the philosophy magazines where someone went out to lunch with him and interviewed him. I ended up liking the guy by simply reading that article. I assume, then, that knowledge can destroy bias. Even so, I still disagree with him on many points.

8. Dwight Furrow - March 12, 2009


You wrote: “If one posits an immaterial mind as the cause of behavior, psychology cannot be a science.”

I definately do not want to go there. I have never been able to make sense of an immaterial mind.

There are many different ways in which physicalism can be true, only some of which require a thorough reduction of mental states to neurophysiology. Our subjective access to our own beliefs will remain important despite he progress of science.

And I don’t think the science of psychology ended with behaviorism. Cognitive science is making substantial progress and is very exciting. I just don’t think it answers (most) philosophical questions.

9. Paul Moloney - March 12, 2009

One can only say so much in making a comment (and the shorter the better).

Cognitive science is what I meant by the mind/body debate in psychology. I think cognitive science was a logical outcome from behaviorism. The more scientific psychology became the more there was a focus on the observable, such as behavior. Theoretical or speculative psychology seems to have disappeared. There do not seem to be people like Freud, Jung, Rogers, Maslow, and the like, theorizing.

Cognitive science may not answer most philosophical questions, but it does give matter upon which to speculate philosophically in a knowledgeable way.

10. Good X-Phi and Bad Art | The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast | A Philosophy Podcast and Blog - June 19, 2013

[…] think experimental philosophers are trying to do anything more.  X-phi sceptics frequently get all hot under the collar about the supposed claims of x-phi that it can usurp armchair philosophy.  That x-phi-ers somehow […]

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