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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.