Monday, February 04, 2008

What's so great about experimental philosophy?

Since we’ve been implicated by the New York Times, I think it’s time to have a chat about the notion of “experimental philosophy.” Understanding and interpretation of important philosophical practices regularly follow their reception as revolutionary; this is no exception.

There is a conversation starting about what exactly separates EP from traditional philosophical work that we ought to be in on. And a literature building under that mantle. And EP, it seems to me is being treated as a revolution (in the Khunian sense) for philosophical practice. I gather this from a number of sources: the institutionalization in separate groups who identify themselves by the practice of EP (EPL, for example, but also on the internet); the increasing collaboration of philosophers with empirical scientists; and revolutionary rhetoric (yeah! X-phi!) about the defects of contemporary “analytic” philosophy (this ranges from challenges posed in reviewed journals to clearly revolutionary imagery like armchairs being burned).

Part of what interests me here is whether the revolution label is appropriate and why, since I for one am convinced that it is, in fact, being applied. But figuring this out requires understanding what exactly experimental philosophy is supposed to represent—how it changes or challenges philosophical practice and what it proposes in its place. Or if it doesn’t challenge traditional methodology, content, etc., then what does it mean that the label is being used with bated breath. I’m going to lay out a few obvious issues here to get a discussion going, but the target should be determining:
(A) What “experimental philosophy” picks out
(B) Whether it is a revolution for philosophy or just “normal science”
We should try to answer these questions before it becomes embarrassing to ask them (perhaps it already has … but I’ll bite the bullet):

1. Experimental Philosophy as a Revolution
Wikipedia has it that EP means two things: the incorporation of empirical research into philosophical analysis, and a preference for opinion polling of public intuitions rather than reliance on the philosopher’s own intuitions. These may not be the defining features of EP, and comments on this post should do their best to suggest better ones. But nor are they way off. At least one claim of EP is that the relationship between the empirical sciences and philosophy should be strengthened.

This however strikes me as distantly removed from any kind of radical shift in philosophical investigation. Is it really a surprise that good philosophical analysis takes into account empirical data when it’s relevant? I feel like incorporation of empirical science into philosophy is as at least as old as Aristotle, but probably includes the very first pre-Socratic poets challenging each other on how to characterize the arche. If this is the big point then armchair burning seems like rather unbecoming adolescent angst. Why isn’t philosophy that incorporates or is sensitive to empirical data, when relevant, just the ongoing standard of what makes good philosophy? Here’s the somewhat grumpy way to put the point: if EP is any kind of a challenge or objection, which I think it’s pretty clearly supposed to be sometimes, then why isn’t it just a straw man or significant only to long-dead logical positivists (pache Beck)? If it’s not posturing as a revolution, then why all the press and why all the revolutionary language?

2. Philosophical Research
On to Wikipedia’s second characterization. The two flagships of the popular understanding of EP are philosophers’ use of fMRI’s and surveying non-philosophers about their intuitions. While these two technologies certainly yield interesting and important they seem limited in familiar ways. First off, the scope of their relevance seems like an interesting and contentious philosophical issue. Is it a claim of EP that the application of particular empirical technologies is wider than supposed? And then there are the familiar epistemic worries, especially with neuroscience. As a kind of meta-analysis, it might be interesting to compare the philosophical conflicts that arose around historically failed empirical methods of analysis (e.g. phrenology) and the epistemological arguments supporting fMRI’s (there, that ought to rub someone the wrong way).

Surveys also raise some difficult issues. As far as I can tell, they are most challenging when they show either that largely settled philosophical intuitions are wildly off. This could either be if surveys yield no results or the results are similar and radically different than our intuitions. I haven’t seen either of these happen yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. We’ve seen surveys get used for questions about free will and responsibility, but the upshot is unclear since I think that our philosophical intuitions about these things are just as scattered as those of the people polled. Are surveys of non-philosophers valuable? Why?

Then there’s the problem of experimental design and philosopher-directed research. Philosophers are not trained in empirical sciences generally. But perhaps it is a claim of EP that they should be. This is probably what the encouragement of increased interaction with the sciences championed by EP is supposed to suggest. But philosophers so far have been more than happy to engage in survey design, which I bet they think is closer to what they do already. You have to be trained to use an fMRI machine, but anyone can write up a survey, right? Survey design, however, is a science and it’s pretty clear that you can illicit false positives and negatives with less-than-carefully written surveys. How should philosophers respond to this in their research?

3. The application of EP
Does the trend toward EP have an impact on important social institutions or policy? Take, for example, the buzz about “neurolaw.” Some have suggested that fMRI scanning will change the law by challenging our conceptions of autonomous action or by making it easier to identify when someone (especially with a very untrustworthy agent like a small child) is telling the truth. Does neuroscience really have normative implications for law and society? That depends on whether the relevant issues within these areas are touched by the implications of neuroscience. If, as Stephen Morse thinks, the concept of the person within the law “flows from the nature of the law itself,” then maybe not so much, EVEN IF the neuroscience generates a new and convincing notion of the person. Can you think of other examples where the EP’s are suggesting there will be impacts on our institutions on account of their research? How should we regard these claims?

I’ve gone on a bit here. Please don’t feel that you have to answer in kind – any thoughts about how to best characterize and understand EP (especially about its putative revolutionariness). And don’t misunderstand my point in writing this. I’m not digging my heels in against EP, as far as I can tell I count as a non-experimenting experimental philosopher, at least insofar as my own research on responsibility relies on developmental psychology. The point of this was to simply raise the definitional question which is oh-so-important for any budding philosophical movement (if this is one).

1 comment:

Per said...

I too am pretty keen to figure out the whole EP phenomenon. I’ll start responding to Mike with a quote I found today while reading A.J. Ayer’s “Fatalism”. He says, “If it came to the point where we had the means of knowing what was going on in a person’s brain and could use this as a basis for predicting what he would do, and if this knowledge extended to our own future conduct, it is unlikely that our present view of life would remain the same.” Given that Ayer was, if I have my history correct, strongly influenced by the positivists, this statement does not seem too surprising. On the other hand, he was writing at a time (1963) when intuitions were a powerful tool, particularly in the free will and responsibility literature of which the essay was a part. It is my observation that the more radical claims by EPers to be turning philosophy on its head tend to ignore statements like these, which (I think) are far from anomalous. And obviously, as Mike said, the cooperation of science and philosophy dates much further back than this. I imagine, however, that many of us can think of plenty of examples of what EPers are rebelling against and to which we might say “Good riddance.” All in all, I’m a bit put off by the bombast, but excited by the possibility of having new philosophical tools and of thinking of new uses for the old tools. In answer to the question, I don’t think EP is the revolution people sometimes try to make it seem. In many cases, we’re still working with intuitions; we’re just evaluating them by a different metric and/or theorizing about whose intuitions are worth taking seriously.

What does experimental philosophy pick out? I think Mike gave a sample that includes almost all of what I’ve encountered. I have a few thoughts about some of EPs interesting features, however. (I’ll restrict my comments to the “polling philosophy” of Knobe, Nichols, Doris, etc, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that some of what I see them as doing may apply to neurophilosophers, too.)

What I take to be an important and invigorating aspect of EP is that, by addressing the use of intuitions in philosophizing, it brings into stark relief the possibility of altering the notions we employ when we talking about, for example, moral responsibility. By questioning the strength or generalizability of academic intuitions about notion X, or by presenting intuitions about X that conflict or sync with traditional intuitions, one makes the decision to retain or not retain the traditional notion a clear choice on the part of the philosopher. Instead of concluding with, “…and that’s not what we mean by ‘moral responsibility’, therefore S’s theory can’t be right,” one must address oneself to the question of whether conflicting intuitions, or data that show intuitions to be variant to the point of inconsistency (even within populations), indicate different worthwhile ways of approaching problems of free will, responsibility, etc. In short, it makes the task of justifying our understanding of our traditional philosophical notions a more pressing and concrete task, which is a good thing.

Of course, as the Ayer quote above shows, this is neither a new phenomenon nor a new desire. I take it Strawson was trying to do something like this in “Freedom and Resentment”. Could we say the same thing about some of J.J.C. Smart’s articles? Couldn’t you even say something of the sort was on the minds of people like Marx who wanted to use economic theory to invigorate tired idealisms? I’m getting out of my element, but my point is that movements like EP motivate revisionist thinking about philosophical notions in a way that is beneficial to the discipline. And, as with any endeavor of this sort, there will be attempts all along the spectrum from radical to conservative.

The potential for EP to help reevaluate and possibly revise philosophical notions is, for me, the most interesting “application” of EP. I think that this side of the EP agenda is probably necessary for the literal application of experimental philosophy’s “findings”, whatever those turn out to be. Issues like neurolaw are exciting, but they seem like the sort of issue that demands philosophical tools appropriate to the technology. This does not mean that philosophical tools and notions must change, only that they should probably be tested against the kinds of debates that will inevitably arise with issues like neurolaw etc. Hegel’s description of how different moments of consciousness require different theoretical tools is a good analogy I think.

I recall reading some excerpts from the President’s Council on Bioethics as an undergrad (2005 I think) and thinking that the positions expressed there were often very poorly thought out. Now, I don’t want to say that what I read was entirely representative. I know that the assignment was chosen by my professor, in part, to show a wide range of perspectives on, in this case, human cloning. But the point is that how we think about potential applications of scientific advances should be guided by philosophical discussion of the notions used to adjudicate such debates. And EP seems, in some quarters, to be a forum for this sort of discussion in a way that mainstream analytic philosophy might not be. (Of course, I may just be overestimating the input philosophers are likely to have in these debates in the first place.)