About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Podcast teaser: Joshua Knobe on experimental philosophy

By Massimo Pigliucci

A forthcoming episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast will feature an interview that Julia and I will be conducting with Joshua Knobe, of Yale University. Joshua is a philosopher interested in cognitive science, so interested, in fact, that he has contributed to establishing a whole new branch of inquiry known as experimental philosophy — and he plausibly claims that the name is not actually an oxymoron!
I have written before on Rationally Speaking about experimental philosophy, and Joshua has just penned an article about it for the New York Times. The idea is summarized in this way on one of the major web sites devoted to the enterprise (links above):
“Experimental philosophy, called x-phi for short, is a new philosophical movement that supplements the traditional tools of analytic philosophy with the scientific methods of cognitive science. So experimental philosophers actually go out and run systematic experiments aimed at understanding how people ordinarily think about the issues at the foundation of the philosophical discussion.”
We welcome questions from readers to pose to Joshua during the podcast. Incidentally, since so many of you have requested it, the RS podcast will from now on be 45 minutes long, so that Julia and I can get a bit more in depth on the many juicy topics we take on every other week.


  1. Have experimental philosophers figured out how to make zombies yet?

  2. It appears to me that there is a substantial overlap between x-phi and psychology and perhaps other disciplines that use experiment like neuroscience. How does x-phi distinguish itself from other recognized disciplines that use experiment to understand the mind?

  3. Should philosophers conduct experiments at all? I mean, the beauty of philosophy (especially of science) in my mind is that they are sort of outside ovservers. They can point out flaws or meta assumpstions that scientists do in their study without being aware of that. By getting "dirty" in the actual doing of science don't they blind themselve or distract from what their main job is?

  4. How does experimental philosophy differ from psychologism (basically a Kantian epistemology that replaces transcendental logic with the structure of the brain)?

    Is it baked into experimental philosophy that intuitions are, in some sense, true?

    Is experimental philosophy solely a methodological move?

  5. I don't see any oxymoron in the idea of experimental philosophy. Massimo seems to take an essentialist attitude towards science and philosophy, seeing them as essentially different. I see them as overlapping fields of empirical enquiry that have a lot in common.

    I would say the distinction in meaning between the words "science" and "philosophy" is a distinction with regard to both methods and subject matter. We tend to think of a question as a matter of science if it lends itself well to the specific methods of science, such as controlled experiments. Philosophical questions tend to be those which turn more on conceptual matters. But there's no hard line between the two.

    From what little I've read of experimental philosophy, its methods lie at the very "soft" end of scientific experimentation: conducting surveys, not physical experiments in a laboratory. And it probably contributes very little to answering the major questions of philosophy. So I don't think there's much danger of those questions becoming seen as predominantly scientific ones. They will probably remain under the roof of philosophy.

  6. Can thinking be measured? If our goal is to improve the way we treat each other, why experiment with thinking at all? An angry thought never hurt anybody. It's the assault that causes the pain.

    Does thinking cause our actions or does the environment cause our thinking, just as it causes our behavior? How can something non-physical, if thinking is non-physical, cause something physical to happen, such as pulling the trigger on a rifle?

    What is easier to do, to change someone's thinking or to change someone's pattern of behavior? How do you know for sure you have changed someone's thoughts?

    Behavior can be directly observed and quantified. Have you studied the behavior analysts' discoveries of variables in the environment that can explain, predict, and control human behavior?

  7. There is certainly an important demarcation between philosophy and science in and of themselves, but to apply empirical methods to ideas originating in philosophy is neither a contradiction nor any kind of transgression. Whilst certain precepts define a difference between the two fields, they're both concerned with understanding the nature of the universe and so there will obviously be many aspects of relevant overlap.

    The study of the mind, for instance, used to be purely the realm of philosophy; now, of course, we have neuroscience, psychology and sociology. In particular I would suggest that psychology is already a form of what is being defined here as 'experimental philosophy', and that philosophy and neuroscience on either side of it represent the extremes of the continuum.

    I suspect that our ability to categorise is a double-edged sword in terms of our cognitive capacity. It allows us to 'group' concepts for the sake of ease and clarity, thereby allowing for more complex meta-thought; but it also results in us attaching disproportionate and unrealistic attachment to dichotomous constructs. To my mind it seems that continuums and spectrums of variance are lost within binary or 'categorised' states of thinking.

    I would posit that we shouldn't presume to apply the same conditions and precepts to all the respective fields of enquiry - our reductionist mindset means that we often seek to standardise, but a more fluid and complex approach may be better. Philosophy should be free to conjecture, psychology should be allowed to conjecture also, but ultimately be held to empirical account, and neuroscience should probably not navel-gaze quite so much.

  8. Does Dr. Knobe think that empirical results in moral psychology make some longstanding theories in normative ethics more plausible than others? For example, does he think that recent work on how situationally dependent our actions are casts doubt on virtue ethics, which often assumes a more robust notion of moral character than seems to be exemplified in human beings?

  9. OT: Massimo, not sure if you follow Russell Blackford's blog, but I thought this post and the linked-to article seemed relevant to your interests.


  10. Camus,

    yes, I'm aware of Maaren's paper, we are actually collaborators on a couple of other papers, and we are putting together a book on the philosophy of pseudoscience.

    Needless to say, I actually think the paper Blackford is referring to explains nicely enough all the reasons why Blackford and Maarten himself are wrong, only to dismiss them. I am planning a response to the paper for next year.


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