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.
Friday, March 15, 2013
Experimental philosophy is not an elephant
by Massimo Pigliucci
There has been quite a stir in philosophical circles over the last several years caused by the emergence of a new sub-field referred to as experimental philosophy (colloquially, “XPhi”). I was actually at one of the first symposia that a young crowd of energetic philosophers had organized to get things started back in the early aughts. More recently, I had a nice chat on my podcast with one of the movers of experimental philosophy, Joshua Knobe. Despite my initial sympathies, however, I’ve developed a bit of weariness for the whole approach, and I recently had to confront my reservations head on.
The occasion for the confrontation has been the fact that I am writing a book for Chicago Press on whether and how philosophy makes progress, and the last chapter (yet to be written) features a discussion of philosophical methods, including XPhi. The fodder for the considerations that follow was conveniently provided by a recent popular defense of XPhi by Mark Phelan, which appeared in the magazine Philosophy Now, entitled “Experimental philosophy as an elephant.”
The thrust of Phelan’s article is that XPhi is a growing elephant whose observers can’t seem to grasp more than a part at a time, while they are stumbling in the dark trying to figure it all out. It’s a bit of an uncharitable characterization of critics of the approach, which together with its description as a “movement” (why not just a field of inquiry?) by its supporters contributes to irritating rather than welcoming people from the outside. Be that as it may, let’s get to the meat of Phelan’s defense of XPhi.
Phelan takes on four common criticisms — or misconceptions, depending on how you see them — of XPhi in turn: the charge that it is really a bunch of social science surveys attempting to settle philosophical issues by majority vote; the idea that it really consists of a type of meta-philosophy; the perception that it deals only with the role of intuitions in philosophy; and the conclusion that whatever XPhi is, it just isn’t philosophy.
Is it just philosophy by survey? That perception, as Phelan acknowledges, comes from papers that explore how people (often lay people, not professional philosophers) assess the concept of knowledge. This, as is well known, has classically been defined by Plato as “justified true belief.” As philosophers also know very well, Edmund Gettier published a paper back in 1963 in which he provided (very, very convoluted) examples of situations that seem to satisfy Plato’s definition, and yet that do not really seem like they should count as actual knowledge. (No need to get into the specifics here, but you can learn more about it, as usual, over at the SEP.)
Phelan summarizes the results of one of the relevant XPhi papers, using a thought experiment featuring the hypothetical characters of Bob and Jill: “[the authors] found that around 60% of people from East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent think – unlike most professional philosophers in the West – that Bob does not merely believe but really knows that Jill drives an American car in the above case. On the other hand, three-quarters of Westerners share with the (Western) philosophers the intuition that Bob does not know but only believes that Jill drives an American car.”
Phelan correctly interprets this to mean that we now have (interesting) empirical evidence  that (lay) people in Asia have a different concept of knowledge from professional philosophers in the West. But notice that this isn’t a particularly illuminating comparison at all: what we want to know — philosophically speaking — is whether Asian philosophers have a different conception of knowledge than Western ones, and if so why (i.e., how they justify it by argument).
Moreover, while Phelan’s point was that XPhi studies of this sort do not pretend to settle philosophical issues by survey, he then turns around and suggests precisely that: “[the results] challeng[e] the purported universality of analytic philosophy’s methodology and findings ... [the authors] argue from their results to a challenge for analytic epistemology.” If that’s not doing philosophy by survey I don’t know what is!
My take on this first part is that lay people’s opinions about technical philosophical issues are entirely irrelevant to the practice of philosophy, just like the opinions of lay people on Fermat’s last theorem, or on the structure of Hamlet are entirely irrelevant to the practice of professional mathematics or literary criticism. It is interesting to know how (lay) people think of philosophical, mathematical, or literary questions, in terms of the social science of common knowledge, but social science of common knowledge is not philosophy (or math, or literary criticism).
Is it “just” meta-philosophy? Apparently, one of the things XPhi is “accused” of is being a type of meta-philosophy, rather than philosophy per se. That sounds strange to me, however, because meta-philosophy — i.e., reflecting on the practices, methods and goals of philosophy — is a type of philosophy anyway. Here Phelan’s “defense” is that some XPhi is meta-philosophical, but not all of it. Fair enough. The problem is with the examples he picks to illustrate the non-meta-philosophical aspects of XPhi. For instance, he refers to research by Eddy Nahmias and collaborators on “the phenomenology of free will.” The authors interpreted the results of their survey of (lay) people’s conceptions about free will as providing some support for a compatibilist notion of free will. But, just as above, why on earth would lay opinion about a technical philosophical issue provide “evidence,” slight or not, for that position? The survey is interesting because it tells us about the variety of people’s intuitive positions about something like free will, of course. But that seems to me to qualify as philosophically-inspired social science, not as philosophy.
Is it all about intuitions? The problem with the use of intuitions in philosophical discourse is a vexing one, although I think there is a bit of confusion even among philosophers about what we mean by philosophical intuitions and what role do they actually play in philosophical arguments. Phelan admits that quite a bit of the XPhi literature is, in fact, about intuitions, and has the goal of “broadening the sample class of those whose intuitions matter” (although, one more time, why exactly is it that the intuitions of non-philosophers should matter at all when it comes to technical discussions within philosophy?). But his strategy is, again, to argue that that’s not all that XPhi practitioners do. Here he cites the work of Eric Schwitzgebel, who published a number of papers on whether moral philosophers are more ethical than other people. The answer, disturbingly, seems to be no (though see footnote 1 for the possibility of quibbling about the proper contrast groups, the way the research is conducted, etc.). For instance “Schwitzgebel and colleagues found that professional ethicists are no more likely to vote, or respond to student emails, than are non-ethicist philosophers and professors. Audiences in ethics sessions at philosophical conferences are generally just as likely to behave discourteously as audiences in non-ethics sessions. And ethics books (even obscure ones) are more likely to be missing from library collections than are books from other philosophical sub-disciplines.” It isn’t entirely clear to me that not responding to students’ emails is unethical (it depends on the specifics of the context), and there are rational arguments against voting. It’s also debatable that other professors are the best contrast group here, since the range of behavior is likely to be much smaller than in the population at large, which means that one would need very large sample sizes to pick up a statistically significant difference. And perhaps it is students of ethics who steal books about ethics, because they haven’t learned their stuff yet!
The point is: what are we supposed to make of such findings? The idea, I take it, is to challenge statements by some moral philosophers that studying ethics makes someone a better person (Socrates comes to mind). But how often is such statement made anyway? And shouldn’t we be testing it in the population at large, rather than just among academics? And which understanding of ethics would that be? Does it make no difference whether the ethicist in question is a utilitarian or a deontologist? At any rate, this kind of research can certainly function as a corrective against facile broad statements by philosophers about the utility of what they teach (but then why pick on philosophers and not educators in general?). But is it philosophy? No, it’s social science of philosophical statements.
Is it not philosophy? And we finally get to the crux of the matter, the criticism that whatever XPhi is, and however valuable some of this research may be, it simply isn’t philosophy. Phelan’s strategy here is twofold. On the one hand, he says that XPhi practitioners do deploy the standard tools of philosophical reasoning, they simply wish to augment the tool kit. On the other hand, he questions the idea that philosophy is “essentially normative” and that XPhi violates principles such as the famous is/ought distinction made by Hume.
Unlike some critics of XPhi, I do not think that its practitioners are poor philosophers or are otherwise deficient technically or intellectually. But none of the examples discussed above — or the additional ones brought forth by Phelan in his article — seem to me to augment standard philosophical practice. The results of XPhi inquiries are often interesting, and sometimes even surprising, but they all fall much more naturally under the rubric of social science research (carried out on philosophically inspired topics).
As for the second point, XPhi here hasn’t really invented anything new. W.V.O. Quine, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, already put forth a model of philosophy as a kind of science, going as far as (mistakenly, I think) suggesting that epistemology, for instance, is but a branch of psychology.
It isn’t - and that’s not so much because philosophy is prescriptive (though it certainly is, in many cases — epistemology and ethics being two obvious ones), but because philosophical analysis is a matter of critical reflection on empirically underdetermined issues. If an issue can be univocally resolved empirically, it’s science.
For instance, the question of, say, how many planets are present in the solar system is an exquisitely empirical one, and the answer is found in astronomy, not in any branch of philosophy. The only philosophical aspect of said question, as far as I can see, is a discussion of why astronomers count certain celestial bodies as planets and others as “planetoids” (give me back Pluto, damn it!), which is informed by (philosophical) considerations about the definition of concepts characterized by fuzzy boundaries.
Take, in contrast, the question of how to think about ethical problems. While empirical input from science is certainly pertinent (e.g., in discussions about abortion, when, exactly, does the fetus begin to feel pain?), the bulk of the activity is one of critical reflection based on logically constructed arguments — i.e., it’s philosophy.
The model that I have been proposing for a while, then, is one of weak continuity between philosophy and science, where the practice of each does inform the other, without either being encompassed by the other. Science is (no longer) a branch of philosophy, and philosophy isn’t a branch of science, pace Quine and the XPhi practitioners.
The positive lesson to be taken from XPhi is that philosophers need to be careful when they make what are essentially empirical statements, things like “it is common intuition that...” Well, is it common? How do you know? Ask XPhi! But this doesn’t license the leap to the idea that lay people’s intuitions are pertinent to anything other than social science and that they somehow augment or provide additional tools for the understanding of technical philosophical matters. At least, no more than the opinions of lay people in cosmology, mathematics, or literary criticism do in those respective fields.
 Throughout this post I will take XPhi’s empirical results at face value, because I am concerned with what the role of the field is with respect to philosophy in general, not with its specific findings. But of course, as in the case of any empirical finding — especially if it pertains to social science — there can be quite a bit to quibble about in terms of representativeness and size of samples, the way questions are posed, the statistical analyses of the data, etc.