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.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Rationally Speaking cartoons: Experimental Philosophy

(click on images for larger view)


  1. Not to complain overmuch about a comic, but:

    1) Since cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field that has always included philosophy as one of its components, it seems a bit odd to insist that philosophers are supposed to leave the work to the cognitive scientists. Paul Thagard, for instance, does scientific work and is in a philosophy department, despite being a cognitive scientist; but the philosophical work he performs with his own results just highlights how interdisciplinary cognitive science (and philosophy) is.

    2) Good experimental philosophy (of which there is currently little, due largely to poor background in experimental design and statistics, something which will hopefully change) might look into the psychological motivations for belief in utilitarianism in two ways that make it ideal for philosophers to run the experiments.

    One, psychologists are often not terribly knowledgeable about philosophy and subtle distinctions can get lost that a philosopher would excise from an experiment (consider Libet's experiments as an example). If the subject matter is philosophy, a philosopher is a natural person to have involved in the design of an experiment.

    Two, it might turn out that belief in utilitarianism is strongly associated with other, less tenable, philosophical beliefs. This could spur philosophers to look for the conceptual ties between these two positions in order to see if the problems of one infect the other. Similar sorts of associations issues can be imagined, all of which would provide philosophical (not merely scientific) reasons for denying utilitarianism.

  2. Hi Massimo,

    I've tried to argue similar points to you before but I think we have recently seen a good example of why experimental philosophy should be of interest (and perhaps indispensable) to philosophers.

    It's going to take me a little while to get to the XPhi part. Bear with me!

    When Richard Carrier attempted to provide an objective basis for morality, he argued that morality was whatever one ought to do so as to maximise one's own satisfaction. He is (over)confident that this will in fact correspond to kind, generous, considerate behaviour, because this is the most personally rewarding and satisfying.

    However, when it is proposed to him that some individuals will find selfish behaviour rewarding, his response is that while he finds this improbable, this is an empirical question, and we don't get to dispute that if that is what the evidence shows. If science shows that morality for some people is behaving callously and selfishly, then we need to suck it up and accept that our intuitions about morality are wrong.

    Which is of course nonsense. Any definition of morality which even allows the possibility that its paragons be cruel, selfish and callous is simply not the same morality the rest of us are talking about. Carrier has defined something else, something that he thinks will often lead to moral behaviour, but that is not the same as morality.

    And how do we know it is not morality? That's the XPhi bit. Because morality is a shared intuition. We can only find out whether a definition of morality is indeed a good one by seeing how it matches up to that human intuition we are attempting to define. Carrier's simply does not. Utilitarianism and virtue ethics are much more successful in that regard.

    I think the same goes for definitions of other concepts such as knowledge. Plato could have defined "knowledge" as "stuff that came to me in a dream", but this definition would not be accepted if it did not match the common intuition. The Gettier problems expose problems with Plato's definition only by showing how it fails to match the common intuition. If knowledge were simply a matter of definition alone, we would have simply stuck with Plato's definition and simply accepted that the Gettier problems lead to cases that did not match the layman meaning of the term. We didn't precisely because the layman meaning is what we are attempting to define.

    So I think XPhi is indispensable, because many philosophical terms are only codified versions of common human intuitions. The terms are only as useful as their ability to capture those intuitions.

  3. I hate to be such a bummer, but I don't think these cartoons are good for anything. They're not visually interesting, nor are they particularly funny, so they only thing they have to offer is the philosophical content of the dialogue. But due to their brevity, the philosophical content is necessarily very shallow and simplistic and lacking in insight. This would be fine if the cartoons were at least cute or humorous , but like I said...


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