Experimental Philosophy
eBook - ePub

Experimental Philosophy

A Critical Study

Nikil Mukerji

  1. 248 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Experimental Philosophy

A Critical Study

Nikil Mukerji

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Over the past one and a half decades, the scope of experimental philosophy (x-phi) has expanded significantly. Experimental research programmes now cover almost all areas of philosophy, including epistemology, the philosophy of language, action theory, and the free will debate, to name just a few. This volume introduces the reader to these new developments in an accessible and systematic way. It explains how x-phi differs from traditional views of philosophy, investigates in depth how it uses empirical evidence to support philosophical conclusions of various kinds, and introduces the reader to both the most widely discussed experimental studies and the latest advancements in the field. As a critical study, it also examines the various criticisms that x-phi has received over the years and seeks, tentatively, to adjudicate them.

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Chapter 1

The Armchair and the Laboratory

The term “experimental philosophy” or “x-phi” is a term of art. Different authors use it in different ways to refer to different things. This can create confusions that make it hard to approach the debate about x-phi. In fact, it is not a problem that affects only laypersons. Rather, it also affects those of us who deal with philosophy professionally. For this reason, I believe that we should, first of all, take measures to circumnavigate these confusions. We can do this by discussing, right at the outside, what x-phi is and how its proponents understand it. In particular, we shall be concerned to delineate x-phi from some views about the nature of philosophy from which it is customarily distinguished.
To this end, we shall start with two views that discussants usually regard as x-phi’s foils. These are armchair philosophy (AC-Phi), on the one hand, and analytic philosophy (A-Phi), on the other (sections 1.1 and 1.2, respectively). After that, we will discuss a view that may be called empirically informed philosophy (E-Phi) and three variants of x-phi that are often not sufficiently distinguished (especially by x-phi’s critics). In doing that, we will, of course, analyse how these differ from armchair philosophy and, in particular, from its analytic version (sections 1.3–1.6). Finally, we will try to deepen our understanding of the different forms of x-phi further by analysing how they relate, logically, to other views of philosophy as well as to each other (section 1.7). At the end of the chapter, we will summarise our main findings.

1.1 Armchair Philosophy

Philosophers traditionally understand their subject as an “armchair discipline.” Timothy Williamson, for example, writes the following:
If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can. Its traditional method is thinking, without observation or experiment. If the pursuit is conceived as social, rather than solely individual, then speaking must be added to thinking, and several armchairs are needed, but that still leaves philosophy looking methodologically very far from the natural sciences. Loosely speaking, their method is a posteriori, philosophy’s a priori. (Williamson 2005, 1; emphasis added, NM)
In like manner, Russ Shafer-Landau writes:
Philosophy is not primarily an empirical discipline, but an a priori one. Its truths are ordinarily discoverable, when they are, not exclusively by appeal to what our senses can tell us. We don’t bump into such things as universals, free will, or modalities; we can’t see them, or hear or touch them. We may have reason to deny the existence of such things, but not because we aren’t sure what they taste like. Dismissing such things from our ontology, or ratifying their inclusion in it, is something that no scientist is able to do. Such things are dealt with in an a priori way. (Shafer-Landau 2006, 216–17)
Williamson and Shafer-Landau describe what seems to me to be a rather widespread understanding of philosophical practice. It views the activity of philosophy as pure, a priori thinking that is, from a methodological viewpoint, far removed from the a posteriori procedure of the empirical sciences.
The terms “a priori” and “a posteriori” are, of course, key concepts. As such, we should clarify them. One way of doing this is as follows: a method, we may say, is a priori if the gathering of experiential data (e.g. through experiments) does not play a role in it. It is a posteriori if that is not the case. Let us illustrate the distinction using two examples.
  • The method by which we test whether “7 + 5 = 12” is true is a priori. To ascertain that it is, in fact, true, we do not need to gather and assess any experiential data. It is entirely sufficient to check whether the equation is in line with the laws of arithmetic.
  • In contrast, the sentence “All swans are white” can only be confirmed to be true using a posteriori methods. To check whether it is true, we need to resort to experience. We need to gather and assess empirical data.
We can also apply this distinction between the a priori and a posteriori to questions, namely, as follows: we think of a question as a priori if we can answer it without resorting to any form of experience. For example, we can answer the question “Is 7 + 5 equal to 12?” in that manner. We cannot, however, answer the question “Are all swans white?” without recourse to any experience. To answer it, we need empirical data.
Now, x-phi is customarily delineated from armchair philosophy (AC-Phi). We can, therefore, take a first step towards understanding it – ex negativo, as it were – by clarifying the latter concept. To do this, we can deploy the distinction between the a priori and a posteriori that we have just spelt out.

Armchair Philosophy (AC-Phi)

Philosophical questions are to be answered using a priori methods only.1
This thesis contains a concept that has not been clarified, namely, the concept of a philosophical question. We should ask, therefore, what makes a question a philosophical one.
Admittedly, this question is hard to answer. There are, however, issues that surely pass as paradigm examples of philosophical questions and which we may thus call classical philosophical questions.2 A list of such questions would contain problems about notions that are central to philosophical discourse, such as knowledge, meaning, intentional action, and freedom of will.3
To many philosophers, René Descartes seems to be a prime example of an armchair philosopher. In his perhaps most famous work – the Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (1641) – he deals with the problem of knowledge. He intends to reform all his beliefs. In quite a radical manner, he seeks to doubt everything that does not appear to be entirely certain. By doing that, his goal is to put all knowledge on a secure and unshakable foundation (lat.: “fundamentum inconcussum”). At the beginning of his Meditations, he writes:
Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based them on. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last… . So today I have expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions. (Descartes 1641/1996, 12)
It is, thus, Descartes’s intention to retreat into himself in order to overturn all of his beliefs. And as if that was not enough, he intends, furthermore, to reject any form of sensory experience as a source of knowledge.
Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once. (Descartes 1641/1996, 65)
In this passage, Descartes dismisses a posteriori methods as sources of justification from his subsequent philosophical investigations. And he does so categorically! Any insight that might come to him is regarded as unjustified if it relies on any form of experience. After all, the senses through which all experience passes may deceive us. Therefore, Descartes pursues an a priori train of thought that yields a necessary truth – a truth, that is, about which he cannot, possibly, be mistaken. He finds it in the second meditation. It is the famous principle that it is not possible for a thinking being to doubt its own existence:
So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (Descartes 1641/1996, 17; emphasis in the original)
To Descartes, the fact that he exists can be known before and independently of any experience. This seems to be logically presupposed by the fact that he doubts. For if he doubts, there must be an entity that doubts, that is, he. Therefore, Descartes reasons, he may be able to doubt almost all propositions. However, the fact of his own existence he cannot doubt.
This train of thought would go down in the history of philosophy as the cogito argument. Because it seems to rely only on information that can be ascertained a priori and independently of any experience, many philosophers view Descartes as the textbook example of an armchair philosopher.

1.2 Analytic Philosophy

The cogito argument relies on a particular type of a priori method. We can interpret it as a transcendental argument (Bardon 2005; Stern 2000). In such an argument, the conclusion gets its justification from the fact that it appears to be a necessary condition for the possibility of the truth of a given assumption. The assumption in question is “I doubt.” A necessary condition for this assumption seems to be the fact that I exist. Hence, I can infer, following transcendental logic, that I necessarily exist.
The fact that a given argument is an a priori argument does not entail; however, that is also a transcendental one. In fact, in modern analytic philosophy, a different sort of a priori method has risen to prominence. It is the use of thought experiments that are employed as “intuition pumps,” as Dennett (1984, 17–18) puts it.

Analytic Philosophy (A-Phi)

Philosophical questions are to be answered using a priori methods only. In particular, they should make methodical use of our intuitions about thought experiments.
Hence, A-Phi turns out to be a special version of AC-Phi. That means that it makes an even stronger claim. While AC-Phi only asserts that philosophers should rely only on a priori methods, A-Phi strengthens this thesis by adding the requirement that they employ, also, the method of thought experimentation. Often, this method is plainly called the method of analytic philosophy.4 In stylised form, we may characterise it as follows:

Method of Analytic Philosophy

Step 1: Introduce a philosophical thesis.
Step 2: Describe a philosophically interesting scenario (= thought experiment).
Step 3: Examine which judgement follows from the thesis introduced in Step 1 in regard to the scenario introduced in Step 2.
Step 4: Check whether that judgement is intuitively plausible.
Step 5: If the judgement is intuitively plausible, take this to be a confirmation of the philosophical thesis in question. If it is not, take the thesis to be disconfirmed.
Before we examine how MAP is applied, I should mention that the characterisation of MAP that we are working with is far from uncontroversial. To be sure, some philosophers have pointed out that this method is so prominent in modern analytic philosophy that it deserves to be called the “standard justificatory practice” (Kornblith 2007, 29). However, not all authors who have written about analytic philosophy have taken MAP to be an essential feature of it. In an influential study, Glock (2008) makes two observations. Firstly, philosophers who are not customarily regarded as analytic philosophers have used MAP (e.g. the British empiricists). And, secondly, for some authors who are commonly viewed as analytic philosophers, MAP does not play any role at all (e.g. the early Wittgenstein).5 In fact, there seems to be evidence for both points (see textbox 1.1). Nevertheless, it seems justified, in the context of the debate about x-phi, to interpret analytic philosophy as I have proposed. This is because the idea of analytic philosophy has commonly been understood in this (admittedly idiosyncratic) way.

Textbox 1.1. Is the Appeal to Intuitions in Philosophy a New Phenomenon?

Jaakko Hintikka believes that the methodical use of intuitions characteristic of analytic philosophy is a rather recent phenomenon. To quote him directly, he says: “Before the early 1960s, you could scarcely find any overt references, let alone appeals, to intuitions in the pages of philosophical journals and books in the analytical tradition. After the mid-1960s, you will find intuitions playing a major role in the philosophical argumentation of virtually every article or book” (Hintikka 1999, 127). Regarding the first point, Goldman (2007) thinks that there is evidence for the methodical use of intuitions about thought experiments in classical authors, who far predate analytic philosophy. In this connection, he refers to a passage in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1694) as an example: the famous “prince-cobbler case.” Similarly, Levin (2005) opines that MAP is, in fact, a method that has been characteristic of philosophy all throughout its history. Stich (2001), too, traces it way back, namely, all the way back to Plato. Andow (2015) examines some relevant empirical evidence using bibliometrics (for more information on this method, see appendix C.1). According to him, there has been a significant increase in the methodical use of intuitions in philosophy in the tw...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Acknowledgements
  2. Abbreviations
  3. Preface to the English Edition
  4. Foreword to the German Edition
  5. Introduction
  6. 1 The Armchair and the Laboratory
  7. 2 Experimentally Informed Arguments
  8. 3 Experimental Studies
  9. 4 Objections
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Appendix A
  13. Appendix B
  14. Appendix C
  15. Index
  16. About the Author