[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” (Søren Kierkegaard)
Philosophy has been declared dead by a number of people who have likely never read a single philosophy paper or technical book, and philosophers themselves have at times been the worst critics of their own field (Chapter 1). The discipline is vast, with a very long history marked by traditions so different from each other that one can reasonably question whether they can meaningfully be grouped under the same broad umbrella (Chapter 2). The field has seen internal revolutions as late as the middle and late part of the 20th century, with some philosophers going so far as claiming that major branches of their discipline ought to be handed over to the natural or social sciences (Chapter 3).
Much of the criticism of philosophy, nowadays as in the time of Socrates, is that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, it doesn’t make “progress.” Indeed, the reason the comparison with science arises so often is precisely because the latter is taken to be the standard of progressive fields of inquiry. And yet, even though it is certainly undeniable that science has made sometimes spectacular progress, we have also seen just how difficult it is to make precise sense of that observation, an eminently philosophical question if there ever was one (Chapter 4). Throughout the book I have advanced the thesis that philosophy does make progress, but that this ought to be understood in a manner significantly different from the way in which the concept applies to the sciences, and specifically in a fashion more akin — though again not exactly analogous — to the way in which mathematics and logic make progress (Chapter 5). I have suggested we think of philosophy as moving, and making progress, in a kind of (empirically informed) conceptual space, discovering and refining what Nicholas Rescher called aporetic clusters, which are themselves “evoked” — to use Lee Smolin’s terminology — by philosophers’ choices of assumptions and internally generated problems (Introduction). As a result, we should see philosophy as being in the business of proposing “accounts” (i.e., ways of understanding) and “frameworks” (i.e., ways of thinking) of whatever subject matter it applies itself to, as distinct from “theories” in the quasi-scientific sense of the term (Chapter 6).
In order to conclude our exploration of the nature and methods of philosophy, then, this chapter will look both at some new directions of which practicing philosophers ought to be aware (and even critical, when necessary), such as so-called experimental philosophy, as well as the heterogeneous movement known as “digital humanities.” We will also briefly re-examine with fresh eyes the classical toolbox that has made philosophical inquiry what it is, for good and for ill: thought experiments, intuitions, reflective equilibrium, and the like. Finally, we will discuss — quantitative data in hand! — what philosophers think about major issues within their own discipline, thus finding empirical support for the idea that philosophers are concerned with exploring multiple intellectual peaks in a vast conceptual space, where the very issue of finding “the” answer to a particular question will increasingly appear to be a misguided way of looking at things.
The Experimental Philosophy challenge
Most philosophers, and by now even members of the general public, are aware of a “movement” that has developed over the past several years and that is usually referred to as experimental philosophy, colloquially known as “XPhi.” I first encountered it at one of their early meetings many years ago, and as a (then) practicing scientist my initial reaction was very sympathetic. I thought: good, finally philosophers are getting their arse off the proverbial armchair and actually gather facts instead of just thinking about stuff. Now that I have been a practicing philosopher (firmly attached to my nice and comfortable armchair) for a while, I’ve become a bit more wary of some of the loudest claims made by XPhi supporters based on empirical investigations into what people think about a number of philosophical questions, as well as of the value of such findings for professional philosophers. I keep reminding myself that we already have a name for disciplines characterized by inquiry based on the collection of data about human opinions: they are called social sciences, and while they certainly ought to inform philosophers in what they do, they seem to me sufficiently distinct from philosophy that the two should not be confused.
Nonetheless, it would be unwise to reject XPhi without proper examination, especially at a time in which philosophy as a discipline is under attack for its assumed irrelevance and for not behaving like a science. I have had a number of conversations and email exchanges with Joshua Knobe,  arguably the most recognizable (and likable!) of the proponents of XPhi, and he tried his best to make me understand why he thinks his movement should be accorded full status as a sub-discipline of philosophy.  I cannot possibly do justice to the burgeoning literature (pro and con) XPhi, but a book on the nature and future of philosophy would simply be woefully lacking if it didn’t briefly engage with the issue. I begin, therefore, with a very clearly written survey of the methods and accomplishments of XPhi by Knobe et al. (2012; it is interesting to note that the paper was published in the Annual Review of Psychology).
Knobe and colleagues begin the paper by stating that “a guiding theme of the experimental philosophy movement is that it is not helpful to maintain a rigid separation between the disciplines of philosophy and psychology.” This, of course, is pure Quine (Chapter 3), and — as stated before — I doubt anyone can come up with a sensible objection to that general principle. The real questions concern: a) whether this move leaves sufficient autonomy to philosophy to maintain it as a distinct field of inquiry; and b) if so, what novelties or insights does the psychological approach provide into philosophical problems. Which is the very point of the review in question, a point articulated by its authors via a series of examples of philosophical issues to which they feel XPhi has contributed by means of experimental approaches. Let us therefore examine the four case studies proposed by Knobe et al. and see what we may reasonably make of them.
Case Study 1: Morality and concept application
XPhi researchers have explored how laypeople react to a number of standard hypothetical situations concerning moral judgment, such as the ones encapsulated by the following two standard scenarios:
(a) The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.” The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped. Did the chairman intentionally help the environment?
(b) The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also harm the environment.” The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed. Did the chairman intentionally harm the environment?
The authors found that people respond asymmetrically to these hypothetical scenarios, saying that the chairman unintentionally helped the environment in the first case, but intentionally harmed it in the second one. While these results are interesting in terms of understanding how people’s moral judgments are deployed, one can still sensibly ask what bearing do they have on the philosophical question of the moral status of the chairmen in the two examples. Presumably (I am speculating from my armchair here!), a trained moral philosopher will see that said chairman did, in fact, unintentionally help the environment in the first scenario (and thus gets no moral credit for his decision) while also understanding that the harm caused to the environment in the second case was intentional, but secondary (the primary motive wasn’t harming the environment, it was making a profit, but the chairman was warned of the environmental consequences of his actions). Of course we don’t know what most moral philosophers would say because the XPhi researchers didn’t carry out the proper experiment — which should have been done on philosophers, not members of the general public, assuming that the goal was to advance our understanding of ethics, not to run a survey of laypeople’s uninformed opinions. (Also notice that I gave reasons for my “intuitions” concerning the two cases. These reasons could in turn be subject to further scrutiny, and so on.)
Case study 2: Moral objectivism vs moral relativism
Here again, the empirical data gathered by the XPhi program is interesting, as it shows, for instance, that young and elderly people tend toward moral objectivism (the proposition that moral statements are objectively true or false), while people of intermediate age reason in more relativistic terms (the idea that moral statements are a reflection of local customs and habits). Again, however, this sort of evidence seems to be pretty much orthogonal to whether and how objectivism or relativism are philosophically defensible at the meta-ethical level.
XPhi researchers have also shown that “framing,” that is, how exactly a question is presented to respondents, makes a difference when people are asked to exercise a given moral judgment. For example, if a hypothetical scenario is presented in which two agents arrive at different moral judgments on a specific issue while belonging to the same culture, most respondents say that one of them must be wrong. However, if the two agents are postulated to belong to very different cultures, and yet also arrive at distinct judgments on the same issue, then most respondents say that both views may be correct. I would hope, however, that no serious (professional) ethicist would engage in that sort of shifting judgment, certainly not without a detailed analysis of what exactly the agents were disagreeing about and whether the disagreement is or is not amenable to reasonably different cultural stands.
Case Study 3: Free will
The experimental results concerning this old chestnut of metaphysics indicate that people tend to attribute moral responsibility to agents when a strong emotional response is elicited, even though they are told that such agents operate in an entirely deterministic universe. Again, however, how many moral philosophers, or metaphysicians, I wonder, would make that sort of naive mistake?
Knobe et al. claim that “the results shed light on why philosophical reflection and debate alone have not led to more universal agreement about the free will problem.” I don’t see how this follows from the results at all. The disagreement about free will among professional philosophers can be much better understood as deriving from the fact that the three major positions on the subject — deterministic incompatibilism, libertarian incompatibilism and compatibilism (see Griffith 2013 for a brief accessible survey; for a more in-depth survey see: O’Connor 2010) — occupy three peaks in conceptual space that are all defensible in the absence of crucial empirical evidence, though I would say that they are not all equally defensible, for instance because determinism increasingly seems the correct metaphysical view, thus excluding libertarian incompatibilism. This state of affairs is altogether different from the (confused) reasons why laypeople disagree and even contradict themselves on free will, a topic to which they do not typically devote a lot of time for reflection (well, actually that truly is an empirical question, I’m just guessing here).
Case Study 4: Phenomenal consciousness
Here XPhi researchers have explored what happens when people make the judgment that an object or potential agent does or does not possess the capacity for phenomenal consciousness as distinct from cognition. For instance, respondents tended to rate babies high on a scale of consciousness but low on cognition, while they rated gods inversely (i.e., high on cognition, low on consciousness). However, since we know nothing at all about gods, while we can actually do empirical research on children, it is hard to see why this counts as a genuine philosophic conundrum, as distinct from an interesting insight into human psychology.
Related research shows that people use different cues to arrive at an attribution of consciousness, especially behavior and embodiment. For instance, corporations and robots — both of which lack a biological body — tend to be regarded by most people as the kind of thing that does not have phenomenal consciousness. Again, though, I’m reasonably confident that a professional philosopher would never attribute consciousness to a corporation, while the issue for biological vs artificial bodies is very much one alive in both philosophy of mind and neuroscience. The crucial question, as far as we are concerned here, is whether the latter problem is actually informed by the (interesting, for sure) fact that people who know nothing about philosophy of mind or neuroscience tend to have this or that opinion about it.
As I mentioned above, the debate about the relevance of XPhi to philosophy is still raging, and it is easy to find a number of position papers on the positive side, and a number of negative commentaries on the other. Here I will briefly sample two recent commentaries, a negative one by Timothy Williamson (2013) and a more positive one by Alan Love (2013). The reason these two contributions are interesting is because, while they both refer to the same book (Alexander 2012, though Love also reviews another volume by Cappelen (2012), which is itself critical of XPhi), together they manage to capture my own range of reactions to the very idea and practice of XPhi, which could be summarized as follows: it’s an interesting idea, and I’d like to keep an open mind about it; but the proof is in the pudding, and so far much of the literature on XPhi seems to be interesting for social scientists but a bit of a side issue for philosophers.
Let us begin with Williamson, then. For him, philosophers have always accepted the idea that empirical findings are relevant to their interests. For instance, quite obviously, scientific experiments testing the theory of Special Relativity bear on philosophical discussions of time. Or consider how split-brain experiments in neuroscience inform philosophical discussions about personal identity. The list is a very long one indeed, but of course the idea of XPhi is to train the microscope onto philosophy itself, so to speak. Yet, Williamson points out that in a sense the XPhi project is not new, citing the example of Arne Næss sending out questionnaires about the concept of truth in the 1930s, or discussions about the relevance of philosophy of language to the way language is actually used back in the 1950s. In fact, I would say that we can push all the way back to Hume for a clear forerunner of XPhi. After all, he wished to turn philosophy upside down and remodel it after the very successful natural philosophy practiced by the like of Newton. The fact that Hume himself didn’t do any experiments did not stop him from proposing his famous “fork,” according to which only books containing mathematics or empirical evidence are worth not being burned (has it has been observed time and again, Hume’s own treatises would not survive the fork, which would be a shame for the world’s literature).
Williamson then takes on a perennial workhorse of XPhi criticism of philosophical practice: the use (and abuse) of intuitions. I will return to this crucial subject in more detail below, but for now suffice it to say that Williamson suggests that philosophical “intuitions” are a kind of judgment, their nature being not very different from that of judgments made in everyday life or in the natural sciences, i.e. a type of non-explicit inference (which can, however, be made explicit upon request). This being the case, a good deal of XPhi’s criticism of the practice of contemporary philosophy loses at the least some of its bite. Alexander, the target of Williamson’s criticism, argues that further empirical evidence needs to be brought forth any time a philosopher deploys an intuition as a starting point for a discussion, in case someone is not convinced by, or does not share, that intuition. But, replies Williamson, this is true for any premise at all, regardless of whether it plays a role in philosophical, scientific, or everyday discourse — and quite independently of whether we label that premise with the word “intuition” or not.
As we have seen above, a standard response to XPhi criticisms of philosophical practice is that the judgments of experts (i.e., philosophers) about philosophical questions is a different matter from, and more reliable than, the judgment of laypeople, which tend to be the overwhelming (though, lately, not exclusive) target of XPhi studies. When XPhi exponents like Alexander counter that this leads one into a regress because there is no guarantee that expert judgment is reliable, Williamson and others can reply that that criticism risks sliding into a generic skeptical argument, since no discipline can offer that sort of guarantee of what its properly trained experts say.
My friend Alan Love’s take on XPhi in general, and on Alexander’s book in particular, is more charitable than Williamson’s, and may in fact point toward a constructive way for XPhi supporters and critics to move forward. Alan begins by suggesting that it is instructive to ask ourselves what “image” of science XPhi actually uses, and whether such image does a good job of translating into the sort of activity that is embodied by philosophical inquiry.
Much hinges, again, on the issue of deployment of intuitions in philosophy. For Alexander (2012) philosophers use intuition all the time, especially as “data” to “test” their notions, but for authors such as Cappelen (2012) philosophers hardly use intuitions at all. Cappelen thinks that the appearance of the word “intuition” in talks, papers and books by philosophers is epiphenomenal, as Love puts it: i.e., much of what philosophers say could be rephrased without calling on intuitions at all, and stand just the same. In some cases philosophers say things like “it is intuitive that” as a shorthand for something they won’t argue for on that occasion, but instead use as a starting point for whatever follows. The implicit statement being that one can always go back and argue for that premise, or even check the matter out empirically, if need be.
Given this discrepancy, according to Love, XPhi adopts a particular “image” of science in order to compare it to what philosophers do (and find the latter wanting), namely that of an activity based on hypothesis testing and theory confirmation. Interestingly, this image is widely emulated in the social sciences (from which XPhi takes its inspiration), but Love correctly points out that philosophers of science have uncovered more than one image for science (e.g., Godfrey-Smith 2006; Wimsatt 2007), an alternative being that of an activity that aims at exploratory inquiries in order to characterize natural phenomena. Alan then suggests that philosophy is better seen as a conceptual equivalent of this exploratory activity, rather than one engaging in hypothesis testing.
This observation, I believe, is a potential breakthrough in the debate, as it naturally leads to a pluralistic view of how philosophical inquiry proceeds: it deploys a number of tools (including XPhi) to explore whatever territory is of interest. It also means that it is fruitless to look for methods or questions that are “eminently philosophical in nature,” as philosophy is not a natural kind (any more than science is, really), and it is best thought of as contiguous to (but not subsumed into) science, with an emphasis on conceptual rather than empirical space — essentially what I’ve been arguing throughout this book.
Love also points out that old canards such as “philosophy always deals with the same questions” are really red herrings. For instance, biology has been dealing with the problem of how embryos develop from the time of Aristotle (the same old question: Lennox 2011), but of course a number of very different ways of framing and tackling that question have seen the light between the History of Animals and modern research in evolutionary developmental biology (Müller & Newman 2005; Love 2009). Analogously, says Love, “We might characterize philosophical problems as stable with respect to certain themes but changing with respect to their shape and structure.” He explicitly arches back to James’ conception of philosophy (Bordogna 2008) as captured in the following quote: “philosophers should live at the boundaries of disciplines, being perpetually nomadic and constantly inserting themselves into the methodological business of other disciplines through appropriation and criticism.”
In the end, I too favor an “image” of philosophy that is distinct from yet contiguous with that of science, and where philosophers are not so much into the business of producing testable theories but rather to articulate useful “accounts” or frameworks to move debate forward on this or that particular issue. XPhi certainly does have the potential to contribute to that conversation, and should most definitely not be dismissed out of hand. But talk of “movement” and publication of position papers should probably be superseded by run of the mill positive contributions to the philosophical literature, to be evaluated on their own merits by philosophers who are engaged with the specific questions, from free will to the nature of consciousness and so forth.
 Joshua has also graciously agreed to be on my Rationally Speaking podcast, where he made several of his points very cogently.
 As an aside, I’m not sure why XPhi — and, as we shall see, the Digital Humanities — label themselves as “movements” rather than methods or approaches. I feel that talk of “movements” unnecessarily fuels an adversarial stance on both sides of these debates.
Alexander, J. (2012) Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction. Polity Press.
Bordogna, F. (2008) William James at the Boundaries: Philosophy, Science, and the
Geography of Knowledge. University of Chicago Press.
Cappelen, H. (2012) Philosophy Without Intuitions. Oxford University Press.
Godfrey-Smith, P. (2006) The strategy of model-based science. Biology & Philosophy 21:725–40.
Griffith, M. (2013) Free Will: The Basics. Routledge.
Lennox, J. (2011) Aristotle’s biology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 27 August 2014).
Love, A. (2009) Marine invertebrates, model organisms, and the modern synthesis: epistemic values, evo-devo, and exclusion. Theory in Bioscience 128:19–42.
Love, A. (2013) Experiments, Intuitions and Images of Philosophy and Science. Analysis Reviews 73:785-797.
Müller, G.B. and Newman, S.A. (2005) The innovation triad an EvoDevo agenda. Journal of Experimental Zoology 304B:487–503.
O’Connor, T. (2010) Free will. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 25 August 2015).
Williamson, T. (2013) Review of Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction. By Joshua Alexander. Philosophy 88:467-474.
Wimsatt, W.C. (2007) Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise
Approximations to Reality. Harvard University Press.
Categories: Nature of Philosophy