Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The "Experimental Philosophy" Fad
Or: Philosophy! Now With Extra Confusion!

Ugh. This is depressing. And UNC's on the forefront of this philosophical silliness. Go Tar Heels! Way to devalue my degree...

I actually have fairly non-standard views about the nature of philosophy...views that are at odds not only with what count as traditional views, but also with standard-issue naturalistic/scientistic views. Influenced by the insidious C. S. Peirce, I'm currently inclined to suspect that philosophy is largely based on observations--but the kind of observations everyone can do. And there may be some sense in which philosophical questions can be answered by experiment--some experiments are relevant to the free will debate, for example. But these "experimental philosophy" folks seem fairly profoundly confused. But these kinds of confusions pop up in philosophy every now and then, so it's no real cause for alarm. Every now and then somebody thinks "hey, let's make philosophy empirical!" And then some really embarrassingly bad philosophy gets done, and refuted, and lots of people get dissertations out of it, and then it goes away. Witness the debacle of logical psychologism.

On a really, really, really modest interpretation of what they are doing, this experimental philosophy stuff is probably harmless and perhaps even moderately interesting. Philosophers tend to appeal to "intuitions" all the time. This isn't an appeal to something spooky or ESP-like...but, unfortunately, most philosophers don't spend much time thinking about what an appeal to intuition is an appeal to. An "intuition" is best conceived of as a premiss that is not itself a conclusion, or, what's close to that, just a natural inclination. So conceived, though, it's not clear what the evidential value of intuitions is. Much analytic philosophy falls into the irritating intuition-counterexample-intuition-counterexample pattern. (E.g. you say utilitarianism is "intuitively" right, I point out that it licenses ten people in the transplant ward to chop up the UPS guy for his organs (ten of them survive for only one death), but that this itself is not intuitive, etc., etc., repeat ad nauseam) By getting people to think about the evidential status of intuitions, and by reminding us that our intuitions are less stable, uniform, universal and authoritative than some presuppose, this experimental philosophy stuff is all to the good. But that's an unusually modest goal, and, as Appiah points out, you don't need experiments to do that. And anyone who thinks they're going to actually solve such philosophical problems with surveys is very, very confused.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Link is dead.

12:43 PM  

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