Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Experimental Philosophy: Knobe's "Return to Tradition" Claim

Joshua Knobe--who was, apparently, at UNC after my time--makes a very odd claim in defense of so-called "experimental philosophy" here.

First, I should say that I'm no fan of experimental philosophy. I think it'd be good if philosophers did more science and if scientists understood more about philosophy. There would be something to be gained (and, of course, also something to be lost) by more interdisciplinarity in that regard. However, most experimental philosophy I've encountered has been nothing more than (i) some philosophy + (ii) some surveys of non-philosophers about their so-called "intuitions" relevant to philosophical problems. There's little to be gained from that...though it might finally get philosophers to quit unreflectively appealing to "intuitions," which is something that is long, long overdue. That crap drives me insane.

But more to the point: Knobe claims that experimental philosophy represents a kind of return to tradition for roughly the following reason: pre-20th-century philosophers like Nietzsche did not recognize a hard-and-fast distinction between philosophy and psychology. But this claim seems to me to be highly misleading. Philosophers like Nietzsche didn't recognize such a hard-and-fast distinction because they did psychology with, roughly, the methods of philosophy. Now, in the age of a more-or-less scientific psychology, an approach that tries to unify philosophy and psychology by getting philosophers to be more like psychologists represents more of a break with philosophical tradition than a return to it. Experimental philosophy often seems to flirt with absurd conclusions to the effect that we can solve philosophical problems by doing surveys. Hey, suppose a mad brain scientist can control your actions by implanting desires in you; you'd be doing what you would your action be free? Well, that question is at the core of the free will debate, and it might be interesting to see what people who haven't thought about it much have to say about it...but finding out, e.g., that 60% of people say 'yes' and 40% say 'no' wouldn't answer the question.

Psychology is a discipline no closer to philosophy than is, say, physics, and part of my lack of interest in so-called experimental philosophy has to do with the fact that it is the umpteenth movement to, apparently, deny this fact. Psychology is, in general, easier than physics, of course, but I'd be way more interested in all this if philosophers were to expand in the direction of the latter discipline rather than the former one. You want science that casts light on philosophical problems? Come up with something like Bell's Inequality, and do something like the CHSH experiments. Now that's science with philosophical implications...

Some good things will, no doubt, come out of this movement...some good things come out of almost any philosophical movement. But as Sosa--and many, many others--have noted: thus far, the results are unimpressive. My prediction for some good that will come of it was already mentioned above: philosophers will become more reflective about what they mean by "intuitions."


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