Experimental philosophy is a new movement that seeks to return the discipline of philosophy to a focus on questions about how people actually think and feel. In Experimental Philosophy we get a thorough introduction to the major themes of work in experimental philosophy and theoretical significance of this new research. Editors Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols have been kind enough to explain this all in simple terms below. Joshua Knobe is an assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Shaun Nichols is in the Philosophy Department and Cognitive Science Program at the University of Arizona. He also is the author of Sentimental Rules and co-author (with Stephen Stich) of Mindreading. Be sure to check out their Myspace page and their blog.
The reason the two of us first started doing philosophy is that we were interested in questions about the human condition. Back when we were undergraduates, we were captivated by the ideas we found in the work of philosophers like Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Hume. We wanted to follow in their tracks and think and write about human beings, their thoughts and feelings, the way they get along with each other, the nature of the mind.
Then we went to graduate school. What we found there was that the discipline of philosophy was no longer focused on questions about what human beings were really like. Instead, the focus was on a very technical, formal sort of philosophizing that was quite far removed from anything that got us interested in philosophy in the first place. This left us feeling disaffected, and a number of researchers at various other institutions felt the same way.
Together, several of these researchers developed the new field of experimental philosophy. The basic idea behind experimental philosophy is that we can make progress on the questions that interested us in the first place by looking closely at the way human beings actually understand their world. In pursuit of this objective, practitioners of this new approach go out and conduct systematic experimental studies of human cognition.
For example, in the traditional problem of free will, many philosophers have maintained that no one can be morally responsible if everything that happens is an inevitable consequence of what happened before. But the entire debate is conducted in a cold, logical manner. Experimental philosophers thought that maybe the way people actually think about these issues isn’t always so cold and logical. So first they tried posing the question of free will to ordinary people in a cold abstract manner. After describing a universe in which everything is inevitable, they asked participants, “In this Universe is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?” When the question was posed in this way, most people responded in line with those philosophers who claimed that no one can be responsible if everything is inevitable. But the experimentalists also wanted to see what would happen if people were given cases that got people more emotionally involved in the situation. So they once again described a universe in which everything that happens is inevitable, and then they asked a question that was sure to arouse strong emotions. It concerned a particular person in that Universe, Bill: “As he has done many times in the past, Bill stalks and rapes a stranger. Is it possible that Bill is fully morally responsible for raping the stranger?” Here the results were quite different. People tended to say that Bill was in fact morally responsible. So which reaction should we trust, the cold logical one or the emotionally involved one? This is the kind of question that experimental philosophy forces on us.
But that’s just one example. If you want to learn about more of the experimental studies that have been done, you can take a look at the recent articles on experimental philosophy in the New York Times and Slate.