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. Get a taste of the topics experimental philosophy tackles 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.
Imagine that you are a researcher trying to understand the concept of intention. You want to know what the word ‘intention’ really means, what it is for something to be an intention rather than some other state of mind. How exactly would you pursue this sort of research?
Within the discipline of philosophy, the traditional approach to studying such questions was to proceed entirely ‘from the armchair.’ Each philosopher working on the issue would simply reflect on the nature of the concept in question and try to come up with an adequate theory.
The new field of experimental philosophy aims to introduce a very different method here. Experimental philosophers go out and run systematic experimental studies to see how people actually do use their concepts. The results have often been quite surprising, overturning traditional views about how the concepts are used.
For one especially striking example, take a look at this new video (directed by Ben Coonley) in which the comedian Eugene Mirman explains the results of a recent experimental philosophy study:
It might seem at first that figuring out whether someone acted intentionally should be a pretty straightforward matter. One just looks at what the person wanted to do and what the person expected to happen, and the answer comes out in an obvious way. But it now seems that things are not as simple as they at first appeared. For some reason, people are actually taking their moral views into account when answering questions like these.
For another simple example, try reading through the following story:
When Sarah is two months pregnant, she goes to her doctor’s office for a checkup. After running some tests, Sarah’s doctor informs her that the fetus in her womb has a rare vitamin B6 deficiency. If nothing is done, then the fetus’s vitamin B6 levels will drop to the level where the fetus will die. The only way to keep the B6 levels high enough is for Sarah to begin eating lots of foods that are high in B6, such as potatoes, bananas, and lentils. If Sarah eats this special diet, then the fetus will develop normally. If she does not eat the special diet, the fetus will die within one month.
Sarah has very been worried about the financial and emotional burden of a child. Also, Sarah believes that life does not begin in the first trimester of a pregnancy. After much thought, she decides that she would strongly prefer not to carry the pregnancy to term. For this reason, Sarah does not change her diet or eat special foods high in B6. As predicted, the fetus’s B6 levels decrease. One month later, the fetus dies.
Now ask yourself: Is it more appropriate to say that Sarah made the fetus die, or that Sarah allowed the fetus to die?
It may seem at first that answering this question should be a straightforward matter. Just take a look at what Sarah did, and see how it impacted the fetus. But no: once again, the matter is not as simple as it appears. Experimental philosophers have shown that pro-choice people tend to say that she allowed the fetus to die, while pro-life people tend to say that she made the fetus die. So it looks like moral judgments are playing a role here too.
As more and more results come in, it is beginning to seem that moral judgments crop up just about everywhere one looks – changing the way people think about all sorts of things that might initially seem to have nothing to do with morality. The key question now is why people end up thinking this way and what implications it might have for broader issues in philosophy. Right now, there is no consensus about the answers to these questions, but there is a lot of exciting new research taking up various sides in the controversy. It will be interesting to see how this discussion evolves in the years to come.