Experiments in Philosophy

Aristotle once wrote that philosophy begins in wonder, but one might equally well say that philosophy begins with inner conflict. The cases in which we are most drawn to philosophy are precisely the cases in which we feel as though there is something pulling us toward one side of a question but also something pulling us, perhaps equally powerfully, toward the other.

But how exactly can philosophy help us in cases like these? If we feel something within ourselves drawing us in one direction but also something drawing us the other way, what exactly can philosophy do to offer us illumination?

One traditional answer is that philosophy can help us out by offering us some insight into human nature. Suppose we feel a sense of puzzlement about whether God exists, or whether there are objective moral truths, or whether human beings have free will.

The traditional view was that philosophers could help us get to the bottom of this puzzlement by exploring the sources of the conflict within our own minds. If you look back to the work of some of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century Mill, Marx, Nietzsche — you can find extraordinary intellectual achievements along these basic lines.

As noted earlier this month in The Times’s Room for Debate forum, this traditional approach is back with a vengeance.  Philosophers today are once again looking for the roots of philosophical conflicts in our human nature, and they are once again suggesting that we can make progress on philosophical questions by reaching a better understanding of our own minds.  But these days, philosophers are going after these issues using a new set of methodologies.  They are pursuing the traditional questions using all the tools of modern cognitive science.  They are teaming up with researchers in other disciplines, conducting experimental studies, publishing in some of the top journals of psychology.  Work in this new vein has come to be known as experimental philosophy.

The Room for Debate discussion of this movement brought up an important question that is worth pursuing further.  The study of human nature, whether in Nietzsche or in a contemporary psychology journal, is obviously relevant to certain purely scientific questions, but how could this sort of work ever help us to answer the distinctive questions of philosophy? It may be of some interest just to figure out how people ordinarily think, but how could facts about how people ordinarily think ever tell us which views were actually right or wrong?

Instead of just considering this question in the abstract, let’s focus in on one particular example.  Take the age-old problem of free will — a topic discussed at length here at The Stone by Galen Strawson, William Egginton and hundreds of readers. If all of our actions are determined by prior events — just one thing causing the next, which causes the next — then is it ever possible for human beings to be morally responsible for the things we do? Faced with this question, many people feel themselves pulled in competing directions — it is as though there is something compelling them to say yes, but also something that makes them want to say no.

What is it that draws us in these two conflicting directions? The philosopher Shaun Nichols and I thought that people might be drawn toward one view by their capacity for abstract, theoretical reasoning, while simultaneously being drawn in the opposite direction by their more immediate emotional reactions. It is as though their capacity for abstract reasoning tells them, “This person was completely determined and therefore cannot be held responsible,” while their capacity for immediate emotional reaction keeps screaming, “But he did such a horrible thing! Surely, he is responsible for it.”

To put this idea to the test, we conducted a simple experiment.  All participants in the study were told about a deterministic universe (which we called “Universe A”), and all participants received exactly the same information about how this universe worked. The question then was whether people would think that it was possible in such a universe to be fully morally responsible.

But now comes the trick. Some participants were asked in a way designed to trigger abstract, theoretical reasoning, while others were asked in a way designed to trigger a more immediate emotional response. Specifically, participants in one condition were given the abstract question:

In Universe A, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?

Meanwhile, participants in the other condition were given a more concrete and emotionally fraught example:

In Universe A, a man named Bill has become attracted to his secretary, and he decides that the only way to be with her is to kill his wife and three children. He knows that it is impossible to escape from his house in the event of a fire. Before he leaves on a business trip, he sets up a device in his basement that burns down the house and kills his family.

Is Bill fully morally responsible for killing his wife and children?

The results showed a striking difference between conditions. Of the participants who received the abstract question, the vast majority (86 percent) said that it was not possible for anyone to be morally responsible in the deterministic universe. But then, in the more concrete case, we found exactly the opposite results. There, most participants (72 percent) said that Bill actually was responsible for what he had done.

What we have in this example is just one very simple initial experiment. Needless to say, the actual body of research on this topic involves numerous different studies, and the scientific issues arising here can be quite complex.  But let us put all those issues to the side for the moment.  Instead, we can just return to our original question.  How can experiments like these possibly help us to answer the more traditional questions of philosophy?

The simple study I have been discussing here can offer at least a rough sense of how such an inquiry works.  The idea is not that we subject philosophical questions to some kind of Gallup poll. (“Well, the vote came out 65 percent to 35 percent, so I guess the answer is … human beings do have free will!”) Rather, the aim is to get a better understanding of the psychological mechanisms at the root of our sense of conflict and then to begin thinking about which of these mechanisms are worthy of our trust and which might simply be leading us astray.

So, what is the answer in the specific case of the conflict we feel about free will? Should we be putting our faith in our capacity for abstract theoretical reasoning, or should we be relying on our more immediate emotional responses?  At the moment, there is no consensus on this question within the experimental philosophy community.  What all experimental philosophers do agree on, however, is that we will be able to do a better job of addressing these fundamental philosophical questions if we can arrive at a better understanding of the way our own minds work.

Joshua Knobe is an assistant professor at Yale University, where he is appointed both in Cognitive Science and in Philosophy. He is a co-editor, with Shaun Nichols, of the volume “Experimental Philosophy.”


Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/experimental-philosophy/