Experimental Philosophy

Sunday, May 2, 2010
First Aired: 
Sunday, May 4, 2008

What Is It

Philosophical reasoning relies on intuitions.  John Rawls called this method "reflective equilibrium.” But where do we get our data about "intuitions"? John and Ken welcome back Anthony Appiah from Princeton University, author of Experiments in Ethics.  They discuss psychological experiments that determine what people really think.

Listening Notes

Some situations seem to defy obvious moral resolutions. For instance, perhaps you’ve thought about the following situations: suppose a train is rushing towards a dozen schoolchildren and you can stop it by pushing a fat man onto the rail. Should you do it? Is there a right answer? If there were, how could we learn what it is? Some philosophers insist that the best way is to take these questions into the lab, rather than settling them in the armchair.

John wonders if perhaps the whole notion of experimental philosophy is an oxymoron. Besides, doesn’t the real philosophical work necessarily happen in the armchair? Is the new trend just a fad, or a bunch of young philosophers acting on their acute science envy? Then again, there’s the famous is/ought problem, which makes it hard to describe how you should act, even if you know how people do. Can we find norms experimentally?

The esteemed philosopher Anthony Appiah joins us. Though he once worked on traditional philosophical problems, he recently wrote a book exploring what experiments can tell us about ethical questions. Why would he leave his comfortable armchair? Well, he notes, people’s moral intuitions are often unreliable and subject, which is a cause to worry. One may see this as a reason to abandon our traditional intuitions, but it can also mean that our intuitions guide us in a more complicated way than one would ordinarily imagine.

One might look at the way we refer to character traits, for instance. Though some experiments establish that they do exist to some extent, many others demonstrate that they are far less consistent than we ordinarily suppose. It would be an overreaction to abandon talk of them altogether, but where should we draw the line? Alternatively, one can look at brain studies to learn more about the way we approach moral problems—for instance, to see if our ‘passion centers’ are highly activated when we reason about emotional issues (for instance, why torturing puppies is wrong). But then again, is it really appropriate to combine philosophy and psychology in this way?

Some (like John, for instance) would like to say that the two disciplines cover completely different issues. While psychology may be interesting, it presumably does not cover questions of morality. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with an interdisciplinary approach, and it may be best to incorporate examples from other fields into philosophical discussions. Some philosophers tried to blend philosophy entirely into psychology and other empirical disciplines, but that approach is far from popular these days. Experimental philosophy itself is an old idea, though, going back to the early days of modern physics. Perhaps the best way to think of philosophy ought to be as work from a moving armchair.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:25): Zoe Corneli brings us to Daniel Elstein, the show’s Director of Research at Stanford’s Philosopher’s Corner. He and a few students talk about the famous trolley thought experimentdo you sacrifice the fat man to save a dozen lovable schoolchildren? The young philosophers seemed to think it best to let the fat man die when it was a matter of pushing a button, but were more hesitant if it meant pushing him physically. Why might this be?
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 50:00): Ian Shoales wonders whether taking philosophy to the streets is always a smart idea—what if we run the risk of turning experiments and philosophy into opinion polls? These experimental philosophers sure are a strange bunch. They have an anthem on Youtube, a logo composed of a burning armchair and refer to their work as ‘ex-phi.’ Sure, they may have some good points, but isn’t that a little cheesy?