If it’s experimental, is it philosophy?

You can be pretty sure that an  emerging academic discipline is out to be the next big thing when one of its first accomplishments is to coin a cool name for itself.

That name is “X-phi” (like “X-Files,” but without the “s”), and the new discipline is something called “experimental philosophy.” If experimental philosophy strikes you as an oxymoron, you’re not alone — I’m with you, for the most part.

The latest press account of X-phi is “Putting Philosophy to the Test,” by David Menconi, published in the September/October issue of Stanford magazine. Menconi focuses on Yale professor Josh Knobe, whom Menconi calls “the closest thing experimental philosophy has to a rock star.” Menconi can be forgiven his phrasing, since he is listed as a music critic, but the “rock star” label at least partly fits an emerging discipline which has more than a little of the feel of an au courant fad.

Knobe works in both the philosophy and psychology departments at Yale, in a move which reflects his efforts to reverse the historical amputation of psychology from philosophy more than a hundred years ago.

One problem with the rearticulation of the two fields may be that the philosophers who long to be philo-psychologists will bring their lingering non-empirical notions of duality with them when they try out the methodologies of their new colleagues. To wit — and I know that there are some of you out there who have much more sympathy for what’s to come than I do — here’s what I consider a fundamental confusion about the nature of the human mind, from Knobe:

It’s a mistake to think the mind has purely scientific characteristics we can understand. At a deeper level, the way the mind works, our understanding of these things is morally infused from the beginning. It’s not something that’s ‘distorting,’ it’s fundamental to what is going on. We are moralizing creatures, through and through.

It’s one thing to argue that we do not yet understand all of the brain’s processes, or even to claim that we will never be able to recreate or fully represent the experiences of consciousness solely in terms of the physical processes which generate them — but to suggest that our minds have “characteristics” that aren’t “purely scientific,” which properly understood means “physical”? Does that mean that there’s something to our minds that isn’t purely physical?

No, I’m not saying — here we go again — that the mind is the physical processes of the brain. But the mind is a product of those processes. There’s a deep difference between what the brain does and what that feels like to me, but there’s nothing in that difference that demonstrates any non-material “mind.” It seems pretty straightforwardly true that “mind” is what brain function ‘feels like.” Mapping the function isn’t “mind,” any more than measuring light waves is “colour” — but just as colour is a sensation prompted by light waves, mind is a sensation prompted by brain function. To argue that mind isn’t brain seems to me to be one of those semantic cul-de-sacs into which language takes us when we’re not careful enough.

And, yes, we are moralizers. But what part of our  moral tendency is more “fundamental” than the primal feelings which we experience as emotions and describe in moral terms?

And again — which part of our moral selves is grounded anywhere else than in the brain? And if there’s no other place in which “we” exist, what barriers exist to an eventual full description of the process of physical events which we know as moral judgment? At the risk of further repetition, our brains are not our minds, but our minds consist only of the consequences of our brains. “Distorting” doesn’t — can’t — enter into it, unless one misunderstands the relationship between brain and mind, including the moral mind.

Knobe’s declaration above (far above — I get a little carried away when it comes to closet dualism, as you may have noticed by now!) was given in response to the results of an experiment in which subjects demonstrated inconsistency in the way they applied moral agency to the characters in a reported scenario. He seems to be saying that, if people don’t understand what they feel and consciously control how they act, there must be something immeasurable at work. If there’s a form of logic at work in that argument, I can’t find it.

As interesting as debating individual X-phi positions may be, the larger question remains: can philosophy be practiced experimentally? I don’t know about you, but I always thought that “philosophy” was an essentially rational approach, primarily to ontological and epistemological questions. There is no philosophy called “science,” nor is there a science called “philosophy,” but there is a “philosophy of science.” That sort of thing.

Philosophy may not be science, but of course philosophy is informed by science. There isn’t a cadre of philosophers out there working through the moral implications of the attributes of Zeus, for example. Most of us, including many philosophers, have moved beyond most superstitious religions, as well as geocentrism, Cartesian dualism, and most other forms of vitalism.

Yet, in itself, philosophy is a distinct field, with its own methodologies and traditional areas of investigation. When it adopts the methods of science, it ceases to be philosophy and becomes science.

To continue to call it “philosophy” demonstrates less descriptive accuracy than it does an unseemly desire to get on the boat before it sails. I don’t think that I’m being unduly harsh here. It takes only a cursory examination of the X-phi webpage to detect a tone of fervent “me too!” about the rush to embrace more or less empirical methods. It’s hard to take any other view of a group that claims proudly that  “experimental philosophers actually go out and run systematic experiments aimed at understanding how people ordinarily think about the issues at the foundation of the philosophical discussion.”

Imagine that — they “actually go out and run systematic experiments”! (My exclamation.) Why, they must be as cool as real scientists! (My exclamation.) Want to play? Just click on the link “Participate in Ongoing X-phi  Studies!” (Their exclamation.)

Clicking on the “Areas of Research” link takes you to a list of published articles, a few of them almost a decade old. It’s as if the X-phiers did some retroactive data mining: invent a discipline, then go back in time to see whose work in other areas you can claim as really belonging to your new specialty.

The research targets in the abstracts of some of these older articles are indistinguishable from other work in their original areas of cognitive psychology, and once again we are left with the question, “What’s new here, except a name change?”

Stanford philosophy professor Ken Taylor, as cited in Menconi’s article,  mostly agrees:

The results are interesting, but I regard most of them as first steps—grist for the harder thinking and theorizing still to come. I think most experimental philosophy results are under-theorized and philosophically under-interrogated. Most of the creativity goes into designing experiments. To make something philosophical out of them is a harder task.

Indeed. And to make philosophy cool by merging it with psychology is pretty much destined to leave you with, well, psychology.

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