No, it’s not an oxymoron: philosophers have discovered the virtue of experimentation.
Now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. The newborn movement (“x-phi” to its younger practitioners) has come trailing blogs of glory, not to mention Web sites, special journal issues and panels at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. At the University of California at San Diego and the University of Arizona, students and faculty members have set up what they call Experimental Philosophy Laboratories, while Indiana University now specializes with its Experimental Epistemology Laboratory. Neurology has been enlisted, too. More and more, you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what’s going on when people contemplate moral quandaries. (Which decisions seem to arise from cool calculation? Which decisions seem to involve amygdala-associated emotion?) In online discussion groups, grad students confer about which philosophy programs are “experimentally friendly” the way, in the 1970s, they might have conferred about which programs were welcoming toward homosexuals, or Heideggerians. Oh, and earlier this fall, a music video of an “Experimental Philosophy Anthem” was posted on YouTube. It shows an armchair being torched.
I can’t help but think that experimental philosophy is a very good thing. Every intellectual field should employ a diversity of methods, from thought puzzles to fMRI machines. But I think Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton, is right to point out that x-phi isn’t going to solve most philosophical problems. It might help us sharpen our intuitions, but it isn’t going to provide intellectual closure:
You can conduct more research to try to clarify matters, but you’re left having to interpret the findings; they don’t interpret themselves. There always comes a point where the clipboards and questionnaires and M.R.I. scans have to be put aside. To sort things out, it seems, another powerful instrument is needed. Let’s see — there’s one in the corner, over there. The springs are sagging a bit, and the cushions are worn, but never mind. That armchair will do nicely.
The problem, of course, is that philosophers ask questions that are inherently tough to state in experimental terms. (That’s why they are philosophical questions. How do you test the Tractatus?) A huge part of thinking like a scientist is learning how to generate the right kind of question. If the best philosophical questions are the ones that can be argued about for eternity – we still haven’t resolved Plato’s debates – the best scientific questions are the ones that can answered with single, elegant experiment. It’s great that philosophers are learning how to generate data, but we also shouldn’t pretend that all our questions can be answered in the same way, or even have an answer.
PS. If you’re interested in the long, tangled history of philosophy and psychology – once upon a time, natural philosophy was the only science – I recommend Edward Reed’s From Soul to Mind.