The Frontal Cortex

Experimental Philosophy

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.


  1. #1 Alan
    December 10, 2007

    Philosophers are great at asking questions, but how often do they ask fruitful questions? The so-called “big questions,” such as why are we here, are frequently anthropocentric. Some scientists, like Erwin Schoedinger asked, What is Life? Lynn Margulis asked the same question and came up with some marvelous insights–of science, not philosophy.

    Since when have professional philosophers asked questions that contain testable hypotheses? You have some of the best philosophers, like Dan Dennett, reading philosophy mostly out of a sense of obligation. Given the paucity of progress in the history philosophy over the span of millenia, and given the dramatic progress by scientific inquiry over a few decades, aside from pleasure reading and retracing great thinkers (who were frequently mistaken, such as Descartes), why is the pursuit of philosophy worthwhile? Unless you’ve got gobs of time and the mathematical skills of a Russell, Peano, or a Wittgenstein, why not just pursue scientific inquiry, such as Marc Hauser has done in Moral Minds, a psychology book?

  2. #2 alice
    December 10, 2007

    I agree that philosophy has value in that it teaches us about what great thinkers have thought and also that they have thought incorrectly.

    But isn’t it also a way to see how science affects societal thinking? For example, Newton’s discoveries gave rise to the enlightenment thinkers.In fact the enlightenment thinkers may have paved the way to general acceptance of scientific priciples. They also had a little to do with the way we govern ourselves.

    Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers are asking questions about consciousness. Others are discussing the ramifications and pitfalls of Darwinian thinking.

    I guess I think we need these guys and if history shows us anything they are likely to remain.

  3. #3 peggy
    December 11, 2007

    To Alan: I understand your lack of regard for professional philosophy, but I hope it does not extend to philosophy itself. Progress may not be the best yardstick for measuring philosophy’s value, and in any comparison of this sort with science, the decks are stacked against philosophy from the start. Philosophers over time have been tempted to give their discipline more credibility by turning it into a more scientific pursuit, and it seems to me that the results have generally been disastrous. At its best, the study of philosophy can teach us to construct a good argument, shoot holes in a flawed one, understand abstract relationships, read a text, think critically about it, etc. Obviously, this skill can be learned studying other subject matter, and is also transferrable from the study of philosophy to the study or practice of other things.
    I must confess that in another life I was a graduate student in philosophy. I grew to despise “academic philosophy” and left graduate school. Since then, I have tempered my views somewhat. I did not like the community of philosophers, and I think the community did not much like me. It is a self-selecting community, like all communities, and can look pretty strange, pretty hostile and pretty petty from the outside. It may look like philosophy does not always ask fruitful questions, but that doesn’t mean it never does. Philosophy exists in and is part of the history of ideas, and for that reason alone is worth studying. I think it was Whitehead who said that all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, and that pretty much sums it up. But what a long and fascinating footnote to a fascinating body of work.

  4. #4 alice
    December 11, 2007

    Peggy, I’d like to spend about three hours discussing this with you.

    For about the last ten years I’ve been reading philosophy “for fun”. I started out with the survey books like “The Story of Philosophy” and “Sophie’s World” and then began to read the actual writings of these thinkers.

    Still, for me, William James is the most readable and understandable.

    I just finished Hume’s “Concerning Human Understanding”. And through that reading I learned that Hume had a beef with Locke. The argument, I’m sure was abstruse in the extreme and probably centered around the existence (or lack thereof)of God.

    Even after all of this reading, I find myself wondering things like “what the heck is this all about?” And “why is this important?” But something inside me tells me that it is important.

    It is personally important to me that I have actually read these books and have understood at least a little of the points being made and it is important to me that I am a bit conversant with this dialogue which has been going on for all these years about who we are, what we can know, and perhaps how we know.

    As for hostility amongst philosophers. I have seen that. One which comes to mind is Rorty. He protects his stand on things like a warrior, but he is merely protecting the ether of thought.


    Has anyone written a book on the psychology of philosophy?

  5. #5 Alan
    December 12, 2007

    Responses to Alice and Peggy follow below.
    To Alice: Thanks for your follow up to my post. My intention was not to generalize to broadly about ther merit per se of philosophical inquiry, or the role that such inquiry has played over Western history. My skepticism is more directed toward the legitimacy of applying scientific methods to traditionally philosophical questions. If the agenda is to find pathways between the two cultures, as framed by C.P. Snow, then it’s a laudable goal, but it shouldn’t be a forced agenda.
    I think Marc Hauser and Steven Pinker, for example, who do a great job with their popular works on psychology. The legendary researcher Antonio Damasio has written two books with philosopher’s names in the title, but they’re not philosophy books. Aside from the historical and intellectual works of say, William James, David Hume, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and of course, Dewey, Whitehead, Russell, (and a little Santayana for pleasure reading), I’m not seeing much of value in modern philosophy in terms of (1) generating new insights and perspectives into the human condition, and (2) informing our worldviews in ways that bring us together as a species.
    To Peggy: Thanks for your candor and insight. At root, I think a grand philosophical quest, posed in terms of the painter Gauguin, “D’ou venons nous; ou allons-nous” in one of his Tahitian works (or something like that; pardon my French), is worthwhile in itself as an exercise in self-reflection, and not merely as a step toward some conception of “progress.” While progress can be seen as having a factual basis in some areas. Having no formal training in philosophy myself, I can only say that your comments have confirmed my general impressions of academic philosophy, and I think our views are rather congruent on that score. To get very much to the point, how much of a human life should be devoted to re-evaluating questions that lead to intellectual dead ends? I am admittedly suspicious of the push for humanities departments to get a new lease on life (and funding) by diversifying into scientific inquiry. But should they be doing this? Isn’t there a scary risk of dumbing down science, conflating that which should not be conflated? I’m all for the idea of consilience, it is necessary, but we don’t have enough E.O. Wilsons around to help effectuate it. Ending with a quote from Alexandar Pope: “The Memory’s soft Figures melt away. One Science only will one Genius fit; So vast is Art, no narrow Human Wit; Not only bounded to peculiar Arts, But oft in those, confin’d to single Parts.” (On Criticism). Cheers.

  6. #6 Alan
    December 12, 2007

    Apologies for the spelling and punctuation errors on the previous post. Yes, my native language is English!

  7. #7 peggy
    December 12, 2007

    Reply to Alan: I wrote a longer reply but it disappeared before my eyes and I can’t retrieve it. Oh, well. To reiterate just the key points, you said you began reading philosophy for fun and I say good for you. Philosophy should only be read for fun, and academic philosophy takes the fun out of it–at least it did for me.
    With respect to your comment about how much of a human life should be devoted to pondering dead-end questions: Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I think every human heart and mind can agree with that. But perhaps he should have added that the over-examined life is not worth much either.
    The great works of philosophy are great works of literature and offer insights into human psychology. I’m thinking of Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Rousseau, Nietsche, Mill, the early work of Marx, Foucault. I’m forgetting many others. They explore pivotal questions about virtue and vice, honesty, trust, the basis of human society and government, the existence of God, the alienation of labor, the basis of capitalism, the importance of free speech, notions of the self, how we know what we know, and the list goes on. For anyone who has ever wondered about these things, which I hope is just about everyone, they are worth reading for more than just their historic value. They truly can offer some idea of where we come from and where we may be going.

  8. #8 peggy
    December 12, 2007

    To Alice and Alan: My apologies for merging your two posts into one and thinking it was Alan who reads philosophy for fun, when in fact it is Alice.
    I just wanted to add, in response to Alice’s comment about William James, that I too think he’s one of the best. I think it is partly because the clarity of his thought comes through in the clarity of his writing. You get the feeling when you read him that he knows what he thinks because he has taken the time to find out, as Liliane Hellman said of Dash Hammett.
    I remember someone–maybe a philosophy professor–saying that James marks the split between psychology and philosophy. Is it because the philosophical community did not recognize James as one of its own? If that’s true, and I don’t know if it is, then how sad for philosophy.

  9. #9 peggy
    December 12, 2007

    And now for something really fun, here’s the Monty Python Philosophers’ Drinking Song:

    Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
    Who was very rarely stable.

    Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
    Who could think you under the table.

    David Hume could out-consume
    Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, [some versions have ‘Schopenhauer and Hegel’]

    And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
    Who was just as shloshed as Schlegel.

    There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
    ‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
    Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
    On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

    Plato, they say, could stick it away–
    Half a crate of whisky every day.

    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
    Hobbes was fond of his dram,

    And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
    ‘I drink, therefore I am.’

    Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed,
    A lovely little thinker,
    But a bugger when he’s pissed.

  10. #10 alice
    December 13, 2007

    “….James marks the split between psychology and philosophy. Is it because the philosophical community did not recognize James as one of its own? If that’s true, and I don’t know if it is, then how sad for philosophy.”

    Maybe it is because James was a pragmatist first and an epitomologist second.

    As Alan said it may be becoming useless to continue to ask the same old questions over and over, perhaps we need to realize that there are some questions which can never be answered.

    Or as I once heard somewhere, “Just because we are capable of asking a question, doesn’t mean we’re capable of answering it.”

    Which brings me full circle again to Alan’s beginning comment…
    “Philosophers are great at asking questions, but how often do they ask fruitful questions?”

  11. #11 Alan
    December 13, 2007

    To Peggy: The Monty Python song is hilarious! Really like it. I wonder how many would get some of the references. It’s enjoyable communicating with you folks, albeit through blog comments.

    A further thought or two on William James. His Varieties of Religious Experience is a landmark, and a fun read. James counted himself as a “sick soul,” a reference that I personally think he picked up from Epictetus, who styled his a school for sick souls. Today we might say that James suffered from a mood disorder, but the widespread medicalization of human suffering is another issue. In the Will to Believe, James says that maybe we’re like stained glass through which the divine light shines. Compare that idea to neuroscientist Read Montague’s statement: “We are like the ultimate eddy current of flesh and bone holding pattern of body and thought…” (Why Choose this Book, p. 12).

    In “Looking for Spinoza,” Dr. Damasio notes that James, in characterizing Spinoza as having a cheery disposition, got it wrong. Spinoza had to actively work at countering a negative thought with a positive one. (Things most excellent are as difficult as they are rare). This reminds of the approach attributed to the Indian Patanjali, if you are familiar with the tradition. So, Peggy, what you say, sounds spot on. The unexamined life may not be worth living per Socrates, but introspection can be taken to excess. I highly recommend the book by psychologist Jonathan Haidt at UVA, entitled, The Happiness Hypothethis, which examines ancient wisdom in light of modern psychology. Haidt started out as a philosophy student, but got turned off, and switched to psychology. I won’t spoil the enjoyment by giving away his conclusions. In general, for a link to some great thinkers and books, check out, and keep posting! Cheers.

  12. #12 alice
    December 13, 2007


  13. #13 Alan
    December 13, 2007

    To Alice: It is said that Isaiah Berlin gave up pursuing philosophy because he met Ludwig Wittgenstein, and brilliant though Berlin was, he knew he could never out-cogitate Wittgenstein. Russell wrote the introduction to the Tractatus. In that work, Wittgenstein concluded as follows:

    “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

    I guess this also brings us 360 degrees to my original assertion concerning the general fruitfulness of modern philosophical inquiry. The philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend spent much of his career actively arguing for the abolition of his field. I find it interesting that Feyerabend, also an Austrian, was set up to study under Wittgenstein, but before he could travel to England, Wittgenstein had passed away. Instead, Feyerabend studied with another Austrian, one Karl Popper, whose claim to fame was his emphasis that empirical statements have to be falsifiable. This gets to the crux of my viewpoint: philosophical questions are not falsifiable, though I am open to any accounts of how this assertion may be mistaken.

  14. #14 peggy
    December 13, 2007

    To Alan and Alice,
    It’s great fun exchanging ideas with you. If we all lived in the same city, we could get together at our local pub and sing the philosophers’ song in unison and probably off tune. At last call, we could end on a Wittgensteinian note, agreeing that “what we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t hum it either” (or something along those lines).
    Re Alan’s “Feyerabend studied with another Austrian, one Karl Popper, whose claim to fame was his emphasis that empirical statements have to be falsifiable. This gets to the crux of my viewpoint: philosophical questions are not falsifiable…”
    In fact, I think your assertion is not mistaken at all. Philosophy is not the same thing as scientific inquiry, and only lapses into pseudo-science and babble when it pretends otherwise. But there is such a thing as philosophical inquiry, and it would be interesting to try and define it. This endeavor could even involve developing a sort of “psychology of philosophy,” as Alice mentioned in a much earlier post. In that same post, she also spoke of Richard Rorty (the late Richard Rorty, as I believe he died recently). He was actually important to me when I was in graduate school because he at least tried to bridge the then (and perhaps still) huge abyss between the Anglo-American, analytic school and the Continental tradition. As someone who had to beg and plead to be allowed to take graduate classes in other departments so that I could study this tradition, I appreciated that Rorty, a professor at one of the most prestigious schools in the nation, was willing to go out on this limb.
    Thanks for the tip on the Happiness Hypothesis. I can’t wait to read it!

  15. #15 alice
    December 13, 2007

    I think Popper would agree with you that philosophical problems are not falsifiable. In fact he was trying to draw a line, which he called demarcation, between statements of the empirical kind and all other statements

    And he was a philosopher…a useful one at that!

    I went back and read the original article and I am wondering what the philosophy students were actually experimenting about. One of the examples cited was that they watched people’s reactions to moral quandries on an MRI.It seems that testing these reactions would be more in line with neuroscience. Unless of course they were trying to prove that humans are moral, but that would be psychology wouldn’t it?

    The lines do blurr.

    I wonder if results in any of the social sciences are falsifiable. I once read someone disputing Cosmides and Tooby’s theories in evolutionary psychology as being un-falsifiable.

    But then Popper says this….

    “I realize that such myths may be developed and become testable; that historically speaking all-or nearly all- scientific theories originate from myths and that a myth may contain important anticipations of scientiic theories.”

    and maybe Proust was a neuroscientist.

  16. #16 peggy
    December 14, 2007

    I reread the article as well, and have come away not confused, exactly, but wondering what the fuss is about. The experiment says something about how people associate intentionality with blameworthyness, which may be true but also may in some cases be wrong or at least beside the point. Maybe intentionality, that great Catholic notion, doesn’t always matter in assessing whether or not something is good or bad. A psychiatrist once said that to me, and it came as a great (and liberating) shock! It seems to me that the examples used in the article (the polluting CEO and the guy buying the megadrink) really reveal more about how mistakenly or at least arbitrarily ascribe intentionality and hence blame.
    Maybe it is useful to be able to say, when philosophizing, that “most people think x” and then back it up with the results of your clipboard inquiry, but it sounds like just one more attempt to add interest to the study of philosophy, not to mention a veneer of scientific respectability. In any case, I would like someone to tell me how our thinking on any matter is advanced by actually validating the truth of the statement “most people think x” with a clipboard and a counter, in the same way we might validate the statement “most geese are white.” So what? The author of the article, at least, is right to say that in the end one still has to interpret the results. It is what one does with them that may or may not be interesting. It might be philosophy, but it might be something else.

    I tend to side with Nietsche, who recommended doing philosophy with a hammer. Way better than a clipboard, a stop-watch or even an armchair.

  17. #17 alice
    December 14, 2007

    speaking of intentionality… there is a guy named Daniel Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard,(are you impressed?) who posits the theory that the conscious will is an illusion and feeling created by the mind that helps us remember our authorship of the things our minds and bodies do.
    In his final page in “The Illusion of Conscious Will” he writes:

    “The fact is, it seems to each of us that we have a conscious will. It seems we have selves. It seems we have minds. It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do. Although it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call this an illusion, it is a mistake to conclude that the illusory is trivial……..It is only with the feeling of conscious will that we begin to solve the problems of who we are as individuals, of discerning what we can and cannot do and of judging ourselves morally right or wrong for what we have done.

    My daughter brought this little mind bender home from her first year at college. “Here read this Mom!”

    Check out his website

  18. #18 peggy
    December 15, 2007

    Wow! Illusory but not trivial, and doesn’t get us off the hook as far as responsibility for our actions. In addition to making a lot of sense, I like the focus on judging ourselves for our own actions rather than judging actions per se or judging the actions of a hypothetical CEO or a hypothetical Starbuck’s customer.

  19. #19 Alan
    December 15, 2007

    Wegner also writes that “[a]lthough the experience of conscious will is not evidence of mental causation, it does signal personal authorship of action to the individual and so influences both the sense of achievement and the acceptance of moral responsibility.”

    Peggy wrote earlier: “Maybe it is useful to be able to say, when philosophizing, that “most people think x” and then back it up with the results of your clipboard inquiry, but it sounds like just one more attempt to add interest to the study of philosophy, not to mention a veneer of scientific respectability.” I agree. That would may be a subtle (or not so) form of advocating for a pet hypothesis. And without double blind controls, errors of confirmation bias are bound to creep in.

  20. #20 alice
    December 17, 2007

    as for the “most people think” phrase, I can’t recall reading it much in philosophical writing. In fact it may be taboo. Philosophy doesn’t care what most people think (but I may be wrong about this).

    As for “advocating for your pet hypothesis” that would be too blatant a logical fallacy to ever get past the scrutiny of others.

    It seems to me that philosophy is in the business of theorizing about abstractions and that the moment you begin to study the responses of real live human beings you have crossed over into the study of psychology.

    But even then, as mentioned in the article, all the data in the world does not hold valid conclusions. That data needs to be interpreted.

    And there lies the rub.

    Which brings me back to my previous comment about the falsifiability of the social sciences.

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