If William James were alive today, I’m pretty sure that he’d be an experimental philosopher. (He’d also be a cognitive psychologist, a public intellectual in the mold of Richard Rorty and a damn fine essayist, filling the back pages of the New Yorker and New York Review of Books with incisive articles on everything from poetry to public affairs.*) But back to experimental philosophy, or x-phi…Here’s how Kwame Anthony Appiah summarized the movement last year in the Times:
It’s part of a recent movement known as “experimental philosophy,” which has rudely challenged the way professional philosophers like to think of themselves. Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so. The professional bailiwick we’ve staked out is the empyrean of pure thought. Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect.
But 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.
Perhaps the best known practitioner of x-phi is Joshua Greene, a Princeton philosopher by training whose done some excellent work on the cortical anatomy of morality. (Short summary: we’re less rational than we like to imagine.) But not all experimental philosophers rely on brain scanners. Most x-phi experiments consist of asking people questions. Over at Mind Matters, the website I curate for Scientific American, Joshua Knobe, of UNC-Chapel Hill, summarized some recent work on how people think about consciousness:
In one recent study, experimental philosophers Jesse Prinz of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and I looked at intuitions about the application of psychological concepts to organizations composed of whole groups of people. To take one example, consider Microsoft Corporation. One might say that Microsoft “intends to adopt a new sales strategy” or that it “believes Google is one of its main competitors.” In sentences such as these, people seem to be taking certain psychological concepts and applying them to a whole corporation.
But which psychological concepts are people willing to use in this way? The study revealed an interesting asymmetry. Subjects were happy to apply concepts that did not attribute any feeling or experience. For example, they indicated that it would be acceptable to use sentences such as:
Acme Corporation believes that its profit margin will soon increase.
Acme Corporation intends to release a new product this January.
Acme Corporation wants to change its corporate image.
But they balked at all of the sentences that attributed feelings or subjective experiences to corporations:
Acme Corporation is now experiencing great joy.
Acme Corporation is getting depressed.
Acme Corporation is experiencing a sudden urge to pursue Internet advertising.
These results seem to indicate that people are willing to apply some psychological concepts to corporations but that they are not willing to suppose that corporations might be capable of phenomenal consciousness.
A recent study by Harvard University psychologists Heather Gray, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner looked at people’s intuitions about which kinds of mental states God could have. By now, you have probably guessed the result. People were content to say that God could have psychological properties such as thought, memory or planning. But they did not think God could have states that involved feelings or experiences, such as pleasure, pain or fear.
The basic point, I think, is that the human mind naturally parses abstract entities into various categories and gradations of consciousness. The end result is that God and Google share a similar set of psychological attributes. I do wonder, though, if different religions might have think differently about God. I’m pretty sure that the God of the Old Testament experienced some (mostly negative) emotions. See Jack Miles’ magisterial God: A Biography for more.
Update: For a really lucid introduction to x-phi (and why it’s not just a branch of psychology), see here.
*Back in the day, James wrote gorgeous appreciations of Whitman and Emerson and penned some fiery anti-war rhetoric.