Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What is experimental philosophy?

Experimental philosophy:

Suppose the chairman of a company has to decide whether to adopt a new program. It would increase profits and help the environment too. “I don’t care at all about helping the environment,” the chairman says. “I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” Would you say that the chairman intended to help the environment?

O.K., same circumstance. Except this time the program would harm the environment. The chairman, who still couldn’t care less about the environment, authorizes the program in order to get those profits. As expected, the bottom line goes up, the environment goes down. Would you say the chairman harmed the environment intentionally?

in one survey, only 23 percent of people said that the chairman in the first situation had intentionally helped the environment. When they had to think about the second situation, though, fully 82 percent thought that the chairman had intentionally harmed the environment. There’s plenty to be said about these interestingly asymmetrical results.
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It’s part of a recent movement known as “experimental philosophy.”

This is pretty interesting. I'm wondering why it's "philosophy" though. Isn't this just experimental psychology, applied to topics of intention and theory of mind? And if you want to do it, wouldn't a psych program be better training for learning how to read fMRI papers and experimental design? But maybe a philosophy degree makes you smarter. (That's how I understood Richard Rorty's great review of Marc Hauser's book on moral psychology.)

Here's a good overview of a variety of work in the field; here are some more thoughts on what "x-phi" is. I suspect it's a thing special to analytic philosophy, which embroiled itself in all sorts of topics that rely heavily on appeals to intuition, but where empiricism might work a bit better. (E.g. any actual improvements in cognitive science should make philosophy of mind less important.)

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