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Experimental Philosophy by Joshua Alexander

Richard Baron puts Experimental Philosophy to the test.

Philosophers are fond of making points by telling stories. Suppose that Bob’s friend Jill has often mentioned her Buick car. Bob concludes that she drives an American car. But unknown to Bob, it was stolen last week and she bought a Pontiac, also an American car. Does Bob know that Jill drives an American car?

Philosophers tell this story because of a long-standing view that if Bob believes something, and it is true, and he has justification for his belief, then he knows it. Here, he believes that Jill drives an American car, and it is true that she does. He also has justification: he has heard her talk about her car, and it is an American car. But there is something fishy going on. Bob is right because he is lucky. If Jill had just bought a Honda, or had not replaced her stolen car at all, he would have been wrong. If he does know, people can get knowledge by being lucky. If he does not know, the idea that knowledge is simply true belief with justification will need to be changed.

Stories like this, about luck and knowledge, were told by Edmund Gettier in 1963, and philosophers have been worrying about so-called ‘Gettier cases’ ever since. But how are we to work out whether Bob really knows that Jill drives an American car? We need to work out that, before we can decide whether true belief with justification always counts as knowledge.

The standard approach is to rely on intuition. Does it strike you that Bob knows? Philosophy professors tend to say that he does not know. That’s their gut feeling. But the fact that most philosophy professors have the same gut feeling doesn’t prove much. They have all been educated in much the same way, and have considered much the same set of technical problems. It must be worth asking people not educated in the same way. Philosophy professors might turn out to be different from the rest of us. Then we would need to stop and think before reaching conclusions based on what they feel.

This is what experimental philosophy sets out to do. Make up stories that pose philosophical questions, and ask people from all sorts of backgrounds for their intuitive reactions. Ask whether Bob knows. It turns out that people from western backgrounds tend to say Bob does not know, but people from east and south Asian backgrounds tend to say that he does know. Philosophers should not assume that everyone has the same intuitions that they do. Nor can they assume that their intuitions are the right ones, and that people who have other intuitions are wrong.

Joshua Alexander surveys this new, and growing, field of experimental philosophy, and gives a spirited defence of its use. According to him, intuitions don’t just suggest possible answers. They provide crucial support for philosophical conclusions, so they had better be right. And the evidence from experiments is that we cannot be sure they are right. People’s answers are too varied, and too sensitive to things that would not influence them if they were simply giving correct answers. For example, intuitions about whether someone in a story has knowledge are sensitive to whether the listener has just been told another story about a clear case of knowledge, or about a clear case of lack of knowledge.

Alexander does a very good job of unnerving us. He does not make quite so good a case that experimental philosophy is the way forward. The main problem is that the interpretation of results is very difficult. When a story includes a main action and a bad side-effect, people tend to say that the side-effect was intended. If the side-effect was good, they tend to say that it was not. Is the difference explained by people making moral judgements? Or do they just think that you would stop and think before incurring a cost, but not bother to weigh up an incidental benefit? Extra surveys, with varied stories, may edge us towards an answer, or they may just give rise to more questions.

One reason why it is hard to know what to conclude from the data is that we do not have an independent understanding of the processes in our minds that lead to our intuitions. We have a good understanding of how our vision can go wrong, of optical illusions, and so on, because we know a fair amount about the mechanism of sight: the eye, the optic nerve and the visual cortex. We don’t have the intuition-forming mechanisms laid out before us in anything like as much detail. If and when we do get the detail, we may get a better idea of what should count as good intuitions – like good eyesight – and of the sources of error.

So the jury is out on whether experimental philosophy will give us great new results. Alexander acknowledges the difficulties, but he is optimistic. My intuition is that it may not give us as much as he hopes.

© Richard Baron 2015

Richard Baron is a philosopher in London. His website is www.rbphilo.com.

Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction, Joshua Alexander, Polity Press, 2012, 160 pages, £15.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-7456-4918-4

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