Want to see the men critique experimental philosophy?

If so, you may be interested in the NY Times Room for Debate on X-phi’s new take on old problems.

Regular readers will know we have a negative attitude toward things that contribute to the image of philosophy as a men’s preserve.  However, having suffered the slings and arrows of retrograde philosophers (as he sees them), I confess I was mollified by Brian Leiter’s remark:

 The idea that philosophical work on these topics could proceed independently of what is now called “cognitive science” — an idea some retrograde philosophers still embrace — is unfortunate. By the same token, cognitive science needs philosophy, to clarify its findings and frame their import.

And then made the mistake of reading Tim Maudlin (“All of reality is the subject matter of philosophy, so any methods that help reveal how things are can be relevant to some philosophical research.”) and Timothy Williamson:

There are philosophy-hating philosophers who would like to replace the traditional methodology of philosophy, with their stress on a combination of abstract reasoning and particular examples, by something more like imitation psychology. Without even properly defining what it is they are attacking, they use experimental results in a selective and unscientific spirit to try to discredit the traditional methodology.

In other cases experimentalists draw lessons for morality from the results of brain scans in comically naive ways, without realizing how many philosophical assumptions they are uncritically relying on in their inferences — precisely because they neglect traditional philosophical skills in making distinctions and assessing arguments.

(The experimentalists are experimental philosophers, I believe.)  Now I have a headache and am feeling cross.   Philosophers can easily look bad when ask in effect to make general remarks about philosophy, and being reminded of that doesn’t make the exclusion of women any easier to take.

It’s easy to read Williamson as reacting defensively to a sense of being under attack.  I think that would be a mistake.  Or at least one might consider another explanation:  what we see is a sense that fueled much of the British Raj’s approach to Indians; namely, one simply has to put the natives right.  It is one’s duty to inform them of how things should be done. 

The discussion is based around the question of whether experimental philosophy can help embattled philosophy departments.   It is interesting that in setting the debate up, the NY Times illustrates a problem that may well be one of phiosophy’s worse:  that it appears elitist and exclusionary.

Finally, it would be lovely to find Williamson has defended his remarks about philosohers and brain scans.  He employs the cliches for dismissing this work, much of them based on an ignorance of the real power and problems of such techniques; it would be much harder to argue for his conclusions, and it would be fun to see him give it a go.

15 thoughts on “Want to see the men critique experimental philosophy?

  1. I’m not quite clear on what the complaint is here: neither Williamson or Maudlin are making claims that are hostile to experimental philosophy or cognitive science per se.
    Williamson seems to be criticizing bad instances of experimental philosophy (he is not shy at calling out bad philosophy in the traditional methodology either) but calling for care in interpreting the findings, which seems to me to be reasonable.
    The comparison to imperialism seems undue.

  2. Anon, thanks for the question. I think I left out some connections. The complaint really is that the panel is exclusively men. The next idea is that that is going to be worse if they mess up. I think both Maudlin and Williamson do that. Williamson maintains that either experimental philosophy is just doing what the chaps do anyway OR it is silly and/or hostile trash. In any case, disciplines have their own methodologies and these should not change!

    I think that’s pretty retrograde. Maudlin similarly fails to see that there might be any change in methodology that might be legitimate.

    These are extremely conservative rehashings of old hat ideas. There’s an irony in have people on the panel who seem unable to imagine that philosophy has room for genuinely new approaches. IMHO, of course.

  3. I’m also really sick of reading exclusively male commentary on these sorts of debates. But I also am troubled by the solution that experimental philosophers see in these surveys of people’s intuitions. While I fully agree that we need to question whether the intuitions of white, male, highly educated people (who happen to be philosophers) are really the best place to start our theorizing, I’m not convinced that the answer lies in conducting “scientific” surveys of people’s intuitions. I think the interesting and important work is being done by feminists like Sally Haslanger (and others) who demonstrate that our intutions and biases are not simply random. It seems to me that philosophy will suffer as long as we ignore (or deem “unphilosphical”) the systemic sources of “bias.”

  4. I don’t understand what your objection to the *content* of the Williamson piece is. It is absolutely true that some philosophers derive “comically naive” conclusions about morality from neuroscience. In “The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience,” which was just selected for the Philosopher’s Annual, Selim Berker eviscerates the argument by Joshua Greene and Peter Singer that the results of fMRI scans give us reason to trust the conclusions of “consequentalist” reasoning over “deontological” reasoning. Perhaps Williamson had Berker’s piece in mind when he wrote that.

  5. anon grad student: I certainly wouldn’t want to say that no philosophers drew silly conclusions from fMRI experiments, though Berker’s opening comments seem to me problematic. That is, he seems to query whether one can get normative conclusions from experimental results; however, if ought does imply can, then there seems to be a pretty straightforward way to get requirements on normative theories from experimental results. (I do know this is a very vexed area.)

    To return to Williamson: his implicit claim is quite general and not estabished by looking at one case.

  6. Berker certainly does not reject (or query) the claim that you can get normative conclusions from experimental results if you make normative assumptions. One reason Berker’s paper is so interesting is that it identifies hidden normative assumptions in Greene’s argument against Kantian moral theory.

    FWIW I want to echo anon grad student. It seems to me you haven’t brought to light any substantive problem with Williamson’s contribution. Presumably, one can argue against a new approach without being “conservative” or “retrograde” in any objectionable way.

  7. I thought the qualification “if you make normative assumptions” was implicit in my characterization of Berker’s thought.

  8. Anon, Ha Ha, I guess. Perhaps you’d care to explain

    I expect the following line of argumentation is familiar to you, but here goes anyway. Quite separate from the work on ordinary vs philosophical intuitions, work in experimental philosophy may take very seriously the idea that we have conceptions of ourselves that simply do not withstand empirical scrutiny. That that is the case is a major theme in recent work coming from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. One very recent comment to this effect is the following from The Invisible Gorilla:

    We all believe that we are capable of seeing what’s in front of us, of accurately remembering important events from our past, of understanding the limits of our knowledge, of properly determining cause and effect. But these intuitive beliefs are often mistaken ones that mask critically important limitations on our cognitive abilities. . . . As we go through life, we often act as though we know how our minds work and why we behave the way we do. It is surprising how often we really have no clue. (Chabris & Simons 2010)

    Normative theories that cannot apply to human beings run into a particular kind of problem; in effect, we have empirical ground for rejecting them if they posit traits or capabilities humans do not have or capacities that do not have the kind of outcome the theories presuppose. It’s one reason for resisting the idea that you can’t get normative conclusions from empirical work. Mind you, you need the view that theories about human right action have to be realizable by human beings, but that doesn’t seem to be the kind of moral normativity meant.

    Thus, some forms of virtue theory are in trouble if human beings do not have character traits, to take a reasonably well discussed case.

  9. What does Berker say that is problematic? He does not claim that you can’t draw normative conclusions from empirical results in combination with normative assumptions. If that’s how you read him…interpretation fail! That’s, ahem, a “feminist philosophy fail” inasmuch as the Hauser fiasco is an “evolutionary psychology fail.”

    The quote from Chabris and Simons seems to express an interesting and important idea. But it would take some work to explain exactly what the upshot is for specific philosophical projects that are typically pursued from the armchair. For example, precisely what philosophical beliefs are challenged by findings that our memory about the past is much less accurate than we thought?

    One important finding in x-phi is that our intuitions are skewed by factors not predict from the armchair. So, for example, it turns out that intuitions about whether “Truetemp” has knowledge (Lehrer’s counterexample to reliabilism) vary depending on whether you give people an example of deliberative knowledge first (as Lehrer does in his original paper!). However, this kind of role for x-phi is extremely modest (and as a matter of fact a role that Williamson concedes x-phi may occupy, perhaps elsewhere, but one place is in his reply to Kornblith’s commentary on his recent book, in Analysis).

    I sure do agree that moral theories are constrained by facts about human capacities, though I would insist that the extent to which they are is a substantive normative issue. The only sense in which ‘ought implies can’ is trivially true, if it all, is when ‘can’ is read as bare metaphysical possibility. Are there any good such empirical critiques of moral theory? I don’t happen to be moved by the situationist critique of virtue ethics (although I wouldn’t say it is “comically naive”). One difficulty it seems to me is that it may involve overgeneralization: context may explain most of the variance in experimental settings without IN GENERAL overwhelming the variance due to character. Especially when the experiments in question are designed to test the limits of character-driven behavior.

    However, returning to the Williamson piece, remember that the topic of the NYT collection is experimental philosophy, not naturalistic philosophy in general. The situationist critique is driven by work not on people’s intuitions about thought experiments, but on work in social psychology on human behavior. So, to skip to the point, someone could be quite moved by the situationist critique, think that Chabris and Simons capture something important about what philosophers must be sensitive to, even be a die-hard Quinean naturalist, and yet think that x-phi is misguided.

  10. Anon, I think there has been some confusion, due to my not getting at first that you are not anon grad student. So I didn’t mean at all to question your interpretation of Berker, and it is so interpreted that I have at least worries about him.

    I think Shaun Nichols has really interesting arguments about what is possible for human beings that he thinks at least strongly tell against some forms of Kantian ethics. I have to confess that ethics is not my area, just that of most of my friends, it seems. So my retention is faulty and though I expect Shaun’s work is out, I’m not sure that it is.

    But philosophy of mind is more my field, and I think the implications of work summarized by Chabris and Simons are profound. What is becoming more and more clear is that vision, memory and a lot more did not evolve to answer particularly human interests in true narratives. But just about everyone writing on vision in philosophy looks at vision in terms of truth-gathering. Philosophy’s understanding of vision is robustly epistemological. Further, philosophy of mind is very marked by an interest in our having truth-assessable inner representations.

    If that tension between evolutionary constraints and human interests is genuine, one should see discrepancies popping up. And they do. For example, as Noe has pointed out, our perceptual reports often outstrip what our eyes can actually take up – not (just) because they add in inferred descriptions but because they have us taking in a detailed spread in a unified experience that is more than we can in fact get. What this means is that there’s a general mistake being made when philosophers think that the content of supposed inner visual experience can be read off of true perceptual reports. It also has the interesting implication that the typical representationalist’s account of “I see an apple” doesn’t give us a correct account of what makes “I see an apple in a bowl on the table by the window” true. Or so I argue. A lot in our reports of the outputs of our senses is the result of our compensating for their limitations.

    Unfortunately, in this forum I’m hardly comfortable citing myself. I think Noe’s work is enough, though, for one to get the sense of the challenges empirical studies can show. I think perhaps some people are hesitant about his arguments, but it is very early days and the change that may be made is pretty large.

    Another: I think Machery’s work on concepts – though I disagree with some of it at fairly foundational levels – really raises very profound questions about what a theory of concepts should be.

  11. This is interesting–truly–but I must say this discussion is a little too unfocused for my tastes.

    You have been defending naturalistic philosophy of mind. But no one on this thread or in the NYT articles criticized naturalistic philosophy of mind. Not even Williamson has the gall. (Quite the opposite: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/reclaiming-the-imagination/) Many of us wondered just what you objected to (besides the tone) in Williamson’s piece, in which he takes a shot at x-phi. X-phi is not naturalistic philosophy of mind, so we’re still waiting for a response.

    While we’re at it, let’s get clear about Berker. You say in this last post that you don’t question my interpretation of Berker but that you have worries about him. The problem is that the grounds you offered for worrying seem to rest on a confusion about the article. Empirical work can have normative implications via the ‘ought implies can’ principle, true enough. However, Berker is concerned with a completely different kind of naturalistic argument–that brain scans can tell us which judgments are trustworthy and which aren’t.

  12. It can be difficult to have a productive philosophical conversation on the net.

    About Berker: I expressed a worry about a general principle he states at the beginning of the article; I didn’t intend my grounds for the worries to be taken as criticism of the article itself. I might have been clearer about this in my comment to anon grad student.

    About naturalistic philosohy of mind: I’m not sure what you mean. Noe and Machery count as experimental philosophers and so perhaps we should look again at Williamson’s comment that some of the experimental philosophers are just doing what the chaps have always done. But presumably he thinks that just involves using the discipline’s own methodology, which he characterizes in this context:

    Philosophy has most to contribute to the pursuit of truth by refining its own distinctive methods, not by imitating other disciplines. Philosophers are not needed as amateur experimentalists or writers of pop science. We do more to help through our skill in logic, in imagining new possibilities and questions, in organizing systematic abstract theories, making distinctions and the like.

    Williamson has given us a false dichotomy; what we are seeing is the entry into philosophy of new concepts from the experimental sciences and the development of new theories as a result. Noe seems to me a good case here; Mark Johnson is an earlier example. Of course there are others. The idea is that an empirical concept gets a central place in a philosophical account of perception, action, etc, where one doesn’t yet know where it will end.

    I do think his comments about imagination are contentious btw. We do tend to be good at thinking of merely possibly cases of, e.g., remembering, but it is less clear what that tells us about human memory. That’s a contentious statement also, of course.

    I’d also argue that there are new methodologies, but the identity of a methodology is difficult.

  13. What I find offensive is the idea that the analytic tradition somehow belongs to white men. This coupled with the notion that identity is primary, innate, rather than a social construct along with the transformation of reason into intuitions take one of the most significant tools for social transformation toward an egalitarian society out of the hands of the people.

    What is more elitist? The philosopher using publicly accessible reason from his armchair, or the publicly funded experimental philosopher who relies on grant money and institutional support in order to survey the population and discover philosophy?

  14. DL, I’m not sure I understand you, but on looking at the two alternatives you pose at the end, I think they both look what’s called “elitist”.

    I think you might be objecting in general to academic philosophy. I’m sympathetic, at least as far as a great deal of it goes. I’m not sure, though, that the intuitions experimentalists study provide much wisdom or guidance either.

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