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Putting Philosophy to the Test

A new breed of thinkers takes the search for wisdom to the street.

Alex Nabaum

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By David Menconi

Josh Knobe has comfortable seating in his philosophy department office at Yale University—a small couch somewhere between a love seat and a sofa in size. It is most decidedly not, however, an armchair, which might seem a trivial distinction. But in Knobe's world, one's position on armchairs can be a matter of grave import.

"Yeah, it's a couch rather than an armchair," says Knobe, '96. "So there's room for two, and that's important. You don't just sit there alone and think about something. You sit and talk to someone about it."

For the past century or so, philosophy has primarily entailed solitary ruminations to puzzle out deep truths about the nature of human existence—questions about reason, knowledge, values, free will. Philosophy can seem like a lonely ivory-tower vigil, but the old school holds that sitting and thinking is still the best way to do it. As one prominent philosopher put it a few years back, "If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can."

But Knobe is one of the leading lights of a new field called experimental philosophy, or "x-phi" for short. These scholars use the tools of social science—they devise questionnaires, go out and conduct surveys, gather data—and then try to figure out what philosophical truths they reveal. At times, experimental philosophy looks no different than social psychology. (It is perhaps telling that Knobe has office space in both the philosophy and psychology departments at Yale.) It's a lot more likely than conventional philosophy to be a collaborative effort, too. When experimental philosophers disagree over something, Knobe says, the default response is for them to try to work together.

In many ways, Knobe is the closest thing experimental philosophy has to a rock star. Since last year, he's been an essay contributor to the New York Times. An admirer from Australia maintains a Joshua Knobe fan page on Facebook. And a phenomenon bears his name: The Knobe Effect, derived from an experiment of his, is frequently cited to explain the effectiveness of negative political advertising.

Conducted in 2003, the experiment examined people's perception of intentionality based on their opinions about two scenarios. In the first scenario, a business executive is told that a new product will increase profits but harm the environment. He responds that he doesn't care about the environment, just profits. The program is implemented, profits go up and the environment suffers. When asked if the executive intentionally harmed the environment, 82 percent of respondents answered yes.

Scenario No. 2 is the same except for one key detail: The word "hurt" is replaced with "help." Again, the executive says he doesn't care about the environment. The program goes on, profits rise, and this time the environment benefits. But when asked if the executive intentionally helped the environment, only 23 percent of respondents said yes. So the Knobe Effect holds that people are more likely to assign blame for things that go wrong than to give credit for things that go right, a gap Knobe has spent the past eight years working to explain.

Why should the results of an action have a bearing on intentionality? And when it comes to questions of character, why do we tend to give more weight to negativity? Why does it sometimes happen that a single misdeed in a lifetime of otherwise exemplary behavior can destroy a reputation? (Think of how one racial slur can get someone branded a racist.)

The human tendency to blame also relates to questions about free will and determinism. The idea that people have free will is integral to Western society, not to mention our criminal justice system; we also believe that people are products of their environment. The concept of a deterministic universe, in which people's actions are inevitable based on past events, seems to contradict that. Asked if blame is possible in a world where every action is predetermined, people almost always say no.

But that's if you ask the question in a purely abstract, hypothetical way. The more detail you add about a situation, the more likely people are to say that guilt and blame are possible or even necessary.

"There are two views of what is going on here," Knobe says. "On the one hand, there's this sense of a fundamental, very scientific way the mind works, but something distorts or biases our understanding of issues. The other view, which is mine, is that it's a mistake to think the mind has purely scientific characteristics we can understand. At a deeper level, the way the mind works, our understanding of these things is morally infused from the beginning. It's not something that's 'distorting,' it's fundamental to what is going on. We are moralizing creatures, through and through."

Knobe admits that he's still no closer than anyone else to definitively answering these questions. Experimental philosophy is more likely to leave things open-ended, which is a strength to its fans and a weakness to its detractors.

"I don't know how deep [the Knobe Effect] is, but it's interesting," says Stanford philosophy professor Ken Taylor, author of the 2003 essay collection Reference and the Rational Mind and co-host of the radio program Philosophy Talk. "Like most stuff about experimental philosophy, I find it intriguing even though I don't know what to make of it. I don't know that experimental philosophy has dug very deep toward an explanation. The results are interesting, but I regard most of them as first steps—grist for the harder thinking and theorizing still to come. I think most experimental philosophy results are under-theorized and philosophically under-interrogated. Most of the creativity goes into designing experiments. To make something philosophical out of them is a harder task."

"Experimental philosophy is hard to define," observes Benoît Monin, an associate professor of psychology and organizational behavior at Stanford. "But it's interdisciplinary and it benefits a lot from philosophers taking findings from psychology and applying a philosophical point of view. Now they're using the methods of psychology to test assumptions from philosophy. They're better able to question and parse out issues of ethics that psychologists don't have the conceptual tools for. There's really been a rebirth, a cadre of young turks who have taken off in philosophy the last 10 years. Josh is a perfect example. He's very versatile and able to engage the psychological literature, but he has the conceptual imperative of a trained philosopher."

An autumn afternoon finds Knobe and 12 graduate students gathered in a Yale classroom over vegetarian and vegan pizzas, in an informal lab setting where they've come to talk about their research and solicit suggestions. Much of the discussion centers on how to word survey questions, with much parsing of specific terminology—such as using "how" questions to make respondents think more concretely, or "why" questions to encourage more abstract reasoning.

Knobe displays a light teaching touch, keeping the discussion easygoing and at times amusing. Kant, Nietzsche and other classics of philosophy are invoked as reference points, but so are the alternative-rock band The Pixies and dialogue from the computer-animated movie Shrek.

One student's philosophical experiment involves a food manufacturing company. She outlines a scenario in which an employee decides to change an ingredient to save money, even though the company's CEO is allergic to the new ingredient. So did the employee intentionally harm the CEO? And if the roles are reversed, would the CEO be responsible for harming the employee? In terms of power, does it make a difference whether the injury comes from above or below? The student and her classmates turn over every word of the scenario description, pondering, among other things, whether the type of food involved (junk or health) might influence responses. After refining her questions, the student will take them out and solicit opinions to see what the results might reveal about people's attitudes toward intentionality.

Not everyone would agree that this can show anything of significance. Stanford philosophy professor Allen Wood has served as a dissertation adviser for some students doing work in experimental philosophy, but he remains very skeptical of it.

"That more people believe one thing over another, I don't think there is anything very deep to be learned that way," he says. "I'm afraid I don't think that experimental philosophy enables you to learn anything you didn't already know about philosophy, because it's very hard to devise experimental tests to verify claims that are philosophically interesting. Experimental philosophers tend to underestimate the difficulty of designing experiments and research programs. It's much easier to 'know' something than to verify it in a scientific manner. You're more likely to just confirm your own philosophical prejudices and presuppositions. I think a lot of it is false, misleading, pointless at best and maybe even harmful."

Knobe knows many of his peers are not enamored of experimental philosophy: that they brush it off as touchy-feely, faddish, politically correct nonsense. Ask non-practitioners of x-phi what kind of philosopher they are and they're likely to sniff, as one Stanford philosophy professor did recently, "A real one."

"There is the sense that a lot of people disapprove," Knobe says. "You know, 'Who are these kids?' 'What are they doing?' It's almost all very young people doing experimental philosophy. It's not something that older, more established philosophers are turning to as a new approach. But over time, it's getting more accepted as part of the philosophical enterprise. I was at Princeton when I first started doing this. I'd go ask people in the park questions, and I think that would not sit well with some: Here's this guy trying to take on philosophical tradition by wandering around a park asking questions. Seems like a thing some punk kid would do. But I'm untroubled by that. There is a sense of schism, which I hope will evaporate over time, just like the distinctions between different fields. My dream is that interdisciplinary fields can work together, intertwined."

An unconventional free spirit, Knobe grew up in Massachusetts. When he was accepted to Stanford for undergraduate studies, he traveled across America on a bicycle, charting a meandering route that took six weeks to complete. Knobe followed a meandering course at Stanford, too, spending one quarter living in a tent in the foothills. He designed his own major he called ethics, which encompassed psych, philosophy and religious studies.

"When I was first going into philosophy in college," he says, "what inspired me was not so much the 20th-century work as the classics—Nietzsche, Plato, Aristotle. They were very interested in questioning how the mind works, using certain kinds of empirical evidence and drawing from history and other cultures to draw an empirical hypothesis of the nature of the mind. So I think x-phi revives a vision of what that could be. It's not new. If anything, it's retro in that it goes back to earlier traditions and is not so concerned with distinguishing itself from other disciplines."

Claims about its origins aside, the current wave of x-phi goes back about a decade. One pioneer of the modern field is Shaun Nichols, '86, now a professor at the University of Arizona. During his student days, Nichols says, it would have been "a ridiculous venture and a mistake professionally" to conduct experiments in philosophy. Nichols began working with x-phi after securing tenure in 1998.

"For me, it was that an enormous amount of work had been done using one particular tool, sitting in an armchair thinking hard about the problem. How much more progress could we make with that one method was unclear to me, whereas it seemed like there was an enormous amount of untapped potential in trying to understand the processes that generate these judgments. It's not so much that the old armchair techniques were bad; we've just been using them for 2,000 years. We might get more insight by trying a new tool. More than anything else, the difference really is in methodology."

Recent years have found Nichols working with Knobe and others on the nature of consciousness, including people's perceptions of the difference between "the brain" and "the mind." But Nichols is best known for his involvement in an early x-phi landmark, an oft-cited 2001 survey studying connections between culture and intuition.

In collaboration with Jonathan Weinberg from Indiana University and Stephen Stich from Rutgers, Nichols described a series of scenarios to college students from the West, East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, then asked whether the people in the scenarios "really knew" something or "only believed" it. One situation describes a woman who has driven a Buick for many years, only to have it stolen and replaced by a Pontiac. A friend of hers knows that she's always driven a Buick, but he doesn't know about the theft and the new Pontiac. His supposition that she drives an American car is accurate even though it's based on outdated information. Does he know she drives an American car, or only believe it?

One-quarter of Western respondents answered that he knew, while three-quarters said he merely believed. By contrast, more than half of East Asian and nearly two-thirds of Indian respondents said that he knew rather than believed. Proportions varied on the study's other scenarios, but in general Asians and Indians were far more likely to respond "really know" than "only believe."

"A lot of traditional philosophy seemed to operate on the assumption that when one figured out a definition of knowledge, you could generalize globally into something universal," Nichols says, reflecting on the experiment. "But that's a hasty conclusion. There are profound cultural differences in what we think of as knowledge versus belief."

Of course, you might get very different results from tweaking the scenario descriptions. Objections to experimental philosophy often focus on its reliance on the methods of social psychology, in which most philosophers are not trained. So the argument goes that it is methodologically bankrupt and has nothing to do with philosophy at all. Last year Timothy Williamson of Oxford University went so far as to call some of experimental philosophy's practitioners "philosophy-hating philosophers" in a New York Times essay.

"One peril for those in philosophy where it borders other sciences is they become envious of the shiny new methods and results of those sciences and anxious for the scientists' approval," Williamson says. "As a result, they tend to imitate the scientists and feel ashamed of the distinctively philosophical methods the scientists have difficulty following. . . . Of course, this danger does not mean that philosophers shouldn't work in borderline or overlap areas. But they will have much more to offer interdisciplinary inquiry if they are willing and able to apply distinctively philosophical methods at a high level."

Because experimental philosophy gets more attention for its front-end experiments than for its back-end philosophizing, that's a legitimate issue that experimental philosophers themselves are quite aware of.

"One thing I do worry about a little is that philosophy has to be what drives the project," Nichols says. "It's a mistake for a grad student to think he can be a psychologist and get hired by a philosophy department. It always has to be at the front of your mind: 'What kind of philosophical point are you making?' Some people think 'none,' that you can't possibly get philosophical points out of experiments. But it's much more professionally acceptable now than it would've been 10 years ago."

For their part, experimental philosophers are not above poking fun at the other side. There is a YouTube video featuring the "X-Phi Anthem." Written and recorded by Knobe's wife, indie-rock singer-songwriter Alina Simone, the song lays out the field's M.O. in stark emotional tones:

Let's take it to the streets

To the parks, to every strip mall parking lot

Let's take it back to the primary source

And find out who we really are


The video shows an armchair slowly going up in flames.

David Menconi is a music critic and feature writer at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.



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