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Experimental Philosophy
December 11, 2007 12:04 AM   Subscribe

The New New Philosophy. "Philosophers are increasingly eager to go out into the world and conduct experiments. But will their results settle any arguments?" [Via Mind Hacks]
posted by homunculus (69 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
But will their results settle any arguments?"

No.
posted by cogneuro at 12:14 AM on December 11, 2007


There are some informative links in the relevant Wikipedia article.
posted by Iridic at 12:26 AM on December 11, 2007


And I second the no.

But "x-phi" (Christ, what a name!) will get philosophers out of the house a bit and perhaps convince college appropriations boards to sluice a little more money the liberal arts' way. (Whether either of those things are particularly desirable is debatable. Time to take a poll, I guess.)
posted by Iridic at 12:30 AM on December 11, 2007


Of course they will. A good example of experimental philosophy is Moral Minds, by Marc Hauser. This one isn't trying to settle any arguments but rather define questions that can be more thoroughly considered, while summing up what has already been said.

Traditions outside one's own often use methods which can provide insight on things we can't answer within our own discipline. For example, Literary studies struggle with reader response-- there are certain questions which we can't answer unless we know more about how the mind processes language and stories. These answers can't come from clever textual analysis; they have to come from experimentation.

Some of our questions about readers will never be answered-- because individuals always vary. But there are some commonalities that are worth exploring. We can learn about those commonalities by conducting empirical testing-- language acquisition, how the eye scans text on the page, and even about cognitive patterns which we use to understand characters, plot, and endings.

I'm currently starting to research the genre of moral dilemmas. These are often viewed as useful diagnostics for moral systems-- if your moral system permits lots of dilemmas, it's a bad system. Hauser asks a different but equally interesting question-- how do humans interpret and understand situations and their moral components?

The answer to that question isn't going to give us any answers on how to live, but by knowing more about how we already live, we can do a better job of refining the way we think about morality.
posted by honest knave at 12:34 AM on December 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


Note: I'm less convinced that we can "do philosophy with clipboards and questionnaires" than I am that we can inform it with more fundamental psychological research. Not all experiments are created equal.
posted by honest knave at 12:42 AM on December 11, 2007


I don't buy the example given in the article. If we're arguing about what people mean when they use the term "intentional" are we really having a philosophical discussion? It seems a direct question, with a direct answer, and naturally "philosophers" are using tools of the social sciences to answer it, because it's really a psychological question to begin with.

Experimentation IS beneficial to philosophy, neuroscience being the obvious obvious example. But this isn't. "although experiments can illuminate philosophical arguments, they don’t settle them." Only stupid philosophical arguments, I'd suggest.
posted by mek at 12:43 AM on December 11, 2007


More on neuroethics. But beware of neurorealism.
posted by homunculus at 1:31 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I caught a 13-pound noumenon last week, but I had to let it go. But they taste like shit anyway.
posted by spiderwire at 1:36 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Whereof one cannot collate results, thereof one must remain silent.
posted by vbfg at 2:18 AM on December 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


But "x-phi" (Christ, what a name!) will get philosophers out of the house a bit and perhaps convince college appropriations boards to sluice a little more money the liberal arts' way.

Yeh! And if we don't watch it, a few years of this nefarious sort of budget-draining activity will add up to the cost of a humvee or a cruise missile or a military toilet-seat or something.
posted by telstar at 2:20 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


"If we're arguing about 'what people mean when they use the term "intentional"' are we really having a philosophical discussion?"

Well, if looking into meanings isn't philosophical, philosophers have some explaining to do for the last 300 years or so.
posted by oddman at 2:50 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Brilliant, world-changing idea! They could call it "natural philosophy"!
posted by stammer at 2:57 AM on December 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Philosophers use experiments all the time. 'What happens when I look at a mountain'? I carefully note my experience and write it down and analyse it. Sometimes I read about other peoples' experiences and try to fit them all together. Of course, I operate under the assumption that I am normal person which being a philosopher, I may not be. In the case of emotions for instance, most philosophers currently believe that judgements rather than physical feelings are essential, a sign of being over-cerebral perhaps?

Meanwhile, since I work in an interdisplinary research institute, surrounded by lots of neuroscientists, I am trying to figure out a 'proper' experiment where the more fear someone feels when looking at a mountain, the higher they will rate its attractiveness. Will this prove that fear is part of the sublime experience? No. But it will help support my case, so long as I can make sense why it should happen like that. Ultimately it's the coherence of my theory alongside all the various phenomenon we observe, all our best theories of the mind and the world that will be most effective in convincing others. The evidence is already out there in abundance. It's making sense out of it that is the philosopher's task.
posted by leibniz at 3:00 AM on December 11, 2007


Philosophers use experiments all the time. 'What happens when I look at a mountain'? I carefully note my experience and write it down and analyse it. Sometimes I read about other peoples' experiences and try to fit them all together. Of course, I operate under the assumption that I am normal person which being a philosopher, I may not be. In the case of emotions for instance, most philosophers currently believe that judgements rather than physical feelings are essential, a sign of being over-cerebral perhaps?

Those are not experiments. Observations yes. Experiments no.
posted by srboisvert at 4:10 AM on December 11, 2007


Actually, srboisvert, there is reason to belive that the differences between thought experiments and physical experiments are rather minimal.
posted by oddman at 5:39 AM on December 11, 2007


there is reason to belive that the differences between thought experiments and physical experiments are rather minimal.

Wow. Only a philosopher could even imagine saying such a thing.
posted by languagehat at 6:36 AM on December 11, 2007 [5 favorites]


How is "x-phi" any different from classical psychology? It seems they've just coopted the field's methods to look at quasi-philosophical questions. Philosophy is largely about conceptual analysis and clarification; while I can see how doing experiments on people might raise some interesting questions, I fail to see how it could possibly answer anything.
posted by decoherence at 6:46 AM on December 11, 2007


Actually, srboisvert, there is reason to belive that the differences between thought experiments and physical experiments are rather minimal.

I'd love to hear this reason you speak of.
posted by srboisvert at 7:03 AM on December 11, 2007


Only a philosopher could even imagine saying such a thing.

Great experiment languagehat!
posted by Falconetti at 7:13 AM on December 11, 2007


I wasn't talking about thought experiments by the way. It is as srboisvert notes, an observation (compared to several hundred other observations by other thinkers). Moreover, it is an observation of a particular sort of phenomenon that one deliberately sets up (e.g. you look at something red). It has some operating assumptions (e.g. the external world exists). It controls for variations in the experience by comparing many instances and has excellent ecological validity. Is this not like an experiment then?

Perhaps you are confusing quantitative, machine driven experiments with experiments simpliciter. At any rate, the point about coherence with known theory/evidence is what I was emphasising.
posted by leibniz at 7:37 AM on December 11, 2007


Wow. 'Philosophy' continues to come up with even more idiotic 'innovations.' There are plenty of silly things in this article. To begin with:

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. We love nothing more than our “thought experiments,” but the key word there is thought. As the president of one of philosophy’s more illustrious professional associations, the Aristotelian Society, said a few years ago, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”

This is not only flat-out wrong; it shows an incredible lack of thought about the circumstances being considered. It might make a little sense for a college to refer to the impending change of situation they face on graduating as 'going into the real world,' but that's just shorthand; it's not a rational or literal statement. Bluntly put, there is nothing that is not the world. When a philosopher (of which I don't believe there are any today, but that's beside the point) talks about perception, or about thought, or about belief, she is talking from experience just as much as a researcher who has observed bonobos in the wild for ten years. There is no 'armchair,' there is no 'ivory tower' divorced from reality. If there happens to be some armchair sitting in which one cannot experience thought, perception, or belief, I'd like to know about it, and maybe go sit in it for a while.

So what these people are talking about has already been going on for a long, long time. When Saint Aquinas stated that everything which can be thought, believed, or known can only be thought, believed, or known through what has already been experienced, he was only echoing a teaching that was already a millennium and a half old in philosophy. Heck, the idea of 'little experiments' has already been covered in a more extensive and useful way within modern philosophy by Nietzsche, who, as I recall, advocates embracing a thoroughgoing daily experimentalism in the tiniest ways, testing the variation of temperature, food, air, colors, and other parts of our lives on our intellect and our happiness and moral state. In fact, as usual, the Nietzsche and the rest handle the concept far better than the people described in this article, who seem to think that experiment consists in polling people on contrived moral questions and tabulating the results.

Philosophy is not one of the sciences. It is the ground of all the sciences. Its matter should be the results found by all the sciences, and its method should be that which takes all of them into hand and makes something of them. Given that the rest of the sciences are nothing without philosophy, those who aspire to philosophy should quit sniveling and groveling at the feet of cheesy, thoughtless experiment and realize that, when that bonobo scientist coallates her results, thinks them through, and comes to a conclusion based on them, she is practicing the shadow of philosophy; when philosophy does its job, it will take all of these things and make something of them. It need not languish in the corners doing pointless marketing surveys.
posted by koeselitz at 7:49 AM on December 11, 2007 [5 favorites]


Philosophy, of course, must examine the very idea of observed truth. My favorite philosophical experiment? The squirrel conundrum.
posted by No Robots at 7:51 AM on December 11, 2007


Also, am I the only one who was pronouncing it "kee fee" until I realized that "x-phi" is supposed to be some kind of silly 'hip' amalgamation signifying 'x-philosophy' or 'cross philosophy'?
posted by koeselitz at 7:53 AM on December 11, 2007


koeselitz- there is such an armchair. You will be inexorably drawn to it, because it is shaped just like you!
posted by Jpfed at 8:15 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


A research project uses MRI to image states of belief, and a blogger links this research to Spinoza.
posted by No Robots at 8:36 AM on December 11, 2007


Jpfed: koeselitz- there is such an armchair. You will be inexorably drawn to it, because it is shaped just like you!

Doubtful. Ineluctable modality of the sensible, and all that.
posted by koeselitz at 8:44 AM on December 11, 2007


Beware of neuro-douche bagism.
posted by cogneuro at 8:49 AM on December 11, 2007


Well, if looking into meanings isn't philosophical, philosophers have some explaining to do for the last 300 years or so.
posted by oddman at 2:50 AM on December 11 [1 favorite +] [!]


"Looking into meanings" is a pretty meaningless phrase, and I congratulate you on it. Clearly you didn't look into it. Should I conduct an opinion poll to determine what people think "looking into meanings" means? Perhaps that will constitute a bit of experimental philosophy. But how will I determine the meaning of the conclusions people reached when they looked into the meaning of looking into meaning?

Ugh, I need to sit down.
posted by mek at 8:52 AM on December 11, 2007


I'd like to chime in and say that not all "experiences" are created equal. The major thrust of social psychology for the last 50 years has been in showing how divorced our understanding of the causes of our own actions and beliefs are from reality (a few examples: attribution theory, affective forecasting, self-regulation). Sometimes they go too far and are accused of resurrecting situationism, but for the most part the data speaks for itself. Ergo, a little less faith in raw experience and your own thought process strikes me as a positive.

While I don't have any strong feelings about philosophers conducting experiments (though it can't hurt), I've always argued during psych vs philosophy showdowns between myself and my best-friend (amicably over gintos at a pub) both grad students rooting for our respective home teams, that philosophers could seriously benefit from collecting norms on the population at large before assuming that their own thinking generalizes to joe everyman. Although I'm sure someone will be able to chime in and tell me that a few have already advocated this position etc. etc.

Meanwhile, if we got experimental philosophy now, how soon until we get clinical philosophy?
posted by Smegoid at 8:59 AM on December 11, 2007


This was posted to the anthropology blog Savage Minds yesterday, where it was used as an opportunity to say "Welcome to anthropology, all you philosophers."

I don't really agree with the sentiment (when taken to its extreme) that philosophy done right will always be anthropology. But it does raise questions about whether, if philosophical questions are taken seriously as empirical questions, whether this will eventually shift what kinds of questions philosophers choose to address. (Norobots's link on the squirrel conundrum points in this direction. "Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid.") If philosophy is to be more than theology in disguise, then this kind of move seems absolutely necessary.
posted by mariokrat at 9:04 AM on December 11, 2007


It seems like this article covers bad examples of a good idea. In many ways, the physical study of the human brain (or an observational study of our language) can tell us many things about the way we process information. The way the brain processes information, in turn, can tell us about the human mind, human knowledge and human morality - all issues in philosophy.

This isn't that new of a trend, either. In the 50's Quine and Sellars suggested a more 'naturalized' approach to philosophy. Today, researchers like Dennet, Dawkins and Pinker have written very interesting books by taking that suggestion seriously.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:36 AM on December 11, 2007


Smegoid: While I don't have any strong feelings about philosophers conducting experiments (though it can't hurt), I've always argued during psych vs philosophy showdowns between myself and my best-friend (amicably over gintos at a pub) both grad students rooting for our respective home teams, that philosophers could seriously benefit from collecting norms on the population at large before assuming that their own thinking generalizes to joe everyman. Although I'm sure someone will be able to chime in and tell me that a few have already advocated this position etc.

A few? It's the basis of philosophy. Have you heard of Plato? Political philosophy? The one and the many? It's the whole point of whole chunks of what philosophy is supposed to mean; for example, the university itself, which is an invention of the philosophical establishment, is a situation designed for the conferring and consideration involved when one person tries to discover what other people think about things.

It's more than that. Philosophy is responsible for telling us whether things like psychology, biology, and physics even have validity. And any time any member of one of those disciplines begins to interpret results or consider ramifications of experiment, they are beginning to take part in philosophy. So of course this is something that's already been done. That's not an elitist statement; for starters, the current 'philosophy' establishment isn't worth a pile of bones to me, and I don't think the 'recognized' philosophers are the important ones necessarily. But the arrogance, silliness, foolishness, and provincialism inherent in the notion that 'we're doing something new, and we're doing it better than anybody's ever done it before!' never ceases to amaze me. That notion is still widespread. When will people drop the notion of 'progress,' not only in society but in the sciences and in truth, and realize that there's really nothing so damned special about their little spot of land in history that makes them better than everybody else?
posted by koeselitz at 9:37 AM on December 11, 2007


Wow. Only a philosopher could even imagine saying such a thing.

Only somebody totally unfamiliar with the metaphysical foundations of science could imagine saying such a thing. The distinction between thought experiments and "real" experiments was pretty damn blurry last I checked. Things got especially hairy at the quantum level when you're dealing with heavily idealized entities that aren't really intersubjective phenomena. But I'd love to see somebody draw up some lasting criteria that don't require a never-ending list of exceptions and assertions of 'but X isn't really science'.

And no, it's not Falsifiability though that's the answer they're still tossing out in textbooks. Even Popper himself later recognized that explicit falsifiability is not enough to ground scientific thought. Some arguments have been put forth about "sufficient precision" and "measurability" but these tend to be so vague and handwavey that you might as well just go back to the old definition: "science is what scientists do." At least everybody understands that definition.

Philosophy is not one of the sciences. It is the ground of all the sciences.

Philosophy isn't the ground of anything. It doesn't "justify" anything. In a world where all philosophy was forgotten science would still be a perfectly legitimate enterprise in the same way one can build catapults without having a theory of gravity. If philosophy contributes anything of value at all to science it's not answers or justifications but simply more questions.

As for experimental philosophy it's valuable if only because it eliminates the "ideal subject" from a lot of places where it has no place popping in. This is especially important when thinking about psychological phenomena where the subject/self is more often than not just a handy reference for lots of other more interesting forces. As Nietzsche did suggest a long time ago, the scientific mode, with its emphasis on forces and time and change, is probably a lot more valid mechanism for talking about such phenomena rather than trying to reason about ideal, noumenal entities like "beauty." As the old joke goes, the field of psychology is actually just a small mistake Kant didn't anticipate.
posted by nixerman at 9:37 AM on December 11, 2007


Although I'm sure someone will be able to chime in and tell me that a few have already advocated this position etc. etc.

Hume didn't advocate this position so much as introduce it to Western thought. His critique of the fanciful notion that an invisible, undetectable self "causes" action was a foundational move of his demolishing of Rousseau and opened the door for German Idealism and modernity.

This was posted to the anthropology blog Savage Minds yesterday, where it was used as an opportunity to say "Welcome to anthropology, all you philosophers."

Is this a joke? Trash talk from anthropologists? Seriously?
posted by nixerman at 9:48 AM on December 11, 2007


Is this a joke? Trash talk from anthropologists? Seriously?

To be fair, it wasn't quite that extreme. The actual words were: "Unfortunately, their methodology seems lacking, restricted mostly to conducting surveys. I hereby invite our fellow philosophers to join us at the next AAA where they can learn a thing or two about philosophical research methods."
posted by mariokrat at 9:54 AM on December 11, 2007


nixerman: Philosophy isn't the ground of anything. It doesn't "justify" anything. In a world where all philosophy was forgotten science would still be a perfectly legitimate enterprise in the same way one can build catapults without having a theory of gravity. If philosophy contributes anything of value at all to science it's not answers or justifications but simply more questions.

There are a couple of points here.

First of all, assuming that science is something which aims at truth, it's easy to see that it's something which needs grounding. There is no reason to believe that that which has been observed to occur repeatedly will always occur, or that it reveals something about the way the world works, unless one assumes that there is a 'way the world works,' that there is such a thing as nature. Now, it may seem to us, three thousand years from when we started doing this, that such an assumption is so basic as not to need a ground, in the same way that it seems obvious to some Muslims that Muhammad's prophethood is so obvious as to be beyond the need for explanation, but that apparent obviousness in lieu of any rational explanation is one reason why it needs explanation more than ever. Hence the need for philosophy as prolegomena to any kind of science.

Second of all, it has been suggested in some quarters over the last fifty years that science does not aim at truth, but rather at practical application and 'the betterment of life.' Leaving aside the fact that until fifty years ago this notion was generally unheard of to most scientists, who saw their work as discovering the truth about the world, science is clearly treated as something which uncovers truth. It will be until we stop teaching science in school, showing television programs about science, and using science to come to conclusions about how to live, until we limit science merely to the invention of machines and of medicines. We are justified in assuming that science aims at truth because machines and medicines are useless unless we know how to use them and why, and the assumption that machines and medicines will be useful is based on an assessment of the truth of the method. If science didn't aim at truth, then the people who practiced it would be foolish, considering that they apparently have absolutely no idea whether the machines or medicines they create will help out or perhaps kill millions of people instantly.

As Nietzsche did suggest a long time ago, the scientific mode, with its emphasis on forces and time and change, is probably a lot more valid mechanism for talking about such phenomena rather than trying to reason about ideal, noumenal entities like "beauty."

I have a feeling that Nietzsche's idea of 'the scientific mode' was very, very different from the scientific mode as popularly understood. I think I got that feeling from one of his research papers.
posted by koeselitz at 9:54 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


In short: there are a host of assumptions at the base of science. Those assumptions, though generally ignored today, are still only assumptions, and must be rationally proven for science to have any sort of 'grounding.' That's the reason why I say that philosophy is the grounding of science.
posted by koeselitz at 9:56 AM on December 11, 2007


Koeselitz: A few? It's the basis of philosophy. Have you heard of Plato? Political philosophy? The one and the many? It's the whole point of whole chunks of what philosophy is supposed to mean; for example, the university itself, which is an invention of the philosophical establishment, is a situation designed for the conferring and consideration involved when one person tries to discover what other people think about things.


But in practice do they? You're fond of referring to Nietzsche, but the mind strains at thinking of a man more removed from mainstream mankind. But that's neither here nor there. I'm no expert on the current fad of tying in psychology and moral philosophy but if I can pillage that fad for an example. My sense is that camps have argued over the place of reason and emotion in making moral judgments but it is only recently that attempts were made to verify which of the two (or what combination of both) is used in making moral decisions. I'm bastardizing the literature, but if memory serves the most recent findings are that it depends on the situation. This is the sort of norm gathering that I was talking about. Not true experiments necessarily, but something more than Plato informally canvasing his mates.

It's possible I'm not being entirely clear, and I'm certainly not trying to antagonize philosophers or start a flamewar. The best example I can give is when I used to do neuropsychology with patients with brain damage. Before determining how deficient their memory, executive function, motor coordination etc. was we needed to collect norms on the normal population. Because we can't be sure what bad memory is, until we know what healthy memory looks like. And that's the strategy I was advocating to my philosopher friend. Before discussing the role of emotions in X, make sure the "healthies" actually use emotions in X (and maybe run a stat or two). And I know that smacks of other disciplines coming in and telling you how to do your job, just remember that the genesis of this was a few drinks and friendly banter, and don't think that I don't get an earful of philosophy every time I discuss the results of a psych experiment!!!
posted by Smegoid at 10:05 AM on December 11, 2007


I've no time, but:

I think philosophy is the ground of knowledge - except that it shows the ground is much less stable than we ever wanted to imagine.

And I guess that's the lesson philosophy can teach science: "Don't get cocky."
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:09 AM on December 11, 2007


All I know is, whenever I read philosophers philosophizing about language, I roll my eyes and think "These people don't know what the fuck they're talking about." You can't determine what words mean or how they're used or pretty much anything about them by introspection, or even by discussing it with other philosophers.
posted by languagehat at 10:14 AM on December 11, 2007


In a lot of cases, philosophy deals with the problem of what the results are of taking certain axioms to be true. In many cases, experiments are not going to help in deciding which of the sets of axioms are true in our world. I don't think any amount of experimentation is going to decide for or against nominalism, for example. However, when philosophers talk about things related to the human mind, or human society, I don't see why they can't be informed by neurological or anthropological experiments.
posted by demiurge at 10:19 AM on December 11, 2007


languagehat: A lot of what Wittgenstein did for philosophy is to make that exact point. Most philosophy, according to him, was based on misunderstanding language. The solution to most philosophical issues was to examine language where it is 'rough and ready.' That is, where it is used.

Other philosophers, Paul Grice for one, was able to show similar results. Language is not like logic, but depends on what a speaker is implying and whether the listener can understand the implication. Which is again to study language, not as an isolated system, but as an activity conducted between people (or what have you.)

Anyhoo, YPMV, as it were.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:33 AM on December 11, 2007


Meanwhile, if we got experimental philosophy now, how soon until we get clinical philosophy?
posted by Smegoid at 8:59 AM on December 11


I think they made a movie about that.
posted by Jpfed at 10:39 AM on December 11, 2007


nixerman - If philosophy contributes anything of value at all to science it's not answers or justifications but simply more questions.

Philosophy is rather fundamental to science, as stammer pointed out above.
posted by XMLicious at 11:36 AM on December 11, 2007


Smegoid: But in practice do they? You're fond of referring to Nietzsche, but the mind strains at thinking of a man more removed from mainstream mankind. But that's neither here nor there. I'm no expert on the current fad of tying in psychology and moral philosophy but if I can pillage that fad for an example. My sense is that camps have argued over the place of reason and emotion in making moral judgments but it is only recently that attempts were made to verify which of the two (or what combination of both) is used in making moral decisions. I'm bastardizing the literature, but if memory serves the most recent findings are that it depends on the situation. This is the sort of norm gathering that I was talking about. Not true experiments necessarily, but something more than Plato informally canvasing his mates.

There are a lot of cross-purposes here between what we're talking about. Let me try to sort them out.

Your point, if I take it correctly, is, as you put it:

...that philosophers could seriously benefit from collecting norms on the population at large before assuming that their own thinking generalizes to joe everyman.

The example you use here is that of moral decisions; I think you're referring to research that observes people making moral decisions, and draws conclusions based on that observation.

Now, this is all well and good, and it's important to determine what most people go through when they're making moral decisions. In fact, I don't think it's possible to really determine that through experiment, and that a better method is strict observation-- the human mind, in my book, is in that realm of things that are too difficult to pin down to rely on for effects which are reproducible, a realm which it shares with things like quasars and continental drift. Every first-year psychology student is aware of the difficulties involved-- research psychologists spend a large amount of time trying to control, for example, for the effects of sample bias, and the effects that the voluntary nature of most psychological studies have on the results. My own sense is that, in the real world, the difficulties become so intense as to be impossible to work around. In short, our only recourse is to go out into the world, observe people, interact with them, and base conclusions on those interactions.

I mentioned Plato because, in his writings, his teacher Socrates does just that: he goes around Athens talking to people in every walk of life, trying to determine if any of them were familiar knowing and could communicate that familiarity. That's only the most glaring example. (You mention Nietzsche as being cloistered, but the opposite was really the case; the man loved 'culture,' he loved plays and books and conversations, and he was familiar with all of the 'popular culture' of his time. In fact, I believe he was much more thoroughgoing, open, and friendly than anyone nowadays seems to understand. But that's my own personal axe to grind.)

So, in short, yes, philosophers do in practice try to discover what other people think about things, whether modern 'philosophers' do so or not. That's a lot harder than just polling people about things; it involves true dialogue, and as such often takes on a different character than scientific research. That's necessary because, as my aforementioned philosophical uncle once pointed out, though it would be nice if I could hire a team of guys or start an academic discipline which I could trust to deliver the truth to me and set it in my lap, unfortunately the truth just isn't like that.

There's also a further difficulty, and the example you cite is a good one for it. You mention studying the way 'joe everyman' makes moral decisions. However, 'morality,' at least in the older sense, has generally meant that there is a way that people make decisions in practice and a way that people ought to make decisions. Studying moral decisions in the way you describe might tell us something about decisions that are moral in the sense of being about moral things, but it won't tell us anything about decisions that are moral in the sense of being morally correct. In short, that method of study is at best ineffective and at worst assumes that morality doesn't have the ground moralists claim it does. You have to be very careful in choosing ways to investigate this sort of thing.

And I know that smacks of other disciplines coming in and telling you how to do your job, just remember that the genesis of this was a few drinks and friendly banter, and don't think that I don't get an earful of philosophy every time I discuss the results of a psych experiment!!!

I love this kind of discussion, don't worry a bit. But I should tell you that philosophy isn't a 'job,' no matter how much some people like to label it such. No one has a claim over philosophy, not even so-called philosophers; it's just the impulse toward the true, which can be honed and perfected or ignored. It's a spiritual pursuit aimed at finding the ground for the assumptions we make during our lives, and I believe it's one of only two options to do so, the other being religion. It applies to science because there are a whole bunch of things that science assumes are true that it can't test; for example, it assumes that there are objects, and that perception has a specific nature, and that there are unchangeable rules that govern the universe. Philosophy examines whether those assumptions are true. It draws the limits.
posted by koeselitz at 12:46 PM on December 11, 2007


I will celebrate the day when philosophers quit talking about quantum mechanics as if they know a goddamn thing about it. Nothing is worse than listening to a philosopher tell me about quantum mechanics when they can barely do algebra.

Thought experiments are completely distinct from physical ones. There is no blurred line.
posted by ozomatli at 12:57 PM on December 11, 2007


I'm in a logic class right now, and we've had class interrupted four or five times to do these surveys, presented to us by various grad students. And, every time, the only thing I took away from the experience was this: They know how they want us to answer this question. Every one of them came in with a survey that basically offered you no choice but to answer in a certain way, lest you seem totally illogical or evil. And then, when they explained the point of the surveys to us, there was a feeling of having been tricked into saying something that you didn't necessarily believe, in order to support some moron's thesis statement. I wish I could remember some of the questions.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:10 PM on December 11, 2007


koeselitz: In short: there are a host of assumptions at the base of science. Those assumptions, though generally ignored today, are still only assumptions, and must be rationally proven for science to have any sort of 'grounding.' That's the reason why I say that philosophy is the grounding of science.

I think the traditional scientific argument towards this would that science grounds itself via experiments which are verifiable, repeatable and falsifiable. There are certainly basic axioms that need to be accepted, but on a very practical level, one can measure the acceleration towards Earth of a dropped plate of beans, make predictions based on it, and then perform tests to verify the rate. Maybe a little more central to this question is the notion that science can't actually prove anything in the end, it can only refine theories and gather evidence.

At any rate, I'm dubious about how the gathering of statistics will really be useful to philosophy. It sounds like something that might help a philosopher flush out problems in his or her reasoning based on assumptions about other people, but it also seems more like something peripheral to the actual work product of philosophers.
posted by whir at 1:26 PM on December 11, 2007


ozomatli: I will celebrate the day when philosophers quit talking about quantum mechanics as if they know a goddamn thing about it. Nothing is worse than listening to a philosopher tell me about quantum mechanics when they can barely do algebra.

The opposite is more frequently the case. Also, I suspect you'd have better luck with those people if you'd point out to them that they're not really philosophers. That's what I do, and it usually works well at getting rid of them.

One point: I've met more philosophers who actually understood quantum mechanics than I've met scientists who had any clue how to ground what they were doing philosophically.
posted by koeselitz at 1:41 PM on December 11, 2007


Er, I should have said theories that are falsifiable, of course.
posted by whir at 1:54 PM on December 11, 2007


Well, some of us have degrees with the title "Doctor of Philosophy" and what we do is research (lots and lots of studies), so what was new here, again?...
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:09 PM on December 11, 2007


One point: I've met more philosophers who actually understood quantum mechanics than I've met scientists who had any clue how to ground what they were doing philosophically.
posted by koeselitz at 3:41 PM on December 11 [+] [!]


To be sure, we are of very differing minds on the subject. I find very little modern use to philosophy and I think we will disagree in the very premise that philosophy is somehow in a hierarchy above the natural science. Astronomy may have been born out of astrology, but they have long since parted ways.

I do not want to imply that you personally don't know about quantum mechanics, but there is a huge world of difference between discussing the "philosophical" consequences of QM and knowing the mathematical and experimental basis behind it.
posted by ozomatli at 2:10 PM on December 11, 2007


I wonder if those of you that are oh so eager to denigrate philosophy today would have been equally eager to denounce it in the past.

Much, or more likely all, of the science of today was made possible by the philosophy of yesterday. So, by denouncing today's philosophy don't you think you run the risk of impairing tomorrow's science?
posted by oddman at 2:43 PM on December 11, 2007


ozomatli: I find very little modern use to philosophy and I think we will disagree in the very premise that philosophy is somehow in a hierarchy above the natural science. Astronomy may have been born out of astrology, but they have long since parted ways.

C'mon though... the scientific method, the one that's in use today which I hope you'd agree is rather important to science in general, is not the result of scientific inquiry itself, it's an exercise of logic and empiricism which are firmly in the domain of philosophy. The very process of science involves philosophy. It's certainly not academic philosophy but it's a truer real-world application of philosophy than anything in humanities or other genteel disciplines.

Philosophy is in a hierarchy with science but not in a superior-subordinate kind of way. Rather in a cladistic way, the same way that biology and botany or chemistry and pharmacology are in a hierarchy.
posted by XMLicious at 2:47 PM on December 11, 2007


First of all, assuming that science is something which aims at truth, it's easy to see that it's something which needs grounding.

No, it's not easy to see at all. What is the nature of this grounding? Is science that hasn't been grounded yet supposed to be bad or not-science? What other truth-seeking activities require philosophy to 'certify' them and what is the criteria here?

This lone sentence contains so many contradictions that it borders on the absurd. But this is a very tired argument precisely because the stakes so low. There's very little to be gained or lost by insisting that philosophy justify science and people who insist otherwise usually accomplish nothing else than inviting certain errors into both philosophy and science. In reality (a) you don't need philosophy to do science (b) philosophy cannot prove or disprove any scientific hypothesis or theory nor can it interrogate scientific phenomena (c) philosophy cannot distinguish between good science and bad science. ('c' is very debatable but at this point it's pretty clear that science is not the purely rational enterprise of people's dreams.) So what kind of strange foundation is this?

At best case you might fudge around and insist on something like the relationship between chemistry and physics but this does little more than prove the point. Once again, the sort of hierarchical thinking that requires science be literally grounded in philosophy only ends up causing more confusion than it resolves. That's why nobody (these days) proposes a "philosophy of science" that is supposed to be a theoretical foundation for scientific thought. Mostly it's just a fancy way of saying "questions about science."

Thought experiments are completely distinct from physical ones. There is no blurred line.

There is too.

(Though there are a few old school, hardliner platonists out there who like to insist that computer simulations aren't 'real' experiments. Of course when you ask them to test that hypothesis they get all confused.)
posted by nixerman at 2:56 PM on December 11, 2007


nixerman: No, it's not easy to see at all. What is the nature of this grounding? Is science that hasn't been grounded yet supposed to be bad or not-science? What other truth-seeking activities require philosophy to 'certify' them and what is the criteria here?

I just told you. Did you even read what I wrote after that sentence? Science has to presume uniformity of processes, science has to assume regularity, it has to assume a whole host of things which we don't experience like "there are such things as objects" and "time is uniform in all times and places." In short: science has to assume the existence of nature, an eternal and unchanging set of rules for existence. There is no way to test this proposition. There is no way even to observe nature itself, except in some detached and general way.

Science isn't 'bad' or 'not-science' if it's not grounded. There need be no moral judgement involved. As every scientist knows, ungrounded science is simply not useful. Philosophy is itself the 'seeking for truth' inherent when people do science, so it is present whenever anyone seeks truth in any capacity. It helps to be conscious of the fact. The stakes are, in fact, rather high; what is at stake is whether or not our view of the world is based on superstitious Cartesian notions of space and objects, as it is now. Again, unless it is true, science is not likely to be useful, so the usefulness of science is at stake.

That's why nobody (these days) proposes a "philosophy of science" that is supposed to be a theoretical foundation for scientific thought.

People (these days) tend to be rather superstitious, and have very closed minds, especially when compared with people of the past.
posted by koeselitz at 4:04 PM on December 11, 2007


In short, unfortunately, there are some real propositions about the world which, while falsifiable, are not testable.
posted by koeselitz at 4:05 PM on December 11, 2007


But surely you'd grant that science, as it exists today, is useful? I mean, for extremely practical everyday things such as the transistor or germ theory? I'm not certain in what way your untestable propositions (which I agree with you exist) diminish science's utility. I suspect you have a different utility in mind than I do, but I'm not clear about what it is.
posted by whir at 4:30 PM on December 11, 2007


I think I have the same utility you have in mind. Not bathing seemed very useful to Renaissance folks who thought it had protected them quite well from the dangers of too much exposure to water. That turned out to be a superstition. The question is: will what we think turn out to be a superstition?

There are other reasons why this grounding is important, not least of which is the fact that it will almost certainly be nearly impossible for future generations to take a science that is "useful, just not true" very seriously at all.

Beyond all this: political science has hit a wall, and cannot move further. As it's probably the most useful of the sciences today, it would be nice to move it onward. But it can't move without thinking a little about where it positions itself on morality, and science cannot consider value propositions.
posted by koeselitz at 4:55 PM on December 11, 2007


What grounds philosophy?
posted by fleetmouse at 5:53 PM on December 11, 2007


koeselitz may shy away from it but I have no trouble saying that an investigation or analysis that proceeds without regard to logic and empiricism is not scientific. The assertion "you don't need philosophy to do science" is a crock. The most essential and powerful tools that science has, across all disciplines, are instruments of philosophy.
posted by XMLicious at 6:11 PM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


What grounds philosophy?

We do.
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:42 PM on December 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Interesting that this has become a discussion on the relationship between science and philosophy. I took it as somewhat obvious the two are inter-connected. Science is built out of its methodology, but its methodology is borne out of philosophical concepts like observation, evidence and objectivity - just to name a few. While we can act as if the above concepts are somehow self-evident, when closely examined we find little self-evidence in them at all. Ultimately all knowledge, and all acts, are built on a foundation of our assumptions (which could change to remain coherent with our experiences.)

This is often treated as threatening - some feel this undermines the concept of "truth." But such misgivings are more reactionary than rational. In the absence of certainties we need our assumptions in order negotiate (or to discover things about) the world.

And two more quick mop-up type points.

1)What is the practice of physics if not "thought-experiments" based in mathematics?

2) From the article:
man named Joe who visits the local smoothie shop and asks for the largest drink available. Joe is informed that the megasmoothies come in a special commemorative cup. He doesn’t care one way or the other about the cup. He just wants the megasmoothie. Did he get the commemorative cup intentionally? Most people said no. What if, instead, he’s informed that the megasmoothie has gone up in price and that he’ll have to pay an extra dollar for it? Joe doesn’t care about the extra dollar; he just wants the megasmoothie. Did he pay the extra dollar intentionally? Most people said yes.

This result doesn't seem that surprising as the two situations are fairly distinct. In the first Joe commits one action: he asks for a smoothie. When he is told the smoothie comes in a particular cup he doesn't do anything additional - he still wants his smoothie. But in the second situation Joe commits two actions: First, he asks for the smoothie and second, he pays another dollar. The second situation seems different enough from the first to warrant a different reaction from those surveyed.
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:59 PM on December 11, 2007


What is the practice of physics if not "thought-experiments" based in mathematics?

I have to admit here that I'm playing devil's advocate, but isn't the counter-argument to this that the physics experiments can be repeated and independently verified? That is, given other scientists in the same field who are trained in the use of the appropriate measuring instruments, they can conduct the same experiment and either validate or invalidate the results? Whereas a thought-experiment, by its very nature of living inside the scientist's head, cannot be proved nor disproved via scientific observation?

I should say, parenthetically, that I recognize that the model of science I just described has big epistemological holes in it in areas such as observation and measurement, and that these are areas I would expect philosophy to address and "science" to have very limited value in addressing. I am willing to smoke that in my pipe as I cruise along in my jetpack, eating my food pill for the day. (But I should also say that I'm comfortable with a pretty stretchy definition of "truth" and am largely sympathetic to the view that science and philosophy are interconnected.)
posted by whir at 2:55 AM on December 12, 2007


By the way, elwoodwiles, you're right about that experiment: there seems to be a big enough difference there to change the common reaction. That was one of many odd gaffes in the research mentioned by the article. Not least of which was the fact that the experiment mentioned there assumes that people are right when they say what someone else's intention is, or even when they say what their own intention is.
posted by koeselitz at 7:44 AM on December 12, 2007


There are other reasons why this grounding is important, not least of which is the fact that it will almost certainly be nearly impossible for future generations to take a science that is "useful, just not true" very seriously at all.


This quaint notion that some models are correct or "true" has long been discredited. As GEP Box famously said, "All models are wrong, but some are useful." Any model (scientific, religious, philosophical) must be diminished from the whole of reality because it is part of it and so is inherently flawed. The ONLY question is whether it is useful. Period.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:39 AM on December 12, 2007


Learn to read, friend. Positivism may be popular, but it's a modern invention, and hardly flawless. Nothing is useful unless it's true; that's the point of science. The two are inextricably linked. The quaint notion that scientific models have nothing to do with the truth about the world is silly, and that has nothing to do with some idiots and what they choose to credit.

Period.
posted by koeselitz at 11:34 AM on December 12, 2007


Nothing is useful unless it's true; that's the point of science.

I've got to side with Mental Wimp on this one. Quantum models have shown that the Bohr model of the atom is untrue yet it was extremely useful and crucial for developments in physics and chemistry. The "reflective cavity" model that led Planck to formulate the Planck constant and solve the mystery of the ultraviolet catastrophe is completely untrue but it was essential to the development of quantum theory. Newtonian mechanics was at best an approximation and required considerable correction by relativity.

Truth is the realm of religion and more bombastic philosophies than empiricism, not the realm of science. That's why the most firmly endorsed conclusions of science are never granted higher status than being an "accepted theory".

Learn to read, friend.

Let me respectfully assert that more cordial polemics are in order.
posted by XMLicious at 12:35 PM on December 12, 2007


The quaint notion that scientific models have nothing to do with the truth about the world is silly, and that has nothing to do with some idiots and what they choose to credit.

Let me put it another way: the only way to understand the universe is through some model (scientific, religious, philosophical). The only true (in an absolute sense) model of the universe is the universe. And that's not a useful model because it is extremely difficult to manipulate to make predictions. Any other model is demonstrably false because it must be less than the entire universe, but some of those false models are close enough to be useful. I'm not sure how you justify the view that a model must be true when it can't be.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:37 PM on December 12, 2007


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