Philosophy meets the real world.

The state of the universe.
March 2 2006 7:00 AM

The X-Philes

Philosophy meets the real world.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

Marx and Engels once remarked that "philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love." Just about everyone else who's written about philosophy has also criticized its lofty remove, except, of course, philosophers. And now the challenge is being mounted from within. Next month, the American Philosophical Association will convene a panel to confront its critics in the new movement known as "experimental philosophy," or "x-phi." Its practitioners are threatening to make a favorite method of traditional philosophers—asking yourself what everyone thinks—seem hopelessly outdated.

Philosophers have ignored the real world because it's messy, full of happenstance details and meaningless coincidences; philosophy, they argue, has achieved its successes by focusing on deducing universal truths from basic principles. X-phi, on the other hand, argues that philosophers need to ask people what and how they think. Traditional philosophy relies on certain intuitions, presented as "common sense," that are presumed to be shared by everyone. But are they?

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For example, can people be morally responsible for their actions if they don't have free will? Many philosophers have assumed that all sane people would of course say no. Experimentalists don't assume. They ask. Recently, they presented the following scenario to two groups:

Bill and his wife were flying home from vacation with their friend Frank, who was having an affair with Bill's wife, as Bill knew. Kidnappers injected Bill with a drug that forced him to obey orders, then told him to shoot Frank in the head, which he did.

They told the first group that Bill wanted Frank dead and so grieved little for him. To the second, they said that Bill hated what he'd done. Both groups were then asked if Bill deserved blame for Frank's death.

Traditional philosophers have argued that Bill shouldn't be blamed in both cases because it's common sense that moral responsibility requires free will. But, in fact, the first x-phi group did blame Bill in the scenario in which he welcomed Frank's death. Similarly, groups praised a hypothetical involuntary organ donor, even though he had no choice but to give. This doesn't prove that you can have moral responsibility without free will. But it does vaporize a traditional philosophical objection to that view—that it lacks common sense.

Experimental philosophy is also challenging such basic philosophical notions as "intentional action." What do we mean when we say that someone did somethingintentionally? Most philosophers assume that we'd all agree that this is a question of the actor's state of mind. Experimentalist Joshua Knobe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill asked college students: If a businessman interested only in profits knowingly harms the environment, should we say he did so intentionally? The students answered yes. Yet if the same businessman knowingly helped the environment, they said no. Apparently, intentionality depends not just on an actor's state of mind, but also on the outcome he or she produces.

And also on skill—the ability to carry out one's intention. If you hit a bulls-eye your first time playing darts, did you do it "intentionally"? It turns out that the most common answer is yes if you keep regularly hitting the target and no if you don't. Outcome trumps skill, though, when it comes to determining intentionality. Say a man tries to shoot his aunt, misfires, but is lucky and hits her anyway. Most people will say he killed her intentionally, even though he didn't really have the skill to. It's enough that he wanted to.

Hijackers with experimental drugs, land-despoiling executives, aunt killers—what's not to like about x-phi?

I asked Ernest Sosa, a respected critic of the field, to summarize his objections. The experimentalists, he replied, can't prove that their subjects are actually responding to the philosophical principles at stake. People may be distracted by certain language choices or irrelevant details in the scenarios being posed. In a classic psychology experiment, people chose to save 200 lives rather than take a one-in-three chance at saving 600 lives. Yet if asked instead to choose between sending 400 people to death or taking a two-in-three chance that 600 people would die, they embraced the latter option. The options presented in the two scenarios are identical, of course, just worded differently. Which suggests that the way you tell a story affects what emotions people feel upon hearing it, which in turn affects their decision-making.

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