Blog Coordinator

Knobe's X-Phi Page

X-Phi Grad Programs

« More on fake-barn intuitions: Replications of Colaco et al. | Main | Ethics Symposium: Experiment and Intuition in Ethics »

07/07/2014

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Michiru Nagatsu

Thank you for sharing a very informative survey analysis. Are "X-phi of science" type studies (e.g. Thinking like a scientist paper) categorized as "epistemology" or "other"? It would be interesting to know the portion of that type of X-phi.

Joachim Horvath

Hi Josh,

thanks for your really interesting and thought-provoking post and paper! I think I share some of the worries that Franz Huber expressed over at Certain Doubts, especially after reading your full paper. In the paper, you only argue how discontinuous the bulk of experimental philosophy is, in all kinds of ways, to traditional philosophical questions and concerns. And so the feeling one gets at the end of the paper is (to exaggerate a bit): wow, experimental philosophy really has nothing to do with philosophy as I know it - why even call it philosophy? So what is missing in you paper is some kind of indication how and why x-phi results are at least RELEVANT to standard philosophical questions, such as 'What is knowledge, truth, causation, etc.?'. You offer something like that in your exchange with Huber, but I think that he is rightly not quite convinced. For example, most epistemologists would not think that an analysis of knowledge is a psychological theory of our concept of knowledge, or of our intuitions about knowledge, not even those who explicitly endorse conceptual analysis. Rather, they want to find out what knowledge itself is, and they happen to hold the methodological view that this question can (to some degree) be answered on the basis of one's conceptual competence. That also explains why they only take note of a tiny fraction of x-phi studies concerning knowledge (those who challenge their methodological claims, and those who aim to contribute to questions like 'What is knowledge?'), because it's just not clear, on the face of it, what most of the rest actually has to do with their research interests. In a nutshell, what seems to be missing in your paper is some kind of argument for the 'philosophy' in 'experimental philosophy'.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Joachim,

First off, I just wanted to say that this is exactly the right question to be asking. That is, you are getting at precisely the sort of thing that experimental philosophers actually do and posing a very important question about the value of that sort of work.

From the way that your question is framed, I have the sense that you have already considered the obvious answer and that you find this answer dissatisfying. Still, I thought it might be a good idea just to write out this answer explicitly so that you can say what it is about it that you find insufficient.

The obvious answer is that knowing these facts about the underlying psychological process that generated our intuitions can help us get a better sense of which intuitions we should be putting our trust in.

For example, many people feel pulled in opposite directions when it comes to questions about free will. One might think, however, that if we had a better understanding of the underlying psychological processes that were pulling us in these different directions, we would be in a better position to know which of those processes we should be putting our trust in and which we should simply dismiss.

As you note, the type of research I am discussing is entirely about the underlying psychological processes, but it does seem at least initially that conducting this sort of research can provide us with some defeasible evidence with regard to the kinds of philosophical issues you mention.

What are your thoughts on this sort of response?

Joshua Knobe

Michiru,

I included papers of that type in the 'Other' category. At the moment, there are actually relatively few experimental philosophy papers that involve addressing questions in the philosophy of science by running studies on scientists. With any luck, though, there will be more soon!

Joachim Horvath

Hi Josh,

first, I want to emphasize that the work that most experimental philosophers are doing is, of course, valuable and important in its own right - just like other work in psychology and cognitive science. My concern was really only with trying to understand (better) how and why this work bears on familiar philosophical issues.

Your obvious suggestion is that "knowing these facts about the underlying psychological process that generated our intuitions can help us get a better sense of which intuitions we should be putting our trust in". First, I have a very simple-minded question about this: Do you think there is any concrete example from this kind of research where we can say, with some confidence, that a particular philosophical intuition should be dismissed? Or is this more like a promise for the future, when this kind of cognitive science has reached a more mature state?

But even if we knew exactly which kinds of processes are driving our intuitions about e.g. moral responsibility, we still might not know which process is more trustworthy, for that may often depend on one's related philosophical views. So, even if we knew, for example, that some of our intuitions about moral responsibility are driven by emotions, then this will only count against them relative to a wider ethical framework that suggests that such intuitions should not be driven by emotions. In such a case, one would probably have to continue with experimental research on those intuitions that drive one's wider ethical framework. So, there's at least a real possibility that, by going down this path, we will "get lost" in the cognitive science, and never actually come back to our initial philosophical questions.

Another point is that experimental philosophy, understood in this way, can at best clear the ground for pursuing our more familiar philosophical questions. And even if that ground-clearing project did turn out maximally successful, we would still have to do all the theoretical work that non-experimental philosophers have been doing all along. This is again not meant as an objection - I'm just trying to understand what experimental philosophy can do for us, and what it maybe cannot do.

In any case, this raises the question of our relative priorities as a discipline (and as individual philosophers as well): How much effort should we really put into experimental philosophy of this kind, and how much into our more familiar philosophical research projects? And the worry here is, of course, that by investing too much in the project of researching underlying psychological processes, we might lose sight of the first-order, non-psychological questions that are the heart of our discipline. In short, we might end up doing mostly psychology of philosophy instead of first-order philosophy - and that might make the latter pointless in the end (just imagine that large swaths of mathematicians turn to investigating the psychological processes that underly mathematical cognition - surely interesting in its own right, but really helpful for making much progress with mathematical questions?).

I hope this make some sense, and I would be very curious to know what you think about it!

Joshua Knobe

Joachim,

Thanks so much for this very thoughtful response. I feel like you are getting right to the heart of the key issues here. At this point, I'm thinking that instead of trying to answer in the abstract, it might be best to provide a concrete example.

Many people have the intuition that moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism. Experimental philosophers have been very concerned with the question about how to understand the psychological processes underlying this intuition and whether or not we should trust them. For example, Eddy Nahmias and Dylan Murray conducted a series of studies about the psychological processes underlying people's incompatibilist intuitions. They find that these intuitions are generated by a process that relies on the assumption that in a deterministic universe people's behavior does not depend on certain kinds of psychological states.

The question now is whether we should put our trust in a process that has this property. How are we to go about answering this question? Not just by running further studies. Rather, the key issue is whether or not the assumption on which the process relies is actually true. This is a straightforward question in the metaphysics of mind, and one needs to go about answering it using whichever sorts of methods are appropriate to questions of that type. (Nahmias and Murray argue that the assumption is false and that this gives us reason to put less trust in certain incompatibilist intuitions.)

My sense is that most other examples will have a similar character. Just as you say, if we try to abandon all other forms of philosophical thought and just focus on research about underlying psychological processes, we will never get very far in addressing traditional philosophical questions. Still, it does seem that facts about psychological processes can play valuable roles in large arguments which do address those questions.

(Just to clarify, I recognize that these are difficult metaphilosophical issues, and I could certainly see how you might disagree with the view I defend here. The main point of my paper was just that what experimental philosophers actually do is to study underlying psychological processes and that the key metaphilosophical questions surrounding experimental philosophy were therefore questions about the philosophical significance of these psychological processes.)

Joachim Horvath

Hi Josh,

thanks for this very helpful example! I take it that you regard this as a case where experimental philosophy has in fact revealed an underlying psychological process that is arguably suspicious. In principle, it seems hard to object to that. And my question about the relative priorities between experimental and non-experimental philosophy probably cannot be answered in the abstract anyway, and so maybe it was a bit unfair. Who can tell in advance what course our research on any reasonably complex problem might take?

There is one important issue that would still have to be addressed, however. One might wonder whether the same kind of process is operative in trained experts in the metaphysics of mind and related areas. If not, then philosophers who work in these areas might still take a 'Don't care'-attitude towards Nahmias' and Murray's work (aka the "expertise defense"). Since we know from research on expertise that genuine experts often function quite differently in their own domain of expertise (for better or worse - see e.g. Wesley Buckwalter's forthcoming paper "Intuition Fail"), it would seem to be a really important question whether the intuitions of philosophical experts are driven by the same and equally suspicious process in this case. If not, then the top-priority of experimental philosophy should be to study the intuitions of experts, and not so much those of lay people. As I see it, a lot more work of this kind should be done in order to get clear on this issue. One possibility is that the intuitions of philosophical experts and lay people mostly do not differ in their underlying processes. But if this shouldn't be the case, then things might get a lot more complicated from a metaphilosophical point of view.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Joachim,

I completely agree with the main points you make here. The real question is not whether research on psychological processes can potentially prove helpful. Rather, the real question is whether the research that experimental philosophers have actually been doing has made valuable contributions. To address this issue, one really has to look at the details of the specific research (just as you do in your recent comment).

More specifically, you are completely right to say that one of the key issues here is about whether the psychological processes used by experts are the same as those used by novices. There has already been an impressive amount of work within experimental philosophy on the intuitions of philosophy professors, and most of this work suggests that philosophy professors do use more or less the same cognitive processes used by other people:

http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/xphi/2013/10/what-has-experimental-philosophy-discovered-about-expert-intuitions-updated.html

That said, you are right to say that we can't just assume that this will hold across the board. The problem has to be taken up on a case by case basis.

Joachim Horvath

Hi Josh,

I know your excellent post on philosophical expert intuitions, of course. In fact, it proved very helpful for my joint research with the psychologist Alex Wiegmann (from the University of Goettingen). We already reported some of our results here:

http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/xphi/2013/08/expert-intuitions-about-knowledge.html

By the way, I don't think that the available studies already suggest that professional philosophers use more or less the same cognitive processes (if only because there are relatively few relevant studies so far, at least compared with studies on lay intuitions). But I agree that the existing work does not reflect very positively on philosophical expert intuitions, either - and our own studies are only partly an exception to that claim!

Eddy Nahmias

Hi Josh, really interesting paper. I hope some more x-phi practitioners will say more about your views on these issues. I'm not sure what to say, but I think I still agree with the reflective equilibrium position Dylan and I briefly discuss at the beginning of the PPR paper you mention above. In any case, it seems philosophers (and cog scientists) have to do some theoretical work to decide which processes we think produce unreliable judgments or intuitions, and as Joachim points out, we need to figure out when experts are subject to such processes too. But I think I see x-phi as more continuous with philosophical projects (including conceptual analysis) than you seem to be suggesting in the paper.

Indeed, one question I had about the view you outline in the paper is that it seems as if you don't think there are targets for some of the philosophical concepts under discussion. People make judgments about knowledge, responsibility, causation, etc. and x-phi (as a branch of cog sci) studies what psychological processes produce our judgments. But there are no mind-independent facts about such concepts. Talk of responsibility and causation is something our minds produce, but we're not producing talk about something 'in the world.' But I may be reading more anti-realism into the paper than you intended, and in your exchange with Joachim, it sounds like you think there are proper targets of our judgments, since x-phi can help us discern when we are producing appropriate judgments about them and when we are not (and why). Do these questions make sense?

Joshua Knobe

Joachim,

So sorry to have neglected that work! That sounds like a really interesting project, and I'll be excited to see the complete results.

Eddy,

I'm sorry if it seemed like I was trying to take some controversial position about the relationship between the contents of our minds and mind-independent reality. I hadn't been intending to take any particular position on those issues. Rather, I was trying to say something about which specific aspect of the mind is actually being investigated in empirical work in experimental philosophy.

One might at first assume that experimental philosophers are primarily concerned with questions about people's concepts. For example, one might assume that the experimental philosophy of free will is primarily concerned with questions about people's concept of free will.

I was trying to suggest that most empirical work in experimental philosophy is not actually about individual concepts but rather about underlying psychological processes that can affect the use of a number of different concepts. For example, the discovery that you and Dylan made is not really about people's concept of free will. It is about an underlying psychological process that affects people's intuitions about free will but can also affect their intuitions about other matters.

Eddy Nahmias

Josh, thank you for your helpful response. I get that the main point of the paper is *descriptive*--to explain what most x-phi research is actually trying to do (though it also reads as if it is *prescriptive*, a manifesto, to borrow the title of an earlier piece you wrote with Shaun--to explain what (most) x-phi research should be trying to do). But if one of the purposes of x-phi has been (should be) to try to identify which cognitive processes are reliable in producing intuitions (or judgments) about certain phenomena, with the aim of helping us determine when we can use those intuitions in building a theory (or analysis) of that phenomena, then it's unclear that the research is so distinct from more traditional philosophical methodologies. Now, I'm not sure what conceptual analysis is, but it seems as though it often relies on reliable intuitions about a target phenomena in order to analyze that phenomena (and not just our concept of that phenomena). So, I'm not sure it's accurate to conclude as starkly as you do, when you say, for instance, that "experimental philosophy has sought to capture the patterns in people’s intuitions through theories about underlying cognitive processes. In actual practice, this does not involve analyzing concepts, or doing something broadly similar to analyzing concepts, or engaging in some preparatory work that would eventually allow us to analyze concepts. It is not a matter of analyzing concepts at all; it is something else entirely." Might it not be 'preparatory work' in that it helps us to analyze the nature of the targets of our concepts (e.g., responsibility or causation) by helping us sort out when our intuitions about those targets are and are not useful guides to the nature of the target?

Joachim Horvath

Hi Eddy,

at some point in my exchange with Josh, it also seemed to me that experimental philosophy, as the search for underlying psychological processes, might be understood as some kind of 'preparatory work' - or, as I put it above, as 'clearing the ground' for a lot of our first-order philosophical projects. And I agree that there is some tension between this idea and the passage that you cite from Josh's paper.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Eddy,

I think that the two of us actually don't disagree and that this is all just a misunderstanding.

It seems like the point you are making is that experimental philosophers are not simply interested in psychological questions about how people think but also in more straightforwardly moral and metaphysical questions. For example, experimental philosophers are not just interested in how people think about free will but also in whether free will actually exists. All of this seems to me to be completely correct, and I was never trying to deny it.

I think the difficulty here is just that we are using the word 'concept' in different ways. In the way I use the term, one needs to draw a distinction between real properties and relations within the world (free will, knowledge) and people's concepts (the concept of free will, the concept of knowledge). Thus, we could have two distinct concepts that turn out to pick out exactly the same property in the world.

So, when I say that experimental philosophers mostly haven't been studying people's concepts, I don't at all mean to say that experimental philosophers haven't been interested in real properties and relations within the world. I am talking about a completely separate question, which has nothing to do with the (completely correct) point you have been making.

Specifically, whatever else it is that experimental philosophers do, it is clear that they use empirical methods to study something or other in people's minds. But now one might ask *which* thing in people's minds they are studying. An obvious answer to this question would be that they study people's concepts. The point I was making in the paper is that this is mostly not the case. For the most part, the empirical discoveries experimental philosophers have made are not about people's concepts but rather about other psychological processes. (For example, most of the discoveries in the experimental philosophy of knowledge intuitions are not about people's concept of knowledge, but rather about various other aspects of human psychology.)

I feel bad that my original explanation of this point was difficult to follow, but now that I put it this way, do you still disagree?

Joachim Horvath

Hi Josh,

maybe the source of the problem is that most philosophers - unlike many psychologists - do not think of questions about concepts and questions about properties as "completely separate questions". Rather, they think of concepts as semantically individuated items, that is, as being about something extra-conceptual, like a property or relation. And if the concept FREE WILL, for example, is about the property of having free will, then it is necessarily about that property. If you add some kind of broadly descriptivist semantics for concepts to that, then the way in which e.g. the concept FREE WILL is psychologically realized will tell us something about the property of having free will, and not merely in virtue of some contingent psychological association, but as a constitutive fact about what it is to possess that concept. On this picture, finding out how the concept FREE WILL is psychologically realized will always eo ipso tells us something about the property of having free will. For example, finding out that the concept BACHELOR is associated with the concept UNMARRIED will eo ipso tell us something about the property of being a bachelor. That's why, given this picture, one simply cannot pry questions about concepts and questions about properties apart. In fact, all conceptual analysis seems to presuppose something like this picture (even though I have grossly oversimplified a lot of things here).

Joshua Knobe

Hi Joachim,

This is a very helpful comment which, I think, really does a lot to get at the root of the difficulty. Still, my sense is that I am not at all presupposing that the picture you sketch here is mistaken. All I am trying to do is to make a very straightforward point about which aspect of the mind it is that experimental philosophers actually study.

Let's suppose now that the picture you have sketched is completely correct. So we are supposing that people have within their minds a concept of free will. This concept is to be understood descriptively, in the sense that it provides a representation of the conditions under which an agent counts as having free will. Moreover, it stands in a semantic relation to a real property in the world, namely, the property of having free will.

Now, having supposed that the mind contains something of precisely this type, we can ask whether empirical work in the experimental philosophy of free will is mostly aimed at making discoveries about that very thing.

The point I was trying to make in the paper is that it is not. The majority of the important discoveries in experimental philosophy of free will are not properly described as being about that thing but rather about some other aspect of the mind.

For example, the work we have been discussing by Nahmias and Murray shows that when people read a description of a deterministic universe, they sometimes conclude that the mental states of agents in that universe are 'bypassed,' Of course, you might say that this discovery has the potential to shed light on questions about people's concept of free will (in a rather indirect way), but it is not well described as being in the first place about the concept of free will at all. It is a discovery about a certain kind of psychological process that people could have even if they did not have the concept of free will.

In this sense, contemporary work in experimental philosophy strikes me as being deeply different from traditional conceptual analysis. Traditional conceptual analysis was indeed primarily in the business of making discoveries about concepts, but the contemporary experimental philosophy is not doing that same sort of thing.

Eddy Nahmias

Hi Josh, I guess one reason I'm chaffing a bit at the way you describe the field of x-phi and the work that's been done is that, in my own papers on free will, I typically am more interested in what my co-authors and I say in the intro and discussion sections than in the methods and results (in the set up--e.g., the point about reflective equilibrium I mentioned before--the interpretations, and the implications--e.g., what our results might say about the Consequence Argument or about the relevance of folk phenomenology of free will to the concept of free will, etc.). And most of what we say in these sections is about how our results might inform philosophical debates about free will, by which I mean the concept of FREE WILL (or MR) and the property(-ies) to which the concept refers.

So, maybe my work is just an outlier in your meta-analysis. But I'm not so sure, because I often find other x-phi work (I think including some of yours!) making me excited about how the work and the results inform debates about the concepts and properties in the same sort of way--though I agree that the way it informs those debates is sometimes largely by informing us about human psychological processes, some of which are not (only) relevant to those concepts and properties. But as Joachim and I have been emphasizing, this info is often useful for determining which intuitions are reliable and hence relevant to understanding the concepts and properties.

I also find that, by trying to carefully develop the right materials to use in x-phi, I learn more about the concepts and properties I'm interested in than by doing the experiments or getting the results (which typically don't surprise me anyway). I think I'm essentially just doing old-fashioned thought experiments, but then I find that being more careful about which features may be influencing me and others, I learn more about the issues.

Sorry for being so autobiographical here, but I thought it might help us see where we disagree, if we do.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Eddy,

Thanks so much for these comments! I will definitely revise the paper in light of what you and Joachim have been saying, and I think that the final version will be much better as a result.

In any case, my sense is that this is all just a misunderstanding (the result, I think, of some genuine unclarity in my paper, which I will do my best to fix). I am not at all trying to deny the thing you assert here. The point I am making is about something else entirely.

It seems like the thing you are saying is that your work isn't just aimed at understanding the way people think about free will but rather at getting some insight into philosophical questions about free will itself. Not only do I not deny this, I think it would be *crazy* to deny it. What you are saying here is obviously correct and importantly so.

However, in the way that I am using the word 'concept,' free will itself is definitely not a concept. Rather, one has to distinguish between (a) free will and (b) the concept of free will. Free will is an actual thing out there in the world, whereas the concept of free will is a representation of the conditions someone would have to satisfy to count as having free will. In other words, the idea is that there is this thing in the mind (the concept of free will) which then stands in a relation to this thing in the world (free will).

With that idea in the background, maybe I can clarify the issue I was trying to address. It is common ground between us that you and Dylan develop a theory about something in the mind and that this theory then helps us to understand something about free will (i.e., the real thing, out there in the world). That is not even in question. The only question I was trying to take up was about *which* specific thing it is in the mind that theories like yours are about.

One possible answer is that they are theories about people's concept of free will. I deny that. My point is that the theory of bypassing (for example) is not best described as being a theory about people's concept of free will. It is a theory about something else in the mind. (One way to see that is by noticing that even if people didn't have a concept of free will at all, there could still be a phenomenon whereby people thought that mental states were bypassed in a deterministic universe.)

In other words, the point I am making has nothing at all to do with the distinction between trying to understand things in the mind for their own sake vs. trying to understand things in the mind as a way of addressing larger philosophical questions about morality or metaphysics. It is entirely a point about which specific thing in the mind it is that experimental philosophers have been trying to understand.

Eddy Nahmias

Great. I think we are mostly on the same page. While I was aiming to directly explore people's concept of free will in the early work with Nadelhoffer, Morris, and Turner, and while I still think x-phi should do some of this work, what you say about the theory of bypassing is right (and that would be the way to describe my paper with Coates and Kvaran on the effects of mechanistic descriptions vs. non-reductive descriptions of decision-making). And it's true of most x-phi (as your meta-analysis confirms). And yet I don't think we want to give people (including critics of x-phi) the impression that the only (or even main) *goal* of x-phi research is the same as the goal of cognitive science. While the boundaries between disciplines here is (and should be!) blurry, on the philosophy side of the blurry boundary, there is more interest in using research about how the mind works to answer philosophical questions about the nature of (and concepts of) free will, causation, morality, etc. And this emphasis should show up in our Intro and Discussion sections, I think. This emphasis is also true of "empirical philosophy" (as Prinz calls it) that just borrows research from cog sci to approach these questions, rather than doing the research. And of course there are some great researchers in cog sci who happily (and thankfully) use their research to address these questions. So, we can be a big happy pluralistic family. I just don't want people to get the impression that we think philosophy lives on a separate floor of the house and experimental philosophy has moved downstairs to live with the scientists. Maybe we live on the stairs.

Joachim Horvath

Hi Josh,

sounds all very good! My point was just that it is equally important to bring out why - to what philosophical end - experimental philosophers have been trying to understand that "specific thing in the mind". By now, of course, your answer to that question is pretty clear (even though it would be interesting to know whether other experimental philosophers agree!).

Joachim Horvath

Hi Eddy,

I really like you metaphor, except that experimental philosophers end up in the least comfortable spot. Let's hope that they resist the pressure to move to a more cozy place!

Joshua Knobe

Hi Eddy and Joachim,

Thanks once again for your thoughts on these matters. I am definitely going to go ahead and make some serious revisions in light of them. (I definitely wouldn't want anyone to think I was trying to send us all straight to the intellectual basement!)

As Joachim points out, I myself have some specific views about how the study of psychological processes might help us to address larger philosophical problems, but just in case it isn't already clear, the point of my paper wasn't to argue that those specific views are correct. Rather, the point was to say that what experimental philosophers actually do is to study psychological processes, hence that the metaphilosophical question we face has to be understood as a question about the significance of psychological processes.

In other words, if one wants to engage with the actual literature in experimental philosophy, it is no use focusing on a question like, 'What are the larger philosophical implications of a program of experimental research that analyzes people's concepts?' That just isn't the question we face. The question we face is rather, 'What are the larger philosophical implications of a program of experimental research that explores the underlying psychological processes that impact people's intuitions?'

Eddy Nahmias

Well, Josh, looks like you need to send your paper to Leiter, who defines X-phi for his poll as "the use of empirical methods to test claims about intuitions." Looks like our field is not faring well in the eyes of his readers--perhaps a more accurate understanding of it would help.

The comments to this entry are closed.

3QD Prize 2012: Wesley Buckwalter