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date: 05 April 2020

Experimental Philosophy

Abstract and Keywords

Experimental philosophy applies empirical methods to traditional philosophical debates. This article begins with a brief discussion of the historical antecedents of experimental philosophy. It goes on to examine various ways of defining experimental philosophy, pointing out advantages and disadvantages of each. The article then discusses two motivations of experimental philosophy: the positive program views experimental philosophy as a way of gaining information about folk concepts, which can then be used as inputs to philosophical theorizing; the negative program aims to establish that intuitions are unreliable and therefore unsuited to play a role in philosophical theory. In describing each of these approaches, reference is made to representative experimental work. The article concludes with a discussion of some critiques of experimental philosophy.

Keywords: experimental philosophy, philosophical, experiment, methodology, analysis, intuitions

1. Introduction

The term “experimental philosophy” picks out not a single approach or topic but a diverse array of philosophical projects, spanning various philosophical subfields, from ethics to epistemology to philosophy of language. Experimental philosophers work in all these areas and more and bring a variety of empirical approaches to bear. Nor is there a single underlying assumption or goal uniting these projects: some experimental philosophers see their work as extensions of traditional philosophical projects, while others see themselves as pursuing quite radical critiques of traditional analytic philosophy.

What unites these philosophers is the conviction that philosophical progress requires the use of empirical research and the desire to take an active role in the design and execution of that research. Rather than rest content to draw on research done by psychologists and cognitive scientists, experimental philosophers carry out their own studies, either alone or in conjunction with researchers in the social sciences.

In some ways, this is not an unprecedented development. Historically, philosophy saw itself as engaged with the study of human nature, cognition, and culture. It is only relatively recently that the social sciences emerged as a distinctive discipline. Even after psychology and anthropology branched off from the humanities, a few philosophers continued to engage in empirical research of their own. For instance, John Ladd (1957) and Richard Brandt (1954) both engaged in fieldwork with Native American groups—in Ladd’s case, the Navaho; in Brandt’s case, the Hopi—and emerged with detailed ethnographic accounts of the moral codes of those groups, using these accounts as evidence in the debate over moral relativism (I say more about these projects later).

But experimental philosophers are not interested solely or even primarily in exploring the views of unfamiliar groups or cultures. Rather, their goal is to explore intuitions that are familiar, even central, to traditional analytic philosophy, in the hopes that empirical methods can illuminate the nature and origins of these intuitions. To that end, experimental philosophers have tended to engage in experimentation (rather than, e.g., ethnography), using survey methods.

This article provides an overview of the various aims of experimental philosophers and discusses how these are continuous with—or disruptive of—analytic philosophy as traditionally conceived. It addresses the following questions: What is experimental philosophy? Why do experimental philosophy? And where (in philosophy) is experimental philosophy most—and least—relevant or helpful? In the course of answering these questions, we evaluate some criticisms of experimental philosophy and look at some examples of the kind of experiments being carried out by its practitioners. We also raise some questions about the scope of experimental philosophy as currently practiced and look at some possible future directions and forms it might take.

1.1. Historical Antecedents

While experimental philosophy represents a new and exciting subfield of philosophy, it is not without historical precedent. Indeed, philosophers have traditionally viewed their research as continuous with research in the natural and social sciences; the division between philosophical and empirical inquiry is a relatively recent phenomenon. In A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume (1738/2011) advocates extending the method of “experimental philosophy” from the natural sciences to the study of morality (here Hume uses the term to refer to the methods of science). Nearly three centuries later, this suggestion is still controversial.

More recently, philosophers in the early to mid-twentieth century made use of empirical research in psychology and anthropology in order to illuminate philosophical problems such as the nature of emotion and cognition, the existence and extent of moral diversity, and even the nature of truth. Some of this research anticipates, albeit in relatively rudimentary form, methods being deployed by experimental philosophers today: in The Principles of Psychology, William James (1890) describes a primitive technology used to measure increased blood flow to the brain and argues that results obtained from such studies support a link between increased brain activity and emotional excitation. James bemoans the lack of knowledge about which brain regions might be involved in various cognitive tasks, but as we see later, the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging technology has allowed researchers to offer more sophisticated theories about the role of various brain regions in emotion, reasoning, and moral judgment.

In 1938 the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess published a book titled “Truth” as Conceived by Those Who Are Not Professional Philosophers. Naess administered questionnaires to 300 subjects, inquiring into their views about truth. He then analyzed the results by age and by gender (finding, among other things, that women were more likely than men to be absolutists about truth). A reviewer at the time described the book as “not without amusing features” and noted the advancement of a new philosophical methodology; alas, he suggested, “Since most philosophers will not be prepared to undertake the sort of ‘dirty work’ to which Dr. Naess invites them, he will no doubt remain an outcast from the philosophical community and will have to find what solace he can in being a ‘mere’ scientist” (E. N. 1939).

Sixty-five years later, plenty of philosophers are willing to do the so-called “dirty work.” The remainder of this article examines the nature of and motivation for experimental philosophy as carried out today: what it is, how it is conducted, and the various philosophical problems it addresses—and creates.

1.2. What Is Experimental Philosophy?

Experimental philosophers tend to describe their project by pointing to three features: first, that experimental philosophy is done by philosophers; second, that it involves carrying out experimental studies; and third, that the goal of these studies is to test claims about people’s intuitions. But whether any of these features are necessary is open to question. First, philosophers may and often do collaborate with psychologists or neuroscientists; should the resulting studies count as instances of experimental philosophy? Indeed, some studies are carried out entirely by psychologists but fall squarely within the remit of experimental philosophy—for example, Goodwin and Darley’s (2008) study of people’s intuitions about moral objectivity, or Rips et al.’s (2006) work on people’s judgments about the identity of objects. Second while experimental studies may seem to be obviously required for something to fall into the category of “experimental philosophy,” observation and ethnography may also be philosophically useful. Case studies of patients suffering from damage to certain areas of the brain can help us better understand which areas are required for moral judgment and for various types of reasoning; patients suffering from delusions may illuminate the nature of belief. But certainly we cannot inflict these conditions on subjects in order to conduct experiments!1 Last, testing claims about intuitions is not the only way to further philosophical inquiry: neuroimaging, for example, may reveal the extent to which emotional processing is involved in moral judgment, as demonstrated by experiments Josh Greene and colleagues (2001; see also Greene 2007) have carried out using what philosophers sometimes refer to as “trolley problems.” Consider the following two cases:

Switch Case. A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You can save these five people by diverting the trolley onto a different set of tracks, one that has only one person on it, but if you do this that person will be killed. Is it morally permissible to turn the trolley and thus prevent five deaths at the cost of one?

Footbridge Case. Once again, the trolley is headed for five people. You are standing next to a large man on a footbridge spanning the tracks. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and into the path of the trolley. Is that morally permissible?

Most philosophers judge that the answer to the first case is “yes,” but the answer to the second is “no,” and various principles have been proposed to explain the difference. In a series of experiments, Mikhail (2002; see also 2007, 2011) found that ordinary people share this judgment. Greene went a step further: rather than just surveying people about the cases, he conducted neuroimaging studies of their brains while they made the judgments. What he found was that when subjects were considering the footbridge case, their brains displayed a greater degree of emotional activation than when they considered the switch case. Greene concluded that the difference in judgment about the two cases was actually driven not by reason but by emotion. This is a descriptive claim about how people do in fact make judgments of moral permissibility, but as we will see later, descriptive claims about the source of intuitions can serve as the basis for philosophical claims about the reliability of those intuitions. The fact that Greene did not use surveys alone shows how much experimental philosophy can achieve when survey methods are supplemented by other experimental techniques.

Some philosophers have suggested a distinction between experimental philosophy and empirical philosophy (see, e.g., Prinz 2008), and the issue may appear to be merely terminological: Does it really matter whether we restrict our use of the term “experimental philosophy” to research conducted by philosophers using survey methods? In fact, it does. How inclusive a definition we adopt affects experimental philosophers’ ability to answer their critics. For example, many critics have argued that surveys reveal only superficial and possibly transient intuitions (see, e.g., Kauppinen 2007). Other critics have suggested that subjects’ responses to surveys may be explained as responses to pragmatic, rather than semantic, features of the cases presented (see, e.g., Cullen 2010; for a more general discussion of methodological issues, see Schwarz 1995). If this is right, then experimental philosophers may not be accessing the right sort of intuitions—intuitions generated in response to philosophically interesting features of the cases in question. But augmenting survey methodology with other measures, such as behavioral or neurophysiological measures, may help allay these concerns. Other critics have complained that experimental philosophers rely on flawed experimental designs. For example, Woolfolk (2013: 80) criticizes experimental philosophers for failing “to meet the methodological standards that are articulated by the experts on research design in those fields they would emulate.” By collaborating with such experts, experimental philosophers can improve their methodology; this will be impossible, however, if we define experimental philosophy so as to exclude such interdisciplinary collaborations.

As an alternative to identifying experimental philosophy with a specific set of methods or practitioners, we might distinguish experimental from empirical philosophy in terms of a specific set of goals. Prinz (2008) suggests that, unlike empirical philosophy, experimental philosophy is primarily concerned with conceptual questions. Empirical philosophers aim to understand how the mind works or how moral judgment operates; experimental philosophers aim to understand what people take consciousness to be or what the ordinary concept of moral responsibility requires. Drawing a distinction this way would result in a methodologically and disciplinarily diverse conception of experimental philosophy while nonetheless portraying it as a philosophical program with distinctive concerns and aims.

Given that experimental philosophers themselves disagree about how to define their project, and how to distinguish it from traditional “armchair” philosophy, this article remains neutral on the question of which definition to adopt—while nonetheless noting that how experimental philosophers define their project affects the sorts of criticisms that can be leveled against it. There may be no single “best” definition—only different definitions apt for different purposes. As we shall see, philosophers working within experimental philosophy differ quite radically regarding the goal of their enterprise. In light of these differences, it is perhaps misleading to think of experimental philosophy as a single philosophical project in the first place.

1.3. What Are Intuitions?

Throughout this article, I use the term “intuition” to refer to the subject experimental philosophers are (usually) interested in investigating. But there is little philosophical consensus on what intuitions are. Psychologists sometimes make reference to dual-systems processing; the idea is that our thought is produced by both a quick, noninferential system (System 1), whose operations are introspectively inaccessible and a slower, more deliberative system (System 2), whose operations often are accessible. This has led some philosophers to identify intuitions with the outputs of system one reasoning. These philosophers identify intuitions as beliefs we form spontaneously, without conscious reasoning, whose source we cannot identify introspectively (see e.g. Gopnik & Schwitzgebel 1998). Others have thought intuitions are “intellectual seemings”: when we entertain a proposition or content, to have an intuition of that content is for it to seem to us to be true (see Bealer 1998). This view makes no mention of the psychological process underlying intuition. Yet a third view claims that to have an intuition that p is to be inclined to believe p. Here “intuition” is used to pick out a disposition; one might have an intuition about something even if one isn’t considering it at the moment (see Sosa 1998). Other philosophers (e.g., Lewis 1983) think “intuition” is just another way of referring to belief or opinion. In fact, “intuition” is probably used in all these ways and more. It is an open question whether there is a single psychological kind picked out by “intuition,” and it seems clear that there is no single thing philosophers mean by the term. What is clear is that philosophers often make reference to our responses to various cases, and it is these responses that experimental philosophers are interested in. Contrary to what some critics have claimed, experimental philosophy does not depend on the assumption that we do not reach our verdicts about cases through reasoning; even if we do engage in conscious deliberation before issuing our response, the responses themselves are still of interest. Thus I am not assuming any particular account of intuition here—and I suspect most experimental philosophers do not either. This is not to say the issue is not important—as we will see in Section 2.2, the psychological underpinnings of intuition may well end up being philosophically significant. But while we can hope to end up with a satisfactory account of intuition and its psychological underpinnings, we do not need that account in hand before we can start investigating the phenomenon.

2. Why Do Experimental Philosophy?

Experimental philosophers are not united in their goals, nor are they united in their conception of what philosophy ought to be or accomplish. Some experimental philosophers are quite philosophically conservative: they see their work as aiding in the traditional philosophical project of conceptual analysis. Others see their work as primarily disruptive: they argue that empirical research into the nature and sources of our intuitions reveals that they are ill suited to serve as the foundation for philosophical theorizing.

2.1. The Positive Program: Experimental Philosophy as Analysis

Philosophical theories are often assessed with respect to how well they account for our intuitions about various cases. For example, a proposed moral theory—that the right action is that which maximizes overall utility—may be rejected because it fails to accord with our intuitions about cases where an act maximizes utility but is nonetheless impermissible. Some philosophers have compared the role of intuition in testing philosophical theories to the role played by observation in testing scientific theories. This is not uncontroversial, and other philosophers deny that appeals to intuitions about cases serve as anything more than a rhetorical device (a point we will discuss in more detail in Section 3.2). But it cannot be denied that particular cases, and our intuitions about them, have played a significant role in the advancement or rejection of various philosophical views.

Sometimes these particular intuitions are taken to reveal our normative views, as in the case described previously. Here, whether we view a given act as right or wrong serves as a test of whether a given theory accurately captures our moral view. Of course this is only philosophically relevant insofar as we think the right theory should accord with our moral view. But in general, moral philosophy tends to be conservative: other things being equal, we prefer theories that accord with our intuitions to those that do not.

Intuitions about cases are also useful to philosophers insofar as they provide information about our concepts. On one influential conception of philosophy, it is primarily concerned with analysis: its goal is to identify and make precise our ordinary concepts of such things as knowledge, intention, and so on, which in turn enables the philosopher to identify what properties in the world those concepts pick out. Here, intuitions about cases reveal the contours of concepts: Does a lucky guess count as an instance of knowledge? Does an act foreseen but not aimed at count as intentional? How we answer these questions—what intuitions we have about these particular cases—tells us something about the more general concepts. Our intuitions can serve as a kind of data, against which various hypotheses—proposed analyses of concepts—are to be tested. Similarly, intuitions can be used to adjudicate debates about meaning and therefore to substantiate or repudiate claims about what a word means or what its truth-conditions are, a point we will return to later.

In addition to intuitions about particular cases, philosophers sometimes appeal to the intuitiveness—or lack thereof—of more general principles: that I have promised to do something is a reason to do it, or that something cannot be red all over and green all over. These general principles can serve as the starting point for theory construction and also constrain acceptable theories—any theory that denied them would be radically unintuitive and so dubious.

Indeed, at a more general level, philosophers sometimes claim an advantage for their preferred theory on the grounds that it accords with the commonsense conception or practice. For example, moral realists often claim a dialectical advantage insofar as their view better accords with our ordinary moral discourse and practice. Realists point out that we ordinarily talk as if there is a fact of the matter about which acts are right and wrong; we assume such facts exist when we deliberate about what to do; when we find ourselves engaged in a moral disagreement, we proceed as if there is a uniquely right answer, which we can arrive at by engaging in moral debate. Thus, they argue, our moral concepts commit us to the existence of moral facts. This is not a claim about our intuition concerning a single case or a general principle; rather, it is a claim about the features our ordinary concept possesses, features that nonphilosophers may not be explicitly aware of but that are nonetheless revealed indirectly by certain judgments or practices.

For every philosophical use of intuition, there is a role for experimental philosophy. This is because experimental philosophy can empirically test and advance claims about intuition in each of these guises: intuitions used to test normative theories, intuitions about whether a given case is an instance of a concept, intuitions about when a word is correctly applied, intuitions about general principles, and intuitions about the features of a discourse or practice.

For example, the moral realist’s claim that realism best captures ordinary moral discourse and practice has been called into question by several experiments investigating the extent to which people are intuitive moral relativists. Geoffrey Goodwin and John Darley (2008)—both psychologists—set out to see whether subjects would treat ethical statements as objective and how this might differ from the way they would treat statements of scientific fact, social convention, and taste. The experimenters gave subjects a range of statements in all three areas and asked them to rate their agreement with each statement, as well as to indicate whether they thought it was true, false, or an opinion or attitude. In the second phase, subjects were told that another person strongly disagreed with them and asked whether they thought one of the two parties must be mistaken or whether it is possible that neither party is mistaken. Their results showed that, overall, people tended to treat ethical statements as more objective than statements of convention or taste but less objective than statements of fact. More interestingly, subjects treated different ethical statements as more or less objective, depending on the content of the statement. Subsequent research by Wright et al. (2012) confirmed this finding. These studies suggest that the folk conception of morality may not be uniformly objective—people may view some moral claims as more objective than others. In addition, studies by Hagop Sarkissian et al. (2011) showed that people did not find relativism unintuitive. They described Horace, an agent who “finds his youngest child extremely unattractive and therefore kills him.” Subjects were then asked to consider two individuals judging Horace’s action: one who judges it morally wrong and another who judges it morally right. One of the judges is described as a classmate of the subject; the second judge is described either as a typical American college student, a member of an Amazonian tribe with very different values, or an extraterrestrial being with a very different psychology from human beings. Subjects are then asked to rate their agreement with the statement, “since [the two judges] have different judgments about this case, one of them must be wrong.” What the authors found was that subjects’ relativism, as measured by their disagreement with this statement, increased as the distance/differences between the two judges increased. This shows that, when faced with moral disagreements, subjects do not assume one party must be mistaken—contrary to what moral realists (e.g. Smith 1994; see also Mackie 1977) have claimed.

Some experiments have yielded surprising results; others have not. For example, Sarkissian et al.’s (2011) findings about folk relativism go against received philosophical wisdom and therefore present philosophers with a choice: Do we say that the subjects in these studies are confused or otherwise in error about their own concepts, or do we accept the results and retreat from the claim that ordinary moral discourse is objectivist? Here matters are complicated by the fact that other studies (Goodwin & Darley 2008; Wright et al. 2012) revealed subjects to be more relativist about some kinds of claims than others; again, this presents philosophers with a choice between rejecting the findings—either by judging these subjects to be inconsistent or otherwise confused, or by pointing to errors in the experimental design or the interpretation of the data—and revising the conception of the moral domain, perhaps by accepting that it is neither uniformly objective nor uniformly relative. On the other hand, subjects’ intuitions about trolley problems tend to accord with philosophers’ intuitions. Some critics have argued that experimental philosophy is unnecessary, since philosophers are, by and large, able to predict what ordinary subjects will and will not find intuitive (we will return to this point later). But this is, of course, an empirical claim. Furthermore, experiments may reveal facts about our concepts that philosophers had not previously considered. For example, Strohminger and Nichols (2014) presented subjects with the hypothetical case of someone named Jim, who had been in a car crash and suffered psychological damage. They then described various changes to the person’s personality or memory and asked subjects whether he remained the same person or whether his identity had changed. What they found was that a change in Jim’s moral attitude was the most influential factor in determining that his identity had changed—more influential than memories, desires, or other personality traits. This finding raises the novel possibility that the ordinary concept of the self includes a moral dimension, such that one’s moral views are an essential part of one’s personal identity. Thus experiments can lead us to adopt or defend views that might not otherwise be considered. Experimental philosophy need not just be a matter of testing extant philosophical theories against folk intuitions; it can also introduce new theories or analyses for consideration.

2.2. The Negative Program: Experimental Philosophy and Challenges to Intuition

Not all experimental philosophers see their work as aiding philosophical analysis. Some argue that their empirical results reveal that philosophical reliance on intuitions as evidence is problematic for various reasons and suggest that this has significant consequences for our philosophical practices. These philosophers—sometimes called “restrictionists”—do not argue that we must abandon our use of intuitions altogether, nor do they suggest that we must do so permanently. Rather, the suggestion is that since some of our intuitions are unreliable in various ways, we should be suspicious of appeals to intuition. Furthermore, we should investigate the sources and variability of our intuitions in an effort to distinguish reliable from unreliable intuitions. But given that we are not yet able to do this, our current position with respect to intuitions must be a skeptical one: “We find ourselves in the unenviable, and ultimately untenable, epistemic position of suspecting that some intuitional evidence is problematically sensitive without being able reliably to predict what intuitional evidence is problematically sensitive.” (Weinberg et al, 2013). The only way to remedy this problem, the restrictionists argue, is through further empirical investigation.

2.2.1. Intuitions as culturally or demographically variable

Some of the earliest experimental challenges to conceptual analysis involve cultural variation in intuitions about canonical philosophical cases. Weinberg, Nichols, and Stich (2001) conducted experiments on subjects from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds about some canonical cases in epistemology, such as the following (known as the “true temp” case):

One day Charles is suddenly knocked out by a falling rock, and his brain becomes rewired so that he is always absolutely right whenever he estimates the temperature where he is. Charles is completely unaware that his brain has been altered in this way. A few weeks later, this brain rewiring leads him to believe that it is 71 degrees in his room. Apart from his estimation, he has no other reasons to think that it is 71 degrees. In fact, it is at that time 71 degrees in his room. Does Charles really know that it was 71 degrees in the room, or does he only believe it?

Their results showed that people’s intuitions about whether Charles “knows” or “only believes” the temperature is 71 degrees vary along demographic lines. Western subjects were more willing than East Asian subjects to ascribe knowledge to Charles. This, they argued, is bad news for epistemology. If epistemology is supposed to tell us how we ought to form beliefs, and if epistemic arguments rest on appeals to intuition that are culturally or otherwise local, then we will end up with a fractured epistemology: what counts as knowledge for one group would not be knowledge for another. Alternatively, if epistemology is supposed to capture our concepts of knowledge and justification, variations in intuition will reveal that different groups have different concepts. So one consequence of these findings may be a kind of epistemic relativity. This might seem problematic: Why should the epistemic norms to which one is subject depend on one’s socioeconomic background? And should not people from different backgrounds be able to share a concept of knowledge, justification, and so on? After all, we do not weight people’s claims to knowledge differently depending on their socioeconomic status! Particularly troubling, in this context, is the suggestion that intuitions may vary by gender: in a recent paper, Buckwalter and Stich (2010) report that a variety of experiments querying subjects on philosophical intuitions reveal significant gender differences (in some cases, investigating gender differences was not the original aim of the study, and the data was analyzed by gender only later). The possibility of free will in a deterministic universe, Gettier cases, whether it is possible to know the taste of an apple based only on knowing all the scientific facts about apples (but never tasting one)—all of these topics yielded statistically significant differences between male and female respondents. But it is surely implausible—and undesirable—to conclude that epistemic norms and/or concepts vary by gender.

But epistemic relativism is not the only, nor even the most threatening, problem raised by variation in intuition. A second worry is that the best explanation of why intuitions vary depending on culture and socioeconomic status is that they are a product of these factors. The question then becomes: Why should we accord them evidential weight in the first place? If our intuitions about what counts as knowledge are really determined, not by insight into some conceptual truth or by our grasping of some universal truths about knowledge but by our upbringing and geography, then why think they are reflecting any deeper truths at all? Even if we are content to say that intuitions do not give us insight into universal truth but only our own conceptual competence, the question can be asked: Why care about these concepts rather than others? The answer “because they are our concepts” seems inadequate. But cultural and demographic variability is only part of the restrictionists’ challenge to intuitions. A bigger problem is a kind of intrapersonal variability in intuitions. And here, retreating to a kind of relativist stance is not an option. Therefore, as we will see, intrapersonal variation poses an even bigger threat to intuitions than interpersonal variation.

2.2.2. Intuitions influenced by irrelevant factors

While the studies discussed here show that philosophical intuitions vary depending on a person’s gender or cultural and socioeconomic background, another type of study shows that the circumstances in which a case is presented may influence intuitions about it. For example, Swain, Alexander, and Weinberg (2008) found that subjects presented with a clear case of knowledge before being presented with a true temp case were less likely to attribute knowledge in the latter than subjects who saw the true temp case first; subjects who first saw a clear case of nonknowledge, on the other hand, were more likely to attribute knowledge in the true temp case than subjects who saw the true temp case first. Liao et al. (2011) found that people’s intuitions about versions of trolley problems depended on the order in which they were presented with the various cases. Petrinovich and O’Neill (1996) found that intuitions about cases like this are also significantly affected by whether the case is framed in terms of how many people will be saved or in terms of how many people will be killed. Nichols and Knobe (2007) found that people’s intuitions about whether someone could be morally responsible for an act were greatly affected by whether they were presented with a general, neutral question (asking just about “an action”) or a more emotionally laden, detailed question (asking about a man who killed his family by burning down their house).

These kinds of variation cannot be explained by appealing to relativism. According to the restrictionist, studies like the ones just described show that many of our intuitions are sensitive to features of cases that are not philosophically relevant. This makes them unreliable as a source of evidence. And since we do not know which of our intuitions are likewise subject to distortion by philosophically irrelevant factors such as the order in which they are presented or how they are worded, we cannot be sure that other intuitions are not likewise unreliable and affected by irrelevant information. Thus the restrictionist argues that the philosophical practice of relying on appeals to intuition needs significant reform and that we need to do further empirical research to better be able to distinguish reliable from unreliable intuitions. In the meantime, some restrictionists have suggested we focus on an approach to philosophy that places less emphasis on analyzing what concepts we do have and more on what concepts we should use.

While some of the restrictionists’ findings are indeed troubling, the question of what features are or are not philosophically relevant remains open and unsettled. For example, Nichols and Knobe’s (2007) finding about free will suggests that emotion influences our judgments about the compatibility of responsibility and determinism. This may be inappropriate, but arguably, emotion is not completely irrelevant to moral responsibility. So in some cases it may be open to the proponent of conceptual analysis to embrace these results and argue that, rather than showing our intuitions to be distorted by irrelevant factors, they show us something surprising about our concepts.

One might also worry that the restrictionists’ challenge is more radical than I have acknowledged thus far. After all, there is no neutral context in which we can form intuitive judgments—virtually all our thought and reflection takes place within a context of some kind. We are always subject to some kind of identity; there will always be some kind of wording needed to present the case; we may be hungry, or sleepy, or bored, or distracted, and so on. When we ask whether our intuitions are distorted, and when we conduct studies to see which kinds of contextual features affect our intuitions, we must be careful not to assume that there is some perfectly neutral, context-less context that would yield uncorrupted intuitions. Compare the case of mathematics: we know that we tend to make more errors in calculation when we are tired or rushed; we know that our reasoning about probabilities is subject to certain sorts of distortion. But we know these things precisely because we have a widely agreed-upon, neutral procedure for calculating arithmetic and probability. In the case of philosophical intuitions, this is precisely what we lack. And absent this, it seems as though the only thing against which to measure intuitions—and, indeed, the only means by which to determine whether a factor is relevant or irrelevant to, say, a moral judgment—is going to be intuition itself. And this is, of course, precisely what the restrictionist says we cannot rely on.

This is also a problem for the suggestion that we adopt a more normative, and less analytic, approach to philosophy, for many of the inputs into our normative reasoning and argument will be generated by intuition. If we ask why we ought to use one concept of knowledge rather than another, we may appeal to its practical utility. But if we ask why we ought to care about that, it would seem that the answer will itself appeal to some kind of intuition, or to the fact that we just do care about it. Likewise, if we decide that we ought to use a consequentialist conception of the good rather than a deontological one, on the grounds that a deontological conception is unduly influenced by emotion, then how will we respond to the deontologist who argues that emotion is extremely relevant? It would seem that doing so will require some kind of appeal to moral intuition, whether about cases or principles. But again, these intuitions are just what we cannot rely upon.

Thus there is room for doubt about whether the restrictionists’ challenge can, in practice, be restricted. There is also the question of how we might do philosophy without appealing to intuitions (though, as we will see later, some philosophers argue that we do not actually use intuitions much if at all). In any case, the restrictionists’ point that we need more empirical research into intuitions and how they vary seems well-taken; given the worries they have raised about the reliability of intuitions, their challenge is difficult to ignore—and philosophers who wish to appeal to intuitions as evidence should at least be cognizant of the risks of doing so.

3. Challenges to Experimental Philosophy

We have already discussed some criticisms directed at the methodology used by experimental philosophers. These criticisms, as we saw, can be remedied by improvements in experimental design and by collaboration between philosophers and social scientists. One way to think of these criticisms is as contingent objections to experimental philosophy—they do not take issue with the relevance of experiments, only to their current design and execution. Other criticisms, which we consider in this section, object to experimental philosophy in principle.

3.1. The Superficiality Critique

One objection to experimental philosophy is that, while it does give us data about a certain kind of intuition, it is the wrong kind. This objection is based on the idea that we can distinguish between “surface” or “superficial” intuitions and other, more reasoned and reflective intuition. For example, Antti Kauppinen (2007) has argued that the kinds of methods experimental philosophers use cannot rule out the possibility that subjects are confused or responding to the wrong features of a case. Furthermore, generating philosophically interesting intuitions requires getting subjects to think about the reasons for their judgments and consider other, similar cases; it also requires ensuring that subjects have understood the case and are responding only to relevant features (Kauppinen [2007] calls these “semantic features”) and not other, pragmatic or otherwise irrelevant features of the case. Kauppinen argues that the only way to do this is to engage in dialogue with subjects—and that this dialogue will end up looking a lot like doing traditional philosophy. Therefore, he concludes, experimental philosophy has nothing to add to our traditional philosophical methods. If done in such a way that it represents a new methodology, it yields nothing of philosophical relevance.

We have already discussed the fact that experimental philosophers have a wealth of non-survey based methods with which to augment their survey data about intuitions. So one response to Kauppinen’s (2007) critique is that it fails to take into account the methodological diversity of experimental philosophy. But a second response is to question why the kinds of intuitions that emerge through dialogue and reflection should be either less responsive to irrelevant features and should be thought to do a better job of capturing nonphilosophers’ intuitions. After all, one impetus for doing experimental philosophy in the first place was the worry that philosophers’ intuitions might fail to accurately reflect those of ordinary language users. This is problematic insofar as philosophical analysis seeks to characterize not just some concept or another but the same concept (perhaps suitably amended) that is used in ordinary life. Otherwise, philosophical theories of morality, knowledge, free will, and the like would be of limited interest and significance. But of course, philosophers have significant investments in their own theories, and therefore their intuitions may well be responding to pragmatic factors—namely, the interest they have in their own theory’s correctness! Insofar as the philosophically relevant intuitions are those formed under “ideal conditions,” there is then reason to be skeptical of philosophers’ intuitions, even—or especially—those formed in the course of reflecting on their own theories.

If the superficiality critique is intended to show that experimental philosophers can only gather data about quick, superficial intuitions, because of its reliance on survey methods, then the critique falls flat in the face of methodological improvements and diversity. Experimental philosophers can ask questions to ensure that subjects comprehend the details of the case; they can ask subjects to explain or justify their responses; they can present subjects with similar cases in order to test for inconsistencies in their judgments. If the critique is intended to show that only philosophers’ intuitions could be relevant, because only philosophers are the kind of expert reasoners able to approximate ideal conditions, then it fails to withstand empirical scrutiny, as we will now see.

3.2. The Relevance Critique—Philosophers as Experts

A worry related to the superficiality critique is what we might call the relevance critique. The relevance critique argues not that the intuitions gathered by experimenters are too superficial per se but that they are the intuitions of amateurs, rather than experts, and that it is the latter type of intuition that is philosophically relevant. After all, we would not hold physics accountable to the intuitions of nonphysicists; philosophers have years of training and practice, so why should their theories be tested against the intuitions of nonphilosophers?

This criticism acknowledges that philosophers’ intuitions may not accurately reflect ordinary, folk intuitions. But, according to these critics, that is because philosophers are better at intuiting, and their intuitions are less susceptible to distortion by irrelevant features. Philosophers are more likely to respond to the important aspects of a case and less likely to be affected by biases and other forms of faulty reasoning.

Certainly, professional philosophers do undergo years and years of training and are knowledgeable about critical thinking and logical fallacies. The question is whether this knowledge immunizes them from distortions in intuition. This is an empirical question, and experimental philosophers have conducted various studies attempting to answer it. Some of these studies have investigated whether philosophers have different intuitions than ordinary folk; others have investigated whether philosophers are less likely than ordinary folks to fall prey to order effects and other distorting influences. The results are somewhat mixed; several studies indicated that, like ordinary folk, philosophers were susceptible to effects such as the order in which moral dilemmas were presented (Schwitzgebel & Cushman 2012); whether vignettes about innateness were presented individually or in pairs (Knobe & Samuels 2013); and whether moral dilemmas were presented in second- or third-person terms—in terms of what “Jim” should do or what “you” should do (Tobia et al. 2013). But there is conflicting data about whether or not philosophers have substantially different intuitions than ordinary folk and whether they are able to accurately predict ordinary intuitions—Dunaway et al. (2013) found that philosophers were accurately able to predict the results of experimental philosophy studies, while Sytsma and Machery (2010) found that philosophers had different intuitions about conscious experience than ordinary folk and were also inaccurate predictors of what ordinary folks would think. Thus it seems that the jury is still out on the relevance critique. But insofar as the verdict depends crucially on further empirical research into intuitions, this line of objection actually highlights an additional important role for experimental philosophy.

3.3. Denying Intuitions as Evidence

A different critique of the relevance of experimental philosophy denies that intuitions play an important role in philosophical theorizing at all. If that is right, then experimental philosophy has nothing to add to philosophy—and can pose no threat. We saw earlier that “intuition” is a contested term and is used to pick out different kinds of judgment; there is no consensus on what makes something an instance of intuition. Some critics do point to the lack of consensus as evidence that there really is no such thing as intuition (see, e.g., Cappelen 2012). Others claim that intuition is merely a kind of judgment and that when philosophers appeal to “intuition” that a claim is true, they are merely expressing the judgment that it is true—a judgment that they then support with argument. At most, these critics charge, philosophers’ appeal to intuition is either a rhetorical device or a way of hedging a claim that one is less than certain about (similarly to “it seems that …”). Even if some philosophers do rely on intuitions to make their arguments, they need not do so and, according to these critics, should not.

Leaving aside the question of whether intuitions form a natural kind, or represent some special kind of judgments—a question we addressed briefly in Section 1.3—two things seem clear: first, philosophers do present hypothetical cases and then make claims about what our responses to those cases reveal. For example, in arguing against purely subjective theories of value, the philosopher Robert Nozick (1974) describes a machine that “could give you any experience you desired … All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain … while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s actually happening.” Nozick claims, “We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it” (43–44). While Nozick does not say we can straightforwardly derive a theory of what matters from our response to one case, he does suggest we can reject a theory because it wrongly predicts that we would desire to use the experience machine if it existed. Whether or not Nozick is making a claim about an intuition or a judgment, or some other sort of response, his use of “we” seems to assume that the reaction to his case will be shared, and it is this reaction that he thinks leads us to adopt a nonsubjective theory. If the reaction is not in fact shared—if it is unique to Nozick—then it seems subjective theories have more going for them than Nozick thinks. And as long as there are arguments based on claims like Nozick’s—claims about our reactions or responses—then there is a place for experimental philosophy.

4. Conclusion

Experimental philosophy is a relatively new movement and has grown tremendously over the last decade. Whereas philosophers once dismissed the field as faddish or as philosophically unsophisticated, even critics of experimental philosophy now engage with it—sometimes even conducting experiments of their own. As with any empirical field, new findings continue to emerge, and these may lead experimental philosophers to revise their theories about what our intuitions are and how they are formed. The divide between restrictionists and proponents of analysis may be bridged as new information emerges about the sources of intuition; we may learn that we can rely on our intuitions about certain matters but not others, in which case analysis may be able to proceed within some circumscribed areas of philosophy. The emergence of new technologies—techniques for neuroimaging and measuring reaction times, the ability to recruit hundreds or thousands of subjects via the Internet—has changed and will continue to change how experimental philosophy is practiced. In sum, it is unclear what exactly the future of experimental philosophy looks like. What is clear is that, as a philosophical movement, experimental philosophy has had a lasting impact on debates about central philosophical questions, as well as about the nature of philosophy itself.


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(1) At least, not at present—the technology of transcranial magnetic stimulation allows a researcher to temporarily inhibit certain brain areas, but so far this has yet to be applied to areas of interest to experimental philosophers, primarily because it can be used only on areas of the brain relatively close to the surface.