If that title buys me a few seconds of your attention, let me unpack those two questions just enough to show you exactly what I mean to ask here. What I mean to ask is: Is it universally understood that being an x-phi’er implies being a naturalist (that is, that the tie between those concepts is somehow knowable a priori)? Do most (but not all) people expect an x-phi’er to be a naturalist (just because being one is positively correlated with being the other)? And is there a metaphilosophically important rationale for a “yes” answer to either of the previous questions? Or is any correlation merely a sociological phenomenon, possibly arising from misconceptions and foggy, personality-driven ideology? Somehow, a five-line title to this post seemed like a bad idea. But those are the questions. And, if you look closely at them, you may see how loaded they are, in that they may lead to a host of issues in metaphilosophy that seem exciting to many CD readers. (The bulk of this post will be taken up with a perspective on the last of those questions.)
Those are honest questions (if “honest” is the right antonym for “rhetorical”). But I can’t help myself: I’ll feel somehow cowardly if I don’t volunteer some tentative answers to these potentially divisive questions. (The romantic voice in my head keeps asking: “Have you seen these questions posed in precisely the way they’ve been tormenting you? Don’t you suspect that there’s something potentially helpful to others in that torment – especially to the gullible among students out there?”) So, if you are reading this on the edge of your seat by now, here’s the button to click:
Now, I’m simply incapable of injecting honesty into an article like this unless I risk giving you a good look into what I fear may be the gargantuan depths of my ignorance in these metaphilosophical matters. If I’m going to claim any of your time here, I really must expose some of my innermost thoughts (mostly suspicions) about both naturalism and experimental philosophy. The piece would be a total waste of time without them. And, I’m sorry: there will have to be more autobiographical language here than I’m naturally inclined to use elsewhere.
It’s a great time to call oneself a “naturalist”, isn’t? I mean, there just doesn’t seem to be any downside, not even a hint of a disadvantage, to one’s calling oneself a “naturalist”. The label carries the allure of something forward-looking, anti-metaphysical, scientifically minded, iconoclastic, rigorous. Maybe that explains why it’s also a jolly good time to be an “experimental philosopher”. That’s basically what I’m asking. But I really think I’m the wrong person to ask that kind of question. It would be an understatement if I told you that I don’t get up in the morning looking forward to doing metaphilosophy. I’m ambivalent about it. I can love what looks to me like good metaphilosophy. But much of it fails to excite me. (Is it because so much of it looks like history and sociology masquerading as philosophy?) Still, in the absence of the cognoscenti among CD contributors who can do a much better job of asking these questions, you’re getting them from me. If there is any advantage in that to you as reader, the advantage must be in the bluntness to which I have to resort (possibly out of my simple-mindedness) in talking about these two metaphilosophical views (if they are, in fact, different): naturalism – as opposed to normative conceptual analysis – and experimental philosophy – as opposed to armchair (generally “aprioristic”) philosophy. (Here, I’m not interested in pursuing other contrasts in this general vicinity.)
So, let the bluntness begin. (The things I do for you, people!…)
X-phi first: What do I know about so-called “experimental philosophy”? Just the bits and pieces (mostly sound bites and sloganeering) I stumble upon at places like CD and other popular blogs. As a rule, the bits and pieces are introduced when the avowed x-phi’er introduces sociological data s/he has just gathered about some exciting philosophical claim. If there’s sustained metaphilosophical argument originating in the x-phi camp, I’m largely ignorant of it. I do see argument, yes, but much of it has to be pieced together from claims to the effect that armchair procedure in a given domain is suspect, or illegitimate, or misleading, or ill-informed, or otherwise defective. I’ll briefly comment on some of the fragments I’ve collected from recent statements made by an x-phi’er, Professor Eddy Nahmias. I trust that his credentials as an x-phi’er are beyond reproach.
The Nahmias reference comes from a recent interview he gave 3:AM Magazine’s Richard Marshall, who introduces Nahmias as “a leading member of the extra cool experimental philosophy clan of which the extra cool Josh Knobe is another member who we’ve interviewed here at 3:AM”. (Here is the link: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/questioning-willusionism/ Professor Brian Leiter has advertised it at Leiter Reports.) There’s a lot of emphasis on Nahmias’ coolness. According to Marshall, Nahmias has “some pretty groovy experiments”, but, the thoughtful groovemeister that he is, Nahmias also has his “armchair moments”. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not holding any of this against Nahmias. Why would I (perversely) object to x-phi coolness? I’m all for it, all else being equal. (True: I’m beginning to lose hope that I will someday be introduced as “an another member of the extra cool armchair philosophy clan of which the extra cool Roderick Chisholm is a leading member”. But, no, for the record, I definitely do not begrudge Nahmias for his coolness!) So, there is this iconoclastic glamour that seems to endear the x-phi’er to coolness-seeking crowds. Not necessarily a bad thing, not at all. But I’m looking for arguments tending to show what it is that makes the armchair philosophers I admire so hopelessly uncool and wrong-headed. I just want to allot x-phi’ers the share of responsibility that comes with all that coolness. So, I’m sorry: they’re not getting extra credit for coolness in this post.
Some of the things Nahmias says in that interview worry me. He is clearly a very cautious x-phi’er, I hasten to add, in fairness. He wants to be seen as a moderate x-phi’er (whatever that means exactly), as opposed to a chair-burner. If you get swayed by the coziness of the interview, it may look like there’s nothing really eye-popping in his claims – not unless, like me, you’re struggling to understand, at the most fundamental level, what x-phi’ers think they can contribute to philosophy, and why they think it’s an important contribution. Reading Nahmias just reinforced my suspicions, unfortunately. He describes one of the experiments with which he’s been involved. The experiment is designed to collect data on how the non-philosophical folk intuitively react to some of the scenarios that inform philosophical theorizing about free will. The x-phi’er’s hypothesis is that the folk may not react in accordance with the armchair philosopher’s expectations. Somehow, that is supposed to be a sociological discovery that is important to philosophy, potentially revolutionary. (Frustratingly, though, there is never any explicit hint that the x-phi’er may be in the sociology business.) According to Nahmias, “[o]n the face of it, [the] results suggest that the armchair speculations of incompatibilists are mistaken”. But something seems very wrong with this picture, as, to his credit, Nahmias himself admits. First, there is the obvious problem: the folk have to be handled with care. Nahmias concedes that
you can get people to see the problems posed by determinism with some explanation or argument. Perhaps. But I suspect that either those explanations or arguments are presenting determinism in the guise of more threatening heads of the monster (e.g., fatalism or manipulation), which happens a lot in introductions to the “problem of determinism,” or the arguments are not so commonsensical after all. […] [A]cross a variety of descriptions of determinism, almost all of those participants (the minority) who say that agents lack free will and responsibility also respond that the agents’ mental states have no effect on what they end up doing. That is, they read the deterministic scenario to imply that our beliefs, desires, and decisions are bypassed such that they play no role in what we do. That is a mistake. Determinism entails no such thing.
Well, if I’m not much mistaken, that’s a very major problem for the x-phi’er right there: It looks like the relevant intuitions can be relied upon only after people get a philosophical education. And, to our ultimate dismay, the concepts in question may be so complex as to elude some of those who are educated enough to call themselves “experts” and put textbooks out there!
How surprising is that, really? I vaguely seem to remember a recent interview where Professor Kit Fine complains that it seems naively optimistic to expect the non-philosophical folk to react point-blank to complex philosophical scenarios in a way that might make those of us who think long and hard about them reconsider our perception of such scenarios. (Words to that effect. Please, correct me if I’m wrong.)
So, and with the above problem firmly in mind, what can we expect from x-phi? The key word seems to be “help”. But what kind of help? How much help? I can’t see how, exactly, Nahmias answers those questions. What I can see is that, again to his credit, he is quick to distance himself from belligerent goals and dismissive claims directed at the armchair philosopher:
I don’t believe in burning armchairs. I think we philosophers should be doing most of our work in the armchair (or better, a circle of armchairs) – and the best scientists do much of their work there too, thinking up theories and hypotheses to test, and considering paradigms to test them. I am not against the methodology of appeal to intuitions (I’m not in the ‘negative’ camp of x-phi that says the evidence suggests that all intuitions are unreliable), not even appeal to one’s own intuitions, nor the use of such appeals in one’s arguments. But I can’t imagine how attempts to get more systematic information about people’s intuitions or the psychological sources of them (the descriptive project) does any harm to philosophy.
That’s generally okay – okay-sounding anyway, at first blush. But, now, the bar for contribution has been set so low – as low as simply not doing any harm! – that I remain bogged down in my original perplexity. I had hopes of understanding why x-phi is supposed to be important, potentially revolutionary. For a moment there, Nahmias seems willing to settle for harmlessness. But then, noticing that he’s expected to do better than that, he comes back with the following:
How does it help? Well, at a minimum it allows us to test certain philosophical claims about what is commonsensical or widely believed or intuitive to ordinary people – and such claims are common in philosophy (when someone writes something like, “Obviously, we believe X,” I tell my students to pounce). It also allows us to gain insight into the sources of our intuitions and judgments, and that is important both to teach us about how our minds work – a quintessential philosophical question – and to give us some evidence about the reliability of our intuitions. For instance, if Knobe is right that our moral judgments can precede and influence our judgments about intentional action, causation, and knowledge, that is important for both our psychological theories and our philosophical theories. Certainly, such information helpfully supplements philosophical theorizing. I do not think it replaces it.
But, again, don’t be too impressed. There’s much to dislike in Nahmias’ answer. To begin with, some of it is hard to understand. For instance, what is the quintessential philosophical question about the workings of our minds, exactly, and how is that question set apart from the questions posed in the cognitive science lab? Depending on the question, it may not be one that any sane armchair philosopher would ever dare ask in his philosophical inquiries. So, I, for one, can’t be sure what he thinks is the quintessential philosophical question “about the workings of our minds”.
Second, some of it seems historically unwarranted. Wasn’t Russell’s paradox discovered in the armchair? (Replace the Russell reference, if you must, with your favorite philosophical paradox.) Wasn’t it also discovered there that our intuitions are not perfectly reliable? Is Nahmias suggesting that news of the unreliability of the “light of reason” has just been given us by experimental philosophy?
Third, some of it seems philosophically unwarranted. Claims about what people believe or what is intuitive to the folk have been routinely refuted by philosophers since time immemorial. They are cut down to size by anybody who suspects that they are false. The mere suspicion of falsehood is devastating in philosophy to claims about what the folk do or do not believe. But many of those claims according to which “obviously, we believe X” are elliptical. They certainly do not mean the same as “obviously, we believe X, even if we recklessly take just a second to think about whether X”. Often, such claims are about what any intelligent person would think when considering whether X after much careful examination of the relevant facts. Futhermore, to the bearer of intuitions that will strike us as deviant after we’re satisfied that they’ve reached a point of stability in their deliberation about whether X, on the other hand, it will always be easier to question aspects of the x-phi’er’s work than to dismiss the intuitions. (Hasn’t there been a dispute about data collection and analysis chronicled here, at CD, between x-phi’ers Professors Knobe & Schaffer and Professors Sripada & Stanley?) When bad armchair philosophers make appeals to intuitions (their own or somebody else’s) to which some of us cannot relate, we simply reply that our intuitions do not confirm the philosopher’s claim. Too bad for him. He’s not peddling a philosophy we can buy. But why isn’t that the end of the matter? Why is the bad philosopher’s false appeal to intuition somehow illegitimate? Why must we also impugn his armchair philosophy on highly abstract methodological grounds?
Fourth, some of it is question-begging. Didn’t Nahmias himself just admit that the folk may need some considerable amount of education in order to even have a useful understanding of the concepts and scenarios with which they are confronted by the x-phi’er? And where is that education coming from? The armchair?
Fifth, and by the way, why haven’t I seen any x-phi’ers trying to impugn the work of logicians and mathematicians for their armchair appeals to intuition? Here’s a scenario I’d love to see. The x-phi’er collects data on how a bunch of very ordinary people react to this most divisive armchair claim by a highly regarded logician, Graham Priest: “Sentences may be true, false, both, or neither.” (But, hey, let’s make sure the folk are really very ignorant and not very bright!) I tend to think this is a much simpler claim than any of the cases that the folk have been confronted with in x-phi research about Gettier cases, free will, pragmatic encroachment. Now, suppose that I’m wrong: suppose there is nothing simple in that claim, and the folk are scratching their heads, dumbfounded. The x-phi’er will have to carefully coach them just a little, just to make sure they are adequately primed for reacting to it (whatever the criteria for that may be). Here’s what I think the x-phi’er should do, in order to give the claim a fighting chance, given that the vast majority of armchair philosophers think the claim is counterintuitive: give the folk a couple of hours with Priest. You know what will happen there, don’t you? Priest will give them what will look like an airtight proof of the claim. What would such an experiment lead us to believe about armchair claims in philosophical logic? Is that the moment of glory Priest has been waiting for? But, this may only show how badly I misunderstand what x-phi’ers are trying to do. Which is why I’m here asking the question.
And how about the suspected intimacy between naturalism and x-phi? (The question with which I’ve dragged into this post.) I really should tell you, in broadest outline, how I see naturalism first.
Students often ask me if a discussion of naturalism in epistemology is welcome in my seminars. They usually come to the topic through papers by Hilary Kornblith and Richard Feldman in the Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. My answer is invariably: “Any topic on which philosophers like Kornblith and Feldman are engaged is welcome in my seminars.” This is something that I say without hesitation. I think very highly of both. But then we get to it, and the students learn that I’m ambivalent about the topic. Naturalism in epistemology – narrowly understood as the project of so-called “naturalized epistemology” – is unlike the vast majority of other epistemological topics to me, in that, try as I might, I’ve never found a single good thing to say about it. So, I don’t encourage my students to pursue it, but neither do I discourage them (in view of the way it excites authors like Kornblith).
So, I let the students go about their business of trying to persuade the class that the project of naturalized epistemology is an exciting one. Then, I’m supposed to respond to the prospects of excitement. I won’t go into great detail about it here, but I’ll give you the highlights.
The reference to Quine seems unavoidable. Fortunately, we can quickly get past it. Simply put – and, yes, bluntness will help here – Quine is an embarrassment when it comes to naturalized epistemology, even to those naturalists whose impetus is derived from his work. His clearest proposal is that the epistemologist would do well to leave traditional epistemology and go pursue some brand of cognitive psychology. (This is surely in the ballpark, and I’m eschewing sophistication here.) Well, I have no problem with anybody thinking that at all. Maybe there is more excitement for some of us at the cog-sci lab. That’s a matter of individual preference, opportunity, etc. It’s a far cry from anything that might deserve to be dignified as arising from deep philosophical insight or argument. How a philosopher’s expression of frustration with – or misunderstanding of – the traditional problems of epistemology ends up causing commotion in certain philosophical circles can only, to my mind, be explained by social psychology. In philosophy, some people get away with murder, if they are really good in something else. The overrated Quine is a prime example. Recall that piece of nonsense he gave Morton White (in the first Schilpp volume) when White gently pressed him on the issue. You may remember what he said about what he thinks normative epistemology is: “For me normative epistemology is a branch of engineering. It is the technology of truth-seeking, or […] prediction. Like any technology, it makes free use of whatever scientific findings may suit its purpose.” Can you picture the teacher’s embarrassment in trying to explain this kind of nonsense to a student who was beginning to think that this is what naturalized epistemology was supposed to be in the first place?! We let some people get away with murder. Quine surely enjoyed his own large chunk of that kind of permissiveness. (I suspect that he suffered from too much reverence and adulation, often a fatal condition in philosophy.)
But whatever credit Quine may be due as one of the great philosophers we have known – and I do agree that he is a venerable figure, of course – it remains that a bunch of first-rate epistemologists thought there was some merit in the notion of a naturalized epistemology. And so we come to the delicate case of Professor Alvin Goldman. I should hardly be expected to tell you how much we, epistemologists, owe him. It’s as big a debt as any in the history of the field. Let’s move past the obvious and look at Goldman’s naturalism. Oh, my!… Since I have to do this at breakneck speed, suffice it to say that, after he pays lip service to some project of naturalization for epistemology (some project of establishing a “link” between epistemology and cognitive science) in the introduction to Epistemology and Cognition, there is no naturalism in sight for the next 120 pages – not coincidentally, that book’s greatest contribution to epistemology. We could look at more evidence. But I’m sure you get the point. (Running epistemological views alongside results from cognitive science is still some distance from changing epistemology.)
(Note: I won’t discuss William Alston’s views here. There is no support for any popular notion of naturalized epistemology in Alston’s work. Enlisting Alston to the naturalistic camp, his winks at it notwithstanding, will require ignoring part 2 of his book Beyond “Justification”, which he explicitly warns naturalists not to do in his name.)
So, once we’re past the grand gestures and programmatic promises, it seems that the project of naturalized epistemology will at the very least boil down to this piece of warning: “Epistemologist, you had better look closely at what’s coming from the cog-sci lab, because your epistemology may have to accommodate the cog-scientist’s findings. Understand that you’re vulnerable in that armchair!” What is the proper response to this? Can we be vulnerable on some front to surprises from scientific research? I think any sensible armchair philosopher won’t see himself in a position to rule it out. But that’s much less than we want to know about our prospects. How likely is it that we will have to reconsider our armchair epistemology in light of the cog-scientist’s findings? The odds seem amazingly low. (It may even look goofy to put the matter in probabilistic terms.) But, to measure them, you have to think about the traditional problems and how vulnerable they are to scientific discovery. Consider epistemic principles. Here’s one: If S knows that P&Q, then S know that P and S knows that Q. Might that be in any risk of being reconsidered in light of the output of the lab? Might anybody’s preferred resolution of the Gettier Problem be thus vulnerable? Skepticism in general (and epistemic circularity)? Epistemic goals? The merits of Bayesianism? The notion of coherence? Contextualism? Pragmatic encroachment? I’m sure you know what I mean.
Now, is any naturalization project worth talking about? Maybe some is. Let’s keep talking. Let’s make sure we get it all sorted out. But let’s seriously curb our enthusiasm about “naturalized epistemology”. Some charming uses of the term have been rubber checks.
The foregoing is my lightning-fast introduction to the tentative answers I can give the questions in the first paragraph of this post.
Is it universally understood that being an x-phi’er implies being a naturalist (that is, that the tie between those concepts is somehow knowable a priori)? No, I can’t see how the argument would be made that, necessarily, if you are an x-phi’er, you are a naturalizer.
Do most (but not all) people expect an x-phi’er to be a naturalist (just because being one is positively correlated with being the other)? On anecdotal evidence, that surely seems to be the case. And it’s disappointing. We should expect the experimental philosopher to be unbiased in these metaphilosophical matters, shouldn’t we? Aren’t they all sociologists and cognitive scientists qua x-phi’ers?
Is there a metaphilosophically important rationale for a “yes” answer to either of the previous (original) questions? I can’t see any. And is any correlation merely a sociological phenomenon, possibly arising from misconceptions and foggy, personality-driven ideology? This is the question I most care about here. The title of this post is actually a Trojan horse. The post was primarily meant as a request for help in understanding both the project of naturalized epistemology and experimental philosophy. My problem is that something that puzzles me – x-phi – seems fueled by something that befuddles me – naturalized epistemology – in a most bewildering way. But my emphasis really is on the puzzlement and the befuddlement. And my tentative answer is: Both the popularity of x-phi and that of naturalism in epistemology seem to be personality-driven, mostly ideological, and based on microscopic traces of philosophy. And yet, no, I wouldn’t dismiss either of them as unworthy of attention, definitely not.
There you have it. Now that I’ve burned my chances of being pursued by 3:AM Magazine faster than an arsonist can burn an armchair, I can only hope that the cognoscenti at CD will find it in their hearts to show me the error of my ways.