Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Swapping Armchairs for Clipboards

Attention! The philosopher has left the armchair and is now… conducting tests? Welcome to the world of experimental philosophy (or x-phi), a growing movement to combine pure-thought traditional philosophy with the empirical sciences. Putting the experiment back in “thought experiment,” members of the x-phi community are taking out their clipboards, asking people questions, and collecting information on a whole range of topics. How do people think about moral dilemmas? Do their intuitions about traditional thought experiments match up to those of the philosophers? What do they count as real knowledge? Answers to these questions may shed some light on traditional philosophical questions and claims – at least, the experimentalists hope so.

How could experimental philosophy tell us anything useful? Consider one tool out of the philosopher’s toolbox: the Thought Experiment. This is an imaginary scenario often used to test our intuitions about certain cases, and then demonstrate how those intuitions support a particular philosophical claim. One series of famous thought experiments called Gettier cases involve intuitions about knowledge. In 1963 Edmund Gettier published an article challenging the notion of knowledge as "justified true belief,” which until that point had been the standard definition. He proposed the following scenario: Smith is a job candidate who believes justifiably that "Jones will get the job." Smith also believes justifiably that "Jones has a dime in his pocket." Smith concludes that "The man who will get the job has a dime in his pocket." But Jones ends up not getting the job -- Smith does instead. Smith also, as it turns out, had a dime in his pocket. So Smith was correct when he concluded that "The man who will get the job has a dime in his pocket." But Gettier argued that it does not seem correct to say that Smith had real knowledge, rather, it seems like a lucky coincidence. Gettier’s intuition (that Smith did not really know) was taken as evidence to show that knowledge is not simply justified true belief.

What really constitutes knowledge is an enormous question that I won't even begin to get into here. The point is that whenever we are trying to answer such philosophical questions, appeals to intuition about thought experiments play a rather important role in the conclusions we draw. But whose intuitions should count? Does everyone have the same intuitions? Could age, gender, religion, culture, class, ethnicity, or any other unforeseen variable, have an effect? Sounds like a problem for experimental philosophy. Next post I’ll elaborate on some surprising results about intuitions from the armchair. Turns out, they may be misrepresenting a rather large portion of the population (hint: roughly half).

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