Suppose the chairman of a company has to decide whether to adopt a new program. It would increase profits and help the environment too. “I don’t care at all about helping the environment,” the chairman says. “I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” Would you say that the chairman intended to help the environment?
O.K., same circumstance. Except this time the program would harm the environment. The chairman, who still couldn’t care less about the environment, authorizes the program in order to get those profits. As expected, the bottom line goes up, the environment goes down. Would you say the chairman harmed the environment intentionally?
I don’t know where you ended up, but in one survey, only 23 percent of people said that the chairman in the first situation had intentionally helped the environment. When they had to think about the second situation, though, fully 82 percent thought that the chairman had intentionally harmed the environment. There’s plenty to be said about these interestingly asymmetrical results. But perhaps the most striking thing is this: The study was conducted by a philosopher, as a philosopher, in order to produce a piece of . . . philosophy.
It’s part of a recent movement known as “experimental philosophy,” which has rudely challenged the way professional philosophers like to think of themselves. Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so. The professional bailiwick we’ve staked out is the empyrean of pure thought. Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect. We love nothing more than our “thought experiments,” but the key word there is thought. As the president of one of philosophy’s more illustrious professional associations, the Aristotelian Society, said a few years ago, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”
But now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. The newborn movement (“x-phi” to its younger practitioners) has come trailing blogs of glory, not to mention Web sites, special journal issues and panels at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. At the University of California at San Diego and the University of Arizona, students and faculty members have set up what they call Experimental Philosophy Laboratories, while Indiana University now specializes with its Experimental Epistemology Laboratory. Neurology has been enlisted, too. More and more, you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what’s going on when people contemplate moral quandaries. (Which decisions seem to arise from cool calculation? Which decisions seem to involve amygdala-associated emotion?) The publisher Springer is starting a new journal called Neuroethics, which, pointedly, is about not just what ethics has to say about neurology but also what neurology has to say about ethics. (Have you noticed that neuro- has become the new nano-?) In online discussion groups, grad students confer about which philosophy programs are “experimentally friendly” the way, in the 1970s, they might have conferred about which programs were welcoming toward homosexuals, or Heideggerians. Oh, and earlier this fall, a music video of an “Experimental Philosophy Anthem” was posted on YouTube. It shows an armchair being torched.
Can you really do philosophy with clipboards and questionnaires? It seems that you can. Joshua Knobe, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the philosopher who investigated how people responded to those two stories about the company chairman. (Full disclosure: I examined him on his dissertation.) You might have supposed that whether we judge an action to be (say) blameworthy depends on whether we think it was intentional, and the nature of intentional action is something philosophers have had plenty to say about. But the so-called Knobe effect suggests that — oddly enough — it may not be clear to us whether an action is intentional until we’ve decided whether it’s good or bad.
Philosophers being a quarrelsome group, lots of rival explanations have been offered for what’s going on, leading to new rounds of experiments. And to new rounds of arguments over what the experiments show. Edouard Machery, a philosopher of science at the University of Pittsburgh by way of the Sorbonne, told subjects about a man named Joe who visits the local smoothie shop and asks for the largest drink available. Joe is informed that the megasmoothies come in a special commemorative cup. He doesn’t care one way or the other about the cup. He just wants the megasmoothie. Did he get the commemorative cup intentionally? Most people said no. What if, instead, he’s informed that the megasmoothie has gone up in price and that he’ll have to pay an extra dollar for it? Joe doesn’t care about the extra dollar; he just wants the megasmoothie. Did he pay the extra dollar intentionally? Most people said yes. Machery concluded that foreseen side effects of our actions are taken to be intended when we conceive them as costs incurred for a benefit. In the case of the blameworthy company chairman, then, more pollution was taken to be a harm incurred to gain more profit. Not so, a philosopher at the University of Utah has argued — bolstering his claims with another battery of field-tested thought experiments.
But even while the experimentalists wrangle over exactly what they’ve shown (experimental philosophy is still philosophy, after all), their work offers some good cautionary lessons. Wittgenstein once declared, “We do in fact call ‘Isn’t the weather glorious today?’ a question, although it is used as a statement.” If you actually proposed to do some research to make sure, he would have thought you mad, or impertinent. Philosophers have always been wonderfully confident in their ability to say what “it would be natural to say.” This confidence, experiments show, can sometimes lead us astray.
In one of the most famous arguments of postwar philosophy of language, Saul Kripke addressed a question that had long preoccupied philosophers: how do names refer to people or things? (The larger question here is: How does language get traction on reality?) In a theory that Bertrand Russell made canonical, a name is basically shorthand for a description that specifies the person or thing in question. Kripke was skeptical. He suggested that the way names come to refer to something is akin to baptism: once upon a time, someone or some group conferred the name on an object, and, through the causal chains of history, we borrow that original designation.
To support his case, Kripke offered a thought experiment: Suppose, he asked us to imagine, that Gödel’s theorem was actually the work of a fellow named Schmidt; it’s just that Gödel somehow got hold of the manuscript and thereafter was wrongly credited with its authorship. When those of us who know about “Gödel” only as the theorem’s author invoke that name, whom are we referring to? According to Russell’s view of reference, we’re actually referring to Schmidt: “Gödel” is merely shorthand for the fellow who devised the famous theorem, and Schmidt is the creature who answers to that description. “But it seems to me that we are not,” Kripke declared. “We simply are not.”
To which experimentalists reply: What do you mean “we,” kemo sabe? Recently, a team of philosophers led by Machery came up with situations that had the same form as Kripke’s and presented them to two groups of undergraduates — one in New Jersey and another in Hong Kong. The Americans, it turned out, were significantly more likely to give the responses that Kripke took to be obvious; the Chinese students had intuitions that were consonant with the older theory of reference. Maybe this relates to the supposed individualism of Westerners; maybe their concern that we get Schmidt’s name right isn’t shared by the supposedly more group-minded East Asians. Whatever the explanation, it’s a discomforting result. “We simply are not”: well, that may be so at Princeton or Rutgers. On the other side of the planet, it might seem we are. What should philosophers make of that?
I’m not sure. Because here’s the thing about the theory of reference: Versions of both views — Kripke’s and the one he was challenging — have plentiful adherents among philosophers. Both intuitions have their advocates, and the right answer, if there is one, isn’t necessarily to be determined by a head count. The best work in experimental philosophy would be valuable and suggestive even if it skipped the actual experiments. (“It would be natural to say,” Knobe might have written, “that the chairman in one situation had harmed the environment intentionally, whereas. . . .”) X-phi helps keep us honest and enforces a useful modesty about how much weight to give one’s personal hunches, even when they’re shared by the guy in the next office. But — this is my own empirical observation — although experiments can illuminate philosophical arguments, they don’t settle them.
For instance, is it a good thing that we attribute intention in the curious way that we do, and if so, why? (Is the Knobe effect a bug or a feature?) You can conduct more research to try to clarify matters, but you’re left having to interpret the findings; they don’t interpret themselves. There always comes a point where the clipboards and questionnaires and M.R.I. scans have to be put aside. To sort things out, it seems, another powerful instrument is needed. Let’s see — there’s one in the corner, over there. The springs are sagging a bit, and the cushions are worn, but never mind. That armchair will do nicely.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University, is the author of “Experiments in Ethics,” which will be published next month. His last article for the magazine was about the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire.