In today’s New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah comments on the newborn philosophy movement of experimental philosophy, or “x-phi,” in which philosophers are turning to MRI machines and other laboratory technologies to help unravel philosophical quandaries. This new movement, he reports,
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 x-phi philosophers (x-philes) are setting out to torch the armchairs, as evidenced in a YouTube video (Experimental Philosophy Anthem) that Appiah mentions. Take the question of when we think that an action is blameworthy? Why wonder abstractly when we can simply ask people what they think, just as Joshua Knobe has done? Why not set up an Experimental Philosophy Lab as Indiana University has? “More and more,” Appiah writes, “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?) ”
What does Appiah think of this? What do I think of it? We’re both in agreement that empirical answers don’t settle philosophical questions.
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.
What a great writer Appiah is! Let’s go further, though, and note that x-phi empirical work is nice work the way that the social sciences produce nice work. They observe how some people behave and think but not whether such behavior and thinking is coherent or commendable. Moreover, the presumptions and methods of such “science” still need to be reflected upon. That’s why we need philosophy of social science, not just social science. Philosophy at its best is self-reflective. An MRI machine is not.