Experimental philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P063-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved January 19, 2019, from

1. Experiments and conceptual analysis

Experimental work on the concept intentional provides perhaps the most famous illustration of the method of experimental philosophy. Joshua Knobe presented people in a public park with the following scenario:

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new programme. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’

The chairman answered, ‘I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new programme.’

They started the new programme. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

When presented with this vignette, most participants said that the agent intentionally harmed the environment. However, when the word ‘harm’ is replaced with ‘help’ in the scenario, most people deny that the agent intentionally helped the environment (Knobe 2003). This surprising result, and the numerous subsequent experiments on the phenomenon, might help us understand the nature of the concept intentional, in a way that was not be achieved by a priori techniques alone.

How is understanding everyday concepts philosophically relevant? The answer lies in the fact that many philosophical problems are thought to arise out of the basic, shared concepts we use to understand the world. For instance, when philosophers think about concepts such as freedom and responsibility, many of them take themselves to be reflecting upon concepts that are shared not only by other philosophers, but by the broader population as well (e.g. Jackson 1998). And it is this common meaning that connects the work of philosophy with deep questions that emerge, perhaps, for every person who reflects on the matter.

Free will provides an apt example in the history of philosophy. One central issue of dispute is whether free will and responsibility are consistent with causal determinism, the view that every event is completely caused by past events, stretching back to the beginning of time. According to ‘compatibilism’, determinism is perfectly consistent with free will and responsibility; ‘incompatibilism’ denies this. What is significant, though, is that the debate turns on whether determinism threatens how we ordinarily think about free action and moral responsibility. To evaluate such a debate, it seems important to have a good understanding of our ordinary ways of thinking about action and responsibility (see Free will).

A group of experimental philosophers led by Eddy Nahmias joined the issue by presenting participants with descriptions of a deterministic universe (Nahmias et al. 2006); they found that people tended to allow that in such a deterministic universe people were free and responsible. This seems to pose a problem for those who think it is part of our ordinary understanding that determinism is incompatible with free will and responsibility. Rather, these results might provide support for the view that the proper analysis of the concept of moral responsibility is an analysis on which responsibility is compatible with determinism. However, it is possible that, even though people sometimes give responses that conform to compatibilism, these responses do not really reflect the folk understanding of responsibility. For instance, it is possible that an emotional bias leads people to give such compatibilist responses. Subsequent experiments indicate that people are indeed more likely to give compatibilist responses when the scenarios are emotionally charged (Nichols and Knobe 2007). One lesson of this work is that it is no simple matter to go from how people respond to a given scenario to conclusions about a folk theory or concept.

This kind of empirical research can be viewed as continuous with conceptual analysis, since at least some work in experimental philosophy aims to elucidate folk concepts. But some of the work in experimental philosophy also diverges from conceptual analysis in an important way. In conceptual analysis, the aim is typically to come up with a theory or set of principles that fits most, or the most important, of the relevant intuitions. That is, the goal is to devise a theory from which the intuitive judgements would follow. It does not matter, from this perspective, whether actual intuitive judgements people make are drawn from such a theory. The goal is to come up with the theory that best systematizes our intuitions, and the results need make no concessions to psychological realism. Experimental philosophers, on the other hand, are often explicitly engaged in a rather different project in which one tries to divine the actual psychological principles and processes that generate the intuitions. For instance, experimental philosophers seek to understand why we think the way we do about free will and responsibility. Understanding the psychological basis for our intuitions might then provide a basis for assessing the extent to which the intuitions result from a unified folk theory or a kind of a bias.

Citing this article:
Mallon, Ron and Shaun Nichols. Experiments and conceptual analysis. Experimental philosophy, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P063-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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