September 3, 2005

Experimental Philosophy?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting on one Dr. Joshua Knobe, professor of philosophy at UNC Chapel Hill, who has published 18 papers, primarily in the field of ethics (and moral psychology) using a method of "experimental philosophy" which he has apparently devised or helped devise. Basically, Mr. Knobe observed that philosophers, especially ethicists, constantly talk about "our intuitions" and their arguments often rely on this. Furthermore, much of analytic philosophy, methodologically, begins with questions of the form "what do we mean when we say..." Based on this, Mr. Knobe decided to attempt to devise survey questions to determine precisely what ordinary peoples' intuitions or definitions are on certain subjects. One interesting result is that most people seem to view intentionality as a moral concept - that is, whether or not we say that a person performed an action "intentionally" often depends on our judgment about the moral status of the person.

Personally, I find this historically interesting. As little as 200 years ago, all that is now called "the sciences" (including both natural and social sciences) was considered to be part of philosophy. Those we now call scientists were called "natural philosophers." This was how Isaac Newton, for instance, would have described himself. In the latter half of the 19th century, a sharper distinction began to be drawn between science and philosophy and, ultimately, those fields where experiments are done according to "scientific method" were called science, and the others remained part of philosophy. I wonder, therefore, if this will lead to a field of "scientific ethics" which will be distinguished from philosophical ethics. Another interesting distinction is that science is always purely descriptive, whereas philosophy, especially ethics, is often normative. So one wonders if we will develop a science of descriptive ethics while prescriptive ethics remains solidly in the philosophy department. In any case, Knobe's ideas will no doubt lead to much interesting research which will be pertinent to further philosophical investigation.

Posted by Kenny at September 3, 2005 10:15 PM
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