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Thought Experiments, Mental Modeling, and Experimental Philosophy

Timothy Williamson has urged philosophers to move past talking about philosophical intuitions since there is no agreement about what they are supposed to be. I suggest reframing recent debates about philosophical methodology and the significance of experimental philosophy in terms of thought experiments themselves, and argue that thinking carefully about how thought experiments are supposed to work and why they sometimes go wrong serves to underscore the significance of experimental philosophy. In particular, if Williamson is right that philosophical thought experiments can be reconstructed as arguments, but that their narrative details cannot be eliminated without compromising our ability to arrive at the conclusions that they are intended to support, then the empirical study of philosophical cognition is more important than ever, and we should embrace experimental philosophy as the best way to refine and sometimes reform the way that we use thought experiments in contemporary philosophy.

Philosophical Expertise

Learning more about philosophical cognition has yielded significant insights into the methods that we employ when doing philosophy, and has led some experimental philosophers to raise concerns about the role that intuitions play in philosophical practice. One popular response to these methodological concerns involves appeal to philosophical expertise, and has become known as the expertise defense because it aims to defend the use of at least some kinds of intuitional evidence in philosophy. The basic idea is that philosophical expertise consists in having developed, through a process of critical reflection, increased conceptual competence and theoretical accuracy, as well as a special knack for reading and thinking about philosophical thought experiments that call upon us to exercise our conceptual competence and theoretical acumen. It turns out to be an open question whether this folk theory of philosophical expertise can restore hope in the value of intuitional evidence, and here we examine two ways of trying to answer that question: one that involves careful reflection on the supposed benefits of philosophical education, and one that involves careful empirical examination of “expert” philosophical intuitions.

The “Unreliability” of Epistemic Intuitions (w/ Jonathan Weinberg)

Debate over the status of intuitions in philosophical practice is marred by an ambiguity about “unreliability.” Many authors, including Boyd and Nagel in this volume, have defended the reliability of intuitions in the baseline accuracysense of “on balance, right more often than wrong.” We agree that intuitions should likely be considered reliable in that sense. But that is not the sense in which their reliability has been under attack. Rather, the sense of reliability most relevant for understanding experimentalist critiques of intuitions is trustworthiness, for which baseline accuracy is perhaps a necessary, but by no means sufficient condition.

Salience and Epistemic Egocentrism (w/ Chad Gonnerman & John Waterman)

Nagel (2010) has recently proposed a fascinating account of the decreased tendency to attribute knowledge in conversational contexts in which unrealized possibilities of error have been mentioned. Her account appeals toepistemic egocentrism, or what is sometimes called the curse of knowledge, an egocentric bias to attribute our own mental states to other people. Our aim is to investigate the empirical merits of Nagel’s hypothesis about the psychology involved in knowledge attribution. We will present four studies showing that our willingness to attribute knowledge is sensitive to what possibilities have been made salient in a given conversational context, that this sensitivity can be explained in terms of epistemic egocentrism, and that increased motivation doesn’t seem to drive down our tendency to mistakenly project our own mental states onto others. We will also preview several additional studies involving individual differences, social distance, and a specific kind of interventional debiasing strategy.

The Challenge of Sticking with Intuitions Through Thick and Thin (w/ Jonathan Weinberg)

Philosophical discussions often involve appeals to verdicts about particular cases, sometimes actual, more often hypothetical, and usually with little or no substantive argument in their defense. Philosophers – including ones on both sides of debates over the standing of this practice – have very often called the basis for such appeals “intuitions”. But, what might such “intuitions” be, such that they could legitimately serve these purposes? Answers vary, ranging from “thin” conceptions that identify intuitions as merely instances of some fairly generic and epistemologically uncontroversial category of mental states or episodes to “thick” conceptions that add to this thin base certain semantic, phenomenological, etiological, or methodological conditions. While thin conceptions have received several high-profile endorsements in recent years, thick conceptions have become increasingly popular, in part because they seem to offer some way of responding to recent empirical challenges to our intuition-deploying practices that thin conceptions do not. But this response is not without its costs. Thick conceptions turn out to have their own methodological problems – some actually fail to properly immunize our intuition deploying practices from the kinds of problems raised by recent empirical challenges, others expose our intuition-deploying practices to different kinds of empirical challenges, and still others leave us in the methodologically untenable position of being unable to determine when anyone is doing philosophy correctly.

Putting the Trolley In Order (w/ S. Matthew Liao, Alex Wiegmann, & Gerard Vong)

In recent years, a number of philosophers have conducted empirical studies that survey people’s intuitions about various subject matters in philosophy. Some have found that intuitions vary accordingly to seemingly irrelevant facts: facts about who is considering the hypothetical case, the presence or absence of certain kinds of content, or the context in which the hypothetical case is being considered. Our research applies this experimental philosophical methodology to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous Loop Case, which she used to call into question the validity of the intuitively plausible Doctrine of Double Effect. We found that intuitions about the Loop Case vary according to the context in which the case is considered. We contend that this undermines the supposed evidential status of intuitions about the Loop Case. We conclude by considering the implications of our findings for philosophers who rely on the Loop Case to make philosophical arguments and for philosophers who use intuitions in general.

Restrictionism & Reflection (w/ Jonathan Weinberg, Chad Gonnerman, & Shane Reuter)

It has become increasingly popular to respond to experimental philosophy by suggesting that experimental philosophers haven’t been studying the right kind of thing. One version of this kind of response, which we call the reflection defense, involves suggesting both that philosophers are interested only in intuitions that are the product of careful reflection on the details of hypothetical cases and the key concepts involved in those cases, and that these kinds of philosophical intuitions haven’t yet been (and possibly cannot be) adequately studied by experimental philosophers. Of course, as a defensive move, this works only if reflective intuitions are immune from the kinds of problematic effects that form the basis of recent experimental challenges to philosophy’s intuition-deploying practices. If they are not immune (or at least sufficiently less vulnerable) to these kinds of effects, then the fact that experimental philosophers have not had the right kind of thing in their sights would provide little comfort to folks invested in philosophy’s intuition-deploying practices. Here we provide reasons to worry that even reflective intuitions can display sensitivity to the same kinds of problematic effects, although possibly in slightly different ways. As it turns out, being reflective might sometimes just mean being wrong in a different way.

Competence: What’s In? What’s Out? Who Knows? (w/ Ron Mallon & Jonathan Weinberg)

Is Experimental Philosophy Philosophically Significant?

Experimental philosophy has emerged as a very specific kind of response to an equally specific way of thinking about philosophy, one typically associated with philosophical analysis and according to which philosophical claims are measured, at least in part, by our intuitions. Since experimental philosophy has emerged as a response to this way of thinking about philosophy, its philosophical significance depends, in no small part, on how significant the practice of appealing to intuitions is to philosophy. In this paper, I defend the significance of experimental philosophy by defending the significance of intuitions—in particular, by defending their significance from a recent challenge advanced by Timothy Williamson.

Are Philosophers Expert Intuiters? (w/ Jonathan Weinberg, Chad Gonnerman, & Cameron Buckner)

Recent experimental philosophy arguments have raised trouble for philosophers’ reliance on armchair intuitions. One popular line of response has been the expertise defense: philosophers are highly-trained experts, whereas the subjects in the experimental philosophy studies have generally been ordinary undergraduates, and so there’s no reason to think philosophers will make the same mistakes. But this deploys a substantive empirical claim, that philosophers’ training indeed inculcates sufficient protection from such mistakes. We canvass the psychological literature on expertise, which indicates that people are not generally very good at reckoning who will develop expertise under what circumstances. We consider three promising hypotheses concerning what philosophical expertise might consist in: (i) better conceptual schemata; (ii) mastery of entrenched theories; and (iii) general practical know-how with the entertaining of hypotheticals. On inspection, none seem to provide us with good reason to endorse this key empirical premise of the expertise defense.

Accentuate the Negative (w/ Ron Mallon & Jonathan Weinberg)

Our interest in this paper is to drive a wedge of contention between two different programs that fall under the umbrella of “experimental philosophy”. In particular, we argue that experimental philosophy’s “negative program” presents almost as significant a challenge to its “positive program” as it does to more traditional analytic philosophy.

The Instability of Philosophical Intuitions (w/ Stacey Swain & Jonathan Weinberg)

A growing body of empirical literature challenges philosophers’ reliance on intuitions as evidence based on the fact that intuitions vary according to factors such as cultural and educational background, and socio-economic status. Our research extends this challenge, investigating Lehrer’s appeal to the Truetemp Case as evidence against reliabilism. We found that intuitions in response to this case vary according to whether, and which, other thought-experiments are considered first. Our results show that compared to subjects who receive the Truetemp Case first, subjects first presented with a clear case of knowledge are less willing to attribute knowledge in the Truetemp Case, and subjects first presented with a clear case of non-knowledge are more willing to attribute knowledge in the Truetemp Case. We contend that this instability undermines the supposed evidential status of these intuitions, such that philosophers who deal in intuitions can no longer rest comfortably in their armchairs.

Analytic Epistemology and Experimental Philosophy (w/ Jonathan Weinberg)

It has been standard philosophical practice in analytic philosophy to employ intuitions generated in response to thought-experiments as evidence in the evaluation of philosophical claims. In part as a response to this practice, an exciting new movement – experimental philosophy – has recently emerged. This movement is unified behind both a common methodology and a common aim: the application of methods of experimental psychology to the study of the nature of intuitions. In this paper, we will introduce two different views concerning the relationship that holds between experimental philosophy and the future of standard philosophical practice (what we call, the proper foundation view and the restrictionist view), discuss some of the more interesting and important results obtained by proponents of both views, and examine the pressure these results put on analytic philosophers to reform standard philosophical practice. We will also defend experimental philosophy from some recent objections, suggest future directions for work in experimental philosophy, and suggest what future lines of epistemological response might be available to those wishing to defend analytic epistemology from the challenges posed by experimental philosophy.