While taking a class on freedom, identity, and reality at school, I started to become aware of a fundamental tool used by philosophers that bothered me. It came about when we were learning about the free will versus determinism debate. I could not stand the fact that libertarians (those in favor of pure free will at the deepest level) used hypothetical thought-experiments to illustrate the fact that we do have free will. This seemed counter-intuitive because a thought-experiment is not actually happening out there, in ‘real life’. What is happening out there, in real life, is people leading very predictable, determined lives. The libertarian posing thought experiments is merely contributing to his own determined life, by philosophizing, because he is, in fact, a philosopher and is ‘expected’ in some sense to create these thought-experiments.
The issue came about again later in the semester when we were discussing personal identity. With some research and help from my professors I discovered that I am not alone! These concerns are prevalent and being acted upon in the new field of experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophy uses empirical data, similar to the methods used in the psychology field, to test if philosopher’s ‘expert’ intuitions are shared by the common folk.
Now that I have warmed you up, posted below is my essay on the topic. Enjoy!
The Necessary Evolution of Philosophy
Recently, significant progress has been made in psychology through its use of empirical data. A branch of philosophy has emerged from the successes psychology has been making. It is called experimental philosophy, and it utilizes empirical data in order to come to a better understanding of people’s thoughts on philosophical topics. It is making the bold move to explore intuitions which philosophers use as the foundation to entire philosophical theories and arguments, assuming that the intuition was correct. The use of intuition is a common practice amongst contemporary analytic philosophers. From Parfit to Williams to Shoemaker, analytic philosophers have been using intuitive thought-experiments and hypotheticals to assist in understanding personal identity. While these thought-experiments may be helpful to come to a deeper understanding of personal identity, amateur philosophers should take caution while navigating these ideas. Philosophy has always been deeply connected to science throughout history, almost indistinguishable at times. Experimental philosophy and its proponents calls for philosophy to take one step further in its union with science and embrace the use of empirical objective data in order to find truth. The era of ‘armchair’ intuitive practices is over. The subjective and outdated method of philosophizing with the use of intuitions must come to an end if philosophers expect to ever find answers. Analytic philosophy in the twenty-first century requires the adaptation from the subjective nature of armchair intuitiveness to the objective nature of empirically supported experimental philosophy.
To successfully substantiate the use of experimental philosophy, intuition must be made fallible and unreliable. Jonathan M. Weinberg has done extensive work in the field of ‘the restrictionist challenge’. The restrictionist challenge opposes the use of intuitive hypotheticals and thought-experiments in analytic philosophy. It has been a tradition for analytic philosophers to use ‘armchair intuitions’. These are intuitions which do not require any kind of additional empirical work to verify their merit in a given case, i.e. they can be done while a philosopher sits in an armchair and uses imagination to concoct any hypothetical in order to prove a point.
Intuition can be difficult to attack because it is difficult to define and differentiate from similar ideas such as ‘judgment’ or ‘belief’. Weinberg defines intuition as, “…intellectual seeming, phenomenologically distinct from perception (including proprioception and the like), explicit inference, and apparent memory traces” (320). Intuition is unique in that it is analogous to the function of observation in science. In scientific experimentation our perception is used to observe phenomena and accurately record the experiment’s results. Intuition is phenomenologically different than perception; however it is very closely related in how it works in relation to philosophy. For example, if a philosophical problem is analogous to a science experiment, then intuition would be analogous to the experimenter using perception to observe the results of the experiment. Intuition can seem as fool proof as our own two eyes, yet it can deceive us from time to time.
Weinberg has discovered that intuition is very vulnerable to fallibility through exterior threats. The threats to valid intuitions are factors which anyone, including professional philosophers, could be vulnerable to, “That is, there is some evidence that the judgments vary systematically with factors that one would not expect to track the relevant philosophical truths. Most of this work can be divided into four categories: demographic differences; order effects; framing effects; and environmental influences” (456). These factors affect our psychological ability to interpret and judge a situation and make objective reliable decisions. It is found through empirical studies that factors are present when forming intuitions that a philosopher would not be aware of. Even the order in which words are presented could change the intuition a person has, “The difference in wording had a significant effect on participants’ judgments despite the fact that, in the context of the trolley problem vignette, they are obviously describing the same action” (457). There are psychological factors that may fly under the radar but certainly can affect a philosopher’s ‘armchair practice’. It is worth noting these factors and holding a philosopher’s intuition up to the highest scrutiny, if they claim it to be sound, “Unwanted variation in any source of evidence presents a prima facie challenge to any practice that would deploy it. Once they recognize that a practice faces such a challenge, practitioners have the intellectual obligation to see whether their practice can meet that challenge” (457). It should be commonplace to hold these intuitions up to a professional standard. Armchair philosophers can think what they like, as long as they recognize that there are multiple factors to consider when it comes the validity of their arguments. These factors may not come from another philosopher, but may be a critique from some sort of empirical or objective evidence that denies the validity of the claims or intuitions that the armchair philosopher may make.
When attacking intuition, the opponent must look for something specific to target within the umbrella of intuition. This is necessary because if you generalize the attack on intuition then you are denying a philosopher’s use of fundamental intuitive tools, such as basic perception, math, and other common things that all people use make claims in an argument. Defenders of intuition are able to do so effectively because they can exploit the opponents attack on too general of a concept of intuition. If an opponent does not narrow his attack, then he is susceptible to being scrutinized for not allowing the philosopher to use the very general and practical applications of intuition. The argument against intuition must be specific to target the way in which philosophers use it to make claims that are impractical and unverifiable, like Parfit does in his essay “Personal Identity”. Parfit uses hypotheticals which border the absurd, that are not applicable to a practical sense of personal identity, “For the practice appears to set no constraints on how esoteric, unusual, far-fetched, or generally outlandish any given case may be. Everyone is familiar with the likes of… fissioning/fusioning/teleporting pairs (or are they?) of persons” (321). His use of science fictional thought experiments removes the reader further away from any answer to what constitutes personhood. The issue is not confined to the intuitions that philosophers have necessarily.
The problem is not the intuitions that philosophers have, which can be very firm in their logical basis, but what philosophers do with intuitions, “…the current analytic philosophical practice of appealing to intuitions as evidence for philosophical claims” (320). Philosophers are using these intuitions as a base for their entire argument, and if that intuition is incorrect the validity of the argument can be called into question. The use of the hypothetical should be to strengthen the logical foundation of the argument, not weaken it, “Such citations thus are meant to carry argumentative, evidential weight, but one is not usually required to offer any further argumentation for the intuition itself. In particular, no empirical evidence is required, because one is presumed to have stipulated all the contingencies in the construction of the hypothetical, and one is thus applying only one’s mastery of the concepts involved and not any empirical evidence” (320). Philosophers are not being held to any kind of standard when building these elaborate and far-fetched thought-experiments, unlike the practice of many other professions where objective accountability is valued highly to confirm legitimacy. To increase the reputation of philosophers’ accuracy there must be a form of evaluation for the intuitive devices a philosopher uses. In the case of Parfit, Weinberg makes the claim that we could attempt to restrict our use of such abnormal circumstances, “…we could, as a profession, decide to be particularly cautious about using intuitions under circumstances far removed from ordinary conditions—such as cases involving wildly unusual or even nomologically impossible situations, or that can be described only using fairly highfalutin lingo” (336). This switch would strengthen the validity of Parfit’s claims astronomically and help to gain a more accurate understanding of personal identity. Parfit could also simply test his hypotheses empirically to understand what is generally understood to constitute personhood in his unusual hypotheticals.
Another form of uncertainty comes in the absence of a scale which we can use to understand how much a person agrees with an intuition. Not only do we engage in intuitions, but we engage without the use of a point of reference for the varying degrees of certainty that we may feel for the intuition, “We currently possess no standard reporting procedures for registering any degrees of tentativeness or certainty with intuitions, and even if we did do a better job of reporting whatever limited degree of variation in certainty we may feel, there is still no method in our practice for taking such information into account” (335). If philosophers come across an intuitive thought-experiment that they are not certain they agree with, there is no way to accurately conceptualize that feeling. In order to have accurate intuitions some sort of universalized point of reference would help immensely. If perception can be held to a certain standard in scientific inquiry, then is it crazy to implement some sort of standard for the use of intuitions in philosophy? One would not look into a telescope if there was the chance that the observer’s eyesight was compromised. How could the observer discern from a star or some sort of biological inconsistency? Weinberg understands that we are able to accurately mitigate our perception. Overwhelmingly we can understand when there is a problem with our perception and make appropriate changes to ensure accuracy, “The mitigating factors enable us to detect illusions, recognize perceptual artifacts as such, and in general avoid making any unrecoverable errors” (326). Why not hold intuition to the same standard? If it can be accurately mitigated, then we can actively use it in philosophy and any assumed piece of evidence that is not practically infallible, aka “…hopeful to the extent that we have the capacity to detect and correct its errors” (327), should be considered an illegitimate intuition. Humans are susceptible to many external factors that could disrupt an intuition, and a philosopher to claim that they are immune to that susceptibility is unrealistic. It is that sort of arrogance which fuels the armchair intuiter’s sense of ownership over the intuition.
Another term coined by Weinberg is a ‘cathedrist’. It defines a person who defends the armchair philosopher. In the upsurge of experimental philosophy, armchair philosophers, cathedrists, have been attempting to defend their intuitions by making the claim that they are experts in their field, and being experts allows them to make such intuitions. Just as we would trust a doctor more with his judgment about an injury, we should trust a philosopher with his intuitions, because he is a professional. This is the cathedrist’s best defense of their position which has been offered in several different ways by several philosophers. Weinberg makes a bold and persuasive critique to this defense, and in the process uncovers greater truth to the illegitimacy of intuitions.
What cathedrists want to say is that their intuitions are more valid than that of the laity, or the philosophy undergraduate. What Weinberg is attempting to uncover however, is that while this may be true, that must guarantee that the philosopher is not susceptible to the types of external psychological problems that faces any person with an intuition. Weinberg has found that philosophers of a western background can have very different intuitions about the nature of knowledge in a Gettier case than that of a philosopher with an East Asian background. To claim that as an expert philosopher you have an immunity to this sort of cultural variability is a bold statement indeed, “If philosophers’ intuitions on the whole aren’t sufficiently immune from the sorts of distortions that folk intuitions seem to be prey to, then—even if philosopher’s intuitions are in other ways epistemically superior to the folk’s—the cathedrist will not in fact have the makings of a successful reply to the challenge” (333). There must be something deeper and more rooted in the expertise of the philosopher to hold him above these kinds of distortions that folk intuitions are susceptible to. If the expert would claim that they have a skill which holds them to a higher standard, then the expert must understand that being proficient in one category does not imply proficiency in the rest. Expertise is a task specific thing and just because you are an expert in one field, does not imply expertise in a logically similar field, “So philosophers’ possession of such demonstrable skills as, say, the close analysis of texts, or the critical assessment of arguments, or the deployment of the tools of formal logic, does little to nothing to raise the probability that they possess any correspondingly improved level of performance at conducting thought experiments” (335). What is it about the imagining of intuitive thought-experiments that being a philosopher specifically prepares you for?
A mastery of conceptual schemata, which consists of configural rules and higher order concepts, would constitute an expertise in thought-experimentation and hypotheticals. Weinberg offers a refute to this as well, even if an expert is well versed in the area of conceptual schemata, this mastery leads to the same types of problems, “…while experts do exhibit some epistemic virtues not typically found in novices—such as thinking in terms of subtle distinctions and novel categories, and possessing an increased domain-specific memory and better skill at generating new hypotheses and measuring variables—their judgments also still often fall prey to many of the same errors as novices” (340). The expert is not infallible to the same types of inhibitors that give novices trouble. This is the risk to using intuitions, because they are vulnerable to all sorts of external factors. Philosophers are subject to basic forms of psychological error when it comes to making intuitions, and this, “…might very well lead philosophers to believe that we have attuned intuitions, even if in reality in many places we have simply been systematically reaffirming early impressions and incorrectly attributing our professional successes (e.g., in debate and publication) to their validity” (341). Psychologically, a person can warp an intuition to fit their liking, their hypothesis because that is what they want to be right. Philosophers are human, and can fall prey to the same types of problems that anyone does. Especially in philosophy, where the argument is an original construction of the philosopher, getting attached to only one way of thinking can become very easy. Weinberg reminds us that even surrounding yourself with like-minded philosophers can affect intuition, or reading self-affirming accounts of the same argument. It seems to be very easy to fall into a subjective and flawed rut where the only line of thinking affirms the philosopher’s original hypothesis, and constructive criticism from either a third party or empirical data can be dismissed by the close-minded philosopher.
If truth in an objective sense is to be found for any philosophical question, then why not enforce that scientific standards be held for philosophical inquiry, especially in analytic philosophy? These questions which analytic philosophers strive to answer become more and more intertwined with science every day. Why not use the same type of objective scrutiny and thoroughness with intuition? Philosophical intuitions are based in a philosopher who may believe in a certain way of thinking about knowledge, for example. For an intuition to be valid, there must be an objective truth to knowledge that the intuition can be held in relation to. The nature of philosophy is to be in debate about certain theories that other philosophers might take for an intuitive objective truth. How can we make any progress in critiques when you are assuming the validity of something unsubstantiated by an objective truth, “…both the suggestions that expert intuitions are trained against consonance with the intuitions of other experts, and that they are trained against favored philosophical theory, face persistent problems of explanatory regress” (343). No objective or empirical fact will be drawn from something in which the intuition is constantly regressing from. Many philosophical theories and debates are rooted in uncertainty. That is their nature. Inherent to the theory is the underlying fact that it is not a law, “The reason is that the locus of the instability is internal to the theory, so to speak” (346). Laws govern recurring phenomenon in the world that science can predict with extreme accuracy. Investigating philosophical ideas is to investigate the unknown, the uncertain, the perplexity of life, things which we have not yet seen to repeat to a consistency that we can define as a law.
So why would we not attempt to answer these philosophical questions with the same goal in mind, to go about it in a way where we can start to see patterns and laws emerging from the answers. To justify an intuition from the armchair is to admit defeat. Holding philosophers up to a standard that is scientific in nature will produce the movement towards truth. Is that not what the philosopher seeks? It seems to be counter intuitive to deny some sort of objective and empirical evaluation of philosophical theory. Philosophical theory is constantly evolving and changing, there is no continuity throughout. The discipline implies a sense of never knowing for sure, “A further disanalogy that may be relevant here is that other areas by and large do not rely so centrally and heavily on their expert judgments as the key source of data for their further activities” (349). When we continue to build on to a theory that may have a false or not generally accepted intuition, we are making no progress at all towards an objective truth. In philosophy, the expertise which a cathedrist calls upon to validate the use of intuition, is based on a discipline with limited feedback. To strengthen an intuition one must be engaged with it constantly in many forms and from many sources, in philosophy this isn’t available as of now, “In general, other disciplines develop expertise in places where there are robust sources of feedback which can serve as a teaching signal for the would-be expert” (349). Expertise as a validation of intuition is extremely difficult if you cannot work with an objective, agreed upon truth which you become acquainted to through practice and use.
As intuition applies to the notion of the self, and our perception of self-identity, it can create barriers to finding an objective truth. Justin Sytsma attempts to come to a deeper understanding of the self through experimental philosophy. He uses empirical studies to evaluate the accuracy of certain philosopher’s intuitions about notions of the self. Sytsma believes that philosophers base intuitions on monism, the adoption of one accepted theory or notion of free will, knowledge, the self, etc. Sytsma says, “We will argue in the case of personal identity, monism does not capture folk commitments concerning personal identity. Many of our identity-related practical concerns seem to be grounded in distinct views of what is involved in personal identity. Furthermore, both empirical evidence and philosophical thought experiments indicate that judgments about personal identity are regimented by two (or more) different criteria” (181). Experimental philosophy has something to say about the intuitions that people have about the topic of identity, and that we have a sense of pluralism in the nature of personhood.
Sytsma looks at Williams’ body swapping case which involves the transferring of psychological traits and the fear of torture in the future. Williams presented the intuition that we have a sense of fear when the body which is to be tortured has false memories inserted into it. Williams believes that it would be him being tortured, and not a different person, and he has the intuition others would agree. This intuition was confirmed empirically through an adaptation of the same case, “They were then asked to indicate agreement or disagreement with the sentence ‘you will feel the pain.’ Participants overwhelmingly agreed with this statement, suggesting that they are thinking of the self in a way that persists despite the complete disruption of the trait-self” (184). This is a direct example of where an empirical study could be used to affirm an intuition that an analytic philosopher presents through a thought experiment. It is practical for philosophers to take this extra step in their work to provide the reassurance that their intuitions are not unsubstantiated through any number of means.
Analytic philosophy is in a state of change. As the practice of implementing empirical studies becomes more and more prevalent in scientific methods, philosophy will have to adapt. The search for truth is common in science and in philosophy. While the two have had fundamental differences in their methodology, their interconnectedness cannot be denied. If philosophers expect to come to ground breaking discoveries in their respective fields, then a change in their tactic is necessary. The era of armchair intuitions has passed. The scientific method does not have to implicate that the subject matter that philosophy deals with is irrelevant. Philosophical methodology is merely not the best way to go about engaging these topics any more. It is time for the subject to evolve. Intuitions cannot be trusted, and experimental philosophy has not been tested. The convergence of these two paths will lead to great truths being discovered. Weinberg and Sytsma are champions of a new school of thought. Weinberg artfully and meticulously deconstructed the use of intuition in analytic philosophy, arguing to narrow the attack on intuition, and to dismantle the assumption that expertise insinuates correct usage of intuition. Sytsma recognizes the importance of experimental philosophy and begins to make connections between the Williams, Parfits, and Shoemakers to the empirical studies which have been conducted to test their intuitions. Analytic philosophy has heard its call to change, it rests upon the philosophical community to make it happen.
Sytsma, Justin. “How Many of Us Are There?” Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Mind. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 181-202. Print.
Weinberg, Jonathan M., Chad Gonnerman, Cameron Buckner, and Joshua Alexander. “Are Philosophers Expert Intuiters?” Philosophical Psychology 23.3 (2010): 331-55. Web.
“How to Challenge Intuitions Empirically without Risking Skepticism.”Jonathan M. Weinberg,. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Weinberg, Jonathan M. “On Doing Better, Experimental-style.” Philosophical Studies 145.3 (2009): 455-64. Web.