The Apriority of Some Experimental Philosophy

July 28, 2009

Some experimental philosophy are apriori, so I claim. (More carefully, the conclusions that these projects draw are apriori.) On the face of it, this claim is rather implausible. If there is one thing that is most distinctive about experimental philosophy, it is the empirical methods that it borrows from psychology, cognitive science, and other allied fields. I want to argue that, however, in order to address a common objection against experimental philosophy, proponents would do better to concede the apriority of some projects that employ experimental methods. Fortunately for them, this concession can be made because there is an important distinction to be drawn between empirical/rational and aposteriori/apriori. The upshot is that both proponents and detractors would do well to note that experimental philosophy come in both apriori and aposteriori varieties.

Here is a rough taxonomy of projects that fall under the “experimental philosophy” umbrella. First, there are projects that are not survey based, but instead involve some observation on the experimenter’s part. Josh Greene’s fMRI works are paradigmatic examples. I think it’s uncontroversial that these are aposteriori. Second, there are “debunking” survey-based projects. These projects often argue against traditional philosophy claims from diversity of opinions. The cross-cultural studies on direct reference and knowledge are paradigmatic examples. I think these are aposteriori too, though I am relatively less confident. Third, there are “positive” survey-based projects. From people’s response to cleverly-designed thought experiments, experimenters draw conclusions about folk concepts. Of this kind of projects, Josh Knobe’s works on the moral component of intentionality are paradigmatic examples. In this post, I will argue that this last kind of experimental philosophy projects are apriori.

The common objection against experimental philosophy is that the responses that they get from ordinary people, which they call “intuitions”, are nothing relevantly like philosophers’ intuitions. Perhaps the folk do not have the relevant concepts employed in philosophical discourse. Perhaps the folk do not offer their considered, reflected judgments as philosophers do. If this objection succeeds, then experimental philosophy ought not have the impact on current philosophical practice that its proponents claims that it should. These so-called “intuitions” are simply not what philosophers ought to admit as evidence for their inquiries—in the same way that the fact that people sometimes say “I don’t believe God exists, I know it!” ought not count as evidence for knowledge not requiring belief.

Now, I find this common objection against experimental philosophy rather unconvincing, but I won’t debate that here. Instead, I want to simply note a dialectical point. To successfully respond to this objection, experimental philosophers need to do enough to show that the responses they get from ordinary people are relevantly like philosophers’ intuitions. The crucial point, then, is this: philosophers’ intuitions are apriori. If ordinary people’s responses are not, then that would seem like a relevant difference. To be more explicit, we can say that the content of ordinary people’s responses are apriori. Of course, experimental philosophers’ collections of those responses, or what we might call their observations of ordinary people’s responses, are empirical and aposteriori.

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Was Goldman a Closet Internalist?

July 20, 2009

I am teaching a class on epistemology and metaphysics. We are reading the paper where Alvin Goldman first proposed reliabilism, “What is Justified Belief?”. Upon re-reading, there is a part of his discussion that I just find puzzling, and not at all what I expected given the caricature in my head that reliabilism is the prototypical externalist theory.

In section III, Goldman considers a case that I think is quite similar to the clairvoyant case that people tend to bring against reliabilism:

Suppose that Jones is told on fully reliable authority that a certain class of his memory beliefs are almost all mistaken. His parents fabricate a wholly false story that Jonese suffered from amnesia when he was seven but later developed pseudo-memories of that period. Though Jones listens to what his parents say and has excellent reason to trust them, he persists in believing the ostensible memories from his seven-year-old past. Are these memory beliefs justified? Intuitively, they are not justified. But since these beliefs result from genuine memory and original perceptions, which are adequately reliable processes, our theory says that these beliefs are justified.

Goldman then goes on to consider various revisions to account for this unintuitive result. At some point he even admits that the problem raised by this cases suggests a fundamental change to the reliabilist theory is necessary, and sketches one such change.

What puzzles me is not his concession that the result in the case is unintuitive, but his further concession that a fundamental change is necessary. Isn’t the standard externalist response just to bite the bullet? That is, I thought externalists would say simply: yes, although it is unintuitive, in fact there are things we know that we don’t know we know and even things we know that we think we don’t know. So it is strange that Goldman is moved by the example to make a big concession. This fact leads me to think that, at least at the time when he first proposed reliabilism, Goldman might have been a closet internalist.