The Apriority of Some Experimental Philosophy

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.

As far as I understand, the conclusions that positive survey-based experimental philosophy projects draw are essentially reports of ordinary people’s intuitions. The following parallel suggests this understanding. One the one hand, a traditional philosopher finds that Smith does not have knowledge in Gettier’s Case I thought experiment, and draws the conclusion that knowledge requires some component beyond justified true belief. On the other hand, an experimental philosopher notes that people find that the chairman intentionally performed an action in the harm condition but not in the help condition, and draws the conclusion that intentionality has a moral component. The latter conclusion follows from ordinary people’s intuitions to Knobe’s thought experiments in the same way that the former conclusion follows from philosophers’ intuitions to Gettier’s thought experiments.

Now consider a distinction that Carrie Jenkins draws between empirical/rational, which are about how concepts are grounded, and aposteriori/apriori, which are about justification or warrant of a belief. She defines the term as follows (119):

(1) A way of knowing a proposition p is empirical iff it involves some epistemic use of the senses. A use of the senses is epistemic iff the role of the senses is not just that of awakening or preparing the mind so that it is ready to know things, but rather the senses play a key role in actually supplying us with the knowledge in question.

(2) A way of knowing a proposition p is a priori iff it is epistemically independent of empirical evidence; that is, there is no epistemic reliance upon any of the following: (a) immediate experiential knowledge of p; (b) inductive empirical confirmation of p; (c) inference to, or deduction of, p from propositions which are known in one of the above ways.

Hence, there could be beliefs that are empirical and apriori, if the following is satisfied: the senses play an important role in grounding the concepts relevant for the belief, but the belief itself involves only an internal examination of those concepts. (Thanks to Carrie for comment below.) Our concept of intentionality needs to be sensitive to the world, and one way for it to be grounded is being sensitive to people’s attributions of intentionality. What observations of ordinary people’s responses to the thought experiments is allow this sort of epistemic grounding, of our concept of intentionality. In that sense, the method of positive survey-based experimental philosophy is an empirical one. However, the epistemic evidence that supports the conclusion does not come from the observations of ordinary people’s responses. Instead, it comes from the content of those responses, which, if they are to be relevantly like philosophers’ intuitions, are apriori. Hence, the kind of experimental philosophy that I characterize as positive and survey-based could be reasonably called both empirical and apriori.

(Williamson seems to have a similar point in mind as Jenkins when he dramatically claimed that there is no genuine distinction between the apriori and the aposteriori. However, I think that Jenkins’s way of putting it allows us to see a useful distinction while recognizing it as being different from the empirical/rational distinction.)

If what I have said is right, then there is an important distinction for both proponents and detractors of experimental philosophy to recognize. While all experimental philosophy projects are empirical, some are aposteriori but others are apriori. Debating methodologies of philosophy should involve more than debates about methods. The status of epistemic evidence matters too.

I should confess that, although I’ve taken a rather confident tone, I’m quite unsure about the conclusions I draw in this post. I would be really curious in hearing what other people think. Moreoever, have similar things been said elsewhere? The “psychologizing of evidence” discussion appears relevant, but I don’t know much about it. I did notice that in his 2007 critique of experimental philosophy, Sosa has a footnote about how the debunking projects are different from the positive projects, in terms of their attitudes toward philosophical intuitions.

Update 08/02/2009: See also Jonathan Ichikawa’s Bibliography on Intuition, especially the section on “non-skeptical experimental philosophy”. The skeptical/non-skeptical distinction may be more apt than the distinction I’ve tried to draw in this post.

Update 12/04/2009: For another attempt, from a slightly different perspective, at driving a wedge between the positive and negative programs of experimental philosophy, and critique of the positive program, see Joshua Alexander, Ron Mallon, and Jonathan Weinberg’s “Accentuate the Negative“, forthcoming in Review of Philosophy and Psychology. I learned about this paper after the blog post, and I would recommend people who stumbled here to look there too.

Update 01/17/2010: For an even more ambitious project that argues all experimental philosophy are apriori, see the abstract on “Experimental Philosophy and Apriority” by Jonathan Ichikawa over at the Arche Methodology Blog. (Sorry I’m a bit late on this.)

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11 Responses to The Apriority of Some Experimental Philosophy

  1. Hi Sam,

    Interesting stuff! Just a quick thing: for me, the empirical/non-empirical distinction isn’t just about causal and/or enabling conditions. It’s epistemic; it’s just that it’s a different epistemic distinction from that between the a priori and the a posteriori. So my distinction might not be quite what you need here.

    I’m not sure I agree that it’s the content of the folk’s intuitions rather than the x-phier’s observation of them that does the justifying in the cases you’re talking about. Can you say more about why you think so?

  2. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Hi Carrie,

    Thanks a lot. Yeah, I do need something stronger than causal or enabling, but something like what you call epistemic grounding. I wonder if a case could still be made, though. Our concept of intentionality needs to be sensitive to the world, and one way for it to be grounded is being sensitive to people’s attributions of intentionality. Hence, observing people’s attributions of intentionality plays a grounding role. (I’ll try to make some revisions in the post to this effect, to not misrepresent your position.)

    Here is why I think it’s the content rather than observation that matters. Consider the Gettier case again. The following would be a bad argument:

    1. Philosophers intuit that it’s possible to have justified true belief but not knowledge.
    C. Justified true belief is not sufficient for knowledge.

    Instead, the good argument would be:
    1′. It’s possible to have justified true belief but not knowledge.
    C. Justified true belief is not sufficient for knowledge.

    So it’s the content of the intuition that matters, not philosophers’ self-observation that they intuit such.

    Similarly, I think this would be a bad argument:
    1. People intuit that it’s possible for two scenarios where there is intentionality in one case and not the other, and the two scenarios differ only in the moral respect.
    C. Intentionality has a moral component.

    Instead, the good argument would be:
    1′. It’s possible for two scenarios where there is intentionality in one case and not the other, and the two scenarios differ only in the moral respect.
    C. Intentionality has a moral component.

  3. Jonathan Livengood says:

    Wow, there is a lot going on in this post! I have two topics of comment/question:

    1. I don’t understand how you are getting empirical and a priori … you claim:

    Hence, there could be beliefs that are empirical and a priori, if the following is satisfied: the senses play an important role in grounding the concepts relevant for the belief, but the belief itself involves only an internal examination of those concepts.

    But I don’t understand the way you are using your terms here. What does it mean for the senses to play a role in *grounding* a concept? Also, just how much of a role? And what kind of a role? What does it mean for a belief to involve only an internal examination of a concept? What is involvement here? And what is examination? I assume examination of is something other than deduction from and that grounding does not require immediate experiential knowledge (otherwise, your conditions don’t work). But beyond that, I’m very lost.

    2. What I think is really at stake in the debates about intuition is how one supports claims like your 1′ premisses. As I see it, philosophers often say things like, “It is obvious [or intuitive or clear] that p; therefore, p.” I don’t know why the feeling of obviousness in such cases is supposed to have evidential value. I guess what I’m worried about is something like the following dialogue.

    A: It’s possible to have justified true belief but not knowledge.
    B: Oh yeah? Why do you say that?
    A: Well, suppose Frank works in an office building with Jim, who is up for a promotion. Frank has excellent reasons to think that Jim is going to be promoted. Moreover, he knows that Jim has a nickel in his left-hand jacket pocket. So, he has excellent reasons to think that someone with a nickel in his left-hand jacket pocket is going to be promoted. In fact, Sam (and not Jim) is going to be promoted. But by a strange coincidence, Sam has a nickel in his lef-hand jacket pocket. Weirdly, Frank has excellent reasons for one of his beliefs about who will be promoted, and his belief is true. But this isn’t knowledge.
    B: Huh. That’s an interesting story, but why isn’t it an example of knowledge? Why do you want to say that Frank doesn’t know that someone with a nickel in his left-hand pocket is going to be promoted?

    If A replies, “Well, I intuit that this isn’t knowledge,” then A relies on something sort of like your premiss 1. It’s not exactly alike, because A has pushed the reasoning a little further. Rather than arguing from philosophers intuiting that it’s possible to have justified true belief but not knowledge, A argues that some philosopher–namely, A–intuits that the given example, call it F, is not a case of knowledge, and then A argues or maybe just intuits again that F is a case of justified true belief.

    I’m perfectly happy with many philosophical arguments that take exactly this form, incidentally. In particular, I find Gettier cases very convincing. I’m satisfied with being convinced, even though I can’t answer B’s question. I think it would be a mistake, however, to believe that simply because I feel that p is intuitively, obviously true, I have evidence for p.

    I think that we should fess up to our “intuitions” being nothing more nor less than unsupported, unquestioned premisses in our arguments, rather than trying to defend them as having some hefty epistemic status, either as the products of a special faculty or as the products of conceptual competence (whatever *that* means) or what have you.

    What do you think?

  4. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Re (1): I don’t have a good answer. I wanted to borrow Jenkins’s definition of “empirical”, but as the dialogue above shows, I had some misunderstandings. So I tried to fix that up a bit quickly, but it’s something I need to think more about. I think the way I am using “apriori” is reasonably clear though. Ultimately, I would be happy if someone agreed with me that some experimental philosophy are apriori–I just think it would be more sensible, paying due respect to the distinct methodology, if we can make a case for it being empirical apriori.

    Re (2): I don’t really like the way of putting intuition as “a feeling of obviousness”. If that were the case, then all intuitions would seem aposteriori because feeling is experiential.

    I think the proposal to take intuitions as unsupported premises in arguments is an interesting one. But notice that this presumes that it is the intuitions themselves, not the observation of us having them, that is supposed to play an evidential role in deriving the conclusion. (Whether they successfully do so is a separate question.)

  5. Jonathan Livengood says:

    So when I am backed into a corner, throw up my hands, and say, “Well, I just have this intuition that p,” I am not giving reasons anymore but simply pointing at the causes of my beliefs? Is that the way you see it?

    On a related note, I’m not sure why you think that a mental/physical state being a “feeling” makes the epistemic content of that state a posteriori. I suppose that there is some worry that everything (or nothing) might be made to count as a priori, but I didn’t think that was the direction you were going. Suppose I am thinking through Euclid’s proof that an equilateral triangle can be constructed with any given line as one of its sides. I ask myself about whether or not one of the steps in the proof is valid. I answer myself, “Well, that step feels right.” Does my reasoning now count as a posteriori just because I “checked” it against my feelings?

  6. Shen-yi Liao says:

    Yes, to the first question.

    I think we might just be using “feeling” in different ways. If all there is to having an intuition is just having a genuine feeling of obviousness about something (in the same sense of feeling as happiness about something or fear about something), then I would say that makes intuitions aposteriori. If such feelings are merely incidental, as in your Euclidean proof, then I would still count the intuition as apriori. But I am not even sure whether what you mean by feeling is relevantly like happiness or fear.

  7. Jonathan Livengood says:

    I don’t know if we really disagree about what “feeling” means or not, though I also had the sense that you were taking “feeling” in a more robust sense than I was. I suppose I’ve been thinking about the problem this way: if intuitions don’t have an introspective mark by which they can be identified as intuitions, then they can’t do anyone any good as evidence. The feeling of obviousness seems like the relevant mark to me, at least with respect to the arguments in which intuitions are deployed. Maybe the feeling — in a more robust sense (?) — is just a/the mark of having an intuition? But then it seems like the feeling *does* play some role in reason-giving. Because now a dialogue might go like:

    A: Oh, I know that p because I have an intuition that p.
    B: But how do you know that it is an *intuition* you have?
    A: Well, I have this feeling that it is obvious that p.

    Anyway, I’m not really too attached to feelings here, but I think however you fill in what A says after “Well, …” you will run into problems. So, what do you think … if an intuition is attended by a mark that one perceives/introspects in order to identify it as an intuition, does that make the intuitive content a posteriori? I think I want to say, “No.”

    Again, I would be happy to say that an intuition is just a type of belief, but then I don’t see what is supposed to give “intuitive beliefs” (to distinguish from, say, perceptual beliefs or beliefs produced by argument or reasoning) special standing as *evidence*. And if a good argument is forthcoming that they do have special standing, then we need a way of picking out the intuitive beliefs.

  8. dtlocke says:

    Hi Sam,

    A very interesting post.

    RE: your response to Carrie, you write:

    Similarly, I think this would be a bad argument:
    1. People intuit that it’s possible for two scenarios where there is intentionality in one case and not the other, and the two scenarios differ only in the moral respect.
    C. Intentionality has a moral component.

    Instead, the good argument would be:
    1′. It’s possible for two scenarios where there is intentionality in one case and not the other, and the two scenarios differ only in the moral respect.
    C. Intentionality has a moral component.

    I agree that the latter is the better argument. And I take it that you claim that the proponents of “positive survey-based projects” are offering arguments of the latter sort. But if so, wouldn’t their justification for (knowledge of) 1′ be a posteriori? Recall Carrie’s definition:

    (2) A way of knowing a proposition p is a priori iff it is epistemically independent of empirical evidence; that is, there is no epistemic reliance upon… inductive empirical confirmation of p…

    If proponents of “positive survey-based projects” are not trying to gain ‘inductive empirical confirmation’ of (1′), then I don’t understand what it is that they are doing.

    Of course, I would say that they do not *successfully* obtain ‘inductive empirical confirmation’ of (1′), but isn’t that what they are trying to do?

  9. Shen-yi Liao says:

    @Jonathan
    I was thinking of intuition as some sui generis mental state.

    @Dustin
    I share your “I don’t understand what it is that they are doing” to a degree. I think the collection of data is really incidental to the justification of their conclusions. This also coincides with something that Chandra Sripada once expressed: What really does the work for this kind of projects are the vignettes–the thought experiments–themselves; the actual experimenting is unnecessary. My point is precisely that we (and them) should think carefully what role the collection of data plays.

    Suppose the premise of the inductive inference is `People surveyed intuit that it’s possible for two scenarios where there is intentionality in one case and not the other, and the two scenarios differ only in the moral respect.’ I don’t think that warrants drawing the conclusion `Intentionality has a moral component.’ Instead, it at most warrants drawing the conclusion `People not surveyed also are likely to intuit that it’s possible for two scenarios where there is intentionality in one case and not the other, and the two scenarios differ only in the moral respect.’

  10. Joel Gronning says:

    Hi,

    It would be interesting to hear what the founders of experimental philosophy thought of experimental philosophy as involving a priori components. Traditionally experimental philosophy claimed to be void of anything a priori whatsoever.

  11. […] In the interest of full disclosure, I used to adopt the unfortunate “survey” terminology for some experimental philosophy projects as well. […]

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