Experimental philosophy movement explores real-life dilemmas

Jul 02, 2008

Imagine a business executive who thinks: "I know that this new policy will harm the environment, but I don't care at all about that – I just want to increase profits." Is the business executive harming the environment intentionally? Faced with this question from a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill philosopher, 82 percent of people polled said yes.

But then UNC scholar Joshua Knobe changed the word "harm" to "help." This time, the executive thinks: "I know that this new policy will help the environment, but I don't care at all about that – I just want to increase profits." Is the business executive helping the environment intentionally? This time, only 33 percent of respondents said yes.

These are the sorts of questions posed in a new movement called experimental philosophy, where scholars leave their armchairs to talk to people directly about how they form their opinions and values. A new book by Knobe and University of Arizona philosopher Shaun Nichols being published this month is the first volume to discuss the controversial approach that is challenging conventional notions about the discipline.

"Experimental Philosophy" (Oxford University Press), edited by Knobe and Nichols, brings together seven "greatest hits," considered the most influential papers in experimental philosophy. It also includes several provocative new papers, including an introductory chapter by Knobe and Nichols, "An Experimental Philosophy Manifesto."

Although the experimental philosophy movement is only a few years old, it has already led to a surge of new research – including experimental studies that explore people's ordinary understanding of morality, free will, happiness and other key philosophical issues. The aim is to dive right into the messy real world and to use psychological experimentation to get at the roots of philosophical problems.

"If you look back through the history of philosophy – all the way from the ancient Greeks to the 19th century Germans – you find in-depth discussions of how ordinary people actually think and feel," said Knobe, an assistant professor of philosophy in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences. "The aim of experimental philosophy is to return the discipline to this more traditional approach. The only difference is that contemporary experimental philosophers address their questions by actually going out and running experiments."

Studies like the one involving the business executive and the environment can help get at the roots of philosophical debates, Knobe said. "Experiments like these are beginning to suggest that people's ordinary way of understanding the world is suffused through and through with moral considerations."

"This sort of research is important not only for its philosophical implications but also for what it tells us about how people ordinarily think," Knobe added. "The more we know about how people make moral judgments, the more we will be able to understand how people come to blame each other and enter into conflict."

Nichols added that one of the most exciting prospects of experimental philosophy is that it can help assess whether certain cherished philosophical beliefs are well grounded. "By figuring out the psychological sources of our philosophical beliefs, we are in a better position to evaluate whether we are justified in having those beliefs," he said.

Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Android gains in US, basic phones almost extinct

6 hours ago

The Google Android platform grabbed the majority of mobile phones in the US market in early 2014, as consumers all but abandoned non-smartphone handsets, a survey showed Friday.

SpaceX launches supplies to space station (Update)

6 hours ago

The SpaceX company returned to orbit Friday, launching fresh supplies to the International Space Station after more than a month's delay and setting the stage for urgent spacewalking repairs.

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

10 hours ago

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rrrn
not rated yet Jul 03, 2008
New research? Experimental psychology did it already in the 1970s.

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.