Philosophers Discover Lost Tribe in Jungles of Free Will

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of responsibility, and this has necessarily entailed (determined even) my encounter with contemporary (mostly American) moral philosophy. It’s not a domain I would ever seek out, being much more comfortable in the idioms of social theory and continental philosophy, but it’s hardly alien. However, a funny thing happened on my way to the agora, which is that I discovered that a small selection of philosophers have recently gone “experimental.”

Apparently, making broad claims about “what a person would naturally think” have finally become so insupportable that even philosophers have started exploring the possibility of actually talking to people. Experiments measuring “folk beliefs” about whether our world is deterministic or not, or whether free will can exist if the world is deterministic, are intended to settle claims that begin “most people believe that…” Settling such claims is necessary in the domain of moral philosophy, because a concept like responsibility is fundamentally tied to what people do in “everyday” circumstances. If it is not possible to start from some kind of claim about whether (to say nothing of why) people make ascriptions of praise and blame in the same way, then, arguments about free will and moral responsibility start to seem like the proverbial and much-maligned mass and extension of angels living on pins.

Burning ArmchairEnter “X-Phi” — a contingent of young whippersnappers bent on making names for themselves by shaking up some methodological verities in their discipline, “trailing blogs of glory” (as K. A. Appiah deligtfully characterized it) and sporting a burning arm-chair as their logo. You can get a T-shirt, here. You can befriend Experimental Philosopher on myspace here (you’ll be in some rocking company). Or read about them in Slate.

Needless to say, and I speak on behalf of all of us here, This Rocks. I have all kinds of questions and problems with this approach, which I will get to, but I just want to point out that I think the “x-phi” attitude is part of the same zeitgeist that formed Savage Minds– the possibility of a new form of scholarly organization and interaction, of which blogs are an emblematic tool, that subverts and gets around the conservative edifice of the professionally organized disciplines, without being forced to drop out of academia. Rex has called it “scholarly civil society”; I would tend towards a version of a scholarly “public sphere”; regardless, it’s an excellent example of a new kind of scholarship. It might become an important and influential moment in philosophy. Or the fire from the armchair might spread to the lab, as it were. But the fact remains that “X-Phi” is part of the changing game of scholarly communication.

This movement, or whatever it is, isn’t confined to blogs and wikis though–the practitioners are busy filling up the tried and true disciplinary journals with their work (like Nous, Philosophical Topics, or Midwest Studies in Philosophy which despite the folksy name–or perhaps because of it–has been particularly welcoming). Again, regardless of the merit of the work itself, what has been achieved here is a sustained, publicly available, focused community of researchers who are eager to work together to make the problems and topics they address cohere, even if they are busy savaging each other in the pages of what they write (and they are, believe me).

A very good indication of this success is the Wikipedia entry for Experimental Philosophy which is, to date, entirely about this small group of upstarts, and not any of the other historically much more important people and movements that might legitimately lay claim to such a title, like, oh, I Don’t Know, Newton and Boyle? Or Even Hume, whose famous treatise begins with reflections on experiment, thusly:

For to me it seems evident, that the essence of the mind being equally unknown to us with that of external bodies, it must be equally impossible to form any notion of its powers and qualities otherwise than from careful and exact experiments, and the observation of those particular effects, which result from its different circumstances and situations. And though we must endeavour to render all our principles as universal as possible, by tracing up our experiments to the utmost, and explaining all effects from the simplest and fewest causes, it is still certain we cannot go beyond experience; and any hypothesis, that pretends to discover the ultimate original qualities of human nature, ought at first to be rejected as presumptuous and chimerical.

While Hume is well represented on the Internet (I got the quote from a nicely done, CC-licensed version of the Treatise), it is not Hume, Boyle or Newton who rise to the top when one Googles for Experimental Philosophy… it is Joshua Knobe and Thomas Nadelhoffer and all the other people listed here. Pretty much the only other pretender to the title, as far as Google is concerned is the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University. Huzzah.

So this is a kind of branding success. It might represent a kind of scholarly success, but the jury will be out for a while, obviously. Regardless, it’s a success that interests me precisely because I spend a lot of time teaching students and trying to convince colleagues that anthropology is an empirical philosophy, one that professional philosophers would never attempt precisely because it requires all kind of commitments to the real world that are verboten in most mainstream philosophy departments. By this I and my fellow “empirical philosopher” anthropologists mean that anthropology might begin with the lingering questions of philosophers, but tests them amongst the people and (more precisely) collectivities of people for whom intuition, reason and logic are operative–people in the world. Ethnographic fieldwork is experiment, in this sense, even if it is methodologically distinct from the statistical model of survey and questionnaire represented by the experimental philosophers.

From this perspective, it would seem that the x-phi crew have rather crossed a threshold into not-philosophy, and something more like cognitive science or sociology or even, (gasp) anthropology. Are these dissident experimental philosophers looking to join us anthropologists in the epistemological ecumene we have created? Many philosophers have followed this path before, not least of which, our name-sake and spiritual patron, Claude Levi-Strauss. Once one starts down the primrose path of empirical investigation, even if one is an empiricist, business just gets messier, and the crystalline distinctions of philosophy all the more sterile. I think for most of us, it’s also where the fun starts, and I think this is true of x-phi as well.

But these philosophers are not, so far as I can tell, at all interested in leaving philosophy. Rather, what they are emeshing themselves in is something anthropology also knows all too well– the Game of Authority. X-Phi is an attempt to make philosophy convincing not only to philosophers themselves, but to cognitive scientists, neuro-scientists and evolutionary biologists–in short, to the people and pundits closest to the global mic these days, in so far as anyone listens to science of any kind. If one were to draw a contemporary positivist pyramid of authoritative knowledge, it would have statistically sophisticated laboratory experiments at the top, followed by statistically sophisticated field experiments, followed by other kinds of laboratory experiments not employing statistical reasoning, followed by fieldwork, followed finally by reason and argumentation. I’m not sure critical analysis of historical, literary or philosophical texts would even be admitted to this hierarchy. Hence, the appeal of jumping the pyramid to create new, more authoritative claims about a hoary, well-trodden tradition such as the relationship between free will and determinism.

Such a gambit might work: the papers are in respected philosophy journals, and luminaries in the field like Daniel Dennnet lend support and encouragement to experimental philosophy for the same reasons that the philosophy of mind has turned to, argued for or against, and ultimately incorporated work in artificial intelligence, cognitive science and now neuroscience. Which is to say, it’s not just that philosophy is willfully ignorant of other sciences, only that it is slowly and deliberately working out ways to engage, incorporate and argue with results in those fields, precisely because of their power to convince, and hopefully to open up new questions and new avenues for critique that may or may not require more experiment.

Hence, the implicit argument behind conducting experiment in philosophy–and a particular kind of experiment common in psychology, cognitive science–is that it will render the reasoning of philosophers more authoritative. It is an assumption, because any self-respecting philosopher would be led to question whenever and wherever experiment seems to be standing on its own, generating, sui generis, authoritative arguments. Making experimental knowledge authoritative took hundreds of years of hard, political work, it by no means naturally authoritative, only socially and historically so. Kwame Anthony Appiah seems to get what is troubling about this, and that is the mise-en-abyme character of the problem. Experiments don’t settle questions, they only render some answers unlikely. It’s an issue of authority, and authority is a bugbear anthropologists have been fighting for the last 30 years, at least. It’s also the core domain of science and technology studies, where sociologists, philosophers and historians have been hashing out these issues for at least that long.

All the more troubling then that anthropology–especially recent anthropology and its critiques of ethnographic authority is not even on the horizon of these young guns. What happens when these philosophers start asking “cultural” questions like this one? I suspect that the two fields are headed for a collision, or a rapprochement or at least some kind of mating dance. The language of “folk beliefs” “folk intuitions” and “cultural difference” would seem to suggest that the correct orientation would be towards anthropology and towards fieldwork— not towards cognitive science, evolutionary biology and statistics.

A key, and troubling, figure here is Marc Hauser at Harvard. Hauser’s massive laboratory pumps out experiment after experiment about the moral and communicative behavior of primates. Hauser is himself associated with the anthropology department, but only nominally. Indeed, there is a kinship between Hauser and Levi-Strauss that runs very deep—evidenced in the fact that Hauser apparently cannot imagine anyone more wrong that Levi-Strauss. For Hauser, universal moral “modules” in primates are accessible only through experiment–not through reasoning alone, as the tradition of moral philosophy has had it up until the Dawn of The Age of X-Phi. It is a version of structuralism, in a way, except rather than a structuralism with language and culture as its environment, it is one with genes and behaviors as its environment. They are similarly totalizing and can admit pluralism only as variation on a core moral structure we have yet to discover and locate. Levi-Strauss failed to located it in culture, Hauser will spend the rest of his life searching for it in genes, behaviors and versions of race ethnicity and culture. In any case, Hauser is a figure who, like his mentor and muse, Chomsky, straddles multiple disciplines without much concern for their idols. In general, I think this is a good thing, but it often comes at the expense and denigration of any other styles of reasoning currently deemed less authoritative. Perhaps, then, one could read the emergence of X-Phi merely as a craven attempt by philosophers to get more money for their research… but money means respect, and respect means attracting attention and debate, and so it mightn’t be craven at all, just realpolitik.

So the question remains whether there is a way to square this circle of philosophy, anthropology, empiricism and experiment? Can it matter to X-Phi that anthropology has already developed a sophisticated critique of scientific authority? If X-Phi heads down this path far enough, will they start doing fieldwork in order to start settling the questions they begin with, and if so, at what point will that work begin to intersect with work in anthropology that pretends to be answering philosophical questions?

Another way to ask the question: Is X-phi an ettempt to make philosophy more authoritative through experiment, or an attempt to make experimental work more philosophically rigorous? Who is leading who to drink at which trough? It is a curious situation… perhaps one an armchair sociologist might want to take a stab at explaining. It reminds me in some ways of the split in political science between those who do political philosophy and those who do political “science”– where the latter is fundamentally uninterested in the fact of politics, in favor of something called “political behavior” which is meaningful only so long as it is not troubled by the tradition of writing about politics that does not reduce it to one human behavior among others. It’s a conflict unlikely to be resolved within the discipline.

In any case, anthropology should be a kind of lodestar here. Whatever anthropology’s problems are, they do not arise because the discipline is not yet scientific, but because of having tried so hard to become scientific, that it has come out the other side, with its ambitions unfulfilled, and a serious tradition of doubt that “becoming scientific” can necssarily be the pinnacle of achievement. For that pinnacle, many in the discipline still look towards philosophy, and so it makes it all the more disorienting to see that discipline suddenly wandering up the path behind us.

Perhaps we have really entered that era Heidegger characterized as “after the end of philosophy, yet before the beginning of thought?” I don’t know, but I know I can get a t-shirt and an RSS feed and stay hip to it. But seriously, I think what is most compelling about this movement is not necessarily the questions being asked or the methods employed as it is the sense that it is unfolding in new ways, across the planet, and with a liveliness, openness and flexibility that is uncharacteristic of (at least the image) of academia. It’s exciting to see people organize and create in this way, and to know that it’s both possible and, increasingly, authoritative…


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

60 thoughts on “Philosophers Discover Lost Tribe in Jungles of Free Will

  1. Seth, there are plenty of those studies but generally not by people who are properly disciplined, so they’re hard to round up. Try this one I just found, by a flaming anarchist who might be congenial:

    Btw, I wouldn’t say that disciplines do anything to increase the inherent status orientation of intellectual work, which has always been an anxiously subaltern position within larger class and status hierarchies. They’ve just fragmented it. Think guys who had to scramble and scrape for noble or church patronage weren’t attentive to status? Who’s more of a status hound than Galileo, Michelangelo, or Cellini?

    So, agreed about context. Now, what’s the c-o-n-t-e-x-t that makes you so angry about McGinn’s point, which may well be a rationalization but no worse than the various used to underwrite democratic religiosity? 😉

  2. Technical disciplines make status definitions relatively simple, and if anything tend to encourage competition to the point that competition becomes a central aspect of the discipline itself. Any culture of technical expertise is a bubble culture and of limited interest to outsiders; but If you seek to generalize from that bubble out into the world, as if it were the world, it becomes what’s called a ghetto culture. But the world is not the lens through which you choose to see it.

    Leiter’s academia is a ghetto culture, and he spends as much time discussing gossip and academic bed-hopping as philosophy. But he does not discuss the philosophy of bed-hopping. If he were I’d have more interest.
    It’s not status-seeking that annoys me it’s the status-seeking of moralizing priests. McGinn like Leiter claims to be an atheist and a freethinker, but neither come close. McGinn is obviously a product of his experience and of his time, in ways that he will not admit. He’s blind. We’re all products of culture. We’re not all hypocrites.

    Reading any text, examining any made thing you ask yourself what to respond to: text or subtext, the intention of the maker or what the thing seems on its own to represent. Ideally you learn from both. Ideally you learn to respect the maker, but you always ask: “Is there more to learn from this author as thinker or as symptom?”

    There is no subtext to number; numbers are clean. Some dream there is no subtext to their own words, that subtext is for others. But that’s not how language and history work. I won’t argue against the Platonism of numbers. It’s not worth the effort. But numbers are not words. To pretend otherwise silly as it is, is bad philosophy and even worse politics.

  3. a final point
    “which may well be a rationalization but no worse than the various used to underwrite democratic religiosity?”

    The rule of reason is not the rule of law. In fact it’s the opposite. The rule of law is the rule of chosen words in the common language and the rule of argument over their meaning. That argument itself is constitutive of democratic society. Language is public. Numbers are impersonal, indeed anti-personal, but are also private.
    Hows that for philosophy?


  4. this thread is going nowhere, if the last few comments are any indication, so I’ll try to stick just to my conversation with jonathon: I wouldn’t characterize my position as “strong programme” (or weak programme, for that matter). The debates in sociology over strong and weak claims of social construction of knowledge are largely played out within science studies (in which I include all those sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists and historians and others who care about these debates). Part of the deflation comes from the term “social” which as Hacking pointed out can come to mean just about anything, and so no longer helps define the problem of where the truth in experiment comes from. So this leaves us, in many ways back at the beginning–asking where the authority of experimental knowledge comes from. I agree to ditch “truthiness”— it was just an offhand joke—and to argue about truth-conduciveness (is that different from truth?).

    In that case, however, my understanding of experimental practice, in many different sciences, is that it does not produce claims that are true in the sense of reference, or true in the sense of meaning. What it does produce are stabilities–it reproduces intuitions in a rigorous form from which it is not acceptable to dissent (i.e. without being branded a heretic, an idiot, or some other pariah status, and occasionally, a revolutionary who is ahead of his/her time). We can, and people have and will, argue about whether experiment possesses a necessary logical structure. My reading and my own work suggest that it does not, except in very rare cases, and that it is neither more nor less convincing if it does.

    However, experiment can do something extremely important, which is to produce surprising results—results which are explained neither by logic nor existing theory. Such results come from creative and clever experimental design–not rigorous logical deduction or rock-solid, statistically sophisticated question-asking. I like to think that experimental philosophy could go this route—but i think most of the work will be a form of question-asking whose answers are presented in the same form as armchair intuitions, only with the powerful authority of experimental science to back them up. So I guess in the end, I agree with your suspicion of me, that I don’t think experimental science is any more or less likely to lead to truth (than intuition or creative reasoning or anthropological fieldwork). However, it does commit a bunch of people to arguing in ways that have more precision (which is both a liberating and a constraining thing), and allows them to build up a body of questions and answers from which dissent is much harder to achieve, and hence the direction of knowledge and its accumulation, much easier to master.

    I would also add that comet jo’s comment is right on here: anthropology is deeply committed to empiricism, but it does not restrict that definition to surveys, questionnaires, games or cog-sci-style experiments. Every generation of anthropology so far has been obsessed with this issue. Franz Boas was a physicist before turning to anthropology, and his writings are some of the most cogent philosophical engagements with the vicissitudes of empiricism we have in the discipline. Gregory Bateson was obsessed with using ethnography to capture social reality both early on (in Naven) and later in his engagement with cybernetics. Geertz himself was dissenting from an overly-theoretical Parsonian systems theory when he turned to people like Kenneth Burke for guidance in an alternative empiricism. Post-geertzian anthropology has grown up in dialogue with science studies, and has constantly struggled with how to define its scientific status in terms that do not reduce it to surveys an questionnaires— a problem that has been particularly troubling lately in terms of our engagement with IRBs (which you can read about on this blog). So yes: what’s at stake here, as ever, is the relationship between empiricism and truth, and i think anthropologists and experimental philosophers (perhaps eventually, the dissident ones) will encounter each other again in the future.

  5. Jee-zus… new post on the main already! Please? Somebody? Anybody? I am oh-so-over this thread.

  6. Excellent post Chris! Chiming in late here by way of returning to your original question. “Another way to ask the question: Is x-phi an ettempt to make philosophy more authoritative through experiment, or an attempt to make experimental work more philosophically rigorous?”

    I think this is exactly the right sort of question to ask here. I also suppose most x-phi-ers think it the right question to ask. I like to ask this sort of question. Here is how I like to put it: Is X-Phi primarily an attempt to prove philosophical theses by experimental means or is it primarily an attempt to bring philosophy to bear on our world in an experimental fashion?

    Knowing me you know that I would be quite excited if the main point of x-phi were more of the latter. I worry that it is however more about the former (in some cases but not in all of course!). Philosophy is probably going to be better off in the long run if it conceives of itself as a style of thinking rather than as a domain of inquiry. If it turns out to be a domain of inquiry it will eventually seal in upon itself and nobody else will listen. I can’t tell which way x-phi wants to go. I suspect many x-phi-ers don’t yet know either. That is why I’m chiming in late anyway and saying that you are asking the right question.

    Knowing me you also know that I’m just preaching Dewey here. This is because I think that x-phi could learn a great deal from pragmatism. Since the whole thing is still emerging my contemporary attitude is to see if I can’t nudge part of all this back over to pragmatism. Note this well, future x-phi collaborators, if much of your motivation comes from wishing to reject the spurious role that intuition too often plays in philosophical argument these days, then go back to Peirce’s 1868 papers where he tries to set a new course for modern philosophy by arguing that we actually have anything like intuitions that might play any important role in our reasoning.

    One should always conclude over-lengthy blog comments with shameless advertising. I note that I say all this at much greater length in my review of Appiah’s excellent book over at my Requiem for Certainty:

  7. What, over seth edenbaum’s drunken ramblings and shameless masturbation in the comments section? Oh, who could possibly have grown tired of that?

  8. This comment thread really illustrates how much it must suck to be Brian Leiter. I mean, he makes an offhand comment that maybe the author of this post doesn’t know what he is talking about (which isn’t literally unreasonable, since the author of the post acknowledges he is just now exploring X-phi), makes an ironic claim of support for Skipper’s comment above, and then all kinds of ridiculous things get said in support of him and/or against him.

    I was hoping to come here to find some comments on the details about X-Phi that the author of the original post didn’t exactly get right. But all I find is a silly fight.

    Leiter is a nice guy, and he shouldn’t have to put up with all of this crap that comes from having the most famous philosophy blog in the world. He didn’t really ask for it.

Comments are closed.