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Philosophy Via Experimentation

Question: What is experimental philosophy, and how is it different from conventional philosophy?

Tim Maudlin: Now, the stereotypical philosopher sitting in an armchair actually can be doing experiments, but only on one subject, mainly himself, or herself.  Right?  So you can say, “Ah, how does the human mind work? I’ll just reason about things and I’ll introspect and I’ll figure out what I’m doing and I’ll write that down and say, this is how the human mind works.”  Now, anybody thinking about it for a few minutes would think, well wouldn’t it be better to actually go and check other people as well?  Maybe you’re an odd case.  Maybe you don’t have such great insight just by introspection to figure out what the process of the thinking you are going through.  Wouldn’t you do better to examine a lot of people and to ask sort of more – in a more detailed and systematic way in an experimental setting to kind of tease out the way people think?  

Well, certain people doing that sit in cognitive science departments and certain people doing the very same thing sit in philosophy departments.  And what’s the difference?  Maybe there’s a slight difference in focus as some people doing philosophy foundations of physics sit physics departments and some people doing foundations of physics sit in philosophy departments.  And the difference is, the people in the physics departments will certainly, probably be doing more calculation, be more worried about solving particular problems, will have more technical things and the philosophers will have more leeway to spend time asking more general questions, more conceptual questions.  But in a way, the project is one project.  

So there’s some part of experimental philosophy which is simply observing that traditional philosophical questions are about the way the world works and the best way to find out about the way the world works is to observe it in well defined experimental situations.  And so you just raise the bar in terms of what you are doing.  

From that point of view, it’s not anything terribly astonishing and not anything that changes the nature of philosophy.  It just makes certain bits of philosophy a bit better.  Now some people may complain, and it may be correct, I am not myself an expert in cognitive science, that the philosophers interested in doing this, is just not very good cognitive scientists or they’re not very sophisticated in how they set up their experiments, I don’t know.  But in principle, there’s no reason why certain questions that arise you might want to do experiments to figure out.  

What I’ve been arguing all along is philosophy, at least certain parts of it, are simply interested in finding out how the world is.  Usually described at a very general, generic level, right?  We’re not that interested in the exact population of Lithuania.  That’s a fact about the way the world is, but you’d say not a philosophically interesting one.  But what’s the difference between asking that and asking about the fundamental nature of space and time?  

Well, space and time is a much more sort of general, pervasive thing, but you’re still asking a fact about the world.  That is the kind of fact that a scientist would be interested in.  If you’re asking about the nature of the human mind, which any philosopher over the history of time would do, you are asking about something about the world.  There are minds in the world; they work some way or other.  

So the questions... there’s never been in this area, a distinction between a scientific and a philosophical question.  There is a distinction between more empirical method and more as it were, conceptual analysis.  A method that’s a bit further away from experimentation.  But that’s a matter of degree.  And so if these questions that you ask at a more general level can be brought down to an empirical test, then you ought to go and do the empirical test.  And then you’ve got to learn the techniques of good empirical tests, that is, the techniques of properly conducted science.

Recorded September 17, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Traditional philosophical questions are about the way the world works—and the best way to find out how the world works is to observe it in well-defined experimental situations.

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