Sunday, December 09, 2007

Experimental Philosophy and the Armchair

Kwame Anthony Appiah has a good piece in the NYT (here) on experimental philosophy -- or the movement that uses empirical research (think surveys) to determine what intuitions people really have about philosophical problems.

No doubt, experimental philosophy is a lot of fun: it's fascinating to read how people's intuitions ebb and flow based on small changes in a particular thought experiment (and Appiah has a couple classic examples).

In addition, experimental philosophy has shown (conclusively, I think) that professional philosophers' intuitions often aren't shared by the general public. Now, that may be because the general public hasn't thought as hard about these issues. But there is also the risk that professional philosophers operate in a kind of echo chamber where our intuitions become increasingly divorced from reality.

The alternative to experimental philosophy is "armchair philosophy" which Appiah ultimately comes down in favor of -- he argues that the results of surveys require interpretation, and deciding on the right interpretation is ultimately an armchair endeavor.

I agree with Appiah, mostly. As exciting and fun as experimental philosophy is, it strikes me as basically psychology and I don't yet see how it solves any philosophical problems.

Having said that, I thin Appiah also downplays one of its major strengths. In passing, he notes that experimental philosophy can enforce a kind of modesty -- again, the reminder that our intuitions aren't universal.

But that's actually a big deal. This was brought home to me in an Epistemology course last year. We'd read some feminist epistemology and many of the students would reject it immediately as patently absurd. Later we read some experimental philosophy -- making essentially the same point about the contingency of our intuitions, and everyone thought it was completely obvious. So, for better or worse, experimental philosophy can break down resistance to new philosophical ideas.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Philosophy Journals

From Lemmings, this link to Jonathan Kvanvig's data on the rejection rates and scholarly impact of philosophy journals (here).

It's depressing reading, at least for me, for a couple of reasons. First, the rejection rates for nearly all the journals listed is 90%. Nobody likes to play a game where the success rate is 1 in 10.

I look at those numbers and wonder, too, if they are a self-fulfilling prophecy: i.e., a paper is frequently cited not because of its worth but because of where it was published. After all, we cite papers for all kinds of reasons. One reason has nothing at all to do with the worth of the paper but because we want to signal that we've done our homework, and one way of doing that is to sprinkle in a few references to work in certain journals.

Given these kinds of questions, questions which beg for further study, I get particularly sad when I read that these indices of scholarly impact are used in tenure decisions. Until I hear more, that sounds like an attempt to cloak these decisions in a veneer of pseudo-scientific respectability.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Evolution and Neutrality

From The New York Times, this story about the Texas Education Agency's director of science, Christine Castillo.

Castillo, it seems, was fired for advertising a talk that would be critical of intelligent design.

She was told that the evolution/creation debate was a "subject on which the agency must remain neutral."

That's a pretty incredible statement. Intelligent design has been pretty well exposed as pseudo-science (really, it has) and there's no reason for a state agency to remain "neutral" when the issue is science vs. pseudo-science.

Darwin, Charles

Darwin, Australia