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From Experimental Philosophy

Welcome to The Experimental Philosophy Page

Experimental philosophy, called x-phi for short, is a new philosophical movement that supplements the traditional tools of analytic philosophy with the scientific methods of cognitive science. So experimental philosophers also go out and run systematic experiments aimed at understanding how people ordinarily think about the issues at the foundation of philosophical discussions.

This wiki is a way to gather all the research that is going on in experimental philosophy in a single accessible place. It is divided into section based on the area of research and organized chronologically.

The Cutting Edge

    • The papers in this section are not published, and it is very likely that they will change before they are published. Please do not cite or quote these papers without the authors' permission.
Kevin Uttich and Tania Lomborozo (2010) Norms inform mental state ascriptions: A rational explanation for the side-effect effect Cognition. 116 87-100
Theory of mind, the capacity to understand and ascribe mental states, has traditionally been conceptualized as analogous to a scientic theory. However, recent work in philosophy and psychology has documented a ''side-effect effect" suggesting that moral evaluations in?uence mental state ascriptions, and in particular whether a behavior is described as having been performed 'intentionally.' This evidence challenges the idea that theory of mind is analogous to scienti?c psychology in serving the function of predicting and explaining, rather than evaluating, behavior. In three experiments, we demonstrate that moral evaluations do inform ascriptions of intentional action, but that this relationship arises because behavior that conforms to norms (moral or otherwise) is less informative about underlying mental states than is behavior that violates norms. This analysis preserves the traditional understanding of theory of mind as a tool for predicting and explaining behavior, but also suggests the importance of normative considerations in social cognition.
Keith DeRose, Contextualism, Contrastivism and X-Phi Surveys Paper given at the Oberlin Philosophy Colloquium.
Discusses the recent empirical findings on knowledge attributions and in particular focuses on Jonathan Schaffer and Joshua Knobe's forthcoming paper 'Contrastivism Surveyed.'
Hagop Sarkissian, John Park, and Joshua Knobe. Are the Folk Objectivists about Morality? Unpublished Manuscript
Moral philosophers of varying theoretical commitments maintain that ordinary, pre-philosophical folk are objectivists about morality, that they view moral issues as having a single correct answer as opposed to several correct answers that are all true relative to a given perspective or culture. This empirical claim has been an article of faith for many philosophers, a datum that must be captured or explained by any theory of morality. But is the claim correct? After reviewing some of the extant philosophical and psychological literature on this topic, we present evidence from a new study suggesting that even while folk often speak in objectivist terms, they might, at some deeper level, embrace relativism about morality.
Justin Sytsma, Jonathan Livengood and David Rose. Two Types of Typicality: Rethinking the Role of Statistical Typicality in Ordinary Causal Attributions. Unpublished Manuscript.
Empirical work on the use of causal language by ordinary people indicates that their causal attributions tend to be sensitive not only to purely descriptive considerations, but also to broadly moral considerations. For example, ordinary causal attributions appear to be highly sensitive to whether a behavior is permissible or impermissible. Recently, however, a consensus view has emerged that situates the role of permissibility information within a broader framework: According to the consensus, ordinary causal attributions are sensitive to whether or not a behavior is generally out of the norm, where being out of the norm might indicate deviation from a prescriptive norm (a broadly moral consideration) or deviation from a statistical norm (a purely descriptive consideration). In contrast, we conjecture that ordinary causal attributions are more directly connected to broadly moral judgments about normative responsibility (the responsibility view). We present the results of a series of new experimental studies that are consistent with the responsibility view, while indicating that the consensus position is seriously mistaken.
Jonathan Phillips, Joshua Knobe and Luke Misenheimer. Love and Happiness. Unpublished Manuscript
Suppose we consider the concept happiness, or the concept love. How are these concepts to be understood? One obvious hypothesis would be that they are best understood as being more or less like other mental state the concepts, e.g., belief. Perhaps these concepts, too, simply serve to pick out a particular mental state and thereby enable people to explain, predict and understand others' behavior. We will argue that this hypothesis is mistaken. Instead, we suggest that some of the different concepts people use to understand the mind are fundamentally different from others. While there are concepts that do serve simply to pick out a particular mental state, others allow a role for evaluative judgments. So, for example, our claim will be that when people are wondering whether a given agent is 'truly happy' or 'truly in love,' they are not merely trying to figure out whether this agent has a particular sort of mental state. They are also concerned in a central way with evaluating the agent's situation.
Joshua May and Richard Holton. What in the World Is Weakness of Will? Unpublished Manuscript.
At least since the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers have tended to identify weakness of will with akrasia-i.e. acting, or having a disposition to act, contrary to one's judgments about what is best for one to do. However, there has been some recent debate about whether this captures the ordinary notion of weakness of will. Richard Holton (1999, 2009) claims that it doesn't, while Alfred Mele (forthcoming) argues that, to a certain extent, it does. As Mele recognizes, the question about an ordinary concept here is one apt for empirical investigation. Our plan is to evaluate Mele's studies and report some experiments of our own in order to investigate what in the world the ordinary concept of weakness of will is. We conclude that neither Mele nor Holton (previously) was quite right and offer a tentative proposal of our own: the ordinary notion is more like a prototype or cluster concept.
Steve Guglielmo and Bertram Malle. Can Unintended Side Effects be Intentional? Resolving a Controversy Over Intentionality and Morality Under Submission.
Can an event's blameworthiness distort whether people see the event as intentional? In controversial recent studies, people judged a behavior's negative side effect as intentional even though the agent allegedly had no desire for the side effect to occur. Such a judgment contradicts the standard assumption that desire is a necessary condition of intentionality, and it raises concerns about lay assessments of intentionality in legal settings. Six studies examined whether blameworthy events distort intentionality judgments. Studies 1-4 show that, counter to recent claims, intentionality judgments are systematically guided by variations in the agent's desire, for moral and nonmoral actions alike. Studies 5 and 6 show that a behavior's negative side effects are rarely seen as intentional once people are allowed to choose from multiple options of describing the behavior. In particular, people systematically distinguish between "knowingly" and "intentionally" bringing about a side effect, even for immoral actions. These studies suggest that intentionality judgments are unaffected by a behavior's blameworthiness.
Steve Guglielmo and Bertram Malle. Enough Skill to Kill: Intentionality Judgments and the Moral Valence of Action Under Submission.
Extant models of moral judgment assume that an action's intentionality precedes assignments of blame. Knobe (2003b) challenged this fundamental order and proposed instead that the blameworthiness of an action directs (and thus unduly biases) people's intentionality judgments. His and other researchers' studies suggested that blameworthy actions are considered intentional even when the agent lacks skill (e.g., killing somebody with a lucky shot) whereas equivalent neutral actions are not (e.g., luckily hitting the bull's-eye). The present five studies offer an alternative account of these provocative findings. We suggest that the morally significant action examined in previous studies (killing) is seen as accomplished by a basic action (pressing the trigger) for which an unskilled agent still has sufficient skill. Studies 1 through 3 show that when this basic action is performed unskillfully or is absent, people are far less likely to view the killing as intentional, demonstrating that intentionality judgments, even about immoral actions, are guided by skill information. Studies 4 and 5 further show that a neutral action such as hitting the bull's-eye is more difficult than killing and that difficult actions are less often judged intentional. When difficulty is held constant, people's intentionality judgments are fully responsive to skill information regardless of moral valence. The present studies thus speak against the hypothesis of a moral evaluation bias in intentionality judgments and instead document people's sensitivity to subtle features of human action.
Krist Vaesen and Martin Peterson. The Reliability of Armchair Intuitions. Under Submission.
Armchair philosophers have questioned the significance of recent work in experimental philosophy by pointing out that experiments have been conducted on laypeople and undergraduate students. To challenge a practice that relies on expert intuitions, so the armchair objection goes, one needs to demonstrate that expert intuitions rather than those of ordinary people are sensitive to contingent facts such as cultural, linguistic, socio-economic, or educational background. In this paper we do exactly that. Based on an empirical study on a population of 817 trained philosophers, we demonstrate that expert intuitions vary dramatically according to at least one contingent factor, namely the linguistic background of the expert: philosophers make significantly different intuitive judgments if their native language is English rather than Dutch, German, or Swedish. Our findings cast doubt on the common armchair assumption that philosophical theories based on armchair intuitions are valid beyond the linguistic background against which they were developed.