In a Opinionator piece in today’s New York Times, Joshua Knobe, a philosopher/cognitive scientist at Yale, describes the new discipline of “experimental philosophy,” which uses modern scientific methods to address traditional philosophical questions. (Sam Harris’s upcoming book, The Moral Landscape, is a specimen.)
I won’t recount Knobe’s work here, since he does a good job in his piece. But what he shows is that, if you tell people the world is a deterministic one, then their view about whether such a world allows moral responsibility depends very strongly on whether you pose that question in the abstract or give them a concrete situation in which blame can be affixed. (Guess which way the answer went!) Knobe is not of course addressing the question of whether we really have moral responsibility, but rather what makes us think we do:
How can experiments like these possibly help us to answer the more traditional questions of philosophy?
The simple study I have been discussing here can offer at least a rough sense of how such an inquiry works. The idea is not that we subject philosophical questions to some kind of Gallup poll. (“Well, the vote came out 65 percent to 35 percent, so I guess the answer is … human beings do have free will!”) Rather, the aim is to get a better understanding of the psychological mechanisms at the root of our sense of conflict and then to begin thinking about which of these mechanisms are worthy of our trust and which might simply be leading us astray.
I like these studies since, if you accept their methodology, they give pretty concrete answers—in contrast to a lot of philosophy! Another study of this type is that of Marc Hauser and his colleagues (I posted about this last December), who asked people to judge the morality of acting in different ways in unusual and contrived situations. They found that moral judgments seemed to be pretty universal, independent of religious or social background. This suggested that perhaps some of our “morality” is innate and evolved. Now Hauser, of course, has been found guilty of academic fraud at Harvard, and so this result, like all his other work, remains under a cloud of doubt. But it’s certainly worth repeating since its results are so interesting.