X-phi: Should Philosophy use Empiricism?

October 28, 2015


Lately, there has been some debate about the propriety and role of empiricism in philosophy, which might strike some as strange. For those outside the field, western ”analytical” philosophy has for at least a hundred years adhered to the notion that its primary contributions are in the form of clarifying terms and their usages, as well as logic. “Armchair” philosophers do their investigations through logical analysis of terms and concepts and investigation of the “a priori” rather than “a posteriori.” Empiricism in that view of philosophy is limited to the investigation of one’s own thoughts, essentially. Many who support the efforts of the “x-phi” movement, which is now re-invigorating philosophy with a return to empiricism, recognize that philosophy (and indeed other fields) best advances through a more pluralistic approach. To naturalists outside of professional philosophy, it may be rather surprising to learn that among professional philosophers there is some disdain for attempting to use empirical methods to test philosophical claims.

              When I was a graduate student in Philosophy, my fellow student and colleague John Shook and I were interested in testing the thesis of political scientist Robert Axelrod regarding the evolutionary advantage of cooperating. John and I worked on a simple computer program (written in BASIC) that would take an array representing a population, and play the prisoners dilemma game multiple times (an “iterated” game, in Axelrod’s discourse). Only the survivors would get to play again, and we would assign them differing levels of “cooperativeness” according to which they would either cooperate in the game, or defect. The idea was that after some number of iterations, if Axelrod’s thesis was correct, there would be more “cooperators” alive than defectors. This was an empirical test, of sorts, using virtual test subjects. We did this 20 years ago, and since then such testing has occurred by others, more rigorously, more notably, and published in various journals. Conspicuously, most of the publications about this interesting experiment are in political science, computation, and scientific journals, not in philosophy journals. What is curious to me is why a very illuminating experiment that reveals something rather important for ethics (given that cooperation appears to enhance survival) is not more widely referred to in the ethics literature.

              X-phi isn’t the only area in philosophy that earns disdain from some professional philosophers. “Applied ethics” too has often been looked down on in the profession. This is one reason why it is spinning off now into other fields and departments, including medical, law, and business schools quite separate and apart from philosophy departments that increasingly want nothing to do with them.

              Why should philosophy be divorced from the search for truth that is central to the rest of scientific progress? Why shouldn’t a variety of tools be used in that process, including the tools that experimental philosophers now use to try to discern such interesting questions as: how it is we form judgments, is determinism true, and what does it mean to act ethically?

              As humanists we are typically pluralists, recognizing that truth can be explored using a variety of methods consistent with empiricism and the scientific method, and that through empirical examinations we can gain more confidence in our theories. The same should be seen to be true in philosophy, which many of us think ought to be concerned with matters of the world, and which by using empirical means can only deepen its connection with actual states of affairs and more importantly, with humanity.

               At CFI-Amherst, on November 13 and 14thwe will host a mini-course in this exciting and growing branch of philosophy, with leaders in its current study, including Joshua Knobe from Yale who will launch the weekend course with a keynote lecture on Friday night. We hope those of you in the area will join us and learn a bit with us about the potential to bring empirical examinations to bear, get us out of our armchairs, and learn a bit along the way.