Science and philosophy are traditionally considered very distinct disciplines. Certainly many scientists are philosophical, and there are many philosophers of science. But we think of the two domains as following very different methodologies. Scientists perform experiments: they manipulate variables and observe the outcome. Philosophers think: they perform thought experiments, manipulating concepts by pumping intuitions in one direction or another using words. Which is far from putting on a lab coat and collecting data, right?
Well, recently a subdomain of philosophy has appeared on the scene, called experimental philosophy. Philosophers have long pontificated about how people think, and base their thought experiments on the assumptions of “folk psychology” — naive, common-sense assumptions about our everyday behaviors and why we think and act the way we do. Until recently, philosophers have pulled from the work of scientists (at best) or just ignored the science (at worst).
But now, experimental philosophers are performing actual experiments, controlling variables and collecting data. Take, for example, the entertaining video below of comedian Eugene Mirman explaining a recent experiment:
The results in the video come from work done by Joshua Knobe. This and a series of related experiments on folk intuitions of intentional action are still available online. You can run through the experiments yourself, and learn how other people responded.
It remains to be seen whether experimental philosophy has something unique to offer scientifically, above and beyond the work already being done by cognitive scientists, social psychologists, neuroscientists and related fields of science. That is, is there something about these experiments that makes them different from similar social psychology research exploring how peoples’ intuitions are pumped by the wording of a question or the context of a situation?
Regardless, experimental philosophy certainly represents an important step toward integrating scientific results into philosophy. Given how relevant research has been to understanding things like the brain and its relation to how we think, this is crucial if philosophy is to address the world as we understand it today, rather than the world as Aristotle and his philosophical descendants understood it.