Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Experimental Philosophy - moving out of the armchair?

The Dec. 9 New York Times Magazine has a fascinating article by Kwame Appiah that I have been meaning to mention, on the new philosophical trend of designing explicit experiments - many to probe the classic philosophical concept of intentionality. The following sort of result is now called the "Knobe effect" after the philosophy graduate student who devised the experiment (and the article describes a number of further experiments):
Suppose the chairman of a company has to decide whether to adopt a new program. It would increase profits and help the environment too. “I don’t care at all about helping the environment,” the chairman says. “I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” Would you say that the chairman intended to help the environment?

O.K., same circumstance. Except this time the program would harm the environment. The chairman, who still couldn’t care less about the environment, authorizes the program in order to get those profits. As expected, the bottom line goes up, the environment goes down. Would you say the chairman harmed the environment intentionally?

I don’t know where you ended up, but in one survey, only 23 percent of people said that the chairman in the first situation had intentionally helped the environment. When they had to think about the second situation, though, fully 82 percent thought that the chairman had intentionally harmed the environment. There’s plenty to be said about these interestingly asymmetrical results.

... is it a good thing that we attribute intention in the curious way that we do, and if so, why? (Is the Knobe effect a bug or a feature?) You can conduct more research to try to clarify matters, but you’re left having to interpret the findings; they don’t interpret themselves. There always comes a point where the clipboards and questionnaires and M.R.I. scans have to be put aside. To sort things out, it seems, another powerful instrument is needed. Let’s see — there’s one in the corner, over there. The springs are sagging a bit, and the cushions are worn, but never mind. That armchair will do nicely.

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