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Cosmo x-phi

Joshua Alexander interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Joshua Alexander is a funky philosopher from the x-phi mothership, burning his armchair and flying into a future where philosophy is cosmopolitan. He thinks intuitions are important and diverse and the more we know about them the better. He has a sense of problems but is still uncovering details. He discusses murderous husbands, police officers, car thieves, extra dollars and side effects and knows that the more we learn the more there is to know. Which makes him supercalliphilosophicalidocious.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Why not psychology?

Joshua Alexander: Philosophy always seemed like a natural choice. I was raised in a home where we talked a lot about philosophy and science, and time while I was growing up sitting in on science classes and hanging out in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where my mother was in nursing school and my father was in graduate school. I wasn’t a terribly serious student in college, spending most of my time playing in the Milwaukee and Chicago music scene, but was always interested in questions about ethical and epistemic normativity, and decided somewhere towards the end of college that I liked thinking about these things enough to want to go to graduate school in philosophy. It wasn’t until graduate school, where I spent lots and lots of time talking philosophy with Jonathan Weinberg, that I really became interested in studying human cognition, particularly, how people think about things like ethical and epistemic normativity, and began reading lots and lots of work in the social and cognitive sciences.

3:AM: You’re an experimental philosopher, burning your armchair with Josh Knobe’s crew. It’s been a movement that has elicited very mixed feelings from philosophers – some see it as a new beginning, some a continuation of an old tradition of philosophy suspended at the beginning of the twentieth century but now being restored, others still as a culmination of the very bad idea of forcing philosophy into a scientific framework. Others still just think it’s a fad and it’ll be absorbed. Have you been surprised by these various responses, – especially the ferocity of some of the hostile responses – and which do you think is likely to be the most accurate? And is x-phi really philosophy?

JA: I sometimes like to talk about experimental philosophy as breaking with one tradition by returning to another, perhaps because this way of talking about things allows us to understand what is revolutionary about experimental philosophy without overselling its revolutionary character. Experimental philosophers are interested in thinking about how our minds work and how we think about philosophical issues, and believe that the best way to do this involves the application of methods from the social and cognitive sciences; but it is important to see that there is a long tradition in philosophy of being interested in studying these kinds of things using these kinds of methods.

What’s revolutionary about experimental philosophy is the view that what we are learning about philosophical cognition raises important questions about philosophical methodology, in particular, about the way that many of us learned to go about the business of doing philosophy, and its perfectly natural that this view hasn’t been universally well received. While some of the responses have contained more heat than light, others have helped considerably to advance our understanding of what’s at stake in this discussion and what methodological lessons we can learn from carefully studying philosophical cognition. As for the somewhat fashionable suggestion that experimental philosophy is not philosophy, this suggestion usually comes packaged with rather parochial stories about what kinds of questions count as genuine philosophical questions and what kinds of methods can be employed when trying to answer these kinds of questions, and I think that the history of philosophy shows it to be rather more cosmopolitan in nature.

3:AM: You identify three distinct programmes in x-phi – philosophical analysis, philosophy of mind and philosophical methodology. You don’t discuss moral philosophy, philosophy of consciousness or philosophy of science. I’d have thought x-phi and moral philosophy was pretty central to what x-phis been doing – so why did you decide not to include it in your new book?

JA: No conspiracy really – it was just an issue of practical necessity. There are lots of ways of dividing up the landscape, and I really wanted to organise the project around what the careful empirical study of philosophical cognition can tell us about our philosophical concepts, the kinds of things that influence our ordinary ways of understanding the world, and the methods that we employ when trying to answer philosophical questions.

Given this way of setting things up, and since space was short, I ended up having to pass over some topics and give others less, or perhaps more divided, attention than they deserve. One of these topics is the fascinating empirical work being done in moral psychology – work being done on the relationship between character and situation, the roles that emotion and sentiment play in moral judgment, and whether moral education improves moral behaviour. I do provide a quick outline of some of this work in the introduction, and there is some discussion of moral psychology elsewhere in the book as well, so readers interested in moral psychology will find some things to think about.

I’d also recommend that 3:AM readers who are interested in learning more about empirical approaches to moral psychology take a look at the wonderful books (e.g., John Doris’ Lack of Character, Shaun Nichols’ Sentimental Rules, Jesse Prinz’s The Emotional Construction of Morals) and edited collections (e.g., John Doris’ The Moral Psychology Handbook and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s three-volume Moral Psychology) that are already out there.

3:AM: Your chapter on philosophical intuitions starts with a quote from Hilary Kornblith: ‘George Bealer does it. Robert Chisholm does it a lot. Most philosophers do it openly and unapologetically, and the rest arguably do it too, although some of them would deny it. What they all do is appeal to intuitions in constructing, shaping and refining their philosophical views.’ So what’s the problem? You give a pretty neat classification of the different ways of understanding intuitions, don’t you? Can you say which conception makes the best sense to you?

JA: Okay, so here’s the problem. Philosophical intuitions play a significant role in contemporary philosophy. We advance philosophical theories on the basis of their ability to explain our philosophical intuitions, and appeal to them as evidence that those theories are true and as reasons for believing as such. Now, what seems to at least partially underwrite this way of going about the business of doing philosophy is the belief that our philosophical intuitions are more or less universally shared, and experimental philosophy suggests that we might be wrong about this – instead of universality, we find diversity. It turns out that different groups of people have significantly different philosophical intuitions and that philosophical cognition turns out to be sensitive to a host of things that we neither expected nor perhaps wanted it to be, and this raises important epistemological questions about whose philosophical intuitions to trust and when to trust them. Now, at this point it would be natural to wonder, what are philosophical intuitions? And, it turns out there are a range of conceptions, from those that identify philosophical intuitions as instances of fairly generic and uncontroversial kinds of mental states or episodes (usually, beliefs or inclinations to believe) to those that include additional semantic, phenomenological, etiological, or methodological features.

I am still rather uncommitted about the precise psychological nature of philosophical intuitions, and think that it’s entirely possible that they include different cognitive states or episodes that engage different cognitive mechanisms. What’s been particularly interesting to me at this point in my research is that each conception has its own methodological strengths and weaknesses. (In addition to what’s already in the book, Jonathan Weinberg and I have a paper coming out where we talk a lot about the individual strengths and weaknesses these different conceptions.)

3:AM: It might seem that we just can’t avoid appealing to intuitions in some way, and so we might suppose that if it’s a bad habit that can’t be repressed, philosophy is doomed. Can you tell us about some of the ways x-phi has tried to address this problem?

JA: Ernest Sosa has famously argued that the lesson of all of this work is that we just need to be more careful, but it pays to be careful only when we know what it means to be careful, and we haven’t yet learned what this means for philosophical practice. We have a sense of the problem, although we are still uncovering its details. What we need to do now is to begin to think hard about what intuitional evidence can be used and when it can be used, and this means thinking hard not only about philosophical practice but also about human cognition and how we think about philosophical issues. We need to know more about the precise psychological nature of philosophical intuitions, what cognitive mechanisms are involved, and what cognitive factors influence them. This is going to require a lot more empirical work in the coming years, and is one of the reasons why it is so exciting to be working in this area.

3:AM: Herman Cappelen has just written a book which says philosophers don’t use intuitions, and that x-phi is changing philosophy by suggesting they do! What do you say to this kind of challenge?

JA: It is a sociological matter whether philosophical intuitions play a significant role in contemporary philosophy. A lot depends here on what we think is going on when philosophers appeal to “what we would say” or “how things seem to us to be”, and I am just not terribly impressed by recent attempts to explain these kinds of things away as dialectical moves or rhetorical devices. I also think that a strong normative case can be made that philosophical intuitions are necessary for certain kinds of philosophical projects. But, even if I am wrong about these things, it is hard to see why this should lead to the kind of violent rejection of experimental philosophy that we see, for example, in Herman Cappelen’s recent 3:AM interview. There’s a whole lot of value in carefully studying philosophical cognition regardless of what implications it might have for how we should go about the business of doing philosophy.

3:AM: X-phi applies its theories about intuitions to philosophical analysis to show where an argument might be bogus because it relies on a bad habit. Can you take us through some of the experiments that have been applied in epistemology?

JA: Here’s one example. One of the most interesting debates in contemporary epistemology is whether knowledge, or our willingness to attribute knowledge, is influenced by stakes or salience – that is, by the personal costs of being wrong or what possibilities are made relevant in a given conversational context. What’s made this debate particularly interesting to experimental philosophers is that both sides commonly appeal to the very same intuitions about the very same hypothetical cases – cases like Keith DeRose’s famous bank cases. As a number of people have pointed out, the hypothetical cases commonly employed in the debate tend to differ both in terms of what’s at stake and what possibilities have been made salient. This suggests that we might make some progress in this debate by carefully studying people’s intuitions about vignettes that keep what’s at stake separate from what possibilities have been made salient.

Interestingly, the results so far have been mixed: some empirical studies seem to show that folk knowledge attributions are insensitive to both stakes and salience; others seem to show that folk knowledge attributions are sensitive to something, although there is spirited disagreement about whether these studies demonstrate sensitivity to stakes or sensitivity to salience. It has been fascinating to watch these debates evolve, especially as the studies, explanations, and cognitive models have become considerably more sophisticated over time. I think that we are starting to get a sense of the complex nature of folk knowledge attribution, and it will be exciting to see where these debates go from here.

3:AM: Other cool experiments have been involved in freewill arguments. The murderous husband case is particularly vivid I think. Can you say something about it and its significance?

JA: Let’s set the stage a bit. Philosophical discussions about the nature of freedom and moral responsibility often begin with the assumption that people believe that neither freedom nor moral responsibility is compatible with causal determinism, and this assumption is used to put pressure on compatibilists to show that compatibilism is true despite our beliefs to the contrary. Okay, so is this assumption true? Well, it turns out that when we ask people what they think most people say that freedom and moral responsibility are incompatible with causal determinism. So far, so good. The problem is that when we ask people to evaluate the moral responsibility of agents acting in situations where those actions are causally determined, especially when those actions elicit strong emotional responses, most people say that the agents are morally responsible for those actions. So what’s going on? Shaun Nichols and Joshua Knobe suggest that the answer can be found by paying special attention to the cognitive effects of emotional salience: one set of cognitive processes is triggered when people are asked abstract questions about the relationship between causal determinism and moral responsibility, and another set of cognitive processes is triggered when they are asked to evaluate the behavior of agents whose actions are causally determined, particularly when those actions elicit strong emotional response. The basic idea is that we have a cognitively complex set of beliefs about the relationship between moral responsibility and causal determinism, and this invites a host of really interesting questions about the relationship between the different cognitive processes involved and what this means for the evidentiary fitness of our beliefs about the relationship between moral responsibility and causal determinism.

3:AM: So what is it in this work that is not really just cognitive science or psychology? In other words, what’s specifically philosophical about any of this?

JA: Experimental philosophers are interested in questions about human cognition that are frequently associated with psychology and use methods from the social and cognitive sciences to try to answer these questions, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t pursuing answers to genuinely philosophical questions using appropriately philosophical methods. Not all philosophy is experimental philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that experimental philosophy isn’t philosophy.

3:AM: In your chapter on x-phi and philosophy of mind you contrast traditional approaches to what intuitions can tell us about individual or shared concepts to the x-phi approach. Can you firstly tell us about this contrast and why we might prefer to eschew conceptual analysis?

JA: Conceptual analysis aims to identify the precise meaning of philosophical concepts by measuring proposed definitions against our philosophical intuitions about the application conditions of these concepts. For example, we might try to identify the precise meaning of moral responsibility by looking at our willingness to attribute moral responsibility to different kinds of agents acting under different kinds of conditions. Cool project, popular method. Now, when we began to carefully study our philosophical intuitions about the application conditions of various philosophical concepts, we began to learn really cool things about the cognitive mechanisms involved. Some of these things have profound implications for the project of conceptual analysis, but these results are important even if we set aside their methodological implications because they reveal important things about how our minds work and how we ordinarily understand the world. So, the idea isn’t that we eschew one philosophical project for the other, but that we recognise both the implications that one project has for the other and the fact that both are independently important philosophical projects.

3:AM: A key focus in this area of x-phi has been to look at normative considerations on people’s ordinary thinking about the world. Could you first tell us what you mean by ‘normative considerations’ and give an example so we can orientate ourselves and see how this is significant beyond just philosophical circles?

JA: Let’s suppose that we are trying to determine whether a particular action has been performed intentionally or unintentionally, perhaps because we are trying to determine whether or not to hold a person legally responsible for that action. It turns out that when people are evaluating whether or not a particular action has been performed intentionally, those evaluations are influenced by their beliefs about whether the action was morally good or morally bad. As Thomas Nadelhoffer has pointed out, this has profound implications for our legal system, and in particular for juror impartiality, since it seems to be the case that charging a person with a crime that generates strongly negative moral evaluations makes it more likely that people will find her legally responsible for the crime in question.

3:AM: You discuss the ‘side effect effect to bring out some of the issues in this area. So what is this?

JA: The side-effect effect is probably the most famous example of the influence that normative considerations have on how we ordinarily think about the world. Joshua Knobe found that people are considerably more inclined to judge that an agent brought about a side effect intentionally when they regard that side effect as morally bad than when they regard it as morally good. Knobe’s model has also been used to show that normative considerations influence a wide variety of other folk psychological judgments, including judgments about advocacy, causation, choice, decision, desire, knowledge, and preference. We are just beginning to see how widespread this influence might be and to come to terms with what this is telling us about how our minds work and how we ordinarily understand the world around us.

3:AM: So this takes us into considerations of intentionality. I love the names of the cases you guys discuss: the Police Officer case, the Car Thief case, the Extra dollar case and so on. Can you tell us something about these things and what they show?

JA: Sure. As I just mentioned, one of things that we are trying to figure out is just what the side-effect studies mean for our ordinary ways of thinking about the world. Some people, convinced that the side-effect studies show that normative considerations influence our folk psychological judgments, have focused on trying to model this relationship and understand what this means for issues of conceptual competence and performance.

Other people, unconvinced that the side-effect studies show that normative considerations influence our folk psychological judgments, have focused on trying to find alternative explanations for cases of asymmetrical folk psychological judgments. The cases that you mention are some of the cases that have been used in these different projects. Thomas Nadelhoffer used the police officer case and the car thief case to show how normative considerations might influence folk psychological judgments and what this might mean for criminal law, and Edouard Machery used the extra dollar case and the free cup case to argue that the side-effect studies are telling us something about the relationship between our folk psychological judgments and considerations of costs and benefits – they are cases without clear normative dimensions that still result in asymmetrical judgments about intentionality.

There is still spirited disagreement about what the side-effect studies mean for our ordinary ways of thinking about the world, and progress is going to require getting a better sense of the kinds of work that our folk psychological judgments are supposed to be doing and of the cognitive processes and mechanisms involved.

3:AM: One of the big issues addressed by x-phi in terms of philosophical methodology is the way intuitions might be influenced by unexpected and unwanted factors and that rather than uninamity there may well be diversity. And you say that underlying this is our pretty widespread ignorance about just how deep this problem is. So what has x-phi learned about intuitional diversity? Is it hugely prevalent? Can you give us some examples of how x-phi know this?

JA: As I mentioned earlier, one most important lessons that we’ve learned is that philosophical cognition is sensitive to a host of things that we neither expected nor perhaps wanted it to be – to specific facts about who are, the presence or absence of certain kinds of content, and the context and manner in which we are asked to think about philosophical issues. Even setting aside issues of scope and magnitude, this has important implications for how we go about the business of doing philosophy: evidential diversity needs some resolution and unwanted evidential sensitivity calls for some kind of management and prediction, and all of this requires a much better understanding the nature of philosophical cognition.

3:AM: You end your book by mounting a pretty sustained and impressive defence of x-phi. So why is x-phi important?

JA: As you mention, I spend a lot of time in the book trying to explain why experimental philosophy is philosophically significant, so I’ll be really quick here: we are just beginning to understand philosophical cognition, and the more we learn, the more there is to learn.

3:AM: Finally, are there five books you could recommend to the x-phiers here at 3:AM (other than your own, which we’ll all be dashing away to read after this) that will take us further into your philosophical world?

JA: It’s hard to pick favorites, but each of these books has played a significant role in helping to shape my interest in philosophical cognition and methodology: Michael DePaul and William Ramsey’s Rethinking Intuition; Hilary Kornblith’s Knowledge and Its Place in Nature; Joel Pust’s Intuitions as Evidence; Stephen Stich’s Fragmentation of Reason; and Timothy Williamson’s The Philosophy of Philosophy.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 17th, 2012.