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Indie Rock Virtues

Josh Knobe interviewed by Richard Marshall.


Josh Knobe has already got a philosophical idea named after him, ‘The Knobe Effect’. This is the idea that corrodes the idea that we add moral judgments to preconceived non-moral facts about the world. The Knobe Effect suggests that that picture gets the flow of judgments the wrong way round. So Josh Knobe is now a very famous philosopher. Josh Knobe thinks about stuff like, do babies have morals? Are we born believing in God? Do we have free will? Do we think what we think we think? What do drunk people calculate? Where does greed come from? Why do we think God is to blame for bad weather? Why do conspiracy theories have sinister plots? Do we justify our own oppression? Why don’t political activists fit their stereotypes? Why can Google plan but not feel? Why the chair of the board will be held responsible for the bad he does but not the good? Can a lobster feel sad? How being yourself makes a punk band singer and a corporate businessman disagree? Why college students turn into Raskolnikov without regressing? Why Nietzsche is better than Aristotle and Kant at describing moral agency? Is being happy the opposite of being unhappy ? What is the role of disgust? Are infants little scientists?

He wrote the Experimental Philosophy Manifesto with Shaun Nichols. What he thinks is that we should get out of the armchair and look to see if we’re real life robots being controlled by troops of miniature girl scouts. Or not. Getting out of the armchair leads to revolutionary philosophical thoughts.

Alina Simone was interviewed by 3:AM. On YouTube she sings: Let’s take it to the streets / To the parks, to every strip mall parking lot / Let’s take it back to the primary source / And find out who we really are / X-phi! And on the video an armchair is burning. So the message is: watch out you philosophers who like to think in armchairs all day long. You’re going to get burned!

He wears t-shirts and listens to bands. He married a funky singer in an indie band. He is described as a ‘new breed.’ There is a fan page on Facebook run by an Australian. He eats vegetarian and vegan pizzas with his students. He has a couch for two in his office because x phi is dialogic. He likes the Pixies and Shrek. He lived in a tent when he studied at Stanford. He got there by bike from Massachusetts where he came from. He’s now at Yale. He’s a very very very smart guy. He’s very modest and down-beat. He’s an indie philosopher who breaks with academic style. He’s the opposite of the snarky, preening know-alls who talk down at you. And a clarity that blows away obscurantists and obfusticators. There’s a feel of ‘hey, we can think about this cool smart stuff together…’ He likes to farm out the credits and make sure anyone interested can join in. For example, there’s this hilarious footnote to a paper done by Knobe and Jesse Prinz, another really smart, young and funky x phi dude, that goes: ‘The second author wishes to make it known that the first author actually did the majority of the work on this paper. (However, the first author wishes to make it known that the second author is just being silly and really ought to stop denigrating his important contributions. [However, the second author wishes to make it known that the first author suffers from occasional delusions about authorship.])’ This all adds up to a new content (or back to the classics) and a new style. The thinking is still tough and nuanced but juicier, unzipped, so it feels spritely and young. Philosophy got its fizz back.

3:AM: So how did you start? You have brought a freshness to academia, how come?

Josh Knobe: From very early on I was interested in philosophical questions but I always had a fear of academia. I thought that if I ever became an academic I’d became this dried up person and spend my life writing about something that no one would ever read or care about. And I’d write about it for a few years for a few other professors who’d obsess over it but it would make no difference. So then after I was an undergraduate I was still very interested in philosophy but instead of going to philosophy school I instead did a whole bunch of weird jobs. I was working with homeless people and teaching English in Mexico and doing translations in France. So then over time I began to feel that I wasn’t getting anywhere and I’d always had this interest in philosophical problems and they wouldn’t go away. So in the end I decided to return to academia and I eventually did return to grad school.

3:AM: And what kind of philosophy interested you at the time, given that experimental philosophy didn’t exist then, obviously!

JK: At the time before I went to grad school the kind of philosophy I was interested in was very much the traditional philosophy. I was obsessed with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and so I wanted to investigate and do the kinds of things that they were doing. So that was what my sense of what philosophy was all about. But at the same time I was doing all this research in psychology. I had published a bunch of papers with someone who had been a grad student at the time when I was an undergraduate student. And we were working away at these psychological projects. But at that time I saw this work as being sort of a thing on the side and separate from my real interests, which I took to be my philosophical interests. And then when I got to grad school something kind of weird happened. Someone started to write a commentary on the stuff that we had been doing in the psychology journals. But this person was in philosophy and wanted to treat these psychological papers as being of philosophical importance. So he’d be saying, you know, I think you’re right about this, wrong about that, maybe this needs better evidence. But he was treating it all as if it had philosophical significance.

So as I looked through his criticisms and one thing I was really struck by was how some of the things he said we were right about struck me as being wrong. I started thinking that we were not actually right about those things. And then I wanted to go and show that we were wrong! But this time I had the idea that this time, when I try and do it, I’d publish it as philosophy. I’d call it a philosophy paper. So then I did more studies to try and show that we had been wrong about what we’d said earlier in the psychology journals. And this time I sent them to philosophy journals and that’s when I got the idea of doing experiments but qua philosophy.

3:AM: So you’ve really got your feet in two camps.

JK: I am a philosopher of two different things. So I have a weird job. I’m a philosopher both of cognitive science and philosophy. So I have two offices and different students in both departments.

3:AM: Are you treated differently depending on which office you are in? Do people make different sense of what you have to say depending on whether they take you to be working as a philosopher or a cognitive scientist?

JK: Absolutely. You know it’s really interesting. It’s not that I do separate papers, so I have cognitive science papers and then philosophy papers. It’s that the very same work, the same papers, will be treated as incredibly controversial and polarizing in philosophy whereas in cognitive science they’re just some interesting contributions to cognitive science. There’s something rather strange about the way this can happen.

3:AM: So can you say a little about the kind of experiments you’ve been doing. For instance, there’s the experiments investigating intuitions about freewill that you’ve written about which might strike readers as being a strange thing to try and run experiments about.

JK: Yes, well, since the very beginning of philosophy and the Ancient Greek period philosophers have been debating about whether freewill is compatible with determinism. So the question is, if everything we do is completely determined, if each thing we do is completely determined by what happened beforehand, then can we still be morally responsible for the things we are doing? And some people say, ‘Obviously not! If everything is determined then we couldn’t be morally responsible for them.’ But some people say, ‘No, that’s no problem at all. Whether you are morally responsible has got nothing to do with whether you are determined. These are just two completely separate issues.’ So what we were interested in was what were the psychological roots of this conflict.

So we were interested in finding out what it is within people that is drawing them to the one side or to the other side of the issue. So we thought; maybe it’s people’s abstract theory that is drawing them to the idea that someone who is determined cannot be morally responsible. And that it’s people’s more immediate emotional responses that are drawing them to the view that people who are totally determined can be morally responsible. So we tried to devise these questions that would make people think about the issue either from a more abstract, theoretical perspective or from a more concrete, emotional, immediate perspective. So I guess the study you already know is the one where everyone was told about this universe, Universe A, where everything was determined. And then some people were just asked in the abstract, in Universe A, could anyone be held to be morally responsible for anything they do? And people said overwhelmingly no, absolutely not. We got the same response in America, in Japan, in India, in Columbia. Everyone was saying the same thing, giving the same answer: definitely not! You cannot hold anyone morally responsible. No one can be morally responsible in this universe. But then in the other condition, we asked a more concrete question. So we said, ‘Consider this one guy, his name is Bill, and he lives in this determinist Universe A. So this guy, Bill, he falls in love with his secretary. So he decides to leave his wife and family. Then he sets up an incendiary device to burn them all to death.’ And then we asked whether they thought this one guy, Bill, was morally responsible for what he did. And in this case people say ‘Totally!’ That guy Bill is morally responsible even though he lives in Universe A. Everyone said this. But in the other condition everyone said that no one in Universe A could be morally responsible. So it seems as if people who have been made to think about it in this more emotional way are giving one answer and people being asked to think about it in a more rational, more abstract way, are giving the exact opposite answer. And so this is a significant difference and helps us to think about why we believe what we believe.

3:AM: But then you found that engineers didn’t conform to this, was that right?

JK: Now this was strange. The philosopher Arudra Burra tried this out on a bunch of engineers and they were the only ones who had the point of view that it was compatibilist in the abstract case. So people of all different cultures and all different groups they had the opposite intuition except for the engineers who have this view that determinism is no problem at all for moral responsibility and we would be fine if it turned out that determinism was true.


3:AM: Why did Kierkegaard and Nietzsche attract you initially and how would you link those two to what you’re doing with experimental philosophy?

JK: Well I’m really interested in moral intuitions and how people come to form the ideas that we do, and these are questions that interested Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. They were doing exactly the sorts of thing that we are trying to do with our approach – except that we are using empirical data from experiments to help us work out our answers. So I don’t see experimental philosophy as a break from the philosophical tradition; it’s rather that recent philosophy has been untypical of what philosophy has been like for most of its history.

3:AM: So this would link in particular to your reading of Kierkegaard from back when you were starting out, with his interest in Naturalistic religious beliefs and so on?

JK: I hadn’t really considered that but now that you raised it have I can see that that might be a very interesting connection.

3:AM: This seems to offer a challenge to philosophers who want to say that our beliefs and concepts are not relative but can be fixed and discussed without knowing any of this experimental data. So is philosophy being made redundant because of your work?

JK: Not at all. I wouldn’t agree with that. Maybe what should end is the idea that there is a rigid distinction between philosophy and everything else. That distinction isn’t an historical distinction; it’s a fairly recent invention. If you go back to Karl Marx or John Stuart Mill or other thinkers from the nineteenth century, they were very interested in questions of economics and psychology and philosophy, and they just didn’t worry about the idea that we have to draw some big careful line between these different fields. If we’ve got to end anything, it’s certainly not philosophy, which has an incredibly rich and valuable history. It’s just this relatively recent idea that philosophy has to be cut off from all these other disciplines.

3:AM: So is it that there’s a continuum from physics to the arts, to literature say, where the difference is more a difference in degree than kind?

JK: That’s a nice way of thinking about it. So if you say there’s clearly some kind of distinction between philosophy and literature we can say there’s a continuum where at one end of it you’re clearly doing philosophy and at the other end you’re clearly doing literature and that will be helpful. But if you say that we have to establish this rigid line between philosophy and literature, so that everything is either one or the other and nothing can be a mix of the two, then you’re doing something that is not helpful at all.

3:AM: So what else other than philosophy and cognitive science is feeding into your work?

JK: Well you know, my wife and I have been together now for twenty years, and for the whole time she’s been involved in indie rock. I feel that she has given me the sense of all these other possible virtues – virtues that aren’t always recognised in academia but they are really essential to rock and roll. The sense of rawness and excitement. And this sense, especially in indie rock, of having a community that is collaborative and supportive of each other. The idea that if you’re on a bill with another bunch of bands, you should try and support the other bands on the bill. I feel that the people I am working with in my little area of philosophy, experimental philosophy, have taken on this indie ethos.

3:AM: Talking of which, you’ve got interests and links to that indie culture. Have you a particular band at the moment that you’d recommend – other than your wife of course.

JK: If I’m not allowed to recommend my wife, I’d recommend a band called She Keeps Bees.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 12th, 2011.