Why Phi Needs XPhi

exhibition-posterby Mark O’Brien

Humans are alone in the natural world (as far as we know) in the richness of our dealings with other members of our own species and in the fact that we have a complex language with which to negotiate these interactions. We have evolved a sophisticated suite of concepts and intuitions, and a correspondingly complex brain to help us succeed in this challenging social environment.

But as the products of evolution (whether biological or cultural), notions such as morality, justice, love, beauty, knowledge, truth, duty, loyalty and so on are only required to be useful heuristics. They are usually not, in their “native” states at least, the result of a robust foundation in rational analysis. These concepts are instead understood and recognized on a basis best described by Justice Potter Stewart with the famous words “I know it when I see it” (regarding obscenity). [1]

Unfortunately, this is hardly a satisfactory situation for either law enforcement or eroticists. If obscenity is to be censored, then it would be helpful to have a more precise account of what is obscene. Presumably Justice Stewart will not always be available for consultation, not least because he is deceased. In this particular case, it may be sufficient to legislate specifically for certain kinds of depictions, but even so one runs into occasional legal nonsense, as with the decision in Australia that drawings of the Simpsons having sex could be considered illegal child pornography. [2]

Ideally, this is where philosophy comes in.

In my view, one of the major tasks of philosophy, not only in the interpretation of law but in the resolution of all kinds of conundrums, is to put our intuitions on a firmer footing, and so a substantial body of philosophical work is devoted to debating how we ought to define and delineate these concepts. For an example, we need look no further than our own Massimo Pigliucci’s latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry), Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering The Demarcation Problem, which seeks to pin down the demarcation between science and pseudoscience and in so doing proposes a robust account of each. [3]

Some of our natural concepts have been contentious for millennia. For instance, ever since Socrates [4], and perhaps before, the foundations of morality have been a topic for philosophical debate, and very little has been settled. Attempts to define what is moral have fallen into four major camps: those who define morality in terms of virtue, those who talk in terms of maximizing well-being or utility, those who believe that morality consists of following commandments, and those who deny that moral questions are meaningful at all.

Other concepts seem at first to be easier to define. Plato’s take on knowledge as “justified true belief” stood for over two thousand years. Even so, some issues with this were brought to light by Edmund Gettier as recently as 1963, in a paper which illustrated with examples that this definition fails in certain unusual scenarios. [5] One way for a definition to fail might be its incoherence, but this is not what Gettier showed. Instead, he demonstrated that there are cases of justified true belief which we would nevertheless intuitively hesitate to call “knowledge.”

And so, in general, it seems that the definitions proposed by philosophers for natural human intuitions can fail if they do not accurately reflect those intuitions.

For Gettier and perhaps for most philosophers, introspection is considered a sufficient means of assessing human intuition. It was after all Gettier’s own intuitions regarding knowledge that he found to disagree with Plato’s definition, while the intuitions of his colleagues were consulted during peer review. However, philosophers do not have a monopoly on human intuition, and I see no reason to privilege the intuitions of philosophers. To provide a solid foundation for the philosophy of natural human concepts, we should have a more robust way to discover and document human intuitions across and within different cultural milieus.

And this is where experimental philosophy comes in.

Experimental Philosophy [6] (sometimes abbreviated as XPhi) is an emerging discipline which seeks to study human intuitions by collecting empirical data by conducting surveys or psychological experiments. It might, without too much distortion, be characterized as introspection with a sample size greater than one. It can therefore provide a relatively objective, empirical and quantifiable basis for the premises and assumptions philosophical arguments are built on, at least as compared to the traditional alternative which consists of assertions derived from the introspections of individual philosophers. This article will not delve too deeply into what XPhi is or how it works. All that we need to know is that one of its major areas of concern is what laypeople believe regarding the intuitions which philosophers analyze, and that some philosophers regard these beliefs as irrelevant to their work.

Last year, Massimo Pigliucci revealed himself to be such a philosopher. [7] In his critique of Experimental Philosophy, he noted that while XPhi might tell us what laypeople think about “knowledge,” what philosophers should really be interested in is what other philosophers believe and argue. In the viewpoint exemplified by Pigliucci, the intuitions of laypeople are simply irrelevant to working philosophers, just as mathematicians do not care what laypeople think of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Philosophy is seen as a technical field like mathematics, studying topics about which ordinary people are not expected to have any special insight.

However, in my view this misses the point that, unlike mathematicians, what philosophers are analyzing are those same lay intuitions. There is no syllogistic argument to justify Plato’s definition of knowledge, nor can there be for definitions in general. Definitions are simply declared by fiat, and if a coherent definition is rejected it can only be because it contradicts our intuitive understanding of the defined term. Gettier rejected “justified true belief” because he found that it didn’t match his intuitive concept of knowledge, an intuition he came by not through his philosophical training, but simply by virtue of his membership of the human race (and more specifically of his culture). If Gettier had relied not only on introspection but also conducted a survey and found that few other people (whether philosophically trained or not) viewed the Gettier cases as problematic, he would have had no grounds to find fault with Plato. The fact that his paper has gained traction is only because his own intuitions happen to have coincided with those of most people.

There is certainly a place for technical definitions of technical concepts, but these should be given appropriate technical names and not confused with the natural human intuitions they seek to model. To do otherwise leads to confusion, grandiose claims and failure to communicate effectively. For example, Sam Harris is often criticized for claiming that science can determine human values, but had he instead made the more modest claim that science can guide consequentialist morality (as he actually argues in his book), I suspect the philosophical community would have met his thesis not with derision but with bemused indifference.

Richard Carrier’s account of objective morality [8] is less well known but is an even clearer example of the problem. Carrier seems to believe he has found the definitive answer to the question of objective morality by essentially taking morality to mean rational self-interest. Carrier’s argument, in condensed form, is that morality is what one ought to do, and what any rational agent ought to do is to maximize its own satisfaction. He suggests that the best way to maximize satisfaction is to be kind, generous, considerate, charitable etc, and that when people behave otherwise they are simply mistaken about which choices will bring them happiness.

Perhaps Carrier has a point on this, but it could be that he is wrong in his assumptions. It is plausible that, at least for some people, satisfaction might best be achieved by behaving in ways which are widely regarded as immoral. Carrier is quite doubtful of this possibility, but untroubled even should it prove to be true. In Carrier’s view, which choices maximize satisfaction is simply an empirical question, and if lying, cheating and stealing is the way to go about it, then that is what is moral for that person. If laypeople disagree, they are simply wrong.

In his own words: “Maybe we shouldn’t always be concerned about the welfare of others. If that’s the fact, then you have to live with it. But whether it’s a fact has to be determined. Empirically.” [9]

What he is saying is that, in the unlikely event that we find that selfishness leads to happiness, then morality dictates that we ought to be selfish. To me, this is clearly nonsense, and yet it is interesting because I think it arises from much the same kind of thinking as seen in the rejections of Experimental Philosophy from those such as Pigliucci: that philosophy is the study of technical concepts with technical definitions and that lay intuitions have nothing to do with it.

Carrier’s mistake is to overlook the simple fact that morality is a human intuition, so any definition of morality which does not agree with that intuition cannot be accepted. The best we can say is that Carrier has defined something, but to call it “morality” is an error. If no coherent universally-accepted definition of morality is possible, then that is the fact we have to live with. We need to accept it and move on.

In my view, the opinions of lay people are not only relevant but at the heart of some debates, not least that surrounding free will. In the recent back and forth between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, the two agree on all the facts of the matter, but disagree on whether the term “free will” is appropriate for the physically-determined actions of biological robots. Harris says it is not, because true “free will” is the libertarian kind which is incompatible with naturalism [10]. Dennett says it is, because the “free will” worth wanting is the one that actually exists and that can be used to justify moral responsibility on consequentialist grounds [11].

It seems to me that the two are really arguing about terminology. On this particular debate, I side with Harris, but only because, by introspection, I find that the concept evoked in my mind by the term “free will” is not compatible with naturalism. Both men make claims about what the wider public understands by the term, and so it seems to me that the debate ought to be settled with a little experimental philosophy. If Dennett is right that his account of free will matches the intuitions of the public, then he is right to call it so. If he is wrong, then he should call it something else.

Before we finish, let us return to the demarcation problem for a moment. Suppose, hypothetically, that the definition of “science” proposed by Pigliucci and Boudry were not accepted by the majority of scientists. It seems to me that they could respond in at least two ways. One tactic might be to dismiss the scientists as non-philosophers, to maintain that the proposed definition of “science” is technical and not to be confused with the term as used outside of technical philosophy. This would achieve little but to consign their book to irrelevancy. I submit that a better approach would be to survey the scientists and to probe the ways in which the proposed definition failed in the hopes that a better definition could be formulated. This is experimental philosophy in action.

In conclusion, philosophers should feel free to use whatever technical terms and definitions they find useful, but if they ever attempt to define terms which are in general use, and especially if they make use of such definitions in the public space, then they need to know that their definitions match the public understanding of these concepts, or if they do not, they need at least to know that they do not.

And for that, they need experimental philosophy.

_____

Mark O’Brien is a software developer and amateur philosopher who despite never having achieved anything in the field has an unjustified confidence in his own opinions and sees it as his sacred duty to share them with the world. The world has yet to notice. You might very well think that his pseudonymous alter ego is a regular on Scientia Salon, but he couldn’t possibly comment. He is Irish and lives in Aberdeen, Scotland.

[1] Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

[2] Judge rules characters in Simpsons-style sex cartoon are child pornography.

[3] Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering The Demarcation Problem, by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, Chicago Press.

[4] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Socrates’ Euthyphro Dilemma.

[5] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Knowledge.

[6] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Experimental Philosophy.

[7] Rationally Speaking: Philosophy is not an Elephant, by Massimo Pigliucci.

[8] What exactly is objective moral truth?, by Richard Carrier.

[9] A comment from Richard Carrier in the discussion of [8].

[10] Free Will and “Free Will,” by Sam Harris.

[11] Reflections on FREE WILL, by Daniel C. Dennett.



Categories: Philosophy, Science

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172 replies

  1. OK, so we have: human exceptionalism, claimed face validity of intuition and the acceptance of naive realism (self reports) in experimental philosophy. Boy, these all seem very retrograde and archaic intellectual positions. Exclusively focused on past ideas and methods and firmly looking backwards.

    For any intellectual progress isn’t something well outside and independent of everyday English language and popular Western cultural beliefs needed?

    • This is human exceptionalism the same way that the study of electrons is electron exceptionalism.

      If you really think that concepts such as “justice”, “loyalty”, “obscenity” and so on are to be found out there in the physical world by doing empirical experiments, then I invite you to try. If not, it seems that you just don’t find the study of such concepts to be interesting. Which is fine but makes me wonder why you bother spending your time posting to a philosophy-focused webzine at all.

      Getting outside everyday English language and Western cultural beliefs is one of the things that makes XPhi interesting. By exposing that people in different cultures treat these intuitions differently, we have a chance to realise that some of our analyses of these concepts may indeed be Western-biased.

    • Self reports are a perfectly valid, uncontroversial and widely used method of gathering data in science and have nothing to do with the validity of intuition and naive realism.

      Scientists use self reports in testing pain killing drugs, treatment of depression and many other things. Like any method of measurements it can have pitfalls and produce wrong of meaningless data and as such has to be designed very carefully.

  2. If Dennett is right that his account of free will matches the intuitions of the public, then he is right to call it so. If he is wrong, then he should call it something else.

    Actually Dennett contradicts himself. He first says that what “everyday folk” mean by free will is preposterous. Then he says that most people agree largely with compatibilism.

    So before there can be any experimental philosophy the questions and propositions upon which they are based need to be clarified and stated more rigorously.

    Also, what work has been done so far is not exactly impressive. I commented earlier on a paper on free will and in particular the set of questions underpinning a scale of peoples beliefs about free will. But the design of this instrument was appalling – with ambiguous questions and asking people to answer questions on a scale that was meaningless in context of the question. (I will seek out this paper if anyone is interested).

    So before philosophy can become experimental it needs to become more rigorous in its formulations.

    But I agree with the approach of finding out just what most people’s beliefs about their volitional processes actually is. Both Dennett and Harris’ descriptions of the beliefs of “everyday folk” or “Average Joes”, as they term them, seem simplistic and condescending. I have spent many decades talking to people in all walks of life and this is a subject which I often discuss with them. You would be surprised at the range and nuance of opinion from the factory floor to the board room

    It seems to me that it would be a wasted effort to try to refute a kind of free will very few people actually believe in.

    • I think you’re right on most of this, although I tend to be quite sympathetic to Dennett in general so I’m not entirely convinced your criticism of him is fair, though it may be.

      You might be right that the quality of the XPhi done so far is not great. The main point of the article is that XPhi is not an entirely wrong-headed idea in the first place, not that it couldn’t be done better.

    • Hi DM

      think you’re right on most of this, although I tend to be quite sympathetic to Dennett in general so I’m not entirely convinced your criticism of him is fair, though it may be.

      My criticism of Dennet applies to his reply to Harris’ free will and not to his writing on free will in general.

      You might be right that the quality of the XPhi done so far is not great. The main point of the article is that XPhi is not an entirely wrong-headed idea in the first place, not that it couldn’t be done better.

      Yes, and I agree with him. I am only pointing that for it to work, it has to be done better.

  3. Interesting post! I’m not a fan of xphi but certainly provides an interesting perspective to wrestle with. Two big problems with xphi that I’ve always seen are that it can arguably be an area of research within psychology and does not require “philosophers doing experiments badly” and the fact that knowing the opinions of people on situations is hardly a valid and sound justification for what we ought to think or believe.
    In terms of the first problem, I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world if philosophers did experiments and I’d imagine they would get better at it as they get more experience. What’s confusing is why this separate field is needed at all, if your interested in the topic of what the opinions of people are on philosophical topics, than go into psychology and do those experiments. By doing “experimental philosophy”, the impression I get is that the Xphi researchers are attempting to smuggle in the normative claim with the descriptive empirical claims.
    This leads me to the second problem. I still have yet to see a good justification for privileging the opinions or intuitions of the majority of people versus trained philosophers who study the subject matter nor do I think philosophy is just about intuitions (it may start of with some basic intuitions but those can be challenged based on what we know, Peter Singer is a good example of this). Your response to Massimo’s critique is simply “this doesn’t seem to be case because lay people also have intuitions”. Lay people also have opinions and naive theories about how the physical world works as well so should we start to survey the general public for whether scientific facts are true (Unfortunately this is actually happening right now in the US with climate change)? One could object that empirical claims can be settled by experiments but I would argue that similarly, philosophical issues are handled by rational arguments, not just intuitions.
    To take a philosophy related case, would the majority intuition of right wing fundamentalists about abortion being wrong be justified because they far out number the philosophers in the world? Or would we equally sample liberals and average out their intuitions to come up with an answer in between? To me, this is committing the naturalistic fallacy to say that people believe or have intuitions about X and therefore we ought to believe in X.
    Finally, I can’t help but comment on the morality piece. I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to use Harris and Carrier as any representations of good philosophical arguments for morality as neither one of them are ethicists or moral philosophers and more importantly, their views are outliers (and quite bizarre really). That aside, I also think it’s very misleading to simply state nothing has been “settled” in moral philosophy. Nothing has been settled as in we have a definitive answer to question X but that was never the point. Morality is not like science in that it will you clear answer but that doesn’t mean there are not rational arguments for doing one thing rather than another or provide some clarity on the issue.
    Looking at it from this perspective, there certainly have been many advances in morality. I would also argue that people like Derek Parfit have recently synthesized many of these advances and shows how even the supposedly very different perspective of consequentialist, deontologists, and contractarians all come to the same conclusion (in his book “On what matters”). You could challenge Parfit’s view and I actually wish you would because that would at least be directly addressing someone who is focusing on works related to morality.

    • Hi imzasirf,

      Perhaps XPhi could be considered a branch of psychology, but this doesn’t really answer the main point which is whether it is relevant to philosophy. Besides, I think psychology is more about how people react, think and behave and has less emphasis on how they interpret terms such as justice. Perhaps psychology studies how a sense of justice influences behaviour, while XPhi studies what people claim they believe to be just.

      By doing “experimental philosophy”, the impression I get is that the Xphi researchers are attempting to smuggle in the normative claim with the descriptive empirical claims.

      I disagree. It’s not about normativity. It’s about whether the definitions and analyses philosophers provide for abstract intuitions actually match what people understand by those terms. For example, if Carrier’s account of objective morality does allow selfishness to be moral (given the right empirical evidence), and if XPhi shows that people do not think that selfishness can be moral, then this tells us nothing about what we ought to believe or do. It only tells us that we have two mutually incompatible concepts competing for identification with the term “morality”. Since the popular notion is older and wider spread, I think it only reasonable to reject Carrier’s definition, for the same reason that I can’t unilaterally decide to redefine “cheesecake” to refer to libraries.

      philosophical issues are handled by rational arguments, not just intuitions.

      Certainly. But I think you’re missing the point that some issues have no fact of the matter, they are terminological disputes about which definitions best capture a concept. It is in these disputes only that XPhi is important. There is no fact of the matter on whether free will exists or not, it depends only on how you define free will. There is no fact of the matter either on which is the correct definition because definitions of words are determined by usage, and this is what XPhi discovers.

      To take a philosophy related case, would the majority intuition of right wing fundamentalists about abortion being wrong be justified because they far out number the philosophers in the world?

      No, because that is a normative claim about moral attitudes and not a claim about how a term should be defined. Philosophers can present compelling arguments against such views, but they can perhaps not claim to have found the one true objectively correct definition of morality if there are significant numbers of laypeople who interpret morality differently, particularly if those people are simply starting from different moral axioms (as opposed to entertaining an incoherent or inconsistent belief system).

      I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to use Harris and Carrier as any representations of good philosophical arguments for morality

      It’s not disingenuous because they are not used as examples of good moral philosophy but of bad. Good moral philosophers such as Singer respect the common human intuition of morality. They do not as a rule claim to have provided the one objective foundation for all human morality but instead propose a particular moral framework. Singer in particular justifies his arguments with thought experiments such as The Drowning Child which use our intuitions to good effect even as he persuades us to change them.

      it’s very misleading to simply state nothing has been “settled” in moral philosophy.

      That’s not what the article said. It said very little has been settled. This is not to say there has not been progress, but only to establish that these questions are difficult.

      You could challenge Parfit’s view

      Actually, your decription of Parfit’s view seems perfectly reasonable to me.

      In summary, you bring up a lot of cases where XPhi will have little to offer, and I agree. But the claim is not that XPhi is always relevant, but only that it is relevant to questions such as defining religion, morality, free will and the demarcation problem.

      If you disagree with the thesis of the article, it would be more useful to address some of the examples therein. For example, you could explain why the opinions of scientists regarding the differences between science and pseudoscience should not be of relevance in working on the demarcation problem.

    • DM,
      First, how do you quote people when your responding on this blog? Is it the normal [quote]Add quote here[/quote] tag? I guess I’ll find out when this is posted…

      >>>Perhaps XPhi could be considered a branch of psychology, but this doesn’t really answer the main point which is whether it is relevant to philosophy. Besides, I think psychology is more about how people react, think and behave and has less emphasis on how they interpret terms such as justice. Perhaps psychology studies how a sense of justice influences behaviour, while XPhi studies what people claim they believe to be just.

      Well as I stated, this is not something that I’m completely against as I essentially see it as psychological research but with a focus on topics that psychologists don’t necessarily address fully because they are perhaps less interested in them. I just object to creating a separate field for it rather than the folks that want to do “xphi” research simply getting psychology degrees and pursuing their specific research questions. Approaching it this way would at least get around the issue that is faced in xphi right now regarding poor methodology, which I have to imagine has less to do with the individual’s talents and more that they are trying to do empirical research without proper training.

      >>>I disagree. It’s not about normativity. It’s about whether the definitions and analyses philosophers provide for abstract intuitions actually match what people understand by those terms. For example, if Carrier’s account of objective morality does allow selfishness to be moral (given the right empirical evidence), and if XPhi shows that people do not think that selfishness can be moral, then this tells us nothing about what we ought to believe or do. It only tells us that we have two mutually incompatible concepts competing for identification with the term “morality”. Since the popular notion is older and wider spread, I think it only reasonable to reject Carrier’s definition, for the same reason that I can’t unilaterally decide to redefine “cheesecake” to refer to libraries.

      I’m not sure if I completely understand the distinction, are you saying that even if a Xphi researcher surveys people and they largely agree that morality is what God says is right or wrong, than that is not a normative claim that is being made by them? What would the xphi researcher conclude from this if the majority of intuitions (which they do) point to God as source of moral right or wrong, would they therefore say we should all define morality as what God said is right or wrong? To me morality is not just an intuition but rather the result of asking the question, what it is the best way to live among each other? I can see how the terminology of morality here can be in dispute, as someone can say “its what I feel is right, not something I rationally think about” and if that’s what your saying that I’m okay with that. Research looking at the landscape of what people belief “morality” is would be very interesting to see. However, I’m not sure if we should use that as a way to settle on our terminology as again, the general public’s notion of morality maybe very skewed (Divine Command, etc.). It would only force moral philosophers to call morality something different in the way they mean it, but that seems to be backwards to ask those professionals who are trained and spend their professional lives coming up definitions and research on the topic to change the terminology based on public’s intuitions.

      >>>Certainly. But I think you’re missing the point that some issues have no fact of the matter, they are terminological disputes about which definitions best capture a concept. It is in these disputes only that XPhi is important. There is no fact of the matter on whether free will exists or not, it depends only on how you define free will. There is no fact of the matter either on which is the correct definition because definitions of words are determined by usage, and this is what XPhi discovers.

      I think there actually is a fact of the matter whether or not free will exists but I agree that whether or not free will exists requires clarification regarding what one means by free will first. How would a xphi researcher help here though, if they surveyed people and found that most hold a traditional libertarian notion of free will? I can see how that can inform the Dennett vs. Harris debate where they talk about what most people see free will to be but I don’t see how that adds to the philosophical literature that already distinguishes the two.

      >>>No, because that is a normative claim about moral attitudes and not a claim about how a term should be defined. Philosophers can present compelling arguments against such views, but they can perhaps not claim to have found the one true objectively correct definition of morality if there are significant numbers of laypeople who interpret morality differently, particularly if those people are simply starting from different moral axioms (as opposed to entertaining an incoherent or inconsistent belief system).

      Okay, so here you would only go so far to claim that the majority hold X definition of morality whereas philosophers or other people hold Y definition of morality? I think that’s fine as long as the X and Y definition are not confused nor if X is privileged over Y because the majority of people hold that view of morality.

      >>>It’s not disingenuous because they are not used as examples of good moral philosophy but of bad. Good moral philosophers such as Singer respect the common human intuition of morality. They do not as a rule claim to have provided the one objective foundation for all human morality but instead propose a particular moral framework. Singer in particular justifies his arguments with thought experiments such as The Drowning Child which use our intuitions to good effect even as he persuades us to change them.

      Fair enough on the point that they were not brought up as good moral philosophers, that was my misreading. As for Singer, I’m not sure if that is 100% accurate. In fact, Singer does currently hold an objective moral view after Derek Parfit’s work but even before that, he uses intuitions as largely moral motivation but very strongly promotes a rationally based system of morality. He even has given a few recent lectures on how our intuitions are very limited when it comes to morality because they evolved for very specific survival scenarios and they are overextended into cases where there is no reason to act on them.

      >>>That’s not what the article said. It said very little has been settled. This is not to say there has not been progress, but only to establish that these questions are difficult.

      Fair point.

      >>>Actually, your description of Parfit’s view seems perfectly reasonable to me.

      Cool, I’m surprised he doesn’t get mentioned more often. I’m trying to finish the insanity of this two part books right now, very interesting stuff.

      >>>If you disagree with the thesis of the article, it would be more useful to address some of the examples therein. For example, you could explain why the opinions of scientists regarding the differences between science and pseudoscience should not be of relevance in working on the demarcation problem.

      That’s a fair request. I think the case of demarcation problem is very different from the case of morality, which I see as a central philosophical topic, whereas the demarcation problem is addressed in science and philosophy. As such, I think it makes perfect sense that scientists would be involved because they can best summarize their own activities regarding their research. Moreover, it also makes sense for philosophers of science to be involved based on fields such as epistemology, trying to figure out what makes scientific epistemology unique. Now, if we were to say “lets go survey Americans regarding what they think about science”, that would be an interesting question but I don’t think the results of that survey should convince scientists or philosophers to change their definitions.

    • Hi imzasirf,

      You can quote people with blockquote tags using html angle brackets.

      I’m not sure if I completely understand the distinction, are you saying that even if a Xphi researcher surveys people and they largely agree that morality is what God says is right or wrong, than that is not a normative claim that is being made by them?

      It’s not a normative claim being made by XPhi researchers, though it is a survey of normative claims of people. The point is that any claim to have defined morality objectively and without qualification fails if it does not match these beliefs. However, philosophers can examine these beliefs and perhaps show them to be inconsistent or predicated on false assumptions, and this provides motivation for proposing alternative definitions of morality. But these alternatives cannot be identified with morality itself.

      And so we have utliitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics, but any claim that any one moral system is The True Morality is wrong-headed. Such claims are only possible when there is a consensus, and there is no consensus on morality as any survey will show. There are only arguments and intuitions for preferring one system over another, perhaps depending on context.

      To me morality is not just an intuition…

      And to somebody else it’s a commandment from God. So we all have different ideas about what morality means, which means it is not one thing. There is no principled way to say “This is what morality is”. We can only say “My personal take on morality is…”. This is the mistake made by Harris and Carrier, and I think it is not a mistake made by Singer or Parfit. I suspect that XPhi will not help to provide a final answer to the question “what is the true morality” but it will help to show that such an answer does not exist.

      someone can say “its what I feel is right, not something I rationally think about” and if that’s what your saying that I’m okay with that.

      That’s not really what I’m saying. Your morality can be very well-considered and still predicated on an intuition. You say that morality is about finding the best way to live together, but how does that argue against slavery, an institution which provides immense wealth and development yet we recognise is immoral? How does it answer the question about whether it is moral to treat animals poorly? What does “best” mean?

      So I’m assuming you’re talking about utliitarianism which is these days usually concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures. But the argument that we should have such concern is only based on an intuition. There is no compelling argument to support it.

      How would a xphi researcher help here though, if they surveyed people and found that most hold a traditional libertarian notion of free will?

      It would show that it is needlessly and unhelpfully confusing for Dennett to argue that free will exists, because too many people will interpret him incorrectly. It would be better for him to focus on consequentialist moral responsibility while criticising retributive justice because those are really the important issues. Arguing that free will (by which I mean libertarian free will) does not exist may help to communicate his case more effectively.

      I think that’s fine as long as the X and Y definition are not confused nor if X is privileged over Y because the majority of people hold that view of morality.

      This is exactly right. There is no problem if there is no confusion. But there is confusion, and so there is a problem. Carrier is a prime example. He has confused a technical definition of morality of his own devising with morality itself. I am most certainly not advocating that the opinions of laypeople are privileged, but rather that the intuitions of philosophers are not. What I mean is that what ‘morality’ refers to is the collective moral attitudes of humanity today and throughout the ages. It defies definition because it is an incoherent mess, and so as soon as somebody proposes a robust definition of the one true objective morality, they have failed.

      He even has given a few recent lectures on how our intuitions are very limited when it comes to morality because they evolved for very specific survival scenarios and they are overextended into cases where there is no reason to act on them.

      Sure, and I agree with him. So our intuitions are an incoherent mess, which means there is no one true objective morality. Nevertheless some intuitions are felt more strongly than others, and Singer and Parfit appeal to these to justify their particular moral frameworks. Which I think is perfectly fine. If the intuition that morality has something to do with making everybody better off were not widely agreed upon, then I would say that there would be no reason to take their proposals seriously. Their proposals are good not because they are the One True Objective Morality but because they take as their basis the most profoundly felt human moral intuitions and then iron out all the inconsistencies such as homophobia and racism which arise from lesser intuitions and false beliefs.

      whereas the demarcation problem is addressed in science and philosophy.

      I would not say it is addressed in science. I would say instead it is addressed in the philosophy of science.

      As such, I think it makes perfect sense that scientists would be involved because they can best summarize their own activities regarding their research.

      Indeed. As the community that has collectively called the activity they are participating in “science” and as the practitioners of “science”, they are the authority on what counts as science and what does not. Philosophers must then take scientists’ views seriously as they try and whip all this data about what is or is not science into a robust definition.

      But when we’re talking about morality, the analogous community is humanity at large. We are all making moral decisions every day, and the concept of morality is ancient and universal.

  4. It might, without too much distortion, be characterized as introspection with a sample size greater than one … the traditional alternative which consists of assertions derived from the introspections of individual philosophers.
    The large body of philosophers throughout the history of intellectual thought are a great deal larger than a ‘sample size [of] one‘. Today’s philosophical thought is the consensus of a great many philosophers and cannot be dismissed as “ the introspections of individual philosophers

    The voluminous writings of innumerable philosophers are an extraordinarily good sampling of how some of the best minds have examined and interpreted the intuitions you mention. This body of writings is the best possible raw material for what you call ‘experimental philosophy

    Philosophers never operate in a vacuum. They are firmly embedded in society and their thinking is ultimately rooted in the intuitions that society shares. But, and this is an important distinction, they are professional observers and thinkers. Their careful examination has revealed a great deal about the intuitions and placed them in a well thought out logical framework. Moreover the mechanism of publication, peer review and sharp debate is a powerful discipline that rewards clear thinking and punishes sloppy thinking.

    These factors do privilege philosophers and the opinions of 10,000 plumbers and electricians will not change that.

    It is valid to examine patterns of belief and behaviour. The fields of psychology and sociology do a very good job of that. But that is not philosophy.

    Let me give you an example. Many studies have concluded that religious belief has beneficial effects in society, see for example this study – http://bit.ly/RI27bE and this one – http://bit.ly/1n3RM3P. Religious interventions in some prisons have greatly reduced incidents of violence – http://nyti.ms/1jfFMy6.

    For psychologists and sociologists those are very interesting results but they are irrelevant to philosophers. Why? Because the philosopher is interested in the truth claims of religion and not in their sociological effects or psychological effects. Any number of samplings of religious behaviour and beliefs will not answer the philosopher’s questions about the truth claims of religion.

    • Hi labnut,

      Philosophers never operate in a vacuum.

      True. Philosophers are influenced by other philosophers. This may lead the culture of philosophers to diverge somewhat from the norm. All the more reason to get input from laypeople to see if their intuitions are separating.

      they are professional observers and thinkers. Their careful examination has revealed a great deal about the intuitions and placed them in a well thought out logical framework. Moreover the mechanism of publication, peer review and sharp debate is a powerful discipline that rewards clear thinking and punishes sloppy thinking.

      Agreed on all counts.

      But while philosophers are better at thinking clearly and discovering incoherencies, I am not convinced that this is enough to privilege their raw intuitions. A syllogism is only as good as its premises. The article does not discuss opinions so much as intuitions, and intuitions are important when intuitions are what we seek to define.

      For psychologists and sociologists those are very interesting results but they are irrelevant to philosophers.

      I agree, because these results are not telling us about a concept we are trying to define. The case you outline is simply not a case of experimental philosophy, so it is irrelevant.

      Any number of samplings of religious behaviour and beliefs will not answer the philosopher’s questions about the truth claims of religion.

      Agreed. But that’s not the kind of question experimental philosophy helps to answer. The question XPhi helps to answer is “What is religion?”.

    • DM,
      The question XPhi helps to answer is ‘What is religion?’.
      That question has four aspects grounded in history, the nature of society, human nature and human thinking, therefore the disciplines of historical analysis, sociology, psychology and philosophy are used to answer the question. The experimental/observational part belongs in sociology and psychology.

      Why don’t you help me out here and tell me what kind of answers to the question “What is religion?” can be given by XPhi that we cannot obtain from history, sociology, psychology and philosophy? What advantage is there to inventing a new form of enquiry when the existing tools are well developed and do a very good job?

    • Why don’t you help me out here and tell me what kind of answers to the question “What is religion?” can be given by XPhi that we cannot obtain from history, sociology, psychology and philosophy?

      Sure.

      Suppose I claim that non-supernaturalist Zen Buddhism is not really a religion but Aravis claims it is (this is a question on which even Buddhists disagree). I justify my stance because non-supernaturalist Zen Buddhism makes no supernatural claims, and Aravis claims it is because Aravis doesn’t think religions need to make supernatural claims.

      We can investigate the history, sociology, psychology and philosophy of Zen Buddhism but I don’t see how any of these investigations will settle the dispute, because it hinges not on the facts about Zen Buddhism but on two different incompatible concepts of ‘religion’ competing for the same label.

      Definitions of words are typically not prescribed but determined by usage. As such, XPhi can find out which usage is more typical and so influence which definition is adopted by convention.

    • DM,
      Definitions of words are typically not prescribed but determined by usage. As such, XPhi can find out which usage is more typical and so influence which definition is adopted by convention.
      If that is what XPhi does it is trivial beyond belief. What is that but another PEW survey? Philosophers are in any case accustomed to be exact with the definitions of the terms they use. My plumber’s broad, unthinking definition of religion is no substitute for the careful thought that philosopher’s of religion have applied to this very problem.

    • Hi labnut.

      Indeed, the practice of XPhi may be pretty trivial. However it’s not just conducting surveys, however, it is also carefully designing surveys so as to elicit useful data about how people interpret concepts.

      But as trivial as the practice of it may arguably be, the consequences or import of it is not trivial. XPhi provides the raw data for philosophers to analyse. It’s like the relationship between experimental physics and theoretical physics. You can’t do theoretical physics without having the results of experiments to analyse.

      Philosophers are in any case accustomed to be exact with the definitions of the terms they use.

      As well they should be. So the job of philosophy in answering the kinds of questions the article is talking about is to take the data from experimental philosophy and to see if all the collected naive intuitions of laypeople can be whipped into some kind of robust shape and given a precise definition which will be reasonably acceptable to everyone.

      My plumber’s broad, unthinking definition of religion is no substitute for the careful thought that philosopher’s of religion have applied to this very problem.

      But we’re not asking your plumber to define religion for us. We are asking questions of your plumber to probe his understanding of the term and to inform (not dictate) a more rigorous definition which will be arrived at by conceptual analysis.

    • DM,
      We are asking questions of your plumber to probe his understanding of the term and to inform (not dictate) a more rigorous definition which will be arrived at by conceptual analysis.
      It seems to me you are confusing XPhi with lexicography. For hundreds of years lexicographers have wrestled with this problem. The answer is that there are three levels of understanding, the intuitive understanding of the man in the street, the informed understanding of the well read person and the intellectual understanding of the academic.

      The intuitive understanding of the man in the street feeds into the informed understanding of the literate who encapsulate it into more precise meanings in their writings. These are the meanings extracted by lexicographers by examining a broad spectrum of writings. They examine the use of a word in its context and establish what the consensus meaning is, that is the normal usage and its common variants. The academic clarifies and makes these meanings even more exact for the purpose of their academic pursuits.

      The intuitive understanding of my neighbourhood plumber tells me nothing about religion. It only tells me something about his attitude to religion. That might be interesting in its own right and PEW Surveys do this very well. Perhaps you should suggest to PEW that they rename themselves as XPhi?

      Understanding what religion is requires a higher order analysis of the kinds that philosophers do. The lower order analysis is done by lexicographers, Pew, Gallup, etc.

    • If I am confusing lexicography for philosophy then that is a mistake made all the time by philosophers.

      Or if not then perhaps you can explain to me why the demarcation problem is not simply a lexicographical problem because the central question is how can one define ‘science’ and ‘pseudoscience’ so as to distinguish between them.

      The religion question is exactly the same question, because all I’m asking is how do I distinguish between religion and non-religion.

    • DM,
      The religion question is exactly the same question, because all I’m asking is how do I distinguish between religion and non-religion
      Any good book about the philosophy of religion will answer that question. It has been well debated and is well understood. What more will X-Phi add to that understanding?

    • Any good book about the philosophy of religion will answer that question. It has been well debated and is well understood. What more will X-Phi add to that understanding?

      It may be well debated, and the issues may be well understood, but there is still no agreed upon consensus. There are various competing definitions, and what XPhi gives us is a basis for the assessment of such definitions.

      Take these proposals for example.

      1) A shared dogmatic supernatural belief system
      2) A cultural and ethical system describing a way of life for a society
      3) A set of teachings and rituals pertaining to man’s relationship to God.

      How would you go about assessing these definitions?

      What I would do is take examples of things I regard to be religious and things I regard not to be religious and see how they fit the different definitions.

      The kinds of questions we need to ask are those such as the following (with my views after):

      Is atheism a religion? (No)
      Is scientism a religion? (No)
      Is non-supernatural Zen Buddhism a religion? (No)
      Is supernatural Buddhism a religion? (Yes)
      Is Alcoholics Anonymous a religion? (Not really, although it has religious aspects depending on how we interpret the Higher Power)
      Is Scientology a religion? (Yes)
      Is transcendental meditation a religion? (No)
      Is soccer fandom a religion? (No)
      Is deism a religion? (No)
      Is Stalinism a religion? (No)
      Is utilitarianism a religion? (No)
      Is paranormalism a religion? (No)
      Is belief in visitation by aliens a religion? (No)

      Based on these answers, I would choose the first of the proposed definitions as the best fit.

      But that’s just my own introspection, and the intuitions of one person are no basis for a consensus. I would prefer to extend this introspection to the world at large and see if a consensus is possible. If I found that most people answered differently I would be reasonably happy to adjust my understanding of the term ‘religion’ so as to agree with the majority view. Such a move would not be changing any of my views regarding my metaphysics or how the world actually is, but it would facilitate communication by adopting a definition by convention based on consensus.

    • DM,
      It may be well debated, and the issues may be well understood, but there is still no agreed upon consensus.

      Of course there won’t be a consensus given the highly diverse nature of society with its competing belief systems and vastly different backgrounds. Your X-Phi opinion poll will simply reflect this diversity and do nothing to answer the question. Let me give you an example. Some three years ago a poll was conducted among professional philosophers to determine the philosophical beliefs they subscribed to, the PhilPapers Survey (http://bit.ly/1nUaL4L).

      Surprise, surprise, there was a huge diversity of opinion. Now which of the many stances was correct? You see the problem is that truth cannot be arrived at by conducting opinion polls.

      Intuition is our unreflective grasp of truth and our history is replete with examples of that being false. Reflection frees us from the chains of intuition and gives us better access to truth.

    • DM,
      Definitions of words are typically not prescribed but determined by usage. As such, XPhi can find out which usage is more typical and so influence which definition is adopted by convention.

      What you have described is the job of lexicographers. They have been doing this for a long time, are skilled at doing it and have a great deal of experience. If you need to ask such a question then you should consult a lexicographer or one of his work products(also known as a dictionary by some people).

    • labnut,

      Let me give you an example. Some three years ago a poll was conducted among professional philosophers to determine the philosophical beliefs they subscribed to, the PhilPapers Survey

      But we’re not really talking about beliefs. We’re talking about definitions of terms. We can expect there to be some level of agreement on what terms mean or we would not be able to communicate at all. We can also expect differences, but there’s no way of knowing how uniform or diverse interpretations might be until you do the work and find out.

      Intuition is our unreflective grasp of truth and our history is replete with examples of that being false.

      It’s slightly frustrating that you seem to be unable to grasp that this has nothing to do with whether intuitions are true or false and everything to do with cataloguing and defining the intuitions there are out there. It is the definitions that are either good or bad depending on how well they capture the essence of the intuitions.

      What you have described is the job of lexicographers. They have been doing this for a long time, are skilled at doing it and have a great deal of experience.

      I have already answered this point. Some of the work of lexicography is philosophical (involving the analysis of concepts) and some of the work of philosophers is lexicographical. Again, please tell me what is the difference between Massimo’s work on the demarcation problem and an attempt to demarcate religion from non-religious cultural practices?

    • DM,
      True. Philosophers are influenced by other philosophers.
      Not only. They are part of society and so are intimately influenced by society.

      I am not convinced that this is enough to privilege their raw intuitions.
      No, but it does privilege their analysis of the intuitions.

    • No, but it does privilege their analysis of the intuitions.

      Of course it does. So my point is that they should not only be analysing their own private intuitions but the intuitions of others.

    • DM,
      So my point is that they should not only be analysing their own private intuitions but the intuitions of others.
      This is precisely what they do with other philosophers through the medium of publication and discussion. The difference though is that this is a privileged group with highly developed skills and so their insights are vastly better than those of my neighbourhood plumber, electrician or carpenter.

    • I think philosophers have highly developed skills to analyse concepts.

      I am not at all convinced that they have highly developed raw intuitions. Have you ever seen a philosophy module which teaches students how to intuit correctly?

      I say this but I do think you have a point actually. Physicists who work with quantum mechanics for long enough no doubt develop an intuition or feel for the subject which was initially highly unintuitive. I’m not really talking about these “trained” intuitions though. I’m talking about the initial raw intuitions that kick off the whole philosophical discussion.

  5. Mark O’Brien wrote:

    I side with Harris, but only because, by introspection, I find that the concept evoked in my mind by the term “free will” is not compatible with naturalism.

    But can you state that disconnect explicitly, or is it just an intuition?

    Speaking personally I cannot see any contradiction between my beliefs about my volition and what we know of the physical universe.

    I feel that I can cause things and that does not seem to contradict causality. I don’t think of my decisions as being uncaused and I don’t know of anybody, on being pressed about it, who does. When I ask “why did you decide that?” they will answer something like “I used my reasoning” or “I used by conscience” or “because I am biased”. On being asked where these things come from they will usually say that their conscience and their biases comes from their upbringing, their role models and the reading they have done, They will say that their reasoning comes from having a particular sort of brain that was developed in a particular way.

    In other words most people will, if pressed, see a cause for all the things that caused their decisions.

    On the other hand if someone makes a decision and cannot think of why they made that particular decision then they would hardly call it free will.

    For example if I were now to take this nice cup of tea I am making and, instead of drinking it as I want to, I pour it all over my head and ask myself “now why the digamma did I do that?” then clearly it was not an act of free will.

    So we see free will exactly when we see causes for our decisions and not otherwise.

    So if someone says that their beliefs about their volitional processes are inconsistent with the laws of physics, then I would like to hear the explicit statement of that inconsistency.

    • Hi Robin,

      But can you state that disconnect explicitly, or is it just an intuition?

      I suspect the author (ahem) would say that free will is just what he calls libertarian free will.

      To me at least, free will always meant libertarianism, especially before I became aware of the distinction between libertarianism of compatibilism. As such, I claimed that I did not believe in free will.

      After being exposed to Dennett, my position has shifted slightly. I think compatibilism is reasonable and defensible but I am not a compatiblist because I think it is unnecessarily confusing to those who interpret ‘free will’ as libertarianism. The shift is therefore not a change in my metaphysical beliefs but in my tolerance for different definitions of terms.

      I feel that I can cause things and that does not seem to contradict causality.

      I think the illusion of free will has less to do with being able to give an account of your reasons and more to do with determinism.

      (Yes, many interpretations of QM are indeterministic, but usually this kind of randomness is not considered to be terribly relevant so it is helpful to simplify by imagining that we live in a clockwork universe.)

      I think the libertarian free will illusion comes from uncertainty about what you will decide in the future. When you set out to make a decision, you don’t yet know what decision you are going to make, so you have the illusion that any choice is possible. In fact, one particular outcome may be inevitable because of details of your brain state of which you are quite unaware. I think many people take this illusion seriously and genuinely do think that their choices are not determined at all. This is why I am inclined to say that ‘free will’ is an illusion.

    • Hi DM,

      I think the illusion of free will has less to do with being able to give an account of your reasons and more to do with determinism.

      But again, I think that I determined that this post should be written and am perfectly comfortable with the idea that prior events determined that this decision should happen. I think, based on fairly informal discussions at least, that many, if not most, people would more or less agree with this .

      I think many people take this illusion seriously and genuinely do think that their choices are not determined at all. This is why I am inclined to say that ‘free will’ is an illusion.

      Possibly, but then again possibly not as many as you might think.

      When I say “I could have visited my father more”, I mean that there were no external constraints like distance, lack of transport options, time etc, that prevented me from the visit and so in effect I meant “I could have visited my father more if I was less selfish and disorganised” or something like that. This is what C D Broad termed “conditional substitutability”. Libertarianism requires categorical substitutability which would be something like “I could have visited my father more even if the conditions had been exactly the same including my brain state”.

      I would think that most people, when they had understood the distinction would probably allow that they mean conditional rather than categorical substitutability.

      But I think that both you and I are making educated guesses about this and so it seems that it might be a perfect example of where XPhi might come into the picture.

    • I am aware that what I am suggesting is a little like “push polling”, but I do think that in order to gauge what people think about their volitional processes you have to get at the considered responses rather than the initial reaction, as most surveys on this subject seem to do.

    • But I think that both you and I are making educated guesses about this and so it seems that it might be a perfect example of where XPhi might come into the picture.

      in order to gauge what people think about their volitional processes you have to get at the considered responses rather than the initial reaction

      Sure. But I see no reason not to get data on both. It may be informative.

    • Woops, on the first quote, I meant to say

      “Exactly!”

  6. I’ve never seen a Gettier problem were said belief was truly justified! It only seems justified because of some absent information from the viewpoint of the believer. Take the case in which the watch marks 3 o’clock but the watch is not working; or the case of the american car.
    It seems to me that the problem relies in the justification. Is the justification credible and reliable, or right?

    Think of the sun revolving around the earth (as it seems, although it isn’t). Was the belief justified? Well, yes! Was the justification right? Nowadays we know it was not.

    From my perspective, these Gettier problems ain’t nothing new. Get over it and keep on investigating!

    • I’m inclined to agree with you.

      Although the example of the sun doesn’t work as a Gettier case because it’s not true. Gettier problems have to be justified true beliefs.

      But even if Gettier problems don’t show a problem with Plato’s definition of knowledge, they still show a problem with a naive concept of justification. The traditional concept of justification was something like having evidence which would be persuasive to any rational person. Gettier shows that this concept doesn’t quite work in the definition of knowledge as justified true belief.

      For the definition of knowledge to work we must amend this concept of justification to include a criterion that the interpretation of the justification must not depend on any false beliefs, such as that the watch is working.

    • Ops! You’re right about the sun’s example! My mistake ;-)
      But you did get my point and expressed it more clearly than I did (or than I could).
      About the justification problem, what I wanted to say is that there was awareness of it before Gettier. I’m thinking of Émile Durkheim, Quine, Popper, Kunh, and the disagreement among them… Personally I don’t see that much difference between those discussions and the problems aroused by the Gettier examples, but maybe (most probably) I’m in need of some elucidation here.

      P.S. I’m Portuguese, and I’m not accustomed to discuss these matters in english, so pardon me if sometimes I don’t express myself with more clarity.

      P.S.2. I really like this blog, good articles and informative comments :-)

    • I don’t know enough about the arguments advanced by those to comment. Gettier is generally acknowledged as having contributed something, and my understanding is that his innovation was to provide pretty convincing justifications that nevertheless had some subtle flaw.

  7. I probably ought to disqualify myself from commenting on this site, since the more I get back into philosophy the more I realize why I left it. But there are some points here that interest me.

    I think of experimental philosophy as a formal name for philosophical investigations that are in the process of being co-opted by science and are like chunks of ice that have just fallen off the melting glacier of philosophy into the sea of science. “Experimental philosophy” looks to me like an oxymoron.

    Regarding morality and law, I don’t think that there is a rational solution that can be discovered or explicated by philosophers. Rational self-interest or game theory may be of some use in solving the puzzle, but I think the answers lie more in the study of Homo sapiens. Since we are probably the least instinctive animal on the planet, we have to study ourselves to discover what our instincts and basic needs are. This is a more reliable route to devising moral systems and laws than handing the task over to philosophers who have been bandying about arcane terms for millennia. Morality and law are practical matters of our daily existence, and a purely theoretical approach to them is probably not appropriate.

    • Paul, Even if we grant that there is no “rational solution” for morality (and law), how exactly is the scientific study of homo sapiens, be it biology, psychology or economics going to solve what is moral or not? Or for that matter what is legal? You would at some point need to include a normative analysis of what criteria you would be using because you can start to weigh things like desires, instincts, and needs as morally relevant.

    • imzasirf, I think a moral system could be constructed by making an exhaustive study of human values over time and across cultures. For example, killing a member of one’s own group without cause seems to be universally unacceptable and go against human nature. A belief in fairness and equality seems to be a deeply embedded human trait, but is it? Such a study might provide answers. I advocate this approach because if you go by reason alone there is no convincing argument against complete selfishness. A psychopath or sociopath may have no compulsions about his crimes and we may have no arguments that will convince him that he is wrong. Those arguments come from our eusocial nature, not from philosophical texts. Most of our rules about how to behave are the result of consensus, which seems to be a feature of eusociality. Without that, random homicides, genocides, etc., might be perfectly acceptable to us. Because we are detached from our instincts by consciousness, we would arguably be better off with the right set of rules, laws and moral principles – a system that we would be taught from birth and that would be enforced throughout our lives. Without scientific objectivity (if I may use the term), the rules are likely to be skewed one way or another to favor certain individuals or groups. In case you haven’t noticed, democracy doesn’t work, laws are flawed, different groups don’t always see eye to eye, etc.

    • Paul
      >>>imzasirf, I think a moral system could be constructed by making an exhaustive study of human values over time and across cultures. For example, killing a member of one’s own group without cause seems to be universally unacceptable and go against human nature. A belief in fairness and equality seems to be a deeply embedded human trait, but is it? Such a study might provide answers.

      I understand that is your view but that seems to me to be a classic case of the naturalistic fallacy. Just because we have universal taboos doesn’t mean that we ought to not do those things simply based on the fact that those are universal taboos. We would still need normative criteria, unless your suggesting that the normative criteria itself should be human universals. In which case, you would have to justify that choice but even if you could, it’s very limiting as there are not many human universals related to morality. Would you say in those cases where there are no universals, there is no morality?

      Additionally, there are other problems with human universals. For example, take the case of incest, which is universally considered “wrong”. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense we would have this universal but one can reasonable ask, what is wrong with incest? P. Singer provides examples where if you control for things like not having genetically deformed children and other harms that my might come from incest, there is nothing wrong with it. Would you say it’s still wrong because it’s a human universal, even if there is no rational explanation as to why it’s wrong?

      >>>I advocate this approach because if you go by reason alone there is no convincing argument against complete selfishness. A psychopath or sociopath may have no compulsions about his crimes and we may have no arguments that will convince him that he is wrong.
      I disagree as the task of finding out what is moral is not the same as trying to convince every single person to rationally assent to those morals nor to motivate them to act morally. Would the same be said for evolution if the young earth creationists refuses to take empirical claims seriously and cannot be convinced of the truth of evolution?

      If we can establish rational rules of morality (which I think we can), than we are justified to set rules in society. Based on these rules, we can enforce certain practices versus others, so in the case of psychopaths, killing people for fun is wrong and as such, there are treatments and punishments for such people. Also, I like to point out that psychopaths would not work under the human universal view that you were forwarding as they break the rule regarding not killing individuals of one’s own group for no good reason.

      >>>Those arguments come from our eusocial nature, not from philosophical texts. Most of our rules about how to behave are the result of consensus, which seems to be a feature of eusociality. Without that, random homicides, genocides, etc., might be perfectly acceptable to us. Because we are detached from our instincts by consciousness, we would arguably be better off with the right set of rules, laws and moral principles – a system that we would be taught from birth and that would be enforced throughout our lives.

      I agree that our eusocial nature lays the ground works for morality but our ability to reason and come up with rational arguments is what I think we use to advance and come up with more and more effective rules. In this case, I don’t think our views are very different except that I think the agreement does not occur as a matter of actual voting but rather based on careful rational thinking (see my example below).

      >>>Without scientific objectivity (if I may use the term), the rules are likely to be skewed one way or another to favor certain individuals or groups. In case you haven’t noticed, democracy doesn’t work, laws are flawed, different groups don’t always see eye to eye, etc.
      Well I do believe in moral objectivity in that I think if we apply John Rawl’s though experiment of veil of ignorance and the social contract, we do get objectivity in terms of what is the right or wrong thing to do. In this thought experiment, rational agents deliberate on what the moral rules of society ought to be if they did not know themselves what their own place in society would be. As such, no one individual could “rig” a rule in their own favor.

      This captures a sense of objectivity perfectly and I can only ask why you wouldn’t see it as such. The cases you bring about actual disagreements people do in fact have would be irrelevant in the case of the Rawlsian though experiment. They could however justify their position from within the veil of ignorance. As for flawed systems and cheaters, those would simply be cases of failure to set up proper systems that promote and enforce morals or individuals being immoral, neither of which would in anyway undermine the Rawlsian view. In fact, taking the Rawlsian perspective allows us to make the judgement regarding what morals we should promote and who constitutes as a cheater. So to go back to the psychopath example, we can say the psychopath breaks the rule of the contract behind the veil of ignorance (which would presumably be against killing others for pleasure) and hence acted immorally.

    • imzasirf,
      “Just because we have universal taboos doesn’t mean that we ought to not do those things simply based on the fact that those are universal taboos. We would still need normative criteria, unless your suggesting that the normative criteria itself should be human universals. In which case, you would have to justify that choice but even if you could, it’s very limiting as there are not many human universals related to morality. Would you say in those cases where there are no universals, there is no morality?”

      What I’m suggesting is that we don’t know what we think about morality and can get ideas about it by studying ourselves. Perhaps we would end up with a normative system that would simply be “the rules of society.” I don’t think morality has any reality at all outside our genetic predispositions and our cultural environments. While there may not be enough established universals, a system would have to be woven around them by consensus.

      “Additionally, there are other problems with human universals. For example, take the case of incest, which is universally considered “wrong”. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense we would have this universal but one can reasonable ask, what is wrong with incest? P. Singer provides examples where if you control for things like not having genetically deformed children and other harms that my might come from incest, there is nothing wrong with it. Would you say it’s still wrong because it’s a human universal, even if there is no rational explanation as to why it’s wrong?”

      Incest is an unusual case. When you factor in birth control options that our ancestors didn’t have, it may not be as wrong as we think it is. Therefore, it might be morally acceptable with birth control in contexts where there is no child abuse involved, there is a low probability of genetically defective offspring, etc. If there is a universal here it probably relates mainly to unfit offspring. Possibly the “yuk” factor would go away if suitable rules were in place.

      “I disagree as the task of finding out what is moral is not the same as trying to convince every single person to rationally assent to those morals nor to motivate them to act morally. Would the same be said for evolution if the young earth creationists refuses to take empirical claims seriously and cannot be convinced of the truth of evolution?”

      There would not necessarily have to be any convincing. What I’m looking for is a cleaned up version of “the will of the people” that has some science thrown in with the usual deliberations that produce laws and social codes. The psychopath would not necessarily have to understand morality beyond a set of rules that he would have to comply with or face consequences. As for creationists, they would be told that their beliefs were delusional. There would not necessarily be a penalty for being delusional, but delusions would be excluded from public discussion about issues that affected society at large. This would be no different from the separation of church and state.

      “Well I do believe in moral objectivity in that I think if we apply John Rawl’s though experiment of veil of ignorance and the social contract, we do get objectivity in terms of what is the right or wrong thing to do. In this thought experiment, rational agents deliberate on what the moral rules of society ought to be if they did not know themselves what their own place in society would be. As such, no one individual could “rig” a rule in their own favor.”

      I haven’t read Rawls or most of the social contract literature. The thought experiment sounds a lot like the Categorical Imperative, of which I am skeptical. My thinking is that there is no such thing as pure moral objectivity. Morality is primarily an impulse that one may have in certain contexts. The fact that someone else may not have that same impulse is an indication to me that morality is not objective. We have evolved down a long chain, and once we were reptiles with no morality whatsoever. Although my program would be messy, I think an examination of people would be more productive than an analysis of moral concepts. In this case, the desired end, to me, is not better people, but better rules for society. I’m about as far as you can get from Platonic forms and am more interested in basic crowd control.

      Thank you for your comments – this isn’t a conversation I have with people I run into on the street.

    • Even if we grant that there is no “rational solution” for morality (and law), how exactly is the scientific study of homo sapiens … going to solve what is moral or not?

      Your question is ill-posed because it presumes that there is some objective standard of morality against which the question “what is moral or not?” can be sensibly asked.

    • Coel,
      Perhaps it is because I was trying not to assume that so let me try to clarify. I actually agree with the difficulty you are bringing up regarding what the objective moral standard would be. I was granting that rational solutions fail at this (which as you know I don’t actually believe that) but I was questioning the claim that descriptive scientific claims can succeed at this. I don’t think they can because descriptive claims, without rational arguments, cannot jump the “is” to “ought” gap without committing the naturalistic fallacy.

    • OK, I agree with your clarification. Science cannot tell us what we “ought” to do, since nothing can tell us what we “ought” to do, since there is no objective “ought” about what we do (though there are oughts deriving from people’s subjective feelings and goals).

  8. I side with Harris, but only because, by introspection, I find that the concept evoked in my mind by the term “free will” is not compatible with naturalism.
    That sounds like prejudice. It contradicts an existing belief system so you reject it. Perhaps you should consider the idea on its own merits.

    • Hi labnut,

      That sounds like prejudice. It contradicts an existing belief system so you reject it. Perhaps you should consider the idea on its own merits.

      If it sounds like prejudice then you’re not interpreting it correctly. There is nothing in that sentence about rejecting free will. That sentence just says that the definition of free will proposed by Dennett does not agree with the author’s understanding of the term.

  9. I could see something like experimental philosophers (along with computational philosophers) working with data scientists on a new class of projects. Would have to think about that.

  10. Thanks for this well-written piece Mark. I wish you had limited your discussion to one or two topics if only because I think this approach will spawn all sorts tangential discussions. Your thesis seems summarized here: “[Philosophers] do not have a monopoly on human intuition, and I see no reason to privilege the intuitions of philosophers. To provide a solid foundation for the philosophy of natural human concepts, we should have a more robust way to discover and document human intuitions across and within different cultural milieus.”

    There is much to question here including the notions of “monopoly” and “privilege,” especially since X-phi is being practiced by those like Joshua D. Greene who are trained philosophers now working in other fields. (I happen to think he’s doing some good work, but more in terms of adding perspective.) I’m not rigidly opposed to the possibility that X-phi can provide additional findings for philosophic reflection and inquiry, particularly as a multi-disciplined study. But your argument seems to depend largely on the assumption that X-phi can provide a fitter (“solid,” “robust,” documentation) grounding than can shared introspection and dialectic between trained practitioners (philosophers) regarding subjects that may have no final, universal answer. In other words, you seem results-oriented in areas where my lay intuition is that this is delusional because I believe that much of lay intuition is biased.

    Your fantasy is that a methodology can cut through the Gordian knot of some controversial subjects that are a reflection of human limitation as opposed to acknowledging that most lay intuition revert to what is perceived as authority. Make your arguments, but remember as Russell noted, “It is important to distinguish eristic from dialectic. Those who practice the former are out to win, whereas the dialecticians are trying to discover the truth. It is really the distinction between debate and discussion.”

    Overall, I believe imzasirf and labnut have expressed most of my reservations regarding the direction of you post.

    Here are some rather dated but, nevertheless, thoughtful responses to this topic that readers might find interesting:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/magazine/09wwln-idealab-t.html?_r=0

    http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/08/19/x-phis-new-take-on-old-problems/a-return-to-tradition

    • Thanks, Thomas, for those interesting references.
      Please forgive me for using this as an opportunity to rant against a thoroughly disgraceful practice of the New York Times. But since the OP raised the question of ethics is is still vaguely relevant.

      Look at the bottom of the article by Appiah and you will see that it says:
      Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University, is the author of “Experiments in Ethics,” which will be published next month.

      This article is a thinly disguised promotion for his forthcoming book, intended to stimulate interest in his book and therefore promote sales. Again and again I see the NYTimes doing this kind of thing, accepting journalism which is nothing more than disguised promotion of personal interest. I find it a thoroughly distasteful practice.

    • Hi Thomas,

      Good commentary there.

      But your argument seems to depend largely on the assumption that X-phi can provide a fitter (“solid,” “robust,” documentation) grounding than can shared introspection and dialectic between trained practitioners (philosophers) regarding subjects that may have no final, universal answer.

      I think the first link you provided shows the problem with that.

      I’m about to do it myself, but it seems to me that It is all to easy for a philosopher to say “It seems natural” or “it seems that” and for what ensues to appear perfectly reasonable and yet to disagree with what actually does come naturally to people. I would include philosophers in this.

      I suspect (and hopefully an experiment would confirm it) that if If you first ask a philosopher to define a concept such as ‘intention’, and then ask her the questions such as those about the CEO and the environment in that article, the answers she gives will likely follow the definition she initially gave.

      But if you ask the questions first and then ask for a definition you will probably get a different result. I imagine now that the initial answers may be in apparent contradiction but that the definition then tries to accommodate this. This definition is in better agreement with what people actually mean by the original concept, so it is a better definition in my view.

      So it is better to start with questions eliciting natural, unanalysed intuitions and then to analyse the results rather than to do a naive analysis first and then apply this to answering questions.

      What better source of natural, unanalysed intuitions than a survey of laypeople?

  11. Mark O’Brien: “…then they need to know that their definitions match the public understanding of these concepts, or if they do not, they need at least to know that they do not.
    And for that, they need experimental philosophy.”

    It is of course no harm done if the experimental philosophy can help clarify some philosophical concepts. But absolutely no, philosophy definitely does not ‘need’ the xphi for it being a total self-consistent discipline. Let me start with a child of philosophy, the mathematics. No, you don’t take a ‘survey’ to decide how to define a math term. Basically, there is no true/false value for the ‘definition’ of any math term but has ‘good/bad’ for it. A bad math term definition will often give rise to contradictions more often than the good one. The starting point for any philosophy issue is the definition of a ‘question’. Without a clear defined question, there is no philosophy on it. With a clear defined question, then we can philosophize it in all possible universes. Someone could have a different ‘intuition’ than me on some universes which I am not familiar with and can philosophize the same issue a bit different from me. But, no, a big no, the intuition is not a necessary part of the philosophizing.

    Indeed, there should have a way of evaluating the different philosophies. The rule of thumbs is to make ‘contact’ to this ‘real’ universe. The problem is that this ‘real’ universe is much, much bigger than the physical experiments (which can reach only very small portion that the physics laws allow) encompass. By all means, the SUSY, M-string theory and multiverse are all great philosophical constructs even when they are proved of not parts of nature. The philosophical universe is not bigger than nature (the real universe) but is much, much bigger than the empirical universe.

    • But absolutely no, philosophy definitely does not ‘need’ the xphi for it being a total self-consistent discipline.

      I agree. XPhi is not needed for self-consistency but for relevance. Carrier’s definition of morality is perfectly self-consistent but it is irrelevant because it does not describe what people mean when they discuss morality.

    • @Disagreeable Me: “… Carrier’s definition of morality is perfectly self-consistent but it is irrelevant because it does not describe what people mean when they discuss morality.”

      Definitely, relevancy is an essential part of any discipline. Without being relevant to humans, it will be useless to mankind. Even Alice’s Wonderland has great relevancy to us. Again, morality is a very important issue in philosophy, but it is a bit controversial to be discussed in a short comment. Thus, I would like to show a ‘solid’ example on the fact that xphi is helpful but not essential.

      Let me use physics as this solid example. Now, many physicists see that physics (the child of philosophy) is now too grandiose to be put back in the womb of his mother (the philosophy), and it is now totally an empirical discipline. Of course, the ‘gadget physics (such as, LHC, Lux, Planck, Bicep2, etc.)’ has done wonders in advancing our knowledge of nature. They are truly ‘helpful’, but No, absolutely no (for being essential). The following is the solid example of how to derive ‘uncertainty principle’ philosophically.

      First, starting with a ‘Super Unified Force Equation’,

      F (Super Unified Force) = K ħ/ (delta S x delta T)

      K (coupling constant, dimensionless); ħ (Planck constant); S (space); T (time).

      Then, delta P (linear momentum) = F x delta T = K ħ/ (delta S)

      So, delta P x delta S = K ħ
      When, K is near to 1 (but a bit smaller than 1), then delta P x delta S > ħ (the uncertainty principle).

      When K ħ is near to (0 ħ), the F is ‘gravity’.

      This F (Super Unified Force) is definitely not a part of ‘gadget physics’ which discovered four forces, and each of them is the consequence of a ‘source (charge)’.
      One, gravity: mass as charge (source)
      Two, electromagnetism: electric charges
      Three, strong force: quark color charges
      Four, weak force: weak isospin charge

      Obviously, the F (Super Unified Force) equation does not contain any of those charges but is the function of ‘space, time and ħ’. ‘Philosophically’, if this F (Super Unified Force) equation is correct, it must ‘derive’ all the four known ‘charges’. Indeed, this is the case, but it will be a bit too lengthy for this comment. Thus, I will beg your permission to skip it. But, how is this F (Super Unified Force) equation derived (especially via philosophizing)? By asking the right ‘question’ which consists of two parts.
      a. Where is the ‘boundary’ of this universe?
      b. What is ‘beyond’ that boundary?

      If you are interested in knowing the detailed steps of deriving this F (Super Unified Force) equation, it is available at http://prebabel.blogspot.com/2013/11/why-does-dark-energy-make-universe.html . By all means, this derivation is ‘philosophical’ in essence, relying on zero ‘gadget physics’ data.

      When the uncertainty principle and the issue of dark energy can be addressed without any gadget physics data, physics can be done without the gadgets although they are indeed very helpful. This is the situation for physics, and I think that a stronger case can be made for philosophy.

    • The only way to be sure that your a priori physics calculations is actually correct is do do an experiment.

      Much the same can be said for the usefulness of philosophical definitions of common intuitions.

    • Disagreeable Me: “The only way to be sure that your a priori physics calculations is actually correct is do do an experiment.”

      Indeed, you view is the majority view, but it is wrong. The major problem is from the confusion among the terms of truths, facts, events and knowledge. When knowledge is defined as “justified true belief”, then a ‘6,000 years young Earth’ is definitely a ‘justified true belief’ for anyone who deeply believes that Jesus is the creator God (according to the ‘Gospel’ John “… the Word was ‘with’ God, and the Word was God”). No, knowledge is not a belief regardless of whether it is justified or not.

      There are nature facts going-on on its own regardless of whether it is recognized by anyone (human or else). I was created by my parents after they had a happy event. This is a nature ‘fact’ regardless of whether I ‘know’ this fact or not. Every nature fact has a true-truth value.

      There are events. One day one person at one place painted a ‘unicorn’, and this is an event. Every event has a true-truth value as an event although its context might not correspond to any nature fact. So, Shakespeare plays and Alice’s Wonderland are events.

      If I do not know where I came from = my ignorance, not that ‘fact’ is false. If I do not know anything about Shakespeare’s plays = my ignorance, not that ‘event’ did not produce a wonderful intellectual space. Knowledge is the result of a process (knowing process) which connect the facts and events to us (human). The correctness of a thing does not depend on the knowing process.

      They are many pathways for this knowing process: observations, learning (from books), introspections, intuitions, rationale, and many, many more. Of course, all these are empirical, even the introspection and intuition. Experiment is absolutely not a major pathway for the knowing process, and it does not even reach a status as a supporting actor.

      As the knowing process is not absolute, the ‘knowledge’ is always fallible, especially on its frontal edge. But, an anchoring procedure should make this fallibility issue becoming minimal. When a ‘knowledge’ is repeatedly verified to be making contact with the facts (or events), it becomes an anchored knowledge (the a-knowledge). When a new ‘speculation (via guessing, intuition, or else)’ is making ‘contact’ to one established a-knowledge, it becomes a good ‘candidate’ to be as a ‘knowledge’. When it makes contacts to many (perhaps 3) a-knowledge, it becomes an acceptable ‘fact’. This procedure is much more powerful (with much higher bar) than any experiment (which shows only that a ‘speculation’ makes contact to a specially designed ‘data’). Why should experiment-contacting (the data) is more valuable than the contacting of many a-knowledge?

      My example above is first not an a priori as it is a derived equation. Second, it does make ‘contact’ with a well-established a-knowledge (the uncertainty principle). Yes, one contact is not enough. I should show you more contacts, but it is off-topic here. But, No, a big No, the correctness of a thing (anything) does not depend on experiment (although it is indeed a good knowing process, but not the only one).

    • Hi tienzengong,

      Indeed, you view is the majority view, but it is wrong

      Perhaps. I spent quite a while discussing your a priori physics with you on Rationally Speaking, and was left decidedly unconvinced. Unfortunately I have relatively little interest in getting back into it again.

      No, knowledge is not a belief regardless of whether it is justified or not.

      It has to be both justified and true. Both of these concepts are supposed to be objective. A belief in a 6,000 year old earth is neither true nor justified. A creationist might think that this claim is both justified and true, however I would suggest that he or she is wrong on both counts.

      No, a big No, the correctness of a thing (anything) does not depend on experiment

      Of course it doesn’t. But I didn’t say it did. I said that you need experiment in order to know if it is correct. The experiment is the justification you need for your true belief (or part of it).

  12. David Chalmers has a well thought out position on X-Phi. See these two slide presentations for more details:
    1) X-Phi Meets A-Phi (http://slideplayer.us/slide/688600/)
    2) What Can Experimental Philosophy Do? (http://slideplayer.us/slide/688823/)
    Regrettably they are only outlines but they are a good starting point.

    Also very interesting is David Chalmers’ comment on the book Philosophy Without Intuitions (http://amzn.to/1bCctfK), see
    Intuitions in Philosophy: A Minimal Defense (http://bit.ly/1mDz6tn)

    He says, in the opening paragraphs:
    To put my own views on the table: I do not have a large theoretical stake in the status of intuitions, but unreflectively I find it fairly obvious that many philosophers, including myself, appeal to intuitions. Cappelen’s arguments make a provocative challenge to this unreflective background conception. So it is interesting to work through the arguments to see what they might and might not show. I think we can articulate a minimal (not heavily theoretical) notion of intuition that captures something of the core everyday philosophical usage of the term, and that captures the sense in which it seems obvious that philosophers rely on intuitions. I think the claim that philosophers rely on intuitions in this minimal sense remains strong enough to be interesting, and remains plausible in light of Cappelen’s analysis.

    No, I don’t think David Chalmers is over-rated :)

    • I do (think that Chalmers is overrated, way overrated, in fact…).

    • Yes, I know, you have made that clear before, which is exactly why I made my provocative comment. Sorry, I just could not resist that. On another occasion it will be interesting to find out why you hold that opinion.

    • I do (think that Chalmers is overrated, way overrated, in fact…).

      Something, at least, upon which we can agree wholeheartedly.

    • Tsk, tsk, I used to agree with you wholeheartedly.

    • I agree that Chalmers position on XPhi is well thought out and I think he’s usually pretty interesting. I don’t think I have any significant disagreements with the views he expresses here, except that I perhaps don’t share his worries so much.

      Where he worries that XPhi is just extended conceptual analysis, with many of the same failings, then I agree with him but don’t see this as a problem. It’s an improvement because it builds conclusions on a foundation that is a little bit more substantial than a single philosopher’s private introspection.

      I agree that it’s dangerously close to lexicography, but I think that many philosophical questions are dangerously close to lexicography anyway so I don’t see this as a problem because these are just the questions where I see XPhi as helpful.

  13. There is so much awesome in this post, I can’t even list it all. The key point is the often unacknowledged importance of intuition, and the insight that a philosopher’s insight isn’t privileged if the thing being studied actually is what it is because of people’s intuitions. Gettier is an inspired example. Thomas Nagel’s latest book is another (his view of our access to moral truths especially).

    Philosophers are wise to take into account that their intuitions are often bent by the very whetstone that sharpens them. If you doubt this, ask any regular, non-philosophy person their opinion on the question of philosophical zombies (“If there’s nothing different about them, how could one of them not have experiences?”) or brains-in-a-vat (“It’s not getting any input — how could it even develop to have thoughts or experiences?”).

    Carrier – again – perfect example. And “introspection with a sample size greater than one” is just classic.

    Bravo.

  14. the simple fact that morality is a human intuition, so any definition of morality which does not agree with that intuition cannot be accepted.

    It seems to me that you are worshipping at the foot of the God of Intuitions. There is nothing that makes intuitions necessarily right. The recent(1994) Ruandan genocide, where some 800,000 Tutsis were murdered was an exercise in intuitions. The Hutus involved may have thought they were doing the right thing but objectively, we, the third party observers are sure they did the wrong thing. In my own country, Zulu villagers will from time to time take up their spears, knobkierries and AK47s to form an impi and launch vengeful raids on their neighbours, all in accordance with their own intuitions.

    Again, we objectively see this as wrong and that is the clue. It is the application of rational thought to our intuitions that allows us to conceive of right and wrong and to judge our intuitions accordingly, reinforcing some and suppressing others. While we were controlled by our Darwinian impulses we acted in pure self interest, with no concept of right and wrong. My dogs operate in that world of intuitions, with territorial and dominance behaviour, etc. They have no concept of right and wrong. When we acquired the capacity for rational thought, foresight and introspection we were freed from the chains of our intuitions, developed the concepts of right and wrong and were able to construct a considerable moral edifice, contrary to your claim ‘ the foundations of morality have been a topic for philosophical debate, and very little has been settled‘.

    While examining our intuitions is certainly interesting it is unlikely to invalidate the rational edifice we constructed as we transcended our intuitions. If you think it can do so then please give us some examples.

    • Where does it say that intuitions are right? I think that morality is an intuition so any description of morality needs to take this intuition into account, but that is not the same at all as advocating that people should uncritically follow their intuitions. Nothing could be further from my view.

    • DM,
      Where does it say that intuitions are right?
      You did.

      Let me remind you what you actually said:
      the simple fact that morality is a human intuition, so any definition of morality which does not agree with that intuition cannot be accepted.

      You are saying that any definition of morality that does not agree with the moral intuition is wrong(cannot be accepted). That sounds suspiciously like saying that moral intuitions are always right. And yet I gave clear examples where we can agree that the intuitions were wrong, in that they contradict our shared moral framework.

    • That sounds suspiciously like saying that moral intuitions are always right

      Ah, I see. There is obviously some confusion between ‘right’ in the sense of a correct or accurate definition of an intuition and ‘right’ in the sense of what is appropriate, laudable behaviour.

      So, a definition of morality which does not match the moral intuitions of people cannot be correct/accurate if it is supposed to represent objective morality, but it can be morally ‘right’ to you and I if it agrees with our subjective views of what we feel to be right and wrong.

  15. I can appreciate xPhi as long as it is the study of more than just lay intuitions. Pigliucci’s objection is a good one.

    Fortunately, xPhi doesn’t just study intuitions. It probably studies human reasoning about philosophical questions, and it seems to study both philosophers and non-philosophers. Also, experimental philosophy should not be constrained just to the work done by philosophers (partly because some of this work is fairly primitive in terms of cognitive science). Cognitive scientists have been studying logical, mathematical, and heuristical reasoning for at least 50 years (and there is reason to think that phenomenologists used to do something like xPhi). All that to say that xPhi is not new, not done only by philosophers, and not about only lay intuitions.

    If it were these things, then we might be right to dismiss it as unimportant.

    • Where XPhi studies reasoning processes etc. I start to feel it is more like psychology and of less obvious relevance to philosophers, and the point of the article is really only to defend the relevance of XPhi to philosoperhs.

      You say Pigliucci’s objection is a good one, yet you don’t really answer the points in the post or explain why it is good. Since Massimo is otherwise occupied right now, it would be good to have someone champion his views.

    • Studying intuitions is already a step toward psychology and a big step away from traditional analytic philosophy. I do not see how studying reasoning in general is bigger a step into psychology (or the broader interdisciplinary field of cognitive science). Trying to draw a line of demarcation between philosophy and science is tough enough; drawing one between experimental philosophy and psychology is at least as difficult. One should realize that current experiments in experimental philosophy are actually isomorphic to social psychology experiments (although some of the work done by philosophers is a bit more primitive in it’s design and analysis).

      Here’s why studying reasoning, as opposed to just the content of intuitions, matters: it is not enough to understand implicit or explicit intuitions. One will also need to understand how intuitions actually work and how they relate to reasoning in general. Without these latter details it is not even clear why philosophers should care about intuitions. It might turn out that using intuitions is just a bad strategy in the domain of philosophy.

      And to be clear. I *agree* with Pigliucci’s claim that studying the *content* of intuitions might not be that important to philosophers (since I can think of no principled reason to think that the concepts used by philosophers must match the lay understanding of those concepts, but I *can* think of at least one reason to think that philosophers concepts need not match lay people’s folk understanding: because the folk concepts might not be reflective enough or even internally coherent).

      I *disagree* with Pigliucci in as much as he thinks that understanding not just the content, but the mechanisms and sensitivities of intuitions in various domains (e.g., religion, politics, ethics, metaphysics, math, logic, etc.) would be *very* useful to philosophers. My current research is showing that relying on intuitive vs. reflective responses (Frederick 2005) is significantly related to philosophers’ views on various philosophical topics (work I hope to publish someday soon) and non-philosophers views on various philosophical topics (Shenhav Rand and Greene 2012, Paxton Unger and Greene 2010 Pennycook et al 2012, 2013, 2014).

      There is also abounding research showing how differential brain anatomy can predict (a) which kind of metaethical approach will be recruited in moral judgment (Koenigs et al 2007, Molls and Oliviera-Souza 2007) and (b) one’s political orientation (Amodio et al 2007). This might indicate that differences between intuitions might be realized by differential brain anatomy. This stuff just scratches the surface of examples of how cognitive science will be hugely important to philosophy.

      I hope this helps make my position clearer. Peace!

    • Edit sentence above: “I *disagree* with Pigliucci in as much as he thinks that understanding not just the content, but the mechanisms and sensitivities of intuitions in various domains (e.g., religion, politics, ethics, metaphysics, math, logic, etc.) would NOT be *very* useful to philosophers”

    • Hi Nick,

      I do not see how studying reasoning in general is bigger a step into psychology (or the broader interdisciplinary field of cognitive science).

      It’s more a step away from philosophical relevance, as far as I can see. I can see why philosophers could benefit from knowing the content of an intuitive concept they seek to define (e.g. justice), but I don’t see what they have to learn from the flawed and messy reasoning processes of ordinary people.

      It might turn out that using intuitions is just a bad strategy in the domain of philosophy.

      I think I may be at fault here by not being explicit enough in my language. I’m not talking about intuitions as ‘gut feelings’. I am talking about intuitive concepts, ideas which form a natural part of human thinking but which have no robust definition. These are concepts such as justice, loyalty, morality, etc. The philosophical enterprise I am describing is the analysis of these intuitions. Intuitions are not therefore used so much as studied. You may if you wish want to argue that there is no point in performing such an analysis. I’m not convinced of this, but this is orthogonal to the thesis of the article, which is aimed at philosophers such as Massimo who are already engaged in such analysis but regard the intuitions of laypeople as irrelevant.

      This stuff just scratches the surface of examples of how cognitive science will be hugely important to philosophy.

      How? What philosophical debates would these discoveries influence?

    • I think we might have different ideas about how philosophy deals with intuitions. I do not see philosophers trying to analyze their intuitions (from the armchair). Rather, I see them using their intuitions, knowingly or unknowingly, to ground premises of arguments that are probably not able to be grounded in any other way. Because the content of intuitions (even the ones about the concepts you mention) seem to correlate with cultural context, personality, political orientation, religious orientation, brain function, brain structure, etc. we wonder whether certain arguments are accepted simply because of an audience’s cultural context, personality, brain, etc.

      Also there is plenty of evidence that certain people are better at overriding their intuitions when it is rational to do so (e.g., when intuitive responses are demonstrably false). I will be trying to publish data soon showing that philosophers are better at this than others and that philosophical training is associated with this ability. One caveat: philosophers, while better at this, are not immune to the systematic errors that manifest in lay reasoners. On average, they still seem non-negligibly prone to error. So philosophers’ reasoning is also messy and flawed, albeit slightly less so than lay people’s reasoning.

      This is why I think understanding intuitions would inform philosophy. After all, if certain intuitions are used to ground arguments and we find that some of these intuitions are just associations learned by certain people in certain contexts or that it is lay intuitions grounding the view (and philosophers’ override these intuitions), then we might (i) discount certain arguments/conclusions and/or (ii) be more pluralistic in our acceptance of multiple competing arguments/conclusions (this might be the upshot of Haidt, Graham, et al’s Moral Foundation Theory).

      I hope this helps make my previous claims clearer.

      Aside: I am impressed at your ability to keep up with all of these comments. I can barely keep up with you and you seem to be keeping up with almost everyone. My apologies for the delay in my responses.

    • Hi Nick,

      I do not see philosophers trying to analyze their intuitions (from the armchair). Rather, I see them using their intuitions, knowingly or unknowingly, to ground premises of arguments that are probably not able to be grounded in any other way.

      I see them doing both. I didn’t mean to imply that philosophers do not use intuition to ground their premises.

      So philosophers’ reasoning is also messy and flawed, albeit slightly less so than lay people’s reasoning.

      I see what you mean. Yes, this is interesting, and I see how such studies could potentially help to safeguard against flawed reasoning. Still, it seems to be a rather indirect influence on philosophy. These findings would not for example be referenced in an argument even though they may help vet flaws in an argument before publication.

      I am impressed at your ability to keep up with all of these comments.

      You would probably be less impressed with my social life!

  16. I just wanted to comment on a particular misconception about what this article is about.

    It is not at all arguing that intuition is a reliable guide to truth or in any way a substitute for reflection and discussion.

    It is instead arguing that when philosophers try to define a concept, they are often seeking to make a robust formal version of a natural intuition. In so doing, they should not lose sight of what the original intuition is. Any proposed definition is only as good as its fit to the native intuition it targets.

    This is not philosophy by survey and it is not populism (as Russell Blackford tweeted). It is not about what is right or wrong, true or false. It is only about how well proposed definitions match what they are intended to define.

    • DM, have there been any significant experimental X-Phi results that have significantly informed philosophical thought?

    • I asked that very question to Knobe, and he couldn’t come up with one.

    • Not that I’m aware of, but then I wouldn’t be.

      I was interested in addressing the point of principle of whether lay intuitions ought to be of interest to philosophers, and what it means to have a good definition. The actual practice of XPhi is not something that hugely interests me.

      But I did give specific examples of debates where it could be of immediate use.

      it seems that it would be a good way to resolve the disagreement between the compatibilists and the the free will deniers. Both Harris and Dennett seemed to be quite certain that the definition of free will proposed by the other party is completely at odds with the layperson’s understanding of free will.

      And it also underpins what is wrong with Carrier’s argument. In fact, I think that the fact that Carrier’s definition of morality clashes with the common intuition is really the only way it fails, but it is a critical failure.

    • Wait, are you arguing on behalf of XPhi in principle? Without evidence? That seems deliciously self-contradictory, no?

      More seriously, I was talking about this with my collaborator Maarten Boudry just this morning. Take your example of the Harris-Dennett “dispute” (I think that’s being far too charitable to Harris, but whatever). I’d say that the free will debate among professional philosophers seems to have settled (yes, philosophy makes progress!) that there are four possibilities in conceptual space:

      i) compatibilism (free will + determinism)
      ii) libertarianism (free will, no-determinism)
      iii) hard determinism (no free will, determinism)
      iv) hard incompatibilism (no free will, no-determinism)

      I can a bit further and say that of the above positions, (ii) is by far the weakest, and that the difference btw (i) and (iii) (and possibly (iv)) hinges on which conception of free will (but not of determinism) one endorses.

      Now, suppose that a XPhi study comes in and shows that the majority of folks endorse (ii). Would that somehow change the debate? No, it would simply show that a majority of people endorse the philosophically weaker position. End of story.

      And this is even assuming that “the folks” actually hold to anything like a coherent position on free will. The evidence from XPhi itself seems to show that they don’t (nor would we expected to, they are not professional philosophers, after all).

    • I think that’s being far too charitable to Harris
      That’s the problem of dealing with people who don’t have free will. They are reduced to predetermined, rote responses that try the patience of a saint. It’s terribly tiresome to debate with biological robots.

    • Hi Massimo,

      Wait, are you arguing on behalf of XPhi in principle? Without evidence? That seems deliciously self-contradictory, no?

      :)

      I realise you are probably just joking, but in case there was a point there:

      I’m aware of the apparent irony, but I don’t see a problem. I am not after all arguing that there is something wrong with reasoning from the armchair, only that XPhi could help answer certain questions relating to the definitions of familiar terms.

      Now, suppose that a XPhi study comes in and shows that the majority of folks endorse (ii). Would that somehow change the debate?

      I think it would. It would not in any way show that (ii) is a reasonable position. In fact, let’s rule libertarianism out as incoherent, as both Harris and Dennett do. The question then is should we prefer (i) or (iii)/(iv).

      The finding that (ii) is the position usually associated with the term “free will” would in fact bolster the case for (iii) and (iv) because it is clearer to say that free will does not exist than to say it does in a sense which most people would misunderstand. For instance, I could argue that I believe in compatibilist ghosts by defining ghosts as the memories we have of the dead. I’m sure you would regard this as an unhelpful answer to the question of whether ghosts exist or not, because this is simply not what most people mean by the term ‘ghost’.

      And this is even assuming that “the folks” actually hold to anything like a coherent position on free will.

      But we need make no such assumption. I would say that (ii) is incoherent all by itself, and this is precisely Harris’s motivation for arguing that free will doesn’t exist.

    • Clever, but no. Your attempt at “stipulating” that two is incoherent is simply a move to avoid my conclusion: that finding out what the majority of the folks think isn’t going to solve the philosophical issue.

      And let’s remember that the issue isn’t whether “free will” exists, really, but how is it possible for human beings to make apparently autonomous decisions in the face of what physics seems to tell us about how the world is structured. If you agree that that is the actual problem, then the four possibilities in logical space seem to me to exhaust such space, and it is a philosophical task (informed by science) to analyze them, regardless of how many people support one or the other.

      As for you making an argument on behalf of XPhi without evidence, I was joking, but only up to a point. XPhi makes a huge claim, and so far has come up pretty much empty handed. I do think the burden of proof is on its supporters.

    • Hi Massimo,

      And let’s remember that the issue isn’t whether “free will” exists, really, but how is it possible for human beings to make apparently autonomous decisions in the face of what physics seems to tell us about how the world is structured.

      Actually, no, this is not the issue. Remember that I was referencing the Harris/Dennett debate. Both of them agree on how human beings make apparently autonomous decisions. They only disagree on whether it is reasonable to say that “free will” exists in light of this understanding.

      This is the whole point. XPhi cannot help to resolve debates on how the world actually is or how we ought to understand it. It can help to resolve debates on what terminology is most appropriate for the concepts we discuss.

      It’s useful in other words for those debates that are (dare I say it) “just semantics”.

    • Couldn’t disagree more. The Harris-Dennett debate is about semantics only insofar Harris simply doesn’t get it. If he did, he would realize that he has nothing whatsoever to contribute to it that hasn’t been rehashed a number of times in the philosophical literature.

    • OK, so let’s assume Harris doesn’t get it then.

      I agree with you that the questions of whether determinism is true or not and of how we ought to think about human decision making are more profound and more interesting, but these are not the only questions.

      Harris writes a book arguing that free will doesn’t exist, because he wants to write a popular philosophy book to educate the public on all the reasons why libertarian free will does not make sense. It does not pretend to be breaking new ground.

      In the book, he mentions compatibilism because this is a view he rejects simply because he doesn’t like the terminology.

      Dennett responds by explaining all the reasons why the terminology is appropriate.

      So, though you may not find this question very interesting, the terminology is the beginning and the end of the debate between Harris and Dennett. If this is because Harris doesn’t get it, so be it.

      Besides, even if it were not the question in this debate, it is a question that is worth asking if only for the sake of clear communication. Like the demarcation problem, sometimes philosophy is not so much about determining what is actually out there and more about trying to define terms appropriately.

    • I think you just conceded my point in a back handed way: no, I have no interest in Harris’ misunderstandings of philosophy, and I don’t really care what he likes or doesn’t like. The point is, he ain’t doing philosophy. At best he is popularizing bad philosophy.

    • DM,
      only that XPhi could help answer certain questions relating to the definitions of familiar terms.
      You can clarify that by proceeding along the following lines(traditional experimental science):

      1) pose a philosophically interesting question;
      2) create an hypothesis(needing an experiment) that would answer the question;
      3) devise an experiment to test the hypothesis.

      I invite you to choose an example and walk through those three steps to show us that X-Phi can, in principle, produce relevant results. Remember this is not about psychology, sociology or neuroscience so stay away from those kinds of questions. This must be a genuine philosophical problem.

    • DM,
      sometimes philosophy is not so much about determining what is actually out there
      I would put it differently. Let’s begin with the observation that we are an extremely curious species. We satisfy that curiosity in part by observing ‘what is actually out there‘ and that is the realm of science. But another part of that curiosity is to make sense of it, in other words we try to understand and that is the realm of philosophy. Understanding is a conceptual activity that is not bounded by the empirical space so our efforts at understanding roam over the entire empirical and conceptual space. Within the empirical space philosophy has an interpretive role to aid understanding and outside in the broader conceptual space philosophy has a creative role, to create new understanding.

      I say all this to emphasize that philosophy is not about determining ‘what is actually out there‘, it is about creating understanding.

      However, between the empirical space and the conceptual space is a shadowy borderland. In this shadowy borderland both science and philosophy operate. In this case philosophy acts as the precursor to science, or to put it in military terms, it is the advance reconnaissance unit that guides science.

      The debate about free will is the perfect example of this reconnaissance role that philosophy plays. Ultimately science will decide the debate but today the science is too immature. Philosophy has reconnoitred the free will terrain and defined four broad cases that science can investigate, as Massimo showed in his neat table. In the same way philosophy has reconnoitred the nothingness terrain and defined the useful areas for investigation. Science will follow behind the advance scouts of philosophy to do the grunt work of actual observation and experiment.

      The point of all of this is that experiment and observation properly belong in science while philosophy can act as the advance reconnaissance unit in the shadowy border lands, delineating interesting areas where the shock troops of science can advance.

    • labnut, I tend to agree with you but think that you (and Massimo – and practically everyone on this site) may have too much invested in the importance of philosophy. The problem is that humans can’t, or at least so far haven’t figured everything out. My hope is that AI will some day make significant advances (which we may not be able to comprehend). In the mean time, sites like this only serve to keep scientific arrogance at bay. That is, in its way, a noble cause, but, from my point of view, academic philosophy is not much of a countervailing force. Note that the emphasis here is on definitions – how important is that ever likely to be? Lexicographers aren’t Newtons of Einsteins.

    • DM,
      I will illustrate the difference between reconnaissance units(philosophy) and shock troops(science) with a fascinating story of what happened to me in my young, foolish and impetuous days. I was a member of a heavy machine gun unit. Our infantry advanced to a mountainous ridge under cover of darkness and at dawn would launch a large assault. I followed with the infantry to determine a suitable location for our machine gun emplacements, which would provide covering fire during the attack. Having determined this I walked back through the night over unfamiliar terrain to find my machine gun unit. But I got horribly lost(no GPS in those days) and eventually walked through an enemy camp site. Astonishingly they were all asleep, even their guards. I should have thanked my guardian angel and slunk away undetected, after all my role was that of scout and not combatant. Instead I did the most stupid thing imaginable, I sneaked up to their water tankers and opened all the taps, grinning at the thought of them waking up to a waterless day in our hot, hostile climate. Amazingly, I did get back to my unit and guide them into place. It was a long night and by stupidly confusing my roles nearly caused a lot of damage.

    • Hi Massimo,

      I think you just conceded my point in a back handed way

      Well, sure, I concede the point about Harris because that’s not really what the original post is about. You’re not interested in Harris so we can take it back to a question you are interested in, the demarcation problem. I claimed that the intuitions about scientists about what constitutes science is relevant to you. Do you agree? Is this not a case of the intuitions of laypeople* being of interest to philosophers?

      *Ok, so scientists are not laypeople, but they are not philosophers. I think their opinion is important because they practice science. By the same token, I think the opinion of sportspeople is relevant to the philosophy of sport, the opinions of politicians to the philosophy of politics and the opinions of ordinary people for the philosophy of human universals.

    • Ah, yes, the opinions of scientists are very much important to philosophers of science. But a) that’s because they are a category of experts, and b) those opinions tend to be well substantiated by an analysis of the scientific literature. Besides, I’m not aware of XPhi work on the opinions of scientists…

    • Hi labnut,

      1) pose a philosophically interesting question;
      2) create an hypothesis(needing an experiment) that would answer the question;
      3) devise an experiment to test the hypothesis.

      1) What is naturalism?
      2) Naturalism is the view that physical phenomena are happen according to laws of physics, expressible mathematically
      3) Probe the intuitions of people regarding various hypothetical phenomena to see whether they would classify them as supernatural or natural, and see how this matches the proposed definition. I have some ideas about how this might look but I’m not going into it here. Maybe on a future article, if Massimo would accept one from me again.

      On your next comment, I was with you up to this line.

      Ultimately science will decide the debate but today the science is too immature.

      This is far from clear. There doesn’t seem to be any real doubt among naturalists that libertarianism is nonsense. As such we have a broad strokes picture of how human volition works — essentially we are machines. If this is true (and I’m not arguing this for now), then science will only offer more detail to this picture. It will not settle the debate over whether we ought to think of humans as operating freely or not, because both views are compatible with the empirical facts but differ in how we think about and discuss them.

      With regard to philosophy doing “reconnaissance” and science doing the “attack”, sure it works like that sometimes. I don’t think that really has much bearing on the conversation though. I also think it doesn’t happen much like that any more. These days it seems scientists pay little heed to philosophy, but they do sometimes discovers some weird stuff that provides fodder for philosophical analysis (e.g. the philosophy of quantum mechanics). In cases like these, it seems the roles you propose are reversed.

    • Ah, yes, the opinions of scientists are very much important to philosophers of science.

      Might you go so far as to offer them a survey to probe what they consider to be science or pseudoscience? I would call this XPhi.

      You need to know what scientists know and what scientists believe in order to do philosophy of science, but you do not think that a scientist is likely to have a superior insight into the philosophy of science than an actual philosopher of science. This is certainly correct.

      My view is that ordinary people (including philosophers, by the way) are the experts on the experience of ordinary human intuitions in the same way that scientists are the experts on the practice of science. I am not saying that ordinary people are experts on the philosophical analysis of these concepts, just as scientists are not experts on the philosophy of science.

      If you were not a human but a robot or an alien, you could regard Joe the Plumber as an “expert” on the natural human concepts of justice, fairness, equality and so on. But you are a human, so you don’t need an expert because you have this expertise yourself. All you need is introspection.

      However different people may have different intuitions, so a survey is a better basis for a conclusion than a private introspection even though introspection is better than nothing.

    • Paul,
      labnut, I tend to agree with you
      thanks.

      sites like this only serve to keep scientific arrogance at bay
      Philosophy is the conscience of science but not everyone is guided their conscience!

      think that you (and Massimo – and practically everyone on this site) may have too much invested in the importance of philosophy.
      Ethical behaviour is arguably as important as science and some would say more important. Outside of religion the only systematic study of ethics is conducted by philosophy. Bioethics is today very important.

      Lexicographers aren’t Newtons of Einsteins.
      Philosophers are not lexicographers despite what DM says.
      You could have rephrased that as ‘Philosophers aren’t Newtons or Einsteins.‘ and I would have replied that they are instead Aristotles or Platos.

      from my point of view, academic philosophy is not much of a countervailing force.
      As I said above, philosophy is the conscience of science, moderating it. Its action is usually subtle but sometimes direct. The disinvitation of David Albert by Neil deGrasse Tyson(http://nyti.ms/1lT3QWm) is a graphic illustration of the corrective power of philosophy.

      The problem is that humans can’t, or at least so far haven’t figured everything out.
      Thankfully academia is assured of employment for a long time to come.

      My hope is that AI will some day make significant advances
      Don’t hold your breath. The reconnaissance units of philosophy have been diligently scouting this terrain and have reported back that the way is blocked by impenetrable marshes. Not everyone agrees and tried to construct paths through the marsh but they have all ended in quicksands. The destiny of computers is increasingly being seen as an aid to our intelligence, a tool in our cognitive hands(think of Google, Google Glasses and Google cars). People like DM disagree but all they have to show so far are the vague promises that have been dangled in front of us for the last 20 years with no progress whatsoever.

    • labnut,
      Re: AI, yes, progress has been disappointing to Utopians like me. However, AI is still a young field. Ray Kurzweil may be overly optimistic, but I think something resembling “the singularity” will occur eventually. Unless one rejects theories like physicalism, it is easy to imagine a brain-like machine that takes in a very wide range of information at a much higher rate than a human brain, processes it much faster and with greater complexity than we do, and remembers more than any human can. I think it is more or less inevitable that this will occur if we continue research. As Richard Dawkins said, Darwin’s main ideas were pretty obvious and could have been figured out thousands of years ago – but they weren’t.

      Re: ethics: science hasn’t done much with this, but it could. I don’t think human eusociality has been studied enough. From my point of view, there is very little that is of conceptual significance about ethics beyond the basic fact that we are inclined to cooperate with each other for the benefit of the group. Many of the problems of the world are related to the fact that different groups are increasingly forced to interact with each other. Under these circumstances, I believe that philosophers who try to think their way to better ethical systems are naive, because they are not addressing the problem. They would do better to devise ways of tricking people into thinking that they are all members of the same group.

    • DM, As a test of X-Phi, I proposed that you
      1) pose a philosophically interesting question;
      2) create an hypothesis(needing an experiment) that would answer the question;
      3) devise an experiment to test the hypothesis.

      You replied
      1) What is naturalism?
      Your philosophically interesting question, presumably you mean ‘what is the definition or description of naturalism?’ and not ‘is the naturalism viewpoint a true description of the world?’

      2) Naturalism is the view that physical phenomena are happen according to laws of physics, expressible mathematically
      Your hypothesis. Whose views are you talking about? Philosophers or lay people? Is this an abstract definition or are you asserting that this is a widely held view or partially held view?

      3) Probe the intuitions of [presumably lay] people regarding various hypothetical phenomena to see whether they would classify them as supernatural or natural, and see how this matches the proposed definition.
      Your test of the hypothesis. How does it test the hypothesis? Your hypothesis is too vaguely expressed to allow the useful formulation of a test.

      (1 & 2), You are asking a question about the truth of the definition of naturalism. To answer that all you need do is consult the relevant philosophical literature, no experiment needed. The opinions of lay people about the existence of supernatural events are not relevant to the definition used by philosophers. A technical definition is defined by the domain experts, not by an experiment and not by lay people. The definitions provided by lay people will vary greatly and we will end up with tables like that provided by PEW surveys. Very interesting, I am sure, but it will only tell us the obvious, that humans have great diversity, however, this will not change a definition carefully crafted by philosophers. Nor will it tell us if the definition is a true description of the world.

      (3), your experiment is not a test of the hypothesis (2). It does not speak to the truth or falsity of the hypothesis.

      Sorry, DM, I must ask you to redo this assignment. As it stands, X-Phi looks like a thin gruel, lacking substance.

    • Hi labnut,

      Your philosophically interesting question, presumably you mean ‘what is the definition or description of naturalism?’ and not ‘is the naturalism viewpoint a true description of the world?’

      Indeed, because the latter question is meaningless until the former is answered. Furthermore, as I have tried to explain, XPhi does not provide knowledge about anything outside the domain of human thinking and intuitions, so it cannot answer the second question.

      Is this an abstract definition or are you asserting that this is a widely held view or partially held view?

      The hypothesis is that this definition of naturalism concisely captures and represents the intuitions of philosophers and lay people regarding what is considered to be natural or supernatural.

      How does it test the hypothesis?

      I’m not going into detail on this now, but we can imagine asking people about fantastical scenarios where a block made of ‘unobtainium’ is made to levitate by a variety of different causes, e.g. the speaking of a certain word, or the proximity of a certain element. We find out which cases strike people as supernatural and which strike people as the discovery of a new natural principle, and see whether the responses predicted by the proposed definition are borne out.

      Your hypothesis is too vaguely expressed to allow the useful formulation of a test.

      I disagree.

      To answer that all you need do is consult the relevant philosophical literature, no experiment needed.

      You’re missing the point. The very first sentence in the SEP article on naturalism says “The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy”. We’re trying to propose and justify a particular definition as Plato did for ‘knowledge’ and Massimo/Boudry do for science/pseudoscience.

      A technical definition is defined by the domain experts, not by an experiment and not by lay people.

      I could propose a technical definition of ‘natural’ to mean ‘blue’ and ‘supernatural’ to mean ‘red’, but this would serve no purpose. Technical definitions of familiar terms like ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ are irrelevant if they bear no relationship to what ordinary people (and indeed philosophers) mean by these terms.

      however, this will not change a definition carefully crafted by philosophers.

      But the point of this exercise is for philosophers to address the lack of an agreed definition by carefully crafting one which is believed to capture the common intuition and then justifying it. We’re not blindly creating a definition with philosophy by survey, we’re proposing a definition and justifying it with a survey.

      Nor will it tell us if the definition is a true description of the world.

      Of course it won’t. It is not intended to. But we need to agree what naturalism means before we can discuss whether it is true or not.

      Again, I just don’t think you understand the point. You think that all disputes over terminology can be resolved by looking up a dictionary, yet they cannot because dictionaries contain multiple conflicting definitions. The point of XPhi is not to answer questions about the world but to provide a basis for preferring one definition over another so that sensible conversation is possible without constantly talking past each other and getting into futile debates about what terms ought to mean, as with Harris/Dennett on the subject of free will and me/Aravis on the subject of religion on a previous thread..

    • DM,
      Not that I’m aware of, but then I wouldn’t be.
      Surely the question is of vital importance!

      A discipline based on experiments that has produced no useful results looks like an irrelevant dead end. Quite frankly I am gobsmacked, breathless, bothered, buggered, bewildered and totally bemused that all this hype has been about a field of endeavour that has produced no results.

    • I would amend that to say no results relevant to philosophy. It has produced results relevant to social and neuro science.

    • Yes, that is the test. If it is not relevant to philosophy then it is another discipline such sociology, psychology or neuroscience.

  17. Mark O’Brien:
    ” . . . but if they ever attempt to define terms which are in general use, and especially if they make use of such definitions in the public space, then they need to know that their definitions match the public understanding of these concepts, or if they do not, they need at least to know that they do not.”

    As`a lay person, I’m really trying to fathom what motivates this assertion. Why is it incumbent on those who are professionals in specialized disciplines to “match the public understanding” (hardly a matter where one could expect homogeneity) when using a concept in a specialized context? Should surveys be conducted regarding the public understanding of “tumors” or “relativity” (or brains and minds for that matter) when they are used by practitioners of medicine or physics in exploring these terms with their peers? Whenever anyone writes or tries to communicate, one always takes into account the audience. Would it make more sense to reverse this contention? That it is incumbent on a lay person to understand how a professional uses terms in a specialized context?

    Correct me if I misunderstand you. But are you not placing greater demands on philosophy and philosophers in terms of conceptual thought than you are on other specialized fields? It seems to me that you are arbitrarily holding them to a higher expectation than others. Do some philosophers flirt with what appears to be dogma? Sure. But don’t specialists in other fields?

    Underlying much of what you’ve said here seems a need or desire for a rigor and formulaic demand in defining concepts that are not taken as a matter of course by those engaged in a discipline. Let’s be cynically, or practically if you prefer, honest. Much of X-phi, as well as scientistic approaches in the other fields of the humanities, is a scramble for academic funding.
    This, to my mind, is evidence of the success of philosophic inquiry in spawning separate and more specialized fields of inquiry. And so, to my mind, much of your post reduces to socio-economic assumptions about what practices are worthwhile pursuing. And this is nothing new.

    Why would one insist on definitional consistency or consensus regarding the subject of intuition? Is this a matter that can be empirically defined? I doubt it.

    • Hi Thomas,

      I think the answer to your question is both straightforward and in the original article.

      This is the key point:

      However, in my view this misses the point that, unlike mathematicians, what philosophers are analyzing are those same lay intuitions.

      More specifically, on your many (rhetorical?) questions…

      Why is it incumbent on those who are professionals in specialized disciplines to “match the public understanding” (hardly a matter where one could expect homogeneity) when using a concept in a specialized context?

      It isn’t really, but when a philosopher says “Morality is X” or “Religion is X” they are not talking about technical terms in a specialized context, they are seeking to put a robust definition on a common intuition. Or at least that’s what I think they are doing. If it is not what they are doing, then their work is irrelevant to the layperson because what a layperson is trying to understand is not a technical academic concept but how to make sense of their own lives and intuitions.

      Should surveys be conducted regarding the public understanding of “tumors” or “relativity”

      No, because these are technical concepts and not native human intuitions.

      Whenever anyone writes or tries to communicate, one always takes into account the audience.

      Exactly. So when philosophers such as Dennett discuss concepts such as ‘free will’, they would do well to know what their audience understands by the term. Since it is desirable that philosophical ideas filter down to the general public, it is desirable that the terms used by philosophers should match the public understanding of those terms. This does not limit in any way what concepts such philosophers can discuss, but it does mean that they must not confuse technical concepts with natural intuitions and so should give technical concepts technical names where there is a mismatch with lay intuition.

      That it is incumbent on a lay person to understand how a professional uses terms in a specialized context?

      It is not, and this is the point.

      But are you not placing greater demands on philosophy and philosophers in terms of conceptual thought than you are on other specialized fields?

      No, because I am only claiming that XPhi is useful in answering questions about the terminology of common intuitions. I am not claiming, for instance, that we should ask laypeople what they understand by the term ‘epiphenomenalism’.

      Why would one insist on definitional consistency or consensus regarding the subject of intuition?

      Because, as Massimo would surely agree, semantics are important. If we can’t agree on what we mean by our terms then we are doomed to continue talking past each other. Intuitions are a problem because we effectively born with them. They are “natural” in that we can’t help but take them seriously but they are interpreted differently by different people. The more arcane and specialised a technical concept (e.g. polymorphism in computer science or epiphenomenalism in philosophy) the less of a problem there is because it probably had a clear definition from the beginning.

    • Perhaps, you want to characterize my questions as rhetorical because you make unwarranted assumptions and use terms like “common intuition” as if some survey would yield a common consensus regarding a phrase you use with the tacit presumption it is already understood. Ask a lay person what a common intuition is. How will his response help a philosopher? The philosopher will have to explain what he means to evoke a response and thus bias the response in my opinion. How does one control for confabulation in these surveys? I mean, inasmuch as you seem to value X-phi in terms of its potential for yielding a fitter conceptualization of intuition.

      “If it is not what they are doing, then their work is irrelevant to the layperson because what a layperson is trying to understand is not a technical academic concept but how to make sense of their own lives and intuitions.” Guess what, Mark. Most people manage to live their lives without dwelling on “common intuitions,” or the Higgs boson for that matter. Your “public understanding” is a strawman.

      “Intuitions are a problem because we effectively born with them.” I don’t know what “effectively” born means. We either are born with them or we aren’t. Or perhaps we are born with a capacity for such that is further shaped by environment and nurture. Let’s forget for the moment about the “mistakes” of nature because they don’t conform to a humanistic norm. Therefore, let’s exclude their lay opinions from our survey because they are outliers.

      “I am not claiming, for instance, that we should ask laypeople what they understand by the term ‘epiphenomenalism’.” Why not? Once explained, is this somehow more complicated or less controversial than their “intuitions” of “beauty” or “freedom” or “justice”?

      Yes, semantics are important. That is not the point. It is rather your binary insistence that the switch is either off or on. You are demanding a mathematical rigor in areas where my experience suggests there is none.

      Again, in principle, I have no problem with X-phi as a cross-disciplinary inquiry. With all due respect, your hang-up seems personal to me. You seem to think that philosophers like Dennett or Carrier are being dogmatic. I give them the benefit of the doubt. I think they are brain-storming in areas where they expect disagreement, that they don’t expect their viewpoints to be final, but rather they hope to move the discussion along by making insightful, pertinent contributions to it. This is not simply a matter of terminology and definitional disputes, but of the difficulty of addressing the demands of abstract complexity.

      Why you seem to think that all philosophers have no appreciation of the common intuitions of lay people is baffling to me, for I have no doubt that when they are not engaged in doing philosophy they are concerned with matters similar to most others despite obvious questions of degree. That too is an intuition, related to the existential conditions of being human.

    • Hi Thomas,

      You seem quite annoyed while at the same time you seem to have missed the point on quite a few fronts. Please pay close attention here as you seem to be misunderstanding me quite badly. I’m doing my best to explain what I mean but communication will be more successful if you try to read me as charitably as possible.

      Ask a lay person what a common intuition is.

      There seems to be confusion between the class of common intuitions and particular instances of the class. The point is not to ask a layperson “What is a common intuition?” but to ask a layperson “What do you understand by the term ‘religion’?”, or better yet, “Is X a religion in your view?” for many different values of X.

      you seem to value X-phi in terms of its potential for yielding a fitter conceptualization of intuition.

      Not intuition per se. Particular intuitions. And not a fitter conceptualization in terms of yielding more coherent ideas, but in terms of providing the raw data which will enable philosophers to produce definitions which better describe particular common intuitions. For example, to know what the term ‘religion’ refers to, we need to first find out how it is used.

      Guess what, Mark. Most people manage to live their lives without dwelling on “common intuitions,”

      Again, you are missing the point because you are conflating the class of common intuitions with particular instances. People do not worry about what a “common intuition” is, but they do think about particular intuitions, especially morality, fairness, justice, equality and so on. Even if they do not reflect on these intuitions, they do feel them and act on them and so these intuitions are of very great importance in the life of most human beings.

      We either are born with them or we aren’t.

      It’s not really that clear. I would imagine some intuitions are instinctive and others are developed through interaction with other humans. The point is that humans in their natural state have these intuitions, and how they get there is not so important as the contrast with intuitions or concepts that arise from technical fields.

      Why not? Once explained, is this somehow more complicated or less controversial than their “intuitions” of “beauty” or “freedom” or “justice”?

      If you have to ask that question then you simply don’t understand me. There is no point in explaining a technical concept to a layperson and then asking them to explain it back to you. What purpose could be served by that? The point of XPhi is to discover what people mean by terms that are in ubiquitous use so that we can come up with a definition that makes sense of this rather than foisting an artificial definition on a populace that will regard it as entirely irrelevant because it’s simply not what they are talking about (c.f. Carrier).

      It is rather your binary insistence that the switch is either off or on.

      Where do you get this from?

      I think they are brain-storming in areas where they expect disagreement, that they don’t expect their viewpoints to be final

      This may be true of Dennett but I really don’t think it is of Carrier. His writing and comments on this subject reeks of certainty, condescension and deafness to opposing viewpoints.

      Why you seem to think that all philosophers have no appreciation of the common intuitions of lay people is baffling to me

      I don’t think this at all. In fact they probably know more about the intuitions of lay people than most people do. I never once said that philosophers were ignorant, only that some philosophers dismiss lay intuitions as irrelevant which I think is incorrect.

  18. Mark: “In so doing, they should not lose sight of what the original intuition is.”

    And that “original intuition” is identified, how? Are you suggesting that philosophers are not also “ordinary people” when they are not doing philosophy? Are is the suggestion that they are brains in a vat, placed in the ivory tower of academia?

    • Hi Thomas,

      And that “original intuition” is identified, how?

      XPhi!

      Are you suggesting that philosophers are not also “ordinary people” when they are not doing philosophy?

      No, I’m just saying it’s better to have a sample size larger than one, and it would also be good to solicit the intuitions of people from different cultures before you go making claims to have found universal truths.

  19. I don’t have any particular objection to XPhi. As an amateur philosopher myself, I’m a strong proponent that philosophers should be aware of the relevant science. Generally this means keeping up with relevant scientific studies. But often there isn’t a psychological or sociological study covering what a philosopher needs to know. In that case, it might make sense for philosophers to conduct their own study, although I think they would be wise to partner with social scientists who have experience in constructing these types of studies.

  20. Oh, boy, this is pointless, though at least a respite from the off-topic comments on the NDT post. At last count, there were 193 references to “intuition,” Within your post, are the following contructions:

    natural human intuitions
    human intuition
    own intuitions
    intuitions of laypeople
    lay intuitions
    those intuitions
    intuitions of his colleagues
    intuitions of philosophers
    human intuitions across and within different cultural milieus.
    intuitions of the public

    And in this comment you’ve added “common intuitions” and “particular intuitions.” This reminds me of a shell game. I think you are being disingenuous. So, I’m the one missing the point? You want to resolve a dispute with Aravis regarding a universal definition of religion? Perhaps we should conduct a X-phi experiment with lay people asking them whether there is a difference between religion and theism. How about this: “Definitions of religion tend to suffer from one of two problems: they are either too narrow and exclude many belief systems which most agree are religious, or they are too vague and ambiguous, suggesting that just about any and everything is a religion.” (A simple internet query.)

    So the impetus for X-phi is to provide input to philosophers that a Southern Baptist and a Daoist may view the definition of religion differently? And this is news? Perhaps you should consider whether an ad hoc definition of a term for purposes of discussion will suffice in discussions where it is clearly identified as such. You have yet to respond to my assertion that your expectations of mathematical rigor in defining some concepts is unrealistic. But by all means let us read another article in the Puffington Post explaining why some in the US are conservative minded and some liberal minded.

    • Hi Thomas,

      The thesis of the post is that the intuitions of ordinary people are not entirely irrelevant to the philosopher. As such I don’t understand why you object to the frequent references to intuition.

      This is not about resolving a dispute with Aravis since I am not advancing a particular definition of religion here. In fact, if it is true that there is no way to define religion satisfactorily, that is a result that XPhi can establish and it saves a lot of time arguing about what the correct definition ought to be.

      You have yet to respond to my assertion that your expectations of mathematical rigor in defining some concepts is unrealistic.

      I have no such expectation. I just see discussions about which definition is ‘correct’ to be pointless and misguided (c.f. Harris and Dennett), as are assertions that a definition is ‘correct’ if it bears little relationship to the common intuition (c.f. Carrier). If we need a correct definition for the purposes of a discussion, by all means propose one. If there is a view that one term is really more ‘correct’ than an other, then it needs to be supported with XPhi.

  21. Hi Thomas,

    Why is it incumbent on those who are professionals in specialized disciplines to “match the public understanding” (hardly a matter where one could expect homogeneity) when using a concept in a specialized context?

    But they are not, they are referring to what they take to be general beliefs.

    With respect to a claim about what most people allegedly believe it is perfectly reasonable to find out what those beliefs are, rather than build a case on a false premise.

    • Robin, I just don’t believe this to be a particularly useful or feasible approach to X-phi. But Mark, and maybe you, seem to think that the philosophic community is acting as a quasi-French Academy. I don’t.

    • The French Academy prescribes, and so does bad philosophy. The suggestion is that philosophy should instead describe, at least when it is the philosophy of common intuitions.

    • Hi Thomas,

      Robin, I just don’t believe this to be a particularly useful or feasible approach to X-phi. But Mark, and maybe you, seem to think that the philosophic community is acting as a quasi-French Academy. I don’t.

      It may or may not be a useful or feasible approach but we still have Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris premising a debate on what they suppose is the belief that “everyday folk” and “the average Joe” have about their volition.

      Without any way of testing these claims their debate is based upon pure unsupported assumptions about the beliefs of most people.

      Do you think, then, that Daniel Dennett should not be debating issues like this at all, or do you think that it OK to base a debate on pure unsupported assumptions – assumptions which you claim it is not feasible to support?

    • Robin, if I thought the substance of Dennett’s remarks were only based on some notion of what a theoretical “average joe” thinks, I would be highly suspicious. But I suspect he was simply being supercilious. This happens. The average joe’s opinions-like it or not–is relevant as a concern of demographers, propagandists, marketers, and politicians.

  22. 1. I reject your assertion that lay usage of a concept that might be called a common intuition has been summarily dismissed by those who engage in philosophy because historically such usage is what has prompted philosophers to explore a concept in the first place.
    2. You brought up your discussion about religion and your differences with Aravis, not me. You apparently disagree on when and how to apply it with reference to certain practices. It makes more practical sense to me to acknowledge those differences will perhaps never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, lay or otherwise.
    3. If all you envision of X-phi is that it can somehow establish correct (universal? orthodox?) definitions of intuitive concepts, I think you are being idealistic and, as others have suggested, etymologically naive.

    • Hi Thomas,

      Nice to hear some more from you.

      1. I didn’t make quite that assertion, Thomas. It certainly hasn’t been summarily dismissed by all philosophers. But there is a view among certain philosophers (Pilgiucci in particular, if you read the referenced article) to regard common intuitions as irrelevant. And while Carrier doesn’t say this explicitly, I think he is making the same mistake. But certainly there are many philosphers, from Plato to Singer, who I think realise that common intuitions are not irrelevant.

      2. Yeah, I brought it up as an example. I wholeheartedly agree with you that it may make more sense to acknowledge the differences than to argue about them. Where people insist on arguing, XPhi can either settle the debate or show that the debate is wrong-headed by demonstrating that there is simply no satisfactory definition of religion.

      3. It doesn’t in itself establish anything. It only provides a measure against which different proposed definitions can be evaluated. It certainly does not give the final word on a subject, but it gives us a basis for preferring one definition to another (c.f. Harris and Dennett) or for rejecting a definition as irrelevant (c.f. Carrier).

  23. Well, I have pretty exhausted my thoughts on your post, which I want to assure you was obviously thought provoking. You did a good job, and I don’t want you to think I don’t appreciate the effort you put into it. I want to conclude by noting that I did read Massimo’s post in Rationally Speaking, and I suppose I’m largely in agreement with him when he says:

    “My take on this first part is that lay people’s opinions about *technical philosophical issues* are entirely irrelevant to the practice of philosophy, just like the opinions of lay people on Fermat’s last theorem, or on the structure of Hamlet are entirely irrelevant to the practice of professional mathematics or literary criticism. It is interesting to know how (lay) people think of philosophical, mathematical, or literary questions, in terms of the social science of common knowledge, but social science of common knowledge is not philosophy (or math, or literary criticism).”

    Note the emphasis I add to his comment. Perhaps, one might quibble with his phrase “entirely irrelevant,” but this criticism is to my mind mitigated by what follows. There’s an article in SEP on intuition that I’m sure you’ve already read. It ends as follows:

    “In light of the foregoing, it seems that further research on the following three issues would be especially beneficial.

    “The first is the attempt to articulate more precisely the exact nature of intuitions or provide a principled taxonomy of the various kinds of intuitions. This would enable various philosophers and psychologists to avoid arguing at cross-purposes and allow for further exploration of the psychological and epistemological parallels between perception and intuition.

    “The second is determining the precise conditions under which epistemic circularity is problematic. This would aid in determining the relative initial epistemological standing of intuition and perception.

    “The third is determining the exact actual and possible extent of intuitive disagreement and the proper response to such disagreement. This would enable the proper evaluation of what appears to be the most serious sort of skeptical argument.”

    • One additional note, even though I’m late to the discussion and will not be able to sustain engagement. I have had a long private correspondence with Joshua Knobe, one of the leaders in XPhi. He has emphasized the idea that XPhi has largely moved away from the study of intuitions, and is now largely concentrated on the neural underpinnings of things like moral reasoning. To me that makes it even less relevant to philosophy, though I certainly am interested into the neurobiology and social science of moral reasoning.

    • is now largely concentrated on the neural underpinnings of things like moral reasoning.

      To see how wrong that is we can use the analogy of a CPU and the program running on it. We can look at the detailed microelectronic structure of the CPU chip and analyse its circuit in exacting detail (equivalent to the neural structure of the brain). This is very informative, at that level, and yet it will say nothing whatsoever about the structure, organisation and purpose of the program I wrote to run on that CPU(equivalent to the thinking mind). You will fail to understand my program by looking at the CPU chip level. To understand my program you must engage with it at the higher conceptual level of the programmer. Then you will see the organisation of my program, its methods, classes, objects, etc, and, if you understand those kinds of things(as DM and I do), you will understand what my program does. In the same way, to understand the mind, one must engage with it at the higher conceptual level of the mind’s workings.

      X-Phi will wither and die naturally as the hype fails to deliver any useful experimental results that inform philosophy in any significant way.

    • Speaking of programming moral “software”: We’ll see how this works out.

      “The Office of Naval Research will award $7.5 million in grant money over five years to university researchers from Tufts, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Brown, Yale and Georgetown to explore how to build a sense of right and wrong and moral consequence into autonomous robotic systems.”

      Now The Military Is Going To Build Robots That Have Morals

    • Hi Massimo,

      I do agree that these avenues of research seem to be less relevant, although I am open to persuasion on that.

      I was mostly interested in addressing your view that the intuitions of lay people are of no relevance to philosophers. Perhaps I should have focused more on emphasizing this rather than treating XPhi as one monolithic thing.

    • As I say below, if the intuitions of lay people about things like free will are of no relevance to philosophy then philosophers, llke Dennett, should leave it out of their arguments. But they don’t.

    • Cheers Thomas, your feedback was appreciated.

  24. Massimo Pigliucci wrote (quoted by Thomas):

    “My take on this first part is that lay people’s opinions about *technical philosophical issues* are entirely irrelevant to the practice of philosophy,

    But I can show you a number of places in Daniel Dennett’s recent debate where he made claims about what “everyday folk” and “the average Joe” think about their volitional processes.

    Shouldn’t you be able to support any claim you make in philosophy? Shouldn’t this be even more important if you are basing part of your argument on it?

    Can you see why someone might find this response unsatisfactory:

    Philosopher: Everyday folk think X”

    Lay person: Are you able to support the claim that everyday folk think X?”

    Philosopher: The opinions of everyday folk about technical philosophical issues are entirely irrelevant to the practice of philosophy“.

    • Yes, to the extent that philosophers make those claims about folks they are making statements that should be checked empirically. I just don’t think those claims are much more than rhetorical flourish, most of the times.

    • In this particular case it was the crux of the issue though, because Harris’s attack on Dennett’s usage of the term “free will” was based on the argument that he had “changed the subject” from what ordinary people understand “free will” to mean.

  25. Dear Mark,
    The foundation of reason is truth.
    Not Plato’s belief, just the is.
    = is

  26. “Carrier’s mistake is to overlook the simple fact that morality is a human intuition, so any definition of morality which does not agree with that intuition cannot be accepted.”

    Would the author (DM) care to explain how these “intuitions” have changed mightily over recent years, (e.g. moral oughts in regards to racial, gender, sexual discriminations) at a pace far outstripping that of biological evolution? Did they not change from excellent arguments made by a minority of people who used reason better than the majority of people did in the past? Morality may have had its origins in intuitive emotions, and it may still gain power from emotional responses, but it is still highly shaped by reason, and therefore by people who reason well (i.e. philosophers, in the non-academic, wisdom loving sense).

    • Hi Ed,

      Would the author (DM) care to explain how these “intuitions” have changed mightily over recent years…?

      Sure. By philosophical arguments which showed that these attitudes were predicated on falsehoods and were inconsistent with more powerfully felt intuitions, e.g. that we ought to feel concern for others.

      Did they not change from excellent arguments made by a minority of people who used reason better than the majority of people did in the past?

      Certainly.

      Morality may have had its origins in intuitive emotions, and it may still gain power from emotional responses, but it is still highly shaped by reason, and therefore by people who reason well (i.e. philosophers, in the non-academic, wisdom loving sense).

      Agreed. But any proposed definition of morality must have some connection with the basic intuition (which is something like that we ought to care about the well-being of others). Carrier’s argument lacks that connection in my view, and that’s what I was trying to get at.

  27. DM,
    Carrier’s mistake is to overlook the simple fact that morality is a human intuition, so any definition of morality which does not agree with that intuition cannot be accepted.

    We have been examining ethical thought for over 2,300 years and constructed a rigorous and well thought out body of ethical theory.

    Now please explain how X-Phi applied to intuitions is going to change this? How will you conduct the X-Phi experiments? What will the research question be? What will the hypothesis be? How will you test this hypothesis? What ethical thought will it invalidate and why?

    We have already established in my earlier question you will simply be collecting lay persons’ opinions of naturalism to no discernible effect. Do we need more PEW surveys masquerading as science?

    • Hi labnut,

      We have been examining ethical thought for over 2,300 years and constructed a rigorous and well thought out body of ethical theory.

      Well, we’ve worked out several rigorous mutually contradictory ethical frameworks.

      Now please explain how X-Phi applied to intuitions is going to change this?

      It isn’t, but it gives a means for spotting irrelevant moral frameworks such as Carrier’s.

      How will you conduct the X-Phi experiments?

      With regard to morality, I’m not really sure that further XPhi work is required because I think we have a good enough understanding of moral intuitions already. The point was really to argue that human intuitions are important for philosophers, and Carrier’s moral framework is irrelevant because he doesn’t appreciate this.

      What ethical thought will it invalidate and why?

      Carrier’s, because Carrier’s moral framework has the potential to disagree radically with all human intuition regarding morality, providing a potential justification for gross selfishness and disregard for others.

      Do we need more PEW surveys masquerading as science?

      Or masquerading as philosophy. If such surveys are well done, they provide a basis for preferring some rigorous formulations of intuitive concepts to others.

    • DM, see my comment below.

  28. DM, so far I can only say the case you have made for X-Phi is unconvincing, which is a pity because I can actually see one powerful use for it.

    You have not seen the opportunity because you are a moral consequentialist. I however believe in virtue ethics (inevitably, because I am a Catholic) and it is in virtue ethics that the best case can be made for X-Phi. Massimo is an atheist and also believes in virtue ethics which illustrates the great power of virtue ethics to reconcile different belief systems(my point below).

    But first we must consider why virtue ethics is potentially so important. Very briefly, it can be seen as the one moral system that acts as a bridge and meeting point between all belief systems, secular, religious or other. It is belief system agnostic. Secondly, it carries within it a psychologically sound basis for moral motivation. Thirdly, there is the importance of the concept of excellence which underlies the virtues. Successful societies are characterised by an almost obsessive concern with excellence.

    When implementing a virtue ethics system one is confronted by several questions. What are the virtues? Which virtues are appropriate for the particular context? What is the telos or end in the particular social context? How can the virtues become habituated? Do we need moral exemplars? The concept of virtue is an intuition which is widely shared but differs greatly between societies and belief systems. The concept of telos also varies. It seems to me that X-Phi would have a valuable application in probing intuitions to discover the answers to these questions in virtue ethics. That is because virtue ethics cannot be a one size fits all solution. It must be tailored to the context and X-Phi can give us understanding of the context.

    For example, ubuntu expresses a kind of African humanism which is prevalent among the Xhosa peoples where I live. Ubuntu can roughly be expressed as ‘I am because of you’, ‘by valuing others I become valuable’. It embraces a set of communitarian virtues that are at odds with the fierce individualism found in the US. X-Phi would expose these different intuitions and lead to a different emphasis in the application of virtue ethics. X-Phi would also reveal the commonality, showing where we agree and where we need to adapt our emphasis.

    X-Phi could also probe the strength of our intuitions about virtue and reveal factors that strengthen or weaken these intuitions. Moral behaviour requires moral motivation and moral motivation is a fertile field for research. The objection could be raised that this is now research in psychology, and that is quite true. X-Phi becomes another term for collaboration between philosophy and psychology to research the intersection between psychology and philosophy, which is exactly where virtue ethics lies. X-Phi helps to define valuable questions for research in psychology by psychologists at this intersection. This is where I differ from you, DM. Philosophers should remain in their arm chair(burning or not) but define and initiate interesting research programmes in other disciplines such as psychology and sociology where they intersect with philosophy(typically ethical behaviour).

    Some may respond by asking, what’s the beef? Things are just fine, why should we bother? I could give a long list of reasons why things are not just fine. Six obvious symptoms should be enough to make the case, the vast US prison population, the soaring inequity in wealth distribution, a maleficent banking system, a Congress held hostage by moneyed interests, our inability to stop climate change and a culture of sexual abuse in business, colleges, the military and in politics.

    Massimo is the expert in virtue ethics so his authoritative opinion would be welcome and definitive.

    • Hi labnut,

      I don’t disagree with you that we could all benefit from being a bit more virtuous.

      Where I do disagree is that I don’t see how a study of the virtues that are out there in different cultures would in any way tell us how we should behave. Some “virtues” may be abhorrent, such as the virtue of a man being able to control his woman in some cultures. Therefore I don’t see how any study of what virtues are out there might give a compelling basis for morality or help us to choose which virtues we should endorse.

      My argument for XPhi is that it can help us to choose helpful definitions of terms. It cannot be a guide to fundamental truths, whether on morality or on any other subject.

    • DM,
      we could all benefit from being a bit more virtuous.
      This seems to reflect a belief that basically there is not much morally wrong with the world and so we need no more than being a bit more virtuous. The one in five college students who have been sexually assaulted would not agree with you. The families of the 36,000 homicide victims in 2010 would not agree with you. The millions trapped at the bottom of the income ladder by the greed of the one percent would not agree with you. We need a great deal more than ‘being a bit more virtuous’ and especially we need far less complacency.

      Your choice of words also shows poor understanding of virtue ethics. It is not a simple matter of being ‘a bit more virtuous’. It is instead a case of developing a habituated disposition to reliably act in a certain way that is described by the virtues(http://bit.ly/1nlr0UA).

      I don’t see how a study of the virtues that are out there in different cultures would in any way tell us how we should behave
      You have mis-characterized what I said. A study won’t ‘tell‘ anyone how to believe. A study will, in part, elucidate the virtues that best characterise flourishing in a given social context(what Alisdair MacIntyre calls a ‘practice’). Your use of the phrase ‘tell us how we should behave’ shows that you have a basic misunderstanding of virtue ethics. Your prescriptive phrase is typical of deontology and is wholly out of place in virtue ethics.

      Some “virtues” may be abhorrent
      Then it is not a virtue, it is a vice.

      such as the virtue of a man being able to control his woman in some cultures
      That is decidedly not a virtue. It seems you need to come up to speed in the field of virtue ethics. I recommend Julia Annas book – Intelligent Virtue. Look at chapter 2 where she discusses the nature of virtue.

      I don’t see how any study of what virtues are out there might give a compelling basis for morality
      Once again you mis-characterize what I say(perhaps you should quote my actual words so we don’t keep going down this dead end). I am asserting that virtue ethics is our best choice of moral framework for the three reasons I listed above in my original comment(paragraph 3). I am also asserting that the particular virtues we wish to emphasize are context dependent, therefore we should research that context. Two examples suffice to make my point. The Character Counts Coalition selected a subset of virtues relevant to the schooling setting(http://bit.ly/1jsRvna). This paper (http://bit.ly/1fXNjAX) showed that a very different set of virtues were selected for free enterprise activities.

      This does not invalidate or make the other virtues irrelevant. It is all a matter of emphasis. Virtues are complex, multi-track dispositions(Julia Annas) that form a mutually supportive and cohesive framework.

      My argument for XPhi is that it can help us to choose helpful definitions of terms
      As it happens philosophers are rather good at doing this. You have failed to show any additional benefit. It all comes down to this – show us the goods. Massimo has already pointed out there have been no useful experimental benefits to philosophy. What you described looks like a sterile dead end.

      It cannot be a guide to fundamental truths
      We are not asking it to be a guide to fundamental truths. Please quote my words where I suggest this. Once again you mis-characterize my words. We are asking it(in part) to elicit the set of virtues that are characteristic in a given ‘practice’ or social context. We are asking that it guide or initiate research by psychologists to better understand moral motivation. Moral behaviour has to be motivated. What motivates it and how should we motivate it? We can do pilot studies of virtual ethics implementations and measure the outcomes. These are just three examples of what I mean. Do you see any mention there of fundamental truths? No, nor do I!

    • Hi labnut,

      Firstly, I’m not mischaracterising you. I am honestly expressing my understanding of your position. If you don’t recognise what I say that’s good because you can set me right. If I parrot your words back at you then we won’t get anywhere.

      I don’t see a substantial difference between “we could all be a bit more virtuous” and “developing a habituated disposition to reliably act in a certain way that is described by the virtues”. This is pretty much what I meant, although I do recognise and apologise for a tone that was unnecessarily flippant.

      I also do not find it particularly convincing when people list out all kinds of human misery to make a point. I know that lots of very bad things happen. I am not ignorant. Quoting these statistics at me is both condescending and implies that my position is in some way associated with this misery, which puts me on the defensive and makes me less disposed to reply to you with equanimity.

      A study won’t ‘tell‘ anyone how to believe. A study will, in part, elucidate the virtues that best characterise flourishing in a given social context

      I don’t see much difference. Elucidating the virtues that best characterise flourishing is implicitly telling us how to behave.

      Then it is not a virtue, it is a vice.

      Says who? If some cultures are simply wrong on which qualities they call virtuous, then on what basis do we choose which are virtues and which are vices? On the basis of which promote flourishing? Is that not just a kind of indirect consequentialism?

      Look at chapter 2 where she discusses the nature of virtue.

      Perhaps you can summarise the main points for me as it pertains to my question or direct me to a more immediately accessible resource.

      As it happens philosophers are rather good at doing this.

      Some are, some aren’t. Carrier, for instance. How do you respond to Carrier’s definition of objective morality? I would think you would rightly reject it as flawed. But on what basis?

      You repeatedly claim that I have failed to show the use of XPhi (by which I mean the relevance to philosophers of the intuitions of laypeople), but you haven’t really explained why I am wrong with regard to the cases I think most powerfully prove my point.

      What motivates it and how should we motivate it?

      Good questions, but not philosophical ones in my view.

    • Hi DM,
      I don’t see a substantial difference between “we could all be a bit more virtuous” and “developing a habituated disposition to reliably act in a certain way that is described by the virtues”. This is pretty much what I meant,
      I am happy to see that. Virtue ethics is a substantial commitment to something that defines one’s life.

      I also do not find it particularly convincing when people list out all kinds of human misery to make a point. I know that lots of very bad things happen.
      I think it is necessary to make the point again and again, not necessarily for you (you are well read), but in general. The point is necessary because the extent of the problem requires that something must be done. That starts within an awareness, a sensitivity to the problem leading to a desire to do something. It so happens that I think a culture of virtue ethics is our best chance of addressing the problem because it is agnostic about belief systems, has a sound basis for moral motivation and appeals to our fundamental moral intuitions.

      Says who? If some cultures are simply wrong on which qualities they call virtuous, then on what basis do we choose which are virtues and which are vices?
      We already have pretty good agreement on the list of virtues and the Virtues Project has listed the 52 commonly accepted virtues. David Hume gave an even broader list of more than 70 virtues. What remains is the question of emphasis and that is determined by the context. We are rather unlikely to confuse vice with virtue.

      There is an amusing contradiction here. On the one hand you are advocating that we use X-Phi to clarify definitions and on the other hand you are opposing the use of X-Phi to clarify the virtues.

      Perhaps you can summarise the main points for me
      I sincerely recommend you make the effort and read it yourself.

      Some are, some aren’t. Carrier, for instance. How do you respond to Carrier’s definition of objective morality?
      Academics will always reach different conclusions. Conducting some opinion surveys in the name of X-Phi has zero chance of changing this.

      you haven’t really explained why I am wrong with regard to the cases I think most powerfully prove my point.
      Massimo has pointed out that X-Phi has produced no useful results.

      What motivates it and how should we motivate it? – Good questions, but not philosophical ones in my view.

      Precisely. My point is that X-Phi is more usefully deployed in initiating research in other disciplines and not to do the research itself. Those disciplines have the skills and the right mindset while philosophy should play to its own strengths of deep analytical insights. The question of moral motivation is important to virtue ethics so philosophy has an interest in initiating research by psychologists into this issue. Dan Ariely, for example, has done work showing the power of moral priming and this is directly relevant.

    • Hi labnut,

      The point is necessary because the extent of the problem requires that something must be done.

      Fine, but that doesn’t really lend much support that any particular solution or viewpoint is correct. As such I would personally prefer you left out the emotive arguments and concentrated on supporting your viewpoint (which of course you do elsewhere).

      We already have pretty good agreement on the list of virtues and the Virtues Project has listed the 52 commonly accepted virtues.

      So the distinction between vice and virtue is decided by majority vote?

      e are rather unlikely to confuse vice with virtue.

      There are numerous examples of just this happening. There are examples of honour killings, for example, where women are killed because their male family members believe it is virtuous to uphold some archaic concept of family honour.

      There is an amusing contradiction here. On the one hand you are advocating that we use X-Phi to clarify definitions and on the other hand you are opposing the use of X-Phi to clarify the virtues.

      If you are amused it is because you don’t understand my definition. I argue that X-Phi can give us a basis for preferring some definitions to others for the sake of facilitating communication. I have repeatedly said it cannot establish facts about who is objectively right or wrong. It can identify which virtues are out there, but it can’t establish which are actually vices in disguise. For that you need some other criteria.

      Academics will always reach different conclusions.

      Stop evading the issue, please. If you actually try to answer my question you may just understand where I’m coming from. You are an informed amateur philosopher. Try to assess Carrier’s argument and see what you come up with. Please.

    • DM,
      I would personally prefer you left out the emotive arguments
      Then let me remind of what you said:
      I don’t disagree with you that we could all benefit from being a bit more virtuous.

      In reply I pointed out the need for being more than a ‘bit virtuous’. I gave ascertainable facts and if you consider them to be emotive then that is just too bad. The simple fact of the matter is that great wrongs inspire strong emotions and that is exactly as it should be.

      But let me build on that thought. According to Hume, emotions are at the base of moral motivation as this quote from Linda Zagzebski (Divine Motivation Theory) explains:

      One of the most enduring legacies of David Hume is his claim in the Treatise of Human Nature that cognitive and affective states are distinct and independent states. The former is representational, the latter is not (Book II, section 3, p. 415). The latter motivates, the former does not (p. 414). The terminology for describing psychic states has changed since Hume, but the moral commonly drawn from Hume’s arguments is essentially this: No representational state (perceptual or cognitive) has the most significant property of affective states, the capacity to motivate. An affective state must be added to any cognitive state in order to motivate action, and the motivating state and the cognitive state are always separable; they are related, at best, causally.

    • None of that really answers my point that the horror of your examples does not augment your argument or diminish mine. We both want to see a reduction in suffering in the world. I could just as well have used those same examples myself.

    • DM,
      So the distinction between vice and virtue is decided by majority vote?
      Sigh, once more you mischaracterise what I say. You insist on recasting my words in an unfavourable light. That is no way to conduct a debate.

    • DM,
      are rather unlikely to confuse vice with virtue.
      There are numerous examples of just this happening. There are examples of honour killings

      But we, the independent third party observers, well versed in virtue ethics, are easily able to make the distinction by appealing to established literature in the field.

      Your suggestion, that when using investigatory tools to uncover perceptions of virtue in different societal groups, we are unable to discern the difference between virtue and vice, is plainly perverse.

    • Hi labnut,

      Again, I am not misrepresenting you but asking you to explain how your views, as I understand them, are not tantamount to determining what is virtuous with majority vote. Please stop reading everything as an attempt to deliberately mischaracterise what you are saying. We are not doing this for an audience. I have nothing to gain by mischaracterising you. I’m just explaining back to you how your views are coming across to me.

      But we, the independent third party observers, well versed in virtue ethics, are easily able to make the distinction by appealing to established literature in the field.

      OK, so when two fundamentalist Muslim scholars, well versed in (fundamentalist Muslim) virtue ethics come to a different conclusion by appealing to different established literature in the field, on what basis do we decide which of us is right?

      Your suggestion, that when using investigatory tools to uncover perceptions of virtue in different societal groups, we are unable to discern the difference between virtue and vice, is plainly perverse.

      I’m not saying that such discernment is impossible, I’m saying that the survey itself does not help us to discern. Our discernment must be grounded in something else. For me, it is consequentialism. What is it for you?

    • DM,
      Academics will always reach different conclusions.
      Stop evading the issue, please

      On the contrary, I am refusing to be drawn into a de-railing discussion. Carrier’s beliefs are not mundane to my assertions. It is well known that academics disagree profoundly on many positions. X-Phi, as defined by you, is extremely unlikely to resolve these differences. You have completely failed to show how your conception of X-Phi will change strongly held views of academics like Carrier.

    • DM,
      Again, I am not misrepresenting you
      Yes, you are when you use use the term ‘majority vote’.

      I nowhere suggested that and for you to drag in that term is disingenuous.
      Academic matters are never decided by majority vote and you already know that perfectly well. Therefore there was no need whatsoever for you to raise the matter.

    • DM,
      OK, so when two fundamentalist Muslim scholars, well versed in (fundamentalist Muslim) virtue ethics come to a different conclusion by appealing to different established literature in the field, on what basis do we decide which of us is right?

      We can’t eliminate differences in the academic world. They will always exist. Academia, slowly over a long period of time, converges towards increasing consensus. You consider yourself a consequentialist and yet that field contains several strands of thought. Which is the right one? How will we know? Do you have sound reasons for believing consequentialism is the right moral framework? Massimo would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. These theoretical differences are likely to remain with us for a long time to come.

    • Carrier is perhaps the best example of my argument of a philosopher who needs an XPhi reality check. You refuse to consider this example so you don’t understand my argument, preferring instead to explain how XPhi can or cannot answer questions I was not originally discussing.

      You will not understand me until you engage with an example where I claim that XPhi is relevant. Peter, you’re a good guy, and I respect you, but it’s getting to the point where I think we need to drop it because you don’t seem to me to be addressing the core points of my argument at all.

      I nowhere suggested that and for you to drag in that term is disingenuous.

      It’s very uncharitable of you to accuse me of disingenuity.

      Your explanation of how we know what the virtues are was simply to point that there is broad agreement. By referring to the majority, my point is that broad agreement is not enough. I want to know what this consensus is founded on.

    • You consider yourself a consequentialist and yet that field contains several strands of thought. Which is the right one? How will we know? Do you have sound reasons for believing consequentialism is the right moral framework?

      I’m not a moral realist. I don’t think there is a right answer to these questions. I am a consequentialist because that is the system that appeals to me. It’s an aesthetic preference. I like conseqentialism because it appeals to my most fundamental intuitions regarding morality, that we should try to promote well being and limit suffering. I also like it because it is relatively simple. It is less arbitrary to adopt this one principle than a grocery list of sundry virtues with no underlying basis for preferring some proposed virtues to others.

      Yet I may be a virtue ethicist in practice. I choose and justify my virtues on consequentialist grounds.

      Massimo would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. These theoretical differences are likely to remain with us for a long time to come.

      Peter Singer would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. Appealing to authority gets us nowhere.

    • DM,
      Our discernment must be grounded in something else. For me, it is consequentialism. What is it for you?
      Virtue ethics.

      Consequentialism vs virtue ethics is a whole new discussion. Massimo has already written about that on Rationally Speaking and I refer you back to his series on the subject.

      I consider consequentialism to be fatally flawed but there is no need to go into that right now. In this post I am arguing for virtue ethics on the grounds of purely practical considerations, independent of theoretical matters. My argument is that society is deeply split between competing moral views based on deontology and consequentialism. The religious world is not going to accept consequentialism and the secular world is not going to accept theistic deontology. Virtue ethics is agnostic about belief systems and is therefore attractive to both sides of the religion secular divide. It also transcends culture, making it appealing to Western as well as Buddhist and Confucian schools of thought, though the terminology they use can appear very disparate.

      Virtue ethics therefore offers us the best prospect of reaching a realistic moral consensus.

    • DM,
      I’m saying that the survey itself does not help us to discern.
      Well then, let me give you an example of where it would.

      I have already referenced a relevant article, Reclaiming Virtue Ethics for Economics by two economists, Bruni and Sugden (http://bit.ly/1fXNjAX).

      They say:
      we use the methods of virtue ethics to develop a conception of market virtue that is consistent with many classical and neo-classical economists’ accounts of how markets work and of what purposes they serve. Our central idea is that the public benefits of markets should be understood as the aggregate of the mutual benefits gained by individuals as parties to voluntary transactions, and that the market virtues are dispositions that are directed at this kind of mutual benefit. For a virtuous market participant, mutual benefit is not just a fortunate by-product of the individual pursuit of self-interest: he or she intends that transactions with others are mutually beneficial.
      Using this idea, we identify some specific character traits that have the status of virtues within the domain of the market. Our list of market virtues (which we do not claim is complete) includes universality, enterprise and alertness, respect for the tastes of one’s trading partners, trust and trustworthiness, acceptance of competition, self-help, non-rivalry, and stoicism about reward. We will argue that these market virtues, grounded on ideas of reciprocity and mutual benefit, are closely associated with virtues of civil society more generally.

      This is a good example of how discerning virtues in a market environment is best ascertained by talking to the players in that environment. The article is well worth reading carefully. I am sure that others will disagree on the list of virtues for market activity. This illustrates the need for research in this area.

    • DM,
      “Peter Singer would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. Appealing to authority gets us nowhere.”
      This is a perfect example of how you misrepresent my comments. I was not appealing to authority to settle a difference of opinion. I was making the point that there are profound academic differences which are unlikely to be resolved.

      I made my intent crystal clear with my opening sentences:
      We can’t eliminate differences in the academic world. They will always exist.
      You ignored that statement and then you left off the following statement when you quoted me, which further clarified my intent:
      These theoretical differences are likely to remain with us for a long time to come

      The whole thrust of that paragraph, quoted in full below, was that important and persistent differences exist in academic thought. To accuse me of appealing to authority is to misrepresent me. You are selectively reading my paragraph and using the selective reading to level an unfair accusation at me. That is not in the spirit of fair debate. Read the paragraph again, below:

      We can’t eliminate differences in the academic world. They will always exist. Academia, slowly over a long period of time, converges towards increasing consensus. You consider yourself a consequentialist and yet that field contains several strands of thought. Which is the right one? How will we know? Do you have sound reasons for believing consequentialism is the right moral framework? Massimo would disagree with you and he is certainly more qualified to disagree. These theoretical differences are likely to remain with us for a long time to come.

    • Hi labnut,

      Unfortunately I cannot accept virtue ethics as a basis because it is too ad hoc, with different people preferring different virtues. I asked you how you dicern vice from virtue in order to implement your virtue ethics, and your answer, “virtue ethics” does not answer this question in my view as to do so would be circular. It seems to me that what you are saying is tantamount to admitting that your virtues are handed down from a tradition of previous virtue ethicists without very much in the way of justification. I apologise in advance if I have mischaracterised you, but that is how your viewpoint is coming across to me through the imperfect medium of asynchronous internet blog comments.

      The paper on the market value of virtues seems to me to be grounding the virtues in consequentialism of a kind when it talks about the benefit of the different virtues. Perhaps you didn’t understand me when I said I claimed to ground my virtues in consequentialism. This is the kind of thing I was advocating. Developing the habit of pursuing certain qualities or attitudes will have the consequence of greater overall benefit, and this is the basis on which I distinguish virtue from vice.

      I accept that you were not appealing to authority to settle a difference of opinion. In that case you should have left Massimo’s qualifications out of it. In fact you needn’t have brought Massimo into it at all but used yourself as an example of someone who disagreed with me.

      In any case, my goal is not to eliminate academic disagreement. Such a goal is impossible. I would never be able to convince Carrier he is wrong, for a start. But though there is academic disagreement, that doesn’t mean that we don’t each attempt to evaluate the different viewpoints. What I do in this post is to illustrate one strategy for doing so. My claim is that Carrier’s viewpoint ought to be denied, and the basis on which it ought to be denied rests on the incompatibility of his views with what ‘morality’ means to everybody else (i.e. lay people and philosophers alike).

    • I really need to butt in here. It is a common misconception that virtue ethics is “too vague.” That’s because people think that ethics has to do with what is right or wrong. But for a virtue ethics that’s not the crucial question. The crucial question is what sort of life one ought to live. And the answer offered by virtue ethics is: one that develops and nurture good character traits, of which Aristotle (and later on other virtue ethicists) even give a specific list. Hardly vague at all.

    • Where did I say it was vague? I said it was ad hoc. There’s a difference. You can have as many specific virtues as you like, but until you justify why these qualities and not others it seems arbitrary to me.

      I likely agree with you on most of this in practice, but I think consequentialism is what determines which qualities are virtuous and which are not.

    • You ought to know better than that my friend. Consequentialism also is “ad hoc,” in the sense that there is no way to ground that particular framework above others.

    • Hi Massimo,

      You ought to know better than that my friend. Consequentialism also is “ad hoc,” in the sense that there is no way to ground that particular framework above others.

      I agree, but I think it is nevertheless less arbitrary. I explained my attitude about this to labnut in a slightly earlier comment.

      Here it is again:

      I’m not a moral realist. I don’t think there is a right answer to these questions. I am a consequentialist because that is the system that appeals to me. It’s an aesthetic preference. I like conseqentialism because it appeals to my most fundamental intuitions regarding morality, that we should try to promote well being and limit suffering. I also like it because it is relatively simple. It is less arbitrary to adopt this one principle than a grocery list of sundry virtues with no underlying basis for preferring some proposed virtues to others.

  29. DM, I didn’t intend to start a debate on the merits of virtue ethics vs consequentialism. I only wanted to point out its great appeal as a place where different belief systems can meet and find consensus. This is something that consequentialism cannot provide(you may disagree?). We could go further in the discussion but we will quickly get into deep waters. This is going way off track where X-Phi is concerned. I raised the issue in the X-Phi context because I thought this was one place where empirical investigation of prevailing virtues in a given context would be useful. To my surprise you disagreed when I thought we had found a point of agreement.

    The major point of difference between you and I is that I think empirical investigation is all good and well but that it should be carried out by the domain experts where each domain plays to its strengths. To use my military metaphor, philosophers are the advance scouts in the shadowy border land between the empirical world and the conceptual world. They help to define interesting areas for investigation and the psychologists/sociologists come after to do the research. A major problem in ethical behaviour is motivating people to behave in a moral way. You can think of religion as ritual form of behaviour intended to inculcate moral traits. In the absence of religion how is this to be done? This is the intersection between moral philosophy, psychology and sociology where philosophy defines the problem and psychology/sociology research the solutions.

  30. DM, we have debated the nitty-gritty to death. I think it is worthwhile to step back from the fray and ask whether we are talking about the right things. It seems to me that the real difference between you and I is that we bring different metaphysical prejudices to the table. Specifically, I believe in the reality of free will and you do not. Now I am not inviting yet another endless debate, this time about whether free will really exists or is an illusion. My reply would simply be that the matter is unproven so let’s wait for the researchers to do their job. By the way, this is another excellent example of where philosophy has scouted the terrain in advance of the empirical sciences.

    I think it is more important to understand the consequences of our metaphysical prejudices.
    Since you do not believe in free will you cannot believe that the individual is innately responsible for his behaviour. And yet he must be held responsible as an exemplar to others so that they are warned (the Chinese proverb, killing the chicken to frighten the wolf). This commits you to a belief in consequentialism. If he is not innately responsible for his behaviour virtue ethics cannot make any sense.

    If free will does not exist then we are essentially rather advanced biological robots, ruled by strict causal determinism. In this case all our thoughts are ultimately traceable to biological causes. If that is true all philosophical thoughts can ultimately, one day, be explained at the biological level. In the presence of that kind of belief X-Phi makes perfect sense.

    Since I believe in free will I believe in a higher level of innate responsibility that is best described by virtue ethics. One holds a robot responsible for consequences while one holds a free willing person responsible for the way s/he thinks. A further consequence of my belief in free will is that I believe we have constructed a conceptual world that transcends the physical and so cannot be described by the physical. New emergent properties of cognitive, free willing thought have their roots in the biological world but cannot be explained in biological terms. In that case X-Phi, as described by you, makes no sense. It must be investigated on its own terms and not in the terms of the lower layers.

    So you and I both have metaphysical prejudices about free will that have far reaching consequences for how we interpret other, resulting matters.

    Then you and I have still deeper metaphysical prejudices that determine our belief in free will. You believe in a strictly material world of causal determinism therefore free will is not possible. I believe in the existence of God who has gifted us with free will. This is a gap between you and I that we will not bridge. Others take an intermediate position of naturalism and compatibilism.

    It is useless fighting about who is right or wrong since we both have unprovable premisses. But it is very useful to explore the differences so that we understand them and especially so that we understand our hidden assumptions.

    • Well said. You’re right on pretty much all of that.

      So you think XPhi is bogus because you really think there is a pure thing out there which is real morality or real free will, and this is not determined by poll. That makes sense and I see where you’re coming from.

      But there are other more obviously more human constructions for which XPhi might be useful. What we mean by “naturalism”, for instance. I don’t think you would argue that there is a true, “somewhere out there” interpretation of this term, so we could reasonably assess proposed definitions of “naturalism” according to how well they capture the essence of the human intuition at the base of the natural/supernatural divide.

      Please, don’t tell me again that there is an established body of literature out there on this question. This literature has dozens of different interpretations of the term. The point of XPhi would be to assess how useful these different interpretations are at capturing the intuition so that we might choose a preferred one for the purposes of unambiguous communication.

    • DM,
      So you think XPhi is bogus
      Not so much bogus as misdirected. I think of X-Phi as determining avenues for research (by the domain experts) that can illuminate philosophical problems in the shadowy border lands I mention so often, while the philosopher remains comfortably ensconced in his armchair, doing what he does best. This is just my personal interpretation and so far as I know, I am in a minority of one, a comfortable place that I cherish.

      I think I understand what you say about definitions. My counter argument is that definitions are labels we attach to categories of things. We naturally construct categories as the modelling process whereby we construct internal representational models of the world. This is a very fundamental, innate thing that has been happening since the dawn of language. Language allowed us to construct the internal categories and importantly, allowed us to share them. Sharing categories allowed us to refine them and develop a shared understanding of the categories. Writing enormously extended this process and every time we read something we are automatically acquiring and adjusting our categories. We are terribly good at doing this, which is something that needs explaining. We seem to be far better at doing this than the needs of the hunter/gather would suggest.

      To our categories we apply relationships and we apply values. This completes our internal representational model.

      Because we are capable of reflection we can examine our internal models and build on them, constructing more categories, relationships and values that are no longer physical, but are abstract or purely conceptual. And now our modelling is liberated from the physical world. We construct a vast new conceptual model that is unlimited in scope. Our model is still, at its very foundations, tied to the physical world (this category of food is tasty and nutritious) but there is a vast edifice that soars above these physical foundations. I liken it to a multi-storey office block. It is tied to the ground in the basement(the physical world). The basement contains the services (water, electricity, communications, etc) which are distributed to all the floors. The upper floors (the conceptual edifice) are the management suite that directs the entire operation. You cannot explain the operation of the upper floors by examining the basement. You can only do this by examining the upper floors themselves. This fact lies at the heart of my thinking.

      So far this might even sound plausible to you so it is time to play the game of ‘spot the hidden assumption’. The hidden assumption is that we can freely construct categories, relationships and values at a higher level than the purely physical. This is the assumption that we possess real free will. You reject this assumption so you cannot subscribe to the model of the multi-storey building I have just described.

      In fact I think you are forced to choose an entirely different kind of model. I am inspired by the big ficus tree I look at in my front garden while I type this. From the roots, up through the trunk, out through the branches and into the leaves it is really one continuous thing, manifesting itself in different ways in response to the environment at the different levels. In a world without free will that ficus tree is the best model for your beliefs. In your case, examining the starting point at the roots and adding some knowledge about the environment at the upper levels perfectly explains the rest of the tree.

      Given your assumptions and this kind of model(the ficus tree), X-Phi is valid. Given my assumptions and my multi-storey model, X-Phi is only valid in the basement, which represents the empirical world.

      With that, I am going to leave the basement, climb the stairs and return to the penthouse suite. You will wave to me from the upper branches of the ficus tree! At least it will look like a wave as I spot the movement of the leaves and branches in the wind. That is the problem with possessing free will, one assigns agency to things that do not possess agency. It is a design flaw in our conceptual apparatus (or maybe it was an intentional feature?).

    • The hidden assumption is that we can freely construct categories, relationships and values at a higher level than the purely physical. This is the assumption that we possess real free will.

      I do not think these are the same assumption. I do not interpret “free” and “free will” to mean the same thing. “Free will” specifically means libertarianism to me, so I deny it. “Freedom” has all kinds of meanings which I do accept, such as political liberty or the absence of external constraints. While I think all of our thought is physically determined, that does not mean that we are constrained to think only about physical things.

    • DM,
      What we mean by “naturalism”, for instance. I don’t think you would argue that there is a true, “somewhere out there” interpretation of this term, so we could reasonably assess proposed definitions of “naturalism” according to how well they capture the essence of the human intuition at the base of the natural/supernatural divide.

      I think you are asking the wrong question. Our natural, default tendency is to assign agency to the world. I am always reminded of this when I talk to our domestic worker, a rich source of knowledge about Xhosa beliefs, where the tikoloshe(http://bit.ly/1lDQkYw) is an ever present threat. I have before recommended Ben Okri’s(http://bit.ly/1gRW4NC) book, The Famished Road. It perfectly captures the way rural African people naturally see agency in the world around them.

      So rather than researching perceptions of naturalism, it is, I suggest, more useful to research the reasons for the nearly universal tendency to assign agency to what look like natural phenomena. But this is not a matter of exploring definitions, it is a matter of exploring a strong tendency. Why do we possess this tendency? What role does it play? What forms does it take? What are the consequences? This is the job of psychologists and sociologists. Philosophers define the problem because it has a strong bearing on the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of naturalism, which illustrates once more my solo understanding of X-Phi.

      You will notice I have just mentioned a whole new field, the philosophy of naturalism. I appoint you, DM, as the lead philosopher in this exciting new emerging field of study. Since you lack free will you are the perfect appointee :) May this young sapling grow into a sturdy ficus tree. The roots of your ficus tree will(hopefully?) undermine the foundations of my multi-storey office building.

    • DM,
      This reminds me of a recent, late night visit I made to the emergency room of our local private hospital (our public hospitals are an unmitigated disgrace). A young black woman was seated next to me. Her little three year old son whiled away the time by repeatedly approaching the automatic doors, making them operate and enjoying the hissing sound. I looked at him, thinking about the meaning of what he was doing(waiting room philosophy). The young black woman mistook my glance and profusely apologized for his behaviour. No need I said, you should celebrate what he is doing. Why, she asked, puzzled? So I explained my thinking. I said that he was learning about the law of cause and effect, that every effect had a cause. He was learning that the world operated in predictable ways. He was learning how to conduct controlled experiments, he was learning how to make careful observations and he was learning how to draw conclusions. I said that these lessons would fundamentally shape his thinking for the remainder of his life and that we should enjoy watching this learning process.

      She sat back with a smile of pride at her clever son. I sat back with the realization that a new generation of local people were growing up with a shared understanding of our world that no longer automatically assigns agency to the inexplicable around us. You might call it automatic door philosophy. It is a sub-field of the broader field of philosophy known as waiting room philosophy. Waiting room philosophy embraces wider existential concerns such as the meaning of life, of suffering and ultimate purpose, so automatic door philosophy is a pleasant distraction from these more serious concerns.

    • How do you know he wasn’t ascribing agency to the door? ;)

    • DM,
      How do you know he wasn’t ascribing agency to the door?
      He was learning from experience that his actions produced a predictable effect. He walks at the door, it opens. He walks back from the door, it closes. Aha, he says, I can control the door. Let me try to do it again. He does and he gets the same result. He repeats it again and again in surprise at his powers. I should have mentioned that he also learned the importance of confirmation or replication. By replication he confirms the impression that he is the agent and therefore stops assigning agency to the door.

      Isolated rural peoples do not live in an environment that permit such simple and unambiguous ways of learning that the world is operated by reproducible cause and effect. And therein lies the problem. This learning must take place in early childhood while the brain is still plastic. Later learning during teens and adulthood cannot override early, powerfully imprinted intuitions and so my domestic worker still believes in tikoloshes and the power of sangomas. It is the occasion for some(gentle) teasing in my household.

    • That’s simply a different set of questions. We can ask your questions and my questions both. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

    • Yes, but the questions I propose are real and pressing in their import.

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