What is X-Phi Good For?

Rembrandtphilosopher200 David Papineau in The Philosopher's Magazine:

When philosophers study knowledge, consciousness, free will, moral value, and so on, their first concern is with these things themselves, rather than with what people think about them. So why exactly is it so important to philosophy to discover experimentally that people differ in their views on these matters? We wouldn’t expect physicists to throw up their hands in excitement just because somebody shows that different cultures have different views about the origin of the universe.

Experimental philosophers are surprisingly vague on this issue. If pressed, they tend to mutter something about discrediting the role played by “intuitions” in traditional philosophy, before rushing off to design their next questionnaire. But this is far too quick. Exactly what role intuitions play in philosophy is a matter of debate, and the details of this debate matter to the significance of experimental philosophy.

Experimental philosophy does itself a disservice by not stopping to explain what it is good for. My own view is that it has an important if limited contribution to make to orthodox philosophical debates, in ways I’ll explain later. But its advocates often claim much more, suggesting that their new method somehow discredits all traditional philosophy. Out with the old, in with the new! In the absence of any reasoned support for this radical manifesto, it is all too easy for critics to dismiss the movement as a fad without foundations.

Isn’t it enough that experimental philosophy is interesting in its own right? Aren’t we all fascinated by the quirks in human thinking that it uncovers? Maybe so, but this doesn’t explain why these findings matter to philosophy. The human mind is very quirky in its attitudes to snakes, spiders, and sex, in ways which are well worth studying, but nobody thinks that these quirks are the province of experimental philosophy.

The “official X-phi” website proclaims that “experimental philosophy involves the collection of empirical data to shed light on philosophical issues.” But how, to repeat the question I started with, do empirical data about everyday thinking help us with real philosophical issues? The comparison with physics is telling once more. Psychologists have done much to investigate everyday thinking about physical topics – “folk physics” as it is sometimes called – and their findings are certainly interesting. Who would have believed that everyday thought is so committed to outmoded Aristotelian laws of motion? But knowing about folk physics doesn’t help with real physics. So why should knowing about folk philosophy help with real philosophy?