We Started the Fire

The flaming armchair is the symbol of the experimental philosophy movement.

Joshua Knobe isn’t forty yet, but he already has a discovery named after him. Imagine that a chairman of a large company is deciding whether or not to implement a new—and very lucrative—green initiative. The chairman thinks about it for a minute and says, “I actually don’t care about the environment at all. I just want to make as much money as I can.” He implements the policy, the air gets cleaner, and the chairman gets a new house in the Hamptons. Would you say he intentionally helped the environment? If you’re like most of Joshua Knobe’s subjects, you answered no, any environmentally friendly by-product was coincidental, not intentional. In his 2003 survey, only 23 percent of Knobe’s subjects answered yes.

Now consider a slightly different scenario. This time, the program would harm the environment. All other factors are constant. The chairman still doesn’t care about the environment, only wants money, and goes ahead with the policy. The environment was harmed, but did he harm it intentionally? This time, you probably said, along with 82 percent of Knobe’s subjects, that the chairman did intentionally harm the environment.

The only difference is here is morality. But should a decision’s ethical status have nothing to do with whether its side-effects were intentionally produced? The difference between the 82 and 23 percent is sometimes called the side-effect-effect, or the Knobe effect.

Clearly this finding has some psychological relevance, but Knobe first published it in a philosophical journal. Knobe is an associate professor of both philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University, and he helped found a movement that is blurring the lines between philosophy and psychology. This new approach, called experimental philosophy, aims to apply the practical tools and findings of the cognitive sciences to philosophical problems.

At first, the term doesn’t make sense: a philosopher is supposed to ponder deep truths in an armchair, not administer studies in a lab coat, clipboard in hand. But experimental philosophers claim to follow a deeper philosophical tradition that predates twentieth century philosophy. Plato hypothesized on the structure of the mind, Hume and Adam Smith considered moral judgments and empathy, and Descartes tried to find the seat of the soul (he settled on the pineal gland, a small endocrine-secreting organ in the center of the brain). But the questions philosophers ask now tend to be more abstract: What does it mean for something to mean something? Is a liquid that looks and tastes just like water but has a different chemical structure still water? Are actions good because of their consequences or the kind of action they are?

Experimental philosophers want to return to the questions that attracted philosophers centuries ago, but with new tools informed by the cognitive sciences. They investigate topics such as the way the mind works and how morality, rationality, and emotion interact, using techniques ranging from fMRI scans to paper and pencil surveys.

I first heard of experimental philosophy roughly two years ago as a sophomore psychology major. I had just grown out of thinking of philosophy as its worst stereotype: speculative nonsense that engages little, if at all, with reality.

My advisor suggested that I take a class called “Philosophy and Science of Human Nature,” taught by Knobe at the time. In each lecture, we addressed readings in classical philosophy by authors like Plato, Schopenhauer, and Marx, then turned to modern scientific research, often from the last decade, that addressed the same questions.

The class left me conflicted. Though it kindled my personal interest in philosophy, I still doubted whether experimental philosophy could meaningfully be called philosophy at all. Experimental philosophers like Knobe argue that keeping big questions out of labs and away from data confines the discipline to a narrow space. The debate about experimental philosophy deals with these questions: what is philosophy, what should it be, and who are these people who think they can change it?

I made my way into a dimly lit seminar room, choosing a seat out of the way and in the corner. I had come to visit Knobe’s lab meeting, and I was late. A graduate student with a faint southern drawl was presenting at the front of the room. Someone from the back called out a suggestion about research methods, another disagreed, and the discussion grew somewhat heated before Knobe calmed them down, laughing.

“Friends, I’m afraid we must move on,” he said soothingly. His voice was high-pitched and fluid, and seemed to invite me along to discover deep truths along with him. Knobe’s hair is dark and shaggy, and he wore a striped gray t-shirt with faded brown corduroy pants.

As the lab meeting came to a close, I approached Knobe, hoping to hear more about experimental philosophy and its place at Yale. “Sure.” he said. “Do you want to grab a burrito?” I did. I was starving, and I love burritos.

If experimental philosophy is a revolution, then it’s a “very mild-mannered” one, Knobe assured me as we ate at Moe’s Southwest Grill on Whitney Avenue (his choice). I find it hard to imagine Knobe as a revolutionary but, then again, the symbol of his movement is a flaming armchair. It serves as an omen, suggesting that neuroscience and psychology could replace the introspection in answering questions about human nature.

In 2006, Slate magazine profiled recent work in experimental philosophy. The article went largely unnoticed by the average reader, but it caused some controversy in the world of academic philosophy. David Velleman, a philosopher at New York University, responded in a blog post, arguing that experimental philosophy has no bearing on any philosophical problems. Other philosophers rushed to defend Knobe and his colleagues, and the sudden attention led Oxford University Press to approach the Yale professor in a matter of days, asking him to co-edit a volume of research in the field. “A bunch of people at the same time were doing the same kind of thing,” he explained. “There was this convergence.”

Knobe came to Yale when a faculty position opened in the cognitive science program, which proved particularly well-suited to Knobe’s interdisciplinary work. Knobe has written papers on varied topics, including free will and cosmology, and a recent paper he co-authored with Yale psychologist Paul Bloom explored how people’s clothes influence what we think about their capability to feel pain or plan ahead. If it weren’t for Knobe’s hiring, Yale’s small band of experimental philosophers might not exist today, and certainly wouldn’t exist in its current capacity.

After a brief stint travelling through Europe to translate “really terrible” Russian poetry, Jonathan Phillips, a graduate student pursuing a joint PhD in psychology and philosophy followed Knobe to Yale, working first as the professor’s lab manager, then as his graduate student.

Phillips studied philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when Knobe was still a professor there. He had begun to feel disillusioned with modern philosophy (“I thought, ‘This is just all bullshit’”), and so was relieved to discover that Knobe shared some of his concerns. “I had already actually started the process to switch to take extra time in college to go to medical school—basically to do something useful with my life,” he said, laughing. Knobe convinced him to pursue experimental philosophy instead.

Eric Mandelbaum, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in Yale’s philosophy department, also moved with Knobe from Chapel Hill to Yale. Though Mandelbaum considers himself more of a theoretical psychologist than an experimental philosopher, he shares an interest in the fundamental questions of human nature.

“I want to know the way the fucking mind works,” Mandelbaum told me in the basement of Anna Liffey’s, in between sips of Guinness. He had invited me to have drinks after one of Knobe’s lab meetings.

Mandelbaum wore a collared shirt under a tight black hoodie, and he glowed with what I think of as the endearing and somehow earnest cynicism of an artist. He was, indeed, a writer and used to play music. His face lit red every so often as the LED at the end of his electronic cigarette flared up, and he mentioned that he’d recently quit smoking after seventeen years. I laughed, and mentioned that he was either way older than he looked, or he started smoking when he was a baby. “A little bit of both,” he replied, grinning. I imagined him as a skinny-jeaned fifteen year-old with shaggy hair, taking a smoke break from band practice behind his friend’s garage. It seemed plausible.

For a brief period, Mandelbaum had also pursued a PhD in psychology, but he found that philosophy provided him more time and freedom to pursue his interests, as he no longer needed to spend his time collecting data. “Anyone can collect the data,” he told me, grinning some more.

As a waitress took Mandelbaum’s order, he mentioned that as a graduate student in the department where Knobe had his first job, he was in a privileged position to observe Knobe’s career. Mandelbaum and another graduate student had rallied to get him hired at Chapel Hill. The academics have since become friends.

“When his book came out, he suckered me into opening for his wife in a split indie rock/academic talk setting,” Mandelbaum said. Knobe’s wife, an indie singer-songwriter, played a set, and Mandelbaum, he admitted, “got a little bit tipsy and gave a talk called ‘Why is everyone such an asshole?’”

Yale’s community of experimental philosophers is somewhat unique. Outside of Harvard, where Mandelbaum will work next year, and a handful of smaller philosophy programs such as City University of New York and the University of Arizona, philosophy departments with an interest in cognitive sciences are few and far between. “In my depressed moods, it makes me just wanna go open a record store,” Mandelbaum said, laughing. But he noted that cognitive science centers were beginning to be more common in Europe. “Sad to think that that might be where the future is, because the structures here are just not set up to move easily.” It seems that not many universities may be open to philosophical revolutions.

Not everyone at Yale is convinced that experimental philosophy can provide answers to the eternal questions of philosophy. Clark Professor of Philosophy Shelly Kagan expressed skepticism that experimental philosophy would be any more successful than previous, ultimately failed philosophical revolutions. Yet Kagan embraced the project nonetheless. It’s difficult to tell in advance which philosophical projects will pay off.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom,” Kagan told me.

Whether or not experimental philosophy makes significant contributions to the philosophical canon, Kagan sees it at as relevant for the cognitive sciences. “I’m personally inclined to think that this stuff is primarily a subfield of psychology,” he added. And I realized that, consciously or not, I had also been treating the research coming from experimental philosophy as part of psychology.

I found myself still in a strange place—I was interested in philosophy the way Kagan and other modern philosophers understood it, but also as Knobe and other experimental philosophers understood it. I had trouble clearly locating my interests in philosophy or psychology, and I still couldn’t precisely define philosophy. But perhaps it didn’t and doesn’t really matter. Knobe told me, “I think it would be great if we could just go after questions with everything we can, and not worry about distinctions.” I think he’s right.

A few weeks later I sat in a leather sofa across from Professor Bloom, whose psychological research touches on philosophical issues. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves peppered with a few bits of cognitive esoterica stood behind us. His arm swung casually over the edge of his chair while a colorful and rectangular clay mug stood on the floor at the other side of the room.

Bloom represents the psychologist who deals in deep questions of human nature without being too concerned about calling it philosophy. He was a great admirer of thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith and sees philosophers like Knobe as following in their footsteps. Sitting up in his chair and smiling, Bloom added, “If Ada­m Smith was around today he’d have a lab.” He seemed clearly delighted by the idea, and I think I was, too.

Photo by Susannah Shattuck