One more thought on “experimental philosophy”…

Experimental philosophy really started to get traction in John Locke’s engaging answer to William Molyneux’s thought experiment about the individual blind from birth who suddenly gets his vision. What happens? In a daring experiment, which gives the subtitle to the book, Crashing Through: The Man Who Dared to See (Kurson 2007), Mike May’s immune system was chemically “killed” so that a stem cell transplant could be used to restore the nerves in his retina. As a result, May’s eyes and optics were restored to a state that was near perfect. This is in contrast to the experience of the visual world that he encountered after the bandages were removed following the last in a series of operations to restore his sight. The operation was a success in that the optical apparatus was functioning as designed. But there was a “but…” In short, the auto at which May was supposedly looking did not make sense as a visual experience. More precisely, Mike’s visual experience of the auto or other things did not make sense. His visual apparatus did not make sense out of the inputs that the experience of the would-be yellow auto was providing. His visual apparatus did integrate the input caused by the auto (which auto, of course, was available through other sensory modes). Given his visual experience, Mike was inferring that the auto was yellow; he was not in direct contact with the yellow station wagon. Note well that Mike May was inferring that the auto was yellow, which means he was not directly in touch with it – this was not normal. This must be underscored. May’s use of inference to get in touch visually with the auto was significantly different than what everyone else does. In spite of all the operations, he did not have normal vision. The swirling constellation of colors and shapes did not have sense as a coherent, unified, objective thing with a spatial boundary. This counts towards Searle’s naïve realistic point that viewers do not infer things, they see them, relate to them, interact with them, etc. However, this also counts as evidence that sense and the sense of objects in the world is constituted by acts of intentionality that are prepredicative, nonlinguistic, nonverbal – in this case, acts of intentional synthesis of the kind invoked by the later Husserl. What did you think the experiment was going to show?
One lesson? Maybe the experiments collected by Knobe and Nichols (Knobe and Nichols, Experimental Philosophy) were good, but they were not that good. Maybe the analysis was good, but not that good. The idea that analytic philosophy – or any philosophy (Continental, Oriental, etc.) – has to be protected from experimental philosophy is questionable. (See http://experimentalphilosophy.typepad.com/experimental_philosophy/2009/11/levin-on-xphi.html – a site worth noting in any case.)
Another lesson? Philosophers ignore the advances of empirical science at their own peril. It is particularly interesting when diverse Gedanken experiments have the brains (central nervous systems (CNS)) of individuals hooked up by imaginary wires. Depending on where you draw the system boundary, different philosophical paradoxes arise. (This deserves further discussion, forthcoming.) Meanwhile, science advances. Then it turns up that people are indeed already hooked up by the action of mirror neurons. True, there is still action-at-a-distance – but that makes it even more interesting. This is also where the connection with empathy occurs (though this post does not explore it.) Philosophers then have to change the Gedanken experiment so that the hook is not too similar to what we now know to be the case in the everyday world – we are connected (and sometimes corrected) in fundamental ways experientially as our organisms resonate in reaction to one another. Please do not tell me that Descartes ever envisioned that one as he sat alone in his warm room meditating on first philosophy.
The third lesson? The main threat to analytic philosophy (or continental philosophy or your choice of philosophy) is not experimental philosophy. It is analytic philosophy and please make the corresponding substitutions for Continental, Oriental, etc. As soon as philosophers loose touch with the method of sustained inquiry that drove Socrates, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Austin, etc. the game is up. What Kant called “dialectical illusion” looms large and curious puzzles take the place of fundamental inquiry into the big issues that attract students, professionals, people to philosophy in the first place. Further details on the strengths and limitations of experimental philosophy are to be found in an unpublished essay by yours truly on the relevance of neuro-phenomenology to the philosophy of empathy subtitled “The Light Goes on!” at this site.

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Categories: Neurology, perception (visual), Philosophy

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