Experimental philosophy is largely taken up by experimental methods to find out what peoples’ intuitions are concerning topics of philosophical interest. Why should philosophers care about experimental philosophy? As best I can tell, the answer to that question is bound up with an answer to the following question. Why do philosophers care about intuitions? As best as I can tell what the answer to that question is, it has something to do with philosophers’ (perhaps tacit) acceptance of the following analogy between philosophy and natural science: intuitions are to philosophical theories what observations are to scientific theories. Scientific theories are supposed to offer simple and coherent explanations of past observations and are tested by their ability to predict future observations. Mutatis mutandis for philosophical theories and intuitions. Suppose that it is indeed intuitive that on TwinEarth “water” means XYZ not H20. Explanation: meanings are determined by causal-historical chains. Prediction: we would say of Swampman (a creature bearing no causal historical relations to anything) that his utterances mean nothing. If that Swampman proposition strikes lots of people as highly un-intuitive, then externalism faces, if not a refutation, then at least a challenge. So the story goes. And if the story had a title it would be something like “Philosophy is Conceptual Analysis”.
The view that philosophy is conceptual analysis is a hypothesis that is supposed to explain how philosophers can come to know stuff by just thinking. Philosophers, I guess, are different from natural scientists who know stuff by looking. (This is, of course, a terrible distinction, but let’s run with it for the sake of argument.) It might turn out, though, that the hypothesis that philosophy is conceptual analysis is a bad hypothesis. One consideration against it is that maybe concepts don’t have analyses. Another consideration is that maybe there are no such things as intuitions (as a distinctive kind of mental state). I won’t pursue these sorts of considerations much here. More interesting to me is the following. There are lots of times in which knowledge is gotten by thinking. Lots of math answers to this description. And parts of physics, like the thought experiments of Galileo and Einstein, answer to this description as well. However, in neither case is the hypothesis that what’s going on is conceptual analysis very promising. And more to the point concerning experimental philosophy, in neither case would a scientific survey of people’s intuitions help us learn anything about math or physics. To be sure, such surveys could yield data of interest to cognitive scientists re folk-math and folk-physics. Similarly, I’ll grant, surveys of the folk concerning their intuitions about knowledge, meaning, and free-will might yield data of interest to cognitive scientists re folk-philosophy. But assuming that philosophy is as distinct from folk-philosophy as physics is from folk-physics, I still wonder why philosophers should care about experimental philosophy.
One intriguing answer to that question might be that the point of experimental philosophy for philosophy is to help us see that philosophy is not conceptual analysis. So if we didn’t know whether philosophy was conceptual analysis, then, for example, finding out that people’s intuitions vary widely about what names refer to might help convince us that the conceptual analysis hypothesis is a bad metaphilosophy for the philosophy of language. But suppose you are already convinced that philosophy isn’t conceptual analysis. What point then, would there be for philosophers in the continued collection of data about people’s intuitions? Perhaps the best answer is “none” and this can be brought out by a reassessment of the analogy between philosophy and natural science. Scientific observation in, e.g., chemistry, isn’t collected by simply surveying the folk as to what they’ve observed about chemicals. The observations that scientific theories answer to are made by trained experts following procedures that are themselves highly informed by the bodies of theory the procedures are designed to test. An analogous view of philosophy casts it as the formulation of theories in light of judgments made by experts. In neither case should the snap judgments of non-experts count for much more than as data for a science of the snap judgments of non-experts.
Fig. 1. Socrates. Just standin’ around. Thinkin’. Not surveying the intuitions of all the slave-boys in Athens.