Is experimental philosophy useless? (Part II)

In Part I I outlined the basic argument for the uselessness of x-phi: x-phi makes sense only if we assume that philosophers use intuitions as evidence, however philosophers don’t use intuitions as evidence, so x-phi is useless. I said I agree with this to a large extent, but not completely, as I think on some rare occasions philosophers can use intuitions as evidence for their theories. One example I mentioned was relying on intuitions as evidence for the existence of some kind of innate knowledge. Another one would be relying on intuitions as evidence against hedonism.

More specifically, Robert Nozick famously attacks hedonism with his “experience machine” scenario, and some experimental philosophers empirically examine intuitions having to do with this scenario, which I think can be philosophically valuable. To explain how, let me first summarise what’s going on in Nozick’s text. The argument is actually quite tricky to interpret as Nozick tries to feed two birds with one scone: he argues against psychological hedonism (PH) and ethical hedonism (EH) at the same time without clearly distinguishing between the two. The former is the view that we’re only motivated by pleasure. The latter is the view that only pleasure matters.

Here’s the original story from Anarchy, State and Utopia:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in?

Nozick believes many people would say no. And I think it’s fair to say that he’s appealing to people’s intuitions about this case. Consider the comment he makes in his 1989 The Examined Life:

Readers who hold they would plug in to the machine should notice whether their first impulse was not to do so, followed later by the thought that since only experiences could matter, the machine would be all right after all.

Nozick makes it clear that he’s primarily interested in spontaneous, snap judgments, not any kind of reasoned responses. This is because he suspects some people are motivated by things other than pleasure without realising it. These people may espouse hedonism on the conscious level, however their actual values contradict it. What are these values? Nozick mentions three: “we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them”, “we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person”, and “plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct”. For these reasons, we don’t want to plug in.

So far we’ve only been talking about PH. However Nozick seems to be ultimately interested in rejecting EH (“The question is (…) whether plugging in would constitute the very best life, or tie for being best, because all that matters about a life is how it feels from the inside”). So what is the relation between “we care about things other than positive experiences” and “we should care about things other than positive experiences”, in Nozick’s mind? In other words, how does he move from the denial of PH to the denial of EH? Some philosophers believe the former is meant to somehow support the latter, but Nozick explicitly says this is not his argument:

Notice that I am not saying simply that since we desire connection to actuality the experience machine is defective because it does not give us whatever we desire—though the example is useful to show we do desire some things in addition to experiences—for that would make “getting whatever you desire” the primary standard. Rather, I am saying that the connection to actuality is important whether or not we desire it—that is why we desire it—and the experience machine is inadequate because it doesn’t give us that.

According to Nozick being connected to actuality is important not because we think it’s important, or because our behaviour indicates it’s important to us. It’s important for different reasons. What are those reasons? He simply doesn’t say, as far as I can tell. But anyway, Nozick’s three reasons not to plug in are meant to be objective reasons not to plug in. It’s not just that we happen to be reluctant – it’d be wrong, for any of us, to plug in. Being plugged in can never “constitute the very best life”.

If my take on Nozick’s argument is correct, it follows that he uses intuitions to undermine PH, but he doesn’t need any intuitions to undermine EH. And since it’s EH, not PH, that is the main target of his critique, and since he implies that even if PH was true, he’d still argue against EH, we can conclude that intuitions don’t play a very important role in his argument. Nozick could have attacked EH equally forcefully, and using the same reasons, without the whole experience machine and intuitions business. The machine scenario plays a merely ancillary role: it helps us mentally separate “what gives us pleasure” from “what we care (and should care) about”, which makes the argument more vivid, easier to comprehend, perhaps more psychologically compelling, but nothing beyond that.

Of course this doesn’t change the fact that Nozick relies on people’s intuitions to make a philosophical point, namely to deny PH. Some might object that it’s not actually that philosophical: confirming or denying PH is a job for a psychologist, not a philosopher. But to me it sounds a bit too restrictive. On my view, there isn’t anything qualitatively distinct about philosophical problems – rather, there is a spectrum of questions concerning how our minds work, and some are clearly philosophical, some clearly just psychological, and some land somewhere in between. The question about PH falls into the last category: perhaps it’s not the most philosophical question in the world, but it’s still philosophical to an extent.

Now let’s turn to x-phi. Experimental philosopher Felipe De Brigard conducted a study in which he presented people with what can be called “the reverse experience machine scenario”: it turns out that all your conscious life you’ve been plugged in to the machine, and now you can choose to go back to reality. Would you like to be unplugged? Apparently most people say no, unless it’s specified that in your real life “you are a multimillionaire artist living in Monaco”, in which case it’s 50/50. De Brigard argues that this result can be explained by a certain bias people are subject to: they don’t want to “to abandon the life they have been experiencing so far, regardless of whether such life is virtual or real”. This would mean that Nozick is wrong to argue that we care about contact with reality. However I think that Nozick is right and De Brigard is wrong. The simpler explanation seems to be that people don’t want be unplugged as they think their real life would be so unlike and disconnected from the life they have, it wouldn’t be their life anymore, but a life of a different person. Simply put, they are afraid they’d die. So I think that in addition to caring about contact with reality, we also care about staying alive. Anyway, no matter who’s right about this: me or De Brigard, I think his results are relevant to the evaluation of Nozick’s argument against PH, and to the philosophical debate over PH more generally. Which means De Brigard’s study is not useless.

And that’s not everything I have to say about the usefulness of x-phi, however this post is already quite long, so the final example will have to wait until Part III.

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