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Empiricism, Consilience, and Experimental Philosophy

Important work has already been done to show how empirical and a priori work together in the academic setting. A frequent criticism of the academic community is that the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities largely operate without regard for what the other disciplines are doing. In Consilience (1998), E.O. Wilson argues that if the aim of science is a theory of everything, then that knowledge will be possible only if we establish an interdependent theoretical framework. Wilson thinks the linking of the social sciences and the humanities is the holy grail of scientific theorizing in our time, and we agree.


Consilience is a “leaping together” of our current state of knowledge and seeks to create a common explanatory groundwork by linking facts and fact-based theory across disciplines. The Ionian Enchantment introduced in Wilson’s opening chapter is “the conviction that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws” (Wilson 1998, 4). In the natural sciences, what is true at one level of analysis must be congruent with findings at levels of analysis above and below. But the social sciences are not so neat; even the dichotomous nomenclature implies that human social behavior is somehow not part of the natural world, or - more radically - that natural laws apply to everything except humans.


Consilience is a pluralistic view of academic disciplines, one in which the natural and social sciences and the humanities all contribute equally. One discipline in particular has seemed closely associated with such pluralism. If any discipline bridges the gap between the natural sciences and the social sciences with strong research findings and theoretical connections it is philosophy. Whole subfields of philosophy have been created to describe the overlap: evolutionary epistemology, evolutionary ethics, neuroethics, moral psychology, philosophy of social science, cognitive science, to name just a few. A truly transdisciplinary and multiscale science evolves in a much more complicated way than Ionian or Enlightenment thinkers could have ever imagined.


Here, I address how conflicting belief systems in our political system are insulated from critical reasoning and debate, and the negative consequences that this holds for public policy. It is, I believe, easy to envision a system in which empirically grounded philosophers and political scientists collaborate in solving a practical problem. Political scientists address power relationships, government institutions, and the implications of their functional attributes for public policy. One would think that political science and empirically grounded philosophical work are natural intellectual companions, just as political science and economics are. But, in fact, the two disciplines are often at loggerheads. Most political scientists are not aware of empirically grounded philosophy, and vice versa.[1] If scientists want to be taken seriously in policy debates, they must understand how the electorate and politicians perceive their arguments. Thus, they need a solid understanding of brain chemistry, basic laws of reason, psychology, and human evolution. Such conclusions may be drawn from the important recent empirical work by philosophers. These empirically-minded philosophers have set ablaze the armchair in which philosophers have sat for 2000 (or more) years. It is high time we heed what the folk say if our philosophical goal is a folk theory.


Experimental philosophy employs methods commonly associated with the social sciences, while the predominant methods philosophers use is conceptual analysis or its kin, reflective equilibrium. George Bealer, for example, (1993) and others have complained about some philosophers use of empirical methods in forming philosophical theories. Chief among Bealer’s complaints is that any empirical investigation is fundamentally flawed because it will somehow rest on a priori foundations. If empirical investigations have a priori foundations, then at best the project is inconsistent and at worst it is contradictory. The problem I intend to address concerns the supposed a priori foundations of empirical sciences. The task will be to show how to reconcile the alleged inconsistency of the empirical work in philosophical theories. First, I outline a definition of experimental philosophy. Then, I discuss how intuitions are used in traditional philosophical projects and what they are. Next, I attempt to redress the grievances of some armchair philosophers. Finally, I argue that the primary reason for undertaking experimental projects in philosophy is its enabling those in the humanities to work closely with their allies in the social and natural sciences. Experimental philosophy is helping make consilience – the leaping together of diverse academic disciplines – a reality.

2. What is experimental philosophy?

There is a movement in philosophy that is quickly becoming a way to open new avenues in long-standing philosophical disputes. Its proponents (as well as its detractors) call the movement experimental philosophy. What is characteristic of the movement is the application of social scientific methods to philosophical problems.

This section will outline experimental philosophy. First, I discuss a few characteristics of experimental philosophy. Part of the discussion will include: (1) what an intuition is, (2) explores the characteristics of two prominent projects within experimental philosophy, and (3) offers a few advantages of experimental philosophy. Finally, we will summarize the purpose of experimental philosophy. In the next section, I defend experimental philosophy from its detractors by contending with some popular objections to it.


Experimental philosophy is a class of philosophical research methods used to examine ordinary intuitions about deep philosophical problems by the employment of systematic experimentation and statistical analysis. What makes experimental philosophy ‘experimental’ is that proponents of it run empirical studies to obtain the data they need about ordinary intuitions. What makes experimental philosophy ‘philosophical’ is that proponents of it discuss the implications the accumulated data have for deep philosophical problems.


Not everyone has agreed that experimental methods will bear philosophically interesting results. In fact, experimental philosophy has been perceived as a threat. Proponents of standard philosophical practice seem to resist incorporating empirical methods. Calling experimental philosophy a threat, however, is to grossly exaggerate its objective. Experimental philosophy is not meant to supplant standard philosophical practice; experimental philosophy is meant to complement it. We might think of experimental philosophy as making up for some deficiencies of standard philosophical practice.

3. The What and How of Intuitions

Given that disagreement between experimental philosophers and armchair philosophers seem to hinge on what ordinary intuitions are, how systematic experimentation leads to philosophically interesting conclusions, or why naturalistic and empirically informed philosophy is any different than experimental philosophy, we begin with a discussion of what an intuition is and how they are used by traditional philosophical approaches. The first part will discuss how intuitions are used in philosophy, and the second will summarise a popular definition of intuition.


Many philosophical problems or projects find their source in intuitions, such as: “what is free will?”, “what is knowledge?”, or “what is it for an action to be intentional?”[2] A philosophical claim is correct insofar as it agrees with the intuition and is incorrect insofar as it disagrees with the intuition. Therefore, some philosophical accounts depend on intuitions.


Two dominant methodological traditions, conceptual analysis and reflective equilibrium, show that philosophical theories are driven by intuitive judgments, by what “we would say.” “We” stands in for not just the specialist but people. Conceptual analysis is the hallmark method of philosophical analysis since the early twentieth century. Conceptual analysis consists of providing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for a concept’s application.[3]


Proponents of standard philosophical practice do not necessarily use empirical data in their analyses. They call on intuitions produced in response to thought-experiments as evidence in favor of accepting or rejecting some philosophical claim. Alexander and Weinberg have a short explanation of standard philosophical practice:

Going back arguably at least to Frege (and, in some sense all the way back to Socrates), it has been a standard practice in analytic philosophy to employ intuitions generated in response to thought-experiments as evidence in the evaluation of philosophical claims. A philosopher, wishing to either establish or prosecute some philosophical claim proposes a thought-experiment intended to generate an intuition relevant to evaluating the philosophical claim. According to standard philosophical practice, the generated intuition provides evidence for the acceptance or rejection of the philosophical claim: the philosophical claim is prima facie good to the extent that it accords with the generated intuition, prima facie bad to the extent that it fails to accord with the generated intuition. (Alexander and Weinberg 2007, 56)

This type of standard philosophical practice can be done “from the armchair” because practitioners believe their own intuitions about cases are typical (“ordinary”). It is quite explicit that the goal of conceptual analysis is to give an analysis of folk concepts (Gibbard 1990, Jackson 1998a, Lewis 1972). For example, Jackson writes:

One [part of the analytic task] consists in the assembling of the folk theory[,]… thought of as a network of principles teasing out the connections between concepts, which would typically include the circumstances in which the various concepts are instantiated, and what characteristically follows from the instantiation of the concepts. (1998b, 145)

By folk theory, Jackson seems to mean a set or collection of generally accepted platitudes. The standard philosophical practitioner claims that “what we think…” is supposed to be indicative of what ordinary people’s intuitions are.[4]


How should we identify our ordinary conception? […] Intuitions about how various cases, including various merely possible cases, are correctly described in terms of free action, determinism, and belief are precisely what reveal our ordinary conceptions of free action, determinism, and belief or, as it is often put nowadays, our folk theory of them. (Jackson 1998a, 31f)

In ethics, for example, Judith Jarvis Thomson uses a hypothetical thought experiment to give substance to a general principle. She writes:


But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, ‘Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you – we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.’ Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? (Thomson 1971c, 52)

When a standard philosophical practitioner calls on “our” intuitions or says “we would all agree that…”, they have thought that philosopher’s own intuitions is indicative of the folk theory. They have not considered their assumption – that their own intuitions are just the folk’s intuitions – a prejudice for their own intuitions.

One might expect philosophers to ask the folk for their intuitions. But Jackson writes:


I am sometimes asked… why… don’t I advocate doing serious opinion polls on people’s responses to various cases? […] often we know that our own case is typical and so can generalize from it to others” (Jackson 1998, 36f).

Since our own case is typical, we need not query ordinary people about their own intuitions. Therefore, we can generalize from our own intuitions to people’s intuitions. (Jackson 1998a, 30f)


The overall goal of this section was to challenge the commonly held belief that philosophy from the armchair captures ordinary intuitions. It seems that practitioners of conceptual analysis have believed that we can move from our own intuitions to ordinary intuitions very easily. Philosophers, so to speak, have a special competency in accessing folk intuitions. Experimental studies, however, seem to undermine the special competency claim. We have little reason to think that a philosopher's intuitions carry any normative weight (Weinberg, Nichols, and Stich 2001). The empirical data have shown philosophers’ own intuitions do not track ordinary intuitions very well. If philosophers’ own intuitions do not track ordinary intuitions consistently very well, then their intuitions have very little evidential value. If standard philosophical practitioners use ordinary intuitions, then collecting empirical data would support their claims. We could trust what the philosopher says about ordinary intuitions. The way to ordinary intuitions is through experimental philosophy.


Intuitions are a foundation of philosophical thinking. They have been the subject of serious philosophical debate (see e.g., DePaul and Ramsey (1998) or Pust (2000)). My focus is to discuss what an intuition is and the problems that arise from how philosophers, experimentalists and armchair alike, conceive of them.


Experimental philosophers have endorsed a popular view of intuitions. An intuition is:

An intellectual seeming of opaque origin. (Alexander and Weinberg 2007, 56n1)

Alexander and Weinberg’s understanding of an intuition seems to follow George Bealer’s (1996a, 1996b, 1998) definition of intuition.[5] Designating intuitions as “intellectual seemings” is ambiguous. Intuitions could be perceptual intellectual seemings. Perceptual intellectual seemings could be types of sensory experiential states. The problem with this view of intuitions is that no sensory experience mediates between the fact that 7 and 5 yield 12 and my belief that this is so. Nothing like sensory experience plays that role, either. When someone thinks about the equation, they do not find any distinct intellectual seeming. The person just finds his belief that 7 and 5 yield 12. Thus, the intellectual seeming view of intuition should be revised in order to avoid the ambiguity that arises from perceptual intellectual seemings.


All of this is a bit of conceptual analysis about the nature of intuition. And I have tried to point out a few problems about some of the common views about the nature of intuitions in experimental philosophy.

Applying social scientific methods to philosophical problems has its advantages. Experimental philosophy challenges the methodological assumptions of conceptual analysis. Manuel Vargas writes, “Experimental work raises important questions about the methodological assumptions that go undiscussed in a good deal of the philosophical literature” (Vargas 2006, 252). An important feature of the philosophical endeavour is the meta-philosophical question whether conceptual analysis is an adequate way of doing philosophy. Experimental philosophy has forced us to revisit issues about the adequacy of the methods we employ.


Finally, experimental work helps us become better acquainted with people. Sometimes we have to set aside our years of training and recognise the importance of people’s intuitions. Philosophers have sometimes mistakenly ascribed their own intuitions to ordinary people, since we are so disconnected from the views of other people.

4. Contending with Objections to Experimental Philosophy

In the previous section, I discussed the characteristics of and different types of experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophy, broadly speaking, is the systematic investigation of people’s intuitions. Philosophers have not attended to people’s actual intuitions because they have not believed it is important to discover what they are. So, the problem is whether the sort of conceptual analysis that Jackson (1998) defends may argue from his own intuitions to people’s actual intuitions.


The aim of this section is to contend with the objection that experimental philosophy’s methods only get at intuitions that are irrelevant for philosophical problems. We will address one of experimental philosophy’s most vocal critics: Antti Kauppinen. Experimental philosophy is a valuable contribution to philosophy, so we cannot discount the methods experimental philosophy employs if our goal is to elucidate a folk conception of action individuation.


We want to challenge those projects that employ folk intuitions without checking if people actually have these intuitions. Since both conceptual analysis and reflective equilibrium assume to have access to ordinary intuitions and there is reason to be skeptical over whether they do get at ordinary intuitions, I will argue that we reject these methodologies unless they adopt experimental methods to confirm (or disconfirm as the case may be) philosophical claims. Only after we have done some empirical leg work will the claims about the folk gain the proper foundation.


Antti Kauppinen (2007) has argued that the experimental subjects’ intuitions may not reflect the relevant concepts. The variation of intuitions between subjects and philosophers or between different groups of subjects, e.g., cultural diversity, can be dismissed because the subjects may be employing different concepts. Since the variation of intuitions is the result of multiple concepts in play, the variation does not challenge standard philosophical practice.

Kauppinen tells us that philosophers make three characteristic assumptions about the responses that count as revealing people’s concepts. First, the speaker’s competence matters because an incompetent speaker would tell us nothing about the relevant concept. Second, Kauppinen believes certain ideal conditions need to be met for judgments to avoid conceptual mistakes. Ideal conditions are those in which there are no perturbing, warping, or distorting factors or limits of information, access or ability (Pettit 1999, 32). Finally, Kauppinen says:

even if we limited ourselves to responses by competent speakers in ideal conditions, what they would say about particular cases would not necessarily reveal to us what we are interested in, namely the semantic contours of the concept at hand or the contribution it makes to the truth conditions of sentences in which it is used. (Kauppinen 2007, 104)

Hence, the intuitions of ordinary people may not be relevant to philosophical concepts.


First, the worry that variation of intuitions among ordinary people reveals that they are not using concepts univocally should carry over to philosophers too. Any substantive variation of intuitions between philosophers can be dismissed because different philosophers utilise different concepts. So, the philosopher’s own intuitions may not be relevant to philosophical concepts.


Second, Kauppinen’s makes sense only if we privilege philosophers’ intuitions. The argument begs the question against the experimental philosopher by rejecting the relevance of folk intuitions to standard philosophical practice. Kauppinen owes us a nonquestion begging account for why philosophers’ intuitions are more reliable than the folk’s intuitions.


Finally, philosophers have claimed they seek a folk account. Not to seek a folk account (or one closely approximating what ordinary people think) would be very uninteresting indeed. For example, Jackson writes of a folk theory of “rightness”:


If we wish to address the concerns of our fellows when we discuss [a philosophical] matter – and if we don’t, we will not have much of an audience – we had better mean what they mean. We had better, that is, identify our subject via the folk theory of rightness, wrongness, goodness, badness, and so on. We need to identify rightness as the property that satisfies, or near enough satisfies, the folk theory of rightness – and likewise for the other moral properties. It is, thus, folk theory that will be our guide in identifying rightness, goodness, and so on. (Jackson 1998, 118)

Even Kauppinen agrees with Jackson’s sentiment when he writes, “why should anybody care about what philosophers do if they just argued about their own inventions?” (Kauppinen 2007, 96). A folk account seeks more than just an expert's view. Thus, there is no reason to exclude the folk from empirical investigation if we take philosophy to be searching for how the folk use a concept.


What is left for Kauppinen is a framework argument that has its weaknesses too. Kauppinen’s argument has contended that when a philosopher claims that, according to an intuition, e.g., Gettier cases are not knowledge, they are narrowly and typically making a claim of how competent users of the concept of knowledge would pretheoretically classify the case in suitable ideal conditions (and without being influenced by irrelevant factors) (Kauppinen, 101ff). Call these narrow intuitions robust intuitions. He doubts whether experimental studies are capable of shedding any light on robust folk intuitions. Philosophers’ claims, therefore, are out of reach for those who use the survey model, such as experimental philosophers.

Kauppinen’s claim that philosophers are only interested in robust intuitions deserves some consideration. His argument rests on the mistaken belief that robust intuitions cannot be examined using experimental methods. The experimental methods used are statistical methods. Statistical methods allow the researcher to examine correlations between manipulated factors, even in light of expected effects of the “noise” of other factors. When the experimenter uses a sufficiently large sample size, he can show that the probability is extremely low that the relevant results were obtained because of the irrelevant factors. Experimental studies do not rule out a subject’s response due to inattention, confusion, or a desire to mess up the experiment, but they do indicate that it is highly unlikely that most subjects were inattentive, confused, or mischievous.

Experimental philosophers make an effort to assure subjects avoid irrelevant factors. For instance, they instruct subjects to read the scenarios and questions carefully before they respond. Moreover, experimental philosophers give subjects ample time to complete the surveys. Since the experimental method is statistical analysis, experimental philosophers control for whether participants are following the instructions by using tests that check whether subjects have understood the scenarios they have read. If subjects miss these questions, then they are excluded from the analysis.


Experimental philosophers are very aware of the methodological difficulties the survey method may present. Nevertheless, statistical analysis enables experimental philosophers to avoid these problems to the best of their ability and allows them to get at the robust intuitions that Kauppinen seeks.

The people matter for a folk account. If we want a folk theory, then we should take the folks’ intuitions seriously. So, we should use empirical assessments to test whether our assumptions about the folk are correct. If they are not, then we should adjust the way that we argue for normative conclusions so that they account for ordinary intuitions. If they are correct, then we have no need to worry that our argument uses ordinary intuitions inappropriately. Thus, the worry that experimental philosophy is inconsistent with a crucial aim of philosophy generally is unfounded given that its point is only to expand the methodological arsenal we may use to draw philosophically important conclusions.


I argued here that Kauppinen's criticisms of experimental philosophy fail for several reasons. Our best practices should attempt to revise armchair philosophical methods if a folk conception of a philosophical topic is sought. I suggest that the methodology include asking people for their intuitions.[6]

5. Toward Consilience

Recent world and national events, especially “9-11,” gave rise to our asking the question:

How do we get people to think more critically to avoid making systematic mistakes because they have been indoctrinated by society, especially their peers?

A viable response calls for an examination of how the plastic mind of a child metamorphosed into the rigid mind of an adult. “The tendency to cling to strongly held beliefs in face of overwhelming evidence against them is a recurring feature of human affairs, formal and informal learning, experimental psychology, and history” (Ball, Farr, & Hanson, 1989; Nissani, 1991). Research into the biological basis of behavior and the socialization process during human development are increasingly integrated into theoretical models that offer us greater understanding of how rigid, irrational, and non-critical beliefs are generated and maintained in spite of overwhelming contrary evidence.


The scientific and intellectual leaders of our species, are persuaded, and have been by the accumulated evidence of the past 500-700 years, that we are on the cusp of having in essence a relatively complete understanding of the physical universe, its ‘beginning’ and history, and essentially a similar understanding of the origins of biological and plant life. This includes, to a lesser extent, a general notion as to the true nature of our species given our evolutionary journey over the past 5-8 million years. The scientific effort from a multiplicity of disciplines, motivated by and fused into cooperative models of integration, convergence, and consilience continues an epic journey largely focused on the identification, function, and causality of the most fundamental biological, psychological, and social/cultural tenets that characterise human nature. These, the outstanding achievements of the natural sciences in providing an understanding of the physical universe and its biological life forms now give rise to a broader grouping of scientists, inclusive of social scientists, to how science and politics are intertwined.


Bertenthal calls attention to the interrelatedness of politics and science. He points out “National surveys reveal that public confidence in the biological and physical sciences is quite high, even though public understanding of these sciences is quite low.” (National Science Foundation, 2000). The situation is somewhat the reverse with regard to the social sciences. Here, public confidence is generally low, even though the public believes that its understanding of the issues addressed by the social sciences is significantly higher. This bias to believe in the scientific sanctity of common sense represents one of the greatest obstacles to the public understanding of social and behavioral research.” Bertenthal, (2002)


Bertenthal points out “National surveys reveal that public confidence in the biological and physical sciences is quite high, even though public understanding of these sciences is quite low” (National Science Foundation, 2000). The converse is true of the social sciences. Public confidence in politics is generally low, but the public believes it has a comprehensive understanding of politics.


We live in a world where deference is given to a whole range of unfounded, uncritical, and false beliefs. Deleterious consequences flow from unreasonable beliefs. For example, in his constructed debate between a transcendentalist and empiricist, E. O. Wilson offers poll data the transcendentalist would use in support of theism.


According to recent polls, nine in ten Americans believe in a personal God who can answer prayers and perform miracles. One in five has experienced His presence and guidance at least once during the year previous to the poll. How can science, the underwriting discipline of ethical empiricism, dismiss such widespread testimony? (Wilson 1998, 264)

Also in this constructed debate, Wilson has the empiricist cite:

a 1996 survey of American scientists (to take one respectable segment of society) revealed that 46 percent are atheists and 14 percent doubters or agnostics. Only 36 percent expressed a desire for immortality, and most of those only moderately so; 64 percent claimed no desire at all. (Wilson 1998, 269)

A New York Times article included the results of a related poll:

President Bush has said that he doesn’t believe in evolution (he thinks the jury is still out). President Ronald Reagan felt the same way, and such views are typically American. A new Gallup poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe in creationism, and only 28 percent in evolution (most of the rest aren’t sure or lean toward creationism). According to recent Gallup Tuesday briefings, Americans are more than twice as likely to believe in the devil (68 percent) as in evolution.” (Nicholas D. Kristof in NY Times.com article: God, Satan and the Media, March 4, 2003)

Having an accurate understanding of human nature is fundamental to understand self and society. Our brains have not an innate module to discriminate between magical, intuitive, counterintuitive, superstitious, or irrational beliefs and any objective truth. Knowledge of our basic human nature can help us to educate ourselves against the coercive power of false beliefs. The beliefs and rituals of human groups are an appropriate area for scientific investigation. We want to distinguish between the mythology and legend of our history and the adaptation required in a modern world to embrace scientific findings.


Within psychology, there is an attempt on the part of systems theorists to provide a common framework for understanding diverse outlooks on human development. Sternberg & Grigorenko, Kuo, 1967, 1976; Magnusson, 2000; Sameroff, 1983; Schneirla, 1957; Thelen, 1992; Thelen & Smith, 1994, 1998 have all made contributions to a unified psychology that is multiparadigmatic, multidisciplinary, and integrated through converging operations. Sameroff and Bartko (1998) have applied a political-systems metaphor to child development. Lerner (1998) has argued that the multiple levels of organization that constitute human life – from the biological to the individual to the social and beyond – all need to be understood within a common framework. Cairns (1998) makes a similar suggestion. Bronenbrenner, as well as he and his collaborators, (1979; Bronenbrenner & Morris, 1998) have proposed a framework, with interlocking systems of development, such as the micro system, which encompasses the individual; the mesosystem, which encompasses the family, school, peers, religious institutions, and so forth, and the exosystem, which includes the extended family, neighbors, mass media, social welfare and legal services, and so forth; and the macro system, which includes the attitudes and ideologies of the culture” Sternberg, & Grigorenko ( 2001, p.2070).


We live in a psychological, social, and political world that in the name of fairness, political correctness, and cultural sensitivity, deference is given to a whole range of beliefs and opinions that are unfounded, uncritical, and false. One need only look at the continuous indicators of Americans lack of knowledge in such areas as world geography, history, and science, and their inability to employ the most basic skills of critical thinking and reasoning in a world in which they are bombarded by stimuli that demands critical analysis for effective and responsible behaviour. Our concern is to integrate the most recent scientific data about the cognitive processes of the brain and its predilection toward forming structured belief systems and how the American educational and political system is deferential to a host of beliefs that are unreasoned, uncritical, and absent of grounding in empirical data. We will also argue that deleterious individual, social, and political consequences flow from unreasonable beliefs. “The tendency to cling to strongly held beliefs in face of overwhelming evidence against them is a recurring feature of human affairs, formal and informal learning, experimental psychology, and history” (Ball, Farr, & Hanson, 1989; Nissani, 1991). Poll data has a long history of being a useful source of temporal information of opinions, attitudes, and beliefs. It has also been used as argument both for and against positions taken by the poll participants.


Personal influences develop during childhood and adolescence and mature into adulthood to become an individual’s only trustworthy source of belief. We are predisposed to embrace magical, counterintuitive, and irrational beliefs on a basis equal to embracing realistic, intuitive, and rational beliefs. We do not have an internal mechanism that enables us to discriminate the differences between fact and fiction. Perhaps ten percent of the world’s population, representing the most intelligent and educated, due to formative instruction and with the benefit of a true liberal arts education will be able to transition from uncritical childhood and employ rational critical thinking skills in adulthood. This includes an openness to develop and to maintain a skeptical mindset, even in the midst of radically fundamental beliefs the majority of people share.

Moving from the gigantic chasm between scientific knowledge and wholesale ordinary beliefs, we ask another question:

Is it possible in a democratic society that certain ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of a significant proportion of the population reflect general knowledge deficits and the failure of reasoning skills that these beliefs must not go unchallenged?

Our call for a scholarly effort to unmask faulty thinking and indefensible beliefs is motivated by observational accounts that a great deal of deference is given in our society to false, illogical, irrational, and superstitious beliefs.Poll data (worldwide) suggest that large numbers of the American public lack basic knowledge of the world and of scientific literacy.These false beliefs are not frequently challenged because of social politeness or political correctness. There seems to be significant deficits in understanding many Americans have regarding scientific process, methods, and findings.The absence of a cautious and skeptical attitude toward intuitive notions and an inability to use the basic skills of critical analysis is the epitome of our gullibility. Some inaccurate and indefensible beliefs may be considered foolish. But these beliefs may be harmless. Other false beliefs may have more damaging effects. It is not our objective here to review the data that overwhelming refutes the basis for pseudoscientific, paranormal and a whole array of other unsubstantiated phenomenon and irrational beliefs.

[1] Most political scientists are not aware of empirically grounded philosophical work, such as Appiah (2008), Doris (2002), Fodor (1998), Nichols (2004), Stich (1990), and Stich (1996). Similarly, philosophers are largely uninformed about important work in political science. For example, Rust and Schwitzgebel’s (forthcoming) work on philosopher’s views of their voting record and whether they think that s/he ought to vote shows a serious lack of information about the work done in political science. [2] When we say “many,” we do not mean all philosophical problems or even all the projects that find their source in intuitions. There may be methods philosophers use which do not depend at all on intuitions. These methods are outside the scope of this paper, so we will not address them here. [3] Since it is reasonable to say that conceptual analysis is the standard view, we will call it “standard philosophical practice.” [4] Some philosophical practitioners do not gather empirical evidence, but they use it in their work. These philosophers do not necessarily ignore empirical data but they do not go about collecting it either. The work of Jerry Fodor is a good example of such a practitioner who uses but does not collect empirical data. Jerry Fodor, in The Language of Thought (1975), argues for an undiluted mentalist approach to psychological reality, a nativist thesis about mental content, and the defense of the view that the mind works along the lines of a computer program. Fodor did not propose merely a conceptual or a speculative thesis. Fodor believes that his argument is compellingly entailed by the assumptions at work in empirical theories of certain central human cognitive abilities. Although Fodor did not employ empirical methods to gather evidence for his central claims, he – nevertheless – used empirical data.

People like Fodor, and other prominent figures such as the early works of Stephen Stich or Fred Dretske, who use empirical data but do not collect it, are not necessarily paradigmatic figures in standard philosophical practice, because they are attentive to empirical data. They use empirical data to draw informed conclusions. Since they are attentive to empirical data and attempt to formulate theories with an eye toward this data, Fodor and others like him are beyond the scope of what I have termed “standard philosophical practice.” [5] Joel Pust (2000) also endorses this definition of intuition. [6] With their intuitions in hand, we may begin to draw some normative conclusions about folk concepts. A substantial part of this chapter involved an argument showing that we can draw normative conclusions from descriptive information.

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