PSA Highlights

Some sessions I enjoyed last week at the 2006 PSA in Vancouver:

Philosophy in the Trenches: From Naturalized to Experimental Philosophy (of Science)

Jonathan Weinberg and Stephen Crowley argued that experimental philosophy is, indeed, philosophy (contrary to some exclusionary views to the effect that ‘experimental philosophy’ is an oxymoron).

Karola Stotz presented some of her x-phi work to the effect that different groups of scientists, engaged in different experimental programs, employ different notions of gene.  She also argued that philosophers of science should just describe what scientists do rather than prescribe what they should do.  [My comment: on the contrary, her results show that scientists ought to be more explicit than they are about what notion of gene they employ, lest they confuse one another and their audience.]

Stephen Stich argued that experimental evidence from psychology (about people distinguishing between moral and social rules) is perfectly relevant to testing philosophical views (on whether morality is definable), although unfortunately the evidence is inconclusive at this time.

Joshua Knobe argued against the common view that science is continuous with common sense on the grounds of his results on folk judgements about causation (to the effect that people attribute causation more often when the outcome of an action is undersirable than when it is desirable).  [Comment: his results are interesting, but his argument against the continuity between science and common sense did not move me one bit.  This is a complex issue, which cannot be settled solely by a couple of surveys on folk judgments about causation in morally salient situations.]

Philosophy of Psychology

Holly Andersen nicely debunked Wegner’s Illusion of Conscious Will, showing that Wegner’s argument is fallacious and is committed to dualism.

Andrea Scarantino outlined his theory of (some) emotions, to the effect that they are systems for generating urgent responses to salient stimuli–systems that fall between reflexes and full-blown planning and decision making.


Lindley Darden reviewed some of the recent work on mechanisms and mechanistic explanation, by the likes of Bechtel, Glennan, Craver, herself, etc.  [Comment: I think philosophers of psychology and neuroscience can learn a lot from reading this literature.]

Bill Bechtel argued that psychologists have not been very good at identifying the basic operations of psychological mechanisms.  Their two strategies have been either attributing to the internal mechanisms the activities of the whole organism (as in classical computationalism, which treats the brain by analogy with a human being engaged in calculations) or looking at individual neurons and attempting to explain psychological phenomena in those terms.  But neurons are at too low a level to explain the mind.  According to Bechtel, neither strategy is successful.  We need to study psychological mechanisms at a level intermediate between neurons and the organism, and understand the psychological operations that are performed at that level.

Can Introspective Reports be Scientific Evidence?

Anna Alexandrova argued against a recent proposal by Kahneman and others to replace traditional measures of subjective well being, which rely on (sometimes unstable) evaluations of life satisfaction, with measures of “objective happiness” (= sampling how good one feels at different times and integrating).  Anna argued that if you give up on evaluations of life satisfaction, you are not going to measure what we really want to know when we talk about subjective well being.  A better solution is to find ways to make evaluations of life satisfaction more stable and reliable.

I argued that first-person reports are a legitimate source of scientific evidence because they give rise to public evidence.  This is because when subjects issue first-person reports, their scientific role is akin to that of a (self-) measuring instrument.  Like data from ordinary instruments are public and can in principle be validated by public procedures, data from first-person reports are public and can in principle be validated by public procedures.  The observers are the experimenters, who collect the first-person reports, interpret them to yield (public) data, and may attempt to establish their validity by comparing data from first-person reports with data from other sources (such as non-verbal behavior and brain imaging).

Alvin Goldman argued that introspection about occurent phenomenal states is prima facie reliable, and hence scientists should trust what introspecting subjects tell them about their occurrent phenomenal states.

Eric Schwitzgebel argued that (naive, i.e. theoretically unsophisticated) introspection, including introspection about occurrent phenomenal states, is so unrealiable as to be unhelpful as a source of evidence.

Comment:  clearly Eric and Alvin were pushing in different directions.  After Eric’s talk, they dueled a bit, with Alvin trying to poke holes in Eric’s argument and Eric standing his ground.  At the end of the day, though, their views are not irreconcileable.  Both agree that in some cases, subjects can be informative on what goes on in their mind, and both agree that in other cases, subjects are quite off about what goes on in their mind.  My ecumentical conclusion is that, if scientists want to rely on first-person reports, they need to figure out what kind of information they can reliably obtain from which kind of report under which kind of circumstance.  (BTW, there is a significant amount of empirical literature on this, though much more work deserves to be done in this area.)