Predicting Disagreement: Strange Fictions in X-Phi

My paper with Edward Cokely entitled “Predicting Philosophical Disagreement” is now out in Philosophy Compass. It puts in one accessible piece the work we’ve done over the past several years showing that heritable personality traits predict disagreement in a number of philosophical domains, even among verifiable experts. In the article we argue that:

  • Some philosophical intuitions are likely caused by personality. These relations can legitimately help illuminate philosophical debates but naïve approaches have led to serious conceptual errors,
  • Ignoring individual differences in philosophical intuitions is philosophically and scientifically irresponsible

This body of research provides one of the most compelling cases for the necessity of experimental philosophy.  Unfortunately, one point that most experimental philosophers have failed to grasp is that this body of research also shows that it is often wrongheaded to look for “the” folk concept or “the” cause of intuitions/biases.  People often hold predictably different intuitions, even after years of deliberation and study, and regardless of a wide range of cognitive abilities, age, culture, etc…  This means studies that only looking at “averaged” responses are probably not worth doing—they create strange fictions.  Most bimodal/multi-modal distributions are poorly approximated with unimodal models:  Americans aren’t well described as republocrats, rather they are democrats, republicans, etc…

One upshot of this research is that it suggests that the philosophical intuitions one holds are related to important life outcomes (e.g., happiness, health, wealth), a notion that is often used to justify the exploration of these issues.  The problem is that it may not be the intuition that determines the outcome, but rather one’s personality that is more primitive (e.g., extraverts are compatibalists and also tend to be happier people).  Ultimately, this research presents a challenge to X-phi and it’s not clear if experimental philosophy is prepared to rise to this challenge.  Many  X-phi researchers act as if they are trying to understand fundamental philosophical beliefs and their implications.  Those who are serious about making robust progress need to pay careful attention because these predictable philosophical disagreements necessitate changes to theory and methodology…unless the goal is to create more strange fictions.

If you do not have access to the Philosophy Compass, please email me (adfeltz (at) mtu (dot ) edu) for a copy.


(Cross posted at the Experimental Philosophy blog)

One comment

  1. Doug Robinson

    Adam, this sounds interesting, and I’d love to have a copy of the Philosophy Compass. i wonder, though, whether you and EC track “personality differences” to cultural differences, genetic differences, some combination of the two … Doug

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