The 'Next Big Thing' in Ideas

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In the final installment of Talk of the Nation's "Next Big Thing" series, author and philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah talks about what philosophers will be contemplating in 2008. He says a movement called X-phi, or experimental philosophy, is gaining ground in philosophical circles.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And now, we conclude our series on the "Next Big Thing" with a look at ideas about ideas, in 2008. Philosophy rests firmly in the realm of the mind whether that particular brain is taking a shower, pacing to and fro or comfortably enveloped in an armchair. Well, the next big thing in Philosophy requires actually pounding the pavement. It's called Experimental Philosophy or X-phi. What's a next big thing without a cool nickname?

And Kwame Anthony Appiah is here to tell us a little bit more about it. If you're an armchair philosopher or you're doing thought experiments, what's the big idea? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog, from your armchair, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, the author of the forthcoming "Experiments in Ethics." And he joins us from the studios of the Argot Network in New York. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH (Philosopher, Princeton University; Author, "Experiments in Ethics"): Very good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And explain X-phi for us.

Prof. APPIAH: That's got how to do in a second but let me give you a couple of examples. In fact, that's the best way to do it. For a long time now, philosophers have been interested in concepts and, you know, how people, how we think about various important things. And in the course of talking about that, they are very often say what ordinary people would say in various circumstances. In the past, they've assumed that they could tell whether ordinary people could say just by thinking what they would say themselves. But it occurred…

CONAN: And maybe consult the guy in the office down the hall?

Prof. APPIAH: …oh, the guy in the office down the hall or the guy, the guys that were sitting inside your body with you, yourself. But it occurred to some people recently that why not use the techniques that psychologists have developed and social psychologists in particular for talking to people to actually find out what they would say in certain circumstances. And it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that what philosophers said people would say turn out to be not always but ordinary people would say. One of the things you notice immediately if you start asking real people what they think is, of course, that they disagree with each other. You know, 80 percent is a pretty good number of people to agree on a question if you ask them the sort of questions philosophers ask. So…

CONAN: And of course, if you ask philosophers what they think, they'll disagree, too.

Prof. APPIAH: And that's the point, I think, that you don't learn too much from his experiments about the possibilities or disagreement most of the positions or most of the topics have already been thought of by philosophers. Still, to the extent that it's relevant in thinking about concepts to ask, how they're actually mobilized in real life by real people, that's an empirical question and somebody who has a theory that has implications for that empirical question ought to treat is as empirical question, Neal, to get out and ask.

CONAN: There was this…

Prof. APPIAH: So that's…

CONAN: …I was going to say it's an interesting example of that, that you posited in a piece you wrote as an op-ed for the New York Times last month.

Prof. APPIAH: Right.

CONAN: And this was has to do with the chairman of the company who, the chairman is utterly indifferent to the state of the environment. But there's a new product that will be wonderful for his bottom line and it happens to be good for the environment, too, and he goes ahead and says, let's do it, and was he intentionally trying to improve the environment. And then, the reverse of the question, the same chairman, same indifference to the fate of the environment - new product, which is bad for the environment and the question being, did the chairman intentionally try to harm the environment?

Prof. APPIAH: And what happens if you do that is if you take too lots of people, obviously if you ask that same question to same people, the results will interfere with each other. But if you take two different lots of people, on average, you know, something like 80 percent of people will say that it was intentional in the case of a harm and something like 20 (percent) percent of people will say it was intentional in the case of the good effects. So what it looks like there is that whether we, whether ordinary people think of something as intentional or not depends in part on whether they think the effects is a good one or a bad one. And that's a first go for a stab at interpreting that particular case. The key question here, the philosophically important question, is when we say someone has a certain intention, are we making that decision independently of our evaluation of what they're doing, independently of our judgment about what they did, whether it was good or bad, or there's our judgment about whether what happened was good or bad itself, play a role in deciding whether somebody intended to do something. And that's important because it's an important question, whether the question, did he intend to do it, is a purely descriptive question or whether it's a normative question. It's a question that pre-supposes views about values.

CONAN: And an interesting result because a lot of philosophers says, well, it might be natural to say that since his intention was neutral, he was not trying to either benefit or hurt the environment.

Prof. APPIAH: Yeah, I think it's fair to say that many views about intention recently presuppose that whatever the answer is to the question how we should understand intention, it shouldn't depend upon whether the results of what you do are good or bad. So this is an interesting result, it suggests that ordinary people don't agree with that. Now, a philosopher might respond by saying, well, ordinary people are wrong, but I think - and you can imagine that many have - but still, I think it adds to the issues we need to consider. I think it's a very useful addition; I think it's important that we take seriously these sorts of experiments.

If I can just mention another kind of experiment which I think…

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. APPIAH: …which I think indicates something about the nature of novelty and intellectual life, which is that - which is the sort of the general topic here. So for a long time, philosophers have thought about how our moral concepts work by posing, describing situations to people and asking them what it would be right or wrong to do in those situations. And for a long time also, people have discussed whether reason or emotion is the most important thing in determining how we answer these questions to that, what's right and wrong.

Well, along comes functional magnetic resonance imaging, which allows you to look at people's brains when they're thinking about these questions. And that allows you to see whether the parts of the brains that are strongly associated with emotion are activated when people are thinking about these questions or whether rather it's the part of the brain that does the sort of rational calculation.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. APPIAH: Well, it turns out that if you do this with some fairly standard examples, that the answer is both. Some kinds of questions people reason about and some they respond to with their more emotional parts of their brains.

Now, how to make sense of that philosophically isn't settled by doing the brain analysis, by looking at the brains. But again, I think this sort of result helps us to think about this old philosophical question, which is the role of reason versus emotion in our moral life.

CONAN: Because you can actually go out and test it?

Prof. APPIAH: You can test it, you can look at brains and - I mean, look, I think it's fair to say that functional magnetic resonance imaging, which is a matter of looking at the brain and seeing where the blood and the oxygen are going while people are doing things is in its early days and we don't really - I think there's a lot of reasonable disagreement about how to interpret these things. But still, there's a new tool, there's an old question, it's a perfectly natural thing to do to take a new tool to look at an old question, and a lot of, as I say, novelty in intellectual life comes from saying, look, we got this new tool. Somebody else may have developed it. The people who developed functional magnetic resonance imaging weren't philosophers.

But a few years ago, a young guy who had a philosophy Ph.D. went across the road to people in the psychology department, actually, at Princeton, and said, you guys have this tool. Can I use it? And together, the philosopher and the psychologist worked on this question.

CONAN: And so how is the armchair business of philosophy reacting to the idea that they should go out and start counting things and measuring things the same way other scientists do?

Prof. APPIAH: Well, I think you get, as you can imagine, you can get every conceivable kinds of reaction. On the one hand, the massive enthusiasts for X-phi are the kind of people who have on the way of - on the YouTube, they have an image of a burning armchair and a sort of - which they celebrate. On the other hand, the people who want to sort of sit in their studies and block their ears and say I don't want to know about any all of this so I'd like to go on in the way that I've always gone on. My own view is that, as I say, that the reasonable position is there's plenty of work to be done in the armchair.

These experiments stimulate our philosophical imaginations. They raise puzzles and problems of the sort that philosophers need to think about. And not everybody needs to be in the lab anymore than every physicist who's in a lab. After all, theoretical physicists don't spend much time in labs. They pose questions; sometimes they send them down to the lab and say, can find this out for me; they read the results of what the lab physicists do in the same. And the same, I think, is true here. There's a division of labor between the people who actually do the experiments and the people who interpret them. And, of course, the people who do the experiments are going to be interpreting them, too…

CONAN: Yes.

Prof. APPIAH: …so it's not like they don't need their armchairs either.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation. We're talking with philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. 800-989-8255; e-mail, talk@npr.org.

And Dennis(ph) is on the line - Dennis calling from Moses Lake in Washington.

DENNIS (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

DENNIS: Hey, I want to ask the David Hume question and I'm sure that your guest will have an answer. How does he bridge the is-ought gap? If we know that this is what people do think then how do we know that this is what people should be thinking? And he's mentioned this already in the interview, so I just want to know how he solved that sort of problem.

Prof. APPIAH: I don't think I have a solution to the problem, but I do think the point you're making is absolutely crucial. How people - what people actually do do when they think about moral questions, how they make those decisions; that's one thing. What they ought to be doing is another.

DENNIS: Yeah.

Prof. APPIAH: But I think that - here's the reason why it isn't quite as simple as that. That is it's not as simple as simply making a sharp division and letting one sort of questions be decided in one way and the other sort of question be decide in another way. It's more complicated than that because when we're trying to think about what we ought to be doing, I think we have to take what human beings can do and are like human nature into account.

DENNIS: Okay.

Prof. APPIAH: A kind of moral claim, for example, that requires people to do something that we have discovered it's very, very difficult or impossible for people to do is not a reasonable, moral claim. And that's already built into our moral thinking because in most of our moral thinking, we have the idea that as philosophers say ought to imply is can; that is it's not the case - it can't be the case that you ought to do something unless you can do it. If I say you ought to do something, I'm supposing that it's something you can do. So one of the ways in which psychology helps us in our moral thought and in sociology and economics and so on is they help us see the range of the things that are possible and therefore, they limit the range of the things that we can say people ought to do. That's only one simple way in which the fact question and the value question interact. But it is an important way, and that's one of the reasons why I think moral philosophers ought to be sensitive to results in moral psychology of the sort that psychologists engage in.

CONAN: Dennis, thanks very much.

DENNIS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Kwame Anthony Appiah. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Gary(ph) on the line. Gary is with us from Marin County in California.

GARY (Caller): Yeah. Hi. Thank you very much. I think one…

Prof. APPIAH: Hi, Gary.

GARY: …of the areas that would be interesting whether it will be some new combinations of might be called older ideas is new ways to organize, new ways for the populous movements in this country to become much more effective, to grow much faster, to raise much more money. For example, you have groups, like MoveOn using the Internet, and then you have the old fashioned Tupperware parties where people would have house parties and they would keep doubling sort of multilevel marketing. Why not combine those old-fashioned, face-to-face techniques with the Internet and then you could - instead of having 5,000 house parties, you could have 20,000? And we're - I'm actually trying to start finding other people who are looking for this way of bringing more democracy to America, and my number is 1-800-FAIRNESS if anybody wants to help.

CONAN: We appreciate it if you try not to do your advertising on our program, okay?

GARY: Yeah.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Lee(ph) - Lee with us from Chattanooga in Tennessee.

LEE (Caller): Hi. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LEE: Yeah. Thank you. As I was listening to the discussion about how philosophers are reacting to the potential to actually begin to observe issues which they have thought to have been in the realm of interpretation in an abstract way in the past, I think of the way psychiatrists - and psychology a bit - but psychiatrists that move that same pathways from couch analysis and now we got tools that you can actually, not only answer behavioral questions and philosophic issues, but can look at what motivates many things, choices of ethics and choices of just actual behavior. So I see a lot of parallel and I just wanted to make that observation; that philosophers, perhaps, shouldn't feel so threatened by this technology as psychiatrists haven't either.

CONAN: Anthony Appiah, do you see a parallel?

Prof. APPIAH: Yeah. Yeah, I - again, the balance between the sort of experimental and the more speculative is there in every field of understanding. It's there in our ethical lives and in our ethical reflections but - and it's there in psychiatry and psychology. It's there in medicine. We think of medicine as incredibly kind of science-based, but a lot of what happens in medicine is the result of the kind of everyday discoveries of people doing things in a kind of intuitive way when they're with faced with sick people. And one of the things that's happened in recent years is that people have tried to collect the information from those sort of natural experiments in a more systematic way. So here, again, what they're doing is taking tools, which were developed by statisticians and sometimes by economists who are interested in so-called natural experiments and applying them to questions if they haven't been applied to before. And as I say, I think the general message about sort of intellectual ferment and new ideas is that, very often, the most interesting new ideas are the result of taking a technique that's been developed for one question and applying it to a question where it hasn't been used before.

LEE: Right, very much so. Yeah. Thank you.

Prof. APPIAH: All right. And that is definitely true in psychiatry and in psychology that much of it was initially based on people either responding to their interpretation of people who are mentally ill or thinking about the - their - the lives of people who are not mentally ill simply by reflecting on their own lives, on their own mental lives, doing what was called phenomenal logical analysis as a sort of reflection on what's going on in your own head. And this is one way to find out about things, it turns out, not to be a terribly good way in part because of something else that psychologists have discovered and which is, I think, relevant to morality, which is that we are remarkably bad at understanding our own motivations.

People are very good at spinning a story about why they did things. One of the great skills of human beings as social animals is that somebody asked you why you did something; you can give him a story. Turns out that very often, the story doesn't have much foundation. In fact, it doesn't mean we're being dishonest, it means that we're being, to some extent, self-diluted. And again, to the extent that that's true, it matters to our moral lives to understand our own temptation, the temptation that we're under to think we understand ourselves and our own motivations when we very often don't.

CONAN: Kwame Anthony Appiah, thank you very much for your time today.

Prof. APPIAH: It was a pleasure. Very nice to talk to you as usual.

CONAN: Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton and the author of the forthcoming "Experiments in Ethics," which we'll be talking to him about next month. And he joined us from the studios of the Argot Network in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ira Flatow is here with SCIENCE FRIDAY tomorrow.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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