Thursday, June 9, 2011

X-Phi, True Selves, and what Philosophy is Actually About: Knobe Again

Unlike certain elements in the philosophy blogosphere, I've been pretty happy with New York Times' The Stone. True, a few of the articles have been pretty bad, some haven't been all that enlightening, and I've made my views of the Stone's editor, Simon Critchley's, contributions to the column known (as well as the view that Critchley can be great in other contexts). But overall, I think it's had great stuff—I was happy to see Strawson featured, interested to read Priest, and—frankly—I liked that Bernstein piece about the tea party (I still don't know why Leiter hated it); with Burge, Pippin, Clark, Nussbaum, Railton, Bauer (writing about Beauvoir and Gaga—I threw that one right at my students) and that neat Gutting piece on religion, you have to be a bit near-sighted to condemn the whole enterprise because of a few pieces that fail. But what I really don't get is why Knobe just got his second piece (this time about the "true self") in the Stone. And I'm going to complain about it, because that's what blogs are for. And then, at the end, I'm going to say something about what I'd really like to see in a piece on the "true self" written by a philosopher for a popular audience, something that would give an indication of what philosophy is actually about.

I'm often puzzled by experimental philosophy—given some solid philosophical theories, each with its own problems and benefits, just what does the "experimental" part add? Imagine the following: you are teaching an ethics class, and your students keep throwing out relativist intuitions, despite the fact that you just had them read three texts excoriating relativism. Now, I think most philosophy professors (though of course I can't be sure without taking a survey) would, in this situation, attempt to point out to the students that they need to come up with responses to the points raised against relativism in the readings. Relativism, which today has come to seem like common-sense, turns out to have pretty serious philosophical shortcomings, and part of the job of an ethics class, I should think, is to point out those problems. If your students stay relativists—well, fine, whatever; some quite good philosophers are in that camp, after all. But what you should hope for, as someone trying to teach them ethics, is that at the very least they come to see the problems with relativism as serious problems worth taking up, so at the very least they can have some idea of why it might have been wrong to burn witches in Salem.

That's one idea of what to do in a philosophy class. Here's another one: you could have your students take a survey that would show that hey, maybe the way that "people actually use these concepts"—say, morality, right, wrong, objective, relative, etc.—actually show that morality just is a relative concept. Those weird guys with beards and wigs—you know, the philosophers—have just been using their terms in ways that are foreign to the way the terms are commonly used; John Austin was right all along—you can't trust philosophers to use everyday language correctly, and everyday language gets the final say! So now you've done some surveys, and it turns out that all that stuff you've had your students read about relativism is wrong-headed: the arguments against relativism must rest on strange, non-standard uses of the terms involved, or on bizarre and uncommon intuitions (say, the bizarre and uncommon intuition that feeding people to lions was somehow wrong in a society that thought it was great entertainment).

Granted, I'm being unfair to experimental philosophy. But it's worth pointing out that virtually every single explanation or defense of X-Phi out there starts with something like this:

  • Philosophers tend to rely on their intuitions. But many people might not share those intuitions.

Or, in more concrete cases, like this:

  • Philosophers tend to hold view A about topic T. But many people don't hold view A at all!

So if the standard response to X-Phi is a cheap shot, it's because the most ardent proponents of X-Phi tend to motivate the project with a pretty ridiculous claim. It's that claim, grown ever so stale in the history of philosophy, that one is doing something oh-so-new, something that flies in the face of tradition, something that changes how philosophy is done! (Of course the next step is often just the opposite: in response to charges that X-Phi is not philosophy, we are often told that no, really X-Phi is fully continuous with the history of philosophy. So that cake's been regurgitated a few times, which is what happens when you try to have your cake and…)

The problem, of course, is that challenging the intuitions of "the philosophers" by contrasting them with the intuitions of "the public" (i.e., whoever your survey takers happen to be—usually students, and I've been trying to point out what's just a bit weird about that), is precisely not the strong point of X-Phi. One clear reason for this is that the experiments are set up by people trying to test a theory; the experiments are often set up to support a particular view (even if the view is just that, hey, some people disagree with intuition A about topic T). Another reason is that the enterprise as a whole is pretty odd: common-sense concepts are confused. Arguably, that's why we have philosophy in the first place—to note the confusions and try to straighten them out. If the point of X-Phi just is to figure out what the common-sense intuitions are, so we can then go on to clarify, critique, and refine them, great! But since the experimental set-up already lays out the possible intuitions, it's not very clear just what it adds to the project to then see what percentage of your respondents holds each of the options. Why not, instead, just see what other commitments the options are consistent with?

So let's turn to the Knobe post. Since, as I've suggested, the motivation for many X-Phi projects seems to be a sort of "hey, let's challenge the tradition" project, one often finds the attempt to present a weak, often false, view of what something called "the philosophical tradition" believes, and then an attempt to see whether this is what the population at large (that is, college students) believes. Yes, I realize that this is a New York Times piece, directed at a general audience; but I've seen this move before, in less popular expositions, and in any case: there is a sense in which higher standards of accuracy seem important precisely when engaged in popular expositions.

So Knobe tells us, here, that something called "the philosophical tradition" gives us an answer to the problem of what "the true self" is: it's reason! So when you're faced with desires of all sorts, you reflect on them, endorse them (though Knobe doesn't use this terminology here, it is pretty prevalent in the literature at this point), and those constitute your true self. This is option one. Option Two, Knobe tells us, is the option that non-philosophers tend to give him: a person's true self is expressed in those moments of drunkenness or passion when our rational self-censoring mechanism is peeled away, and our "deeper" desires flow to the surface.

Now something strange happens. It's strange because Knobe seems to be suggesting that he is proposing a new idea, which is distinct from that one, monolithic thing that the entire philosophical tradition has been telling us. And here is that new idea: "People's ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living." Call this Option Three. Knobe tests Option Three by asking people to self-identify as liberal or conservative, and then giving them vignettes with questions like this:

Jim used to be homosexual. However, now Jim is married to a woman and no longer has sex with men.

How much do you agree with the following statement?

At his very essence, there was always something deep within Jim, calling him to stop having sex with men, and then this true self emerged.

And this:

Ralph used to make a lot of money and prioritized his financial success above all else. However, now Ralph works in a job where he does not make a lot of money and benefits others.

How much do you agree with the following statement? At his very essence, there was always something deep within Ralph, calling him to stop prioritizing his financial success above all else, and then this true self emerged.

Knobe found something surprising. Conservatives tended to think that Jim's true self emerges in the first vignette. Liberals tended to think that Ralph's true self emerges in the second. This might be because conservatives value resisting homosexual urges, whereas liberals value benefitting others over financial success. Oh, wait, that wasn't surprising. That was actually the whole point of the survey set-up. But there is funding for this, so it's obviously worth doing!

Now, aside from being snarky, I should note that I'm thoroughly puzzled (yet again) by what is supposed to be going on here. I have no intuition about either vignette, for the simple reason that I don't know jack about Jim or Ralph. If somebody tells me that I have to agree or disagree, I guess I could try; if I'm given a scale of agreement, I could randomly pick a number, but I don't have a clue. This isn't to say that I don't have intuitions about "true selves" (though I also think it's damn good to be skeptical about those intuitions); only that to form a judgment about either Jim or Ralph, I might need to read a pretty long novel about each of them—preferably one that chronicles their entire life, and not just from their own perspective or the perspective of their present self. And even that might not help. After all, I've read Hamlet, and if you ask me whether his "true self" is thirsting to avenge his father, or to sit back and think about it until the problem somehow resolves itself, I'll have to take a pass. Of course many people have immediate intuitions about "true self" cases that they can reach without knowing a great deal about the people involved, and without thinking too much about counter-examples. Obviously the judgments of those people are the best suited to "give us a better sense of how people actually use these concepts."

Now, part of my point has been that it's not really clear why this needed to be an actual study—the researchers had a pretty good, solid thought about how people might make judgments about "true selves," and the study confirmed something that was likely to be pretty obvious anyway. The further issue, though, is that if you want to defend Option Three as a theory of what "the true self" is, you're going to have to actually provide arguments for it, address problems for it, etc; the experimental results are going to be pretty pointless. Unless, of course, all you are trying to show is that people's intuitions tend to track Option Three. In which case you've got a study that tells you nothing about "the true self" or what that is, but tells you—for some as yet unrevealed purpose—how a lot of people tend to use the term in a particular experimental set-up. (Of course there are ways to make it more interesting. For example, in expounding Option One Knobe used the trope of the unwilling addict; insofar as she doesn't want to be swayed by her addiction, it seems like in acting on her desires she is actually betraying her true self. Anyone who thinks that the true self lies in a person's desires is going to have to be able to deal with such cases. But, again, I'm not clear on what relevance surveys on this would have to philosophical debates on the issue.)

But now, let's ask: how is Option Three different from Option One? In one sense, it really isn't. On one reading, Option Three just is Option One. Notice that Knobe lays out the distinction thus: on Option One, a person's true self is identified with her reflective judgment. As Knobe puts it in pointing out the problems with Options One and Two, "The trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person's psychology." This is confusing, because I don't see a good way of making Option One identify the true self with "one particular part of a person's psychology." The "capacity for rational reflection" isn't straightforwardly such a part; and, in any case, what Knobe's explanation seems to suggest—in line with the endorsement account—is that the person's "true self" isn't the capacity as such, but rather the piece of the person's psychology that that capacity picks out. So on Option One, a person's true self isn't just some piece of psychology—rather, it's the piece of psychology that is supported by reflection, i.e., by endorsement or valuation. And on Option Three, judgments about a person's true self constitute a judgment not about which aspect of a person's psychology serves that role, but rather about which part of the person's psychology has greater value. So Option One looks a heck of a lot like Option Three.

Of course this is only on one reading of Option One. Here is another, and seems to get closer to what Knobe is driving at. Option One makes judgments about what the person's true self is depend on that person's psychology. Option Three, on the other hand, makes those judgments relative to the values not of the person in question, but of the person doing the judging. So I don't see at all how this survey—as Knobe describes it—shows us anything opposed to either Option One or Option Two. Instead, it changes the topic: it shows that our judgments track a different option. It shows that, when we have to make snap-decisions about someone's "true self" on the basis of scant information—something we do in real life—we are tempted to make those decisions on the basis of our values. This might say something interesting about our moral psychology, no doubt, but it says very little about the concept of the true self. So Knobe seems to set up the motivation for the survey by talking about one thing, and then carrying out the survey on a different topic. That doesn't seem enlightening.

Here's what would be enlightening, and what would be worth seeing in a philosophical discussion of "the true self" written for a popular audience: an actual examination of the confused common-sense view of the concept. First, we might note that Option Two is obviously not absent from the tradition, although few philosophers have held it as is, and for a good reason: if you're going to give all our desires equal weight, it's not going to make a hell of a lot of sense for you to talk about a "true self" in the first place; you'd have to see the self as a multiplicity of varied, disconnected, often conflicting and incoherent desires. But if you do give desires a central place in constituting the self, you're likely going to establish some sort of hierarchy, so that some desires—say, volitional necessities—have a special place, and other desires, ones that conflict with the volitional necessities, are going to be in some sense alienated or external desires.

There is a second point worth making about Option Two, one that comes up nicely in existentialist take-downs of the idea that being authentic or true to yourself just involves acting on your desires, or even finding your deep desires and acting on those. Namely, that your desires are no more "you" than whatever social norms you absorb. This is, in part, because many of our desires—on some views, all of them—just are socially constructed or shaped. Maybe you really want to get married, and have a nice picket fence and a three car garage and a bunch of toddlers running around. But you have to be crazy to think that this desire is any more "authentic" or any more "yours" than, say, an ad-induced craving for Sprite. And, in part, there's the Kantian point: that while you might think that your desires show the "true" you, it's hard to see why this "you" is something you should be particularly attached to; if your desires aren't things that constitute you because you value them, or because you chose them, or because you created them in some way, then why should you give them any privileged place? How are they any more you, or any more valuable to you, than any other natural feature about you, like that ingrown toenail?

But now—and this is one of the important things to note—Knobe points out, without examining, that this idea of a true or authentic self "is, perhaps, one of the distinctive ideals of modern life." Well, yeah. It really is. It's one of those things the post-Kantian revolt against reason managed to bring out, and merge nicely with the obsessive modern Western trend toward individualism, bolstered by our now common belief that we are all so very special and so gosh darn unique. And sure, if you think you're a special, unique individual, and that this really matters, then it's going to suddenly be very important to figure out just what your unique individuality consists of. But this desire to be unique and special may well exercise a distorting influence on our judgments about what our "true self" is. And critique of this is, in fact, pretty common to the tradition.

Let's revisit Option One, on which the true self is identified with "the capacity for rational reflection." What does that really mean? Well, on one popular historical view, the capacity is universal, in that it is a capacity shared by all rational beings. It is a capacity for rational reflection, and reason is universal. In fact, all that stuff about individuality is, on this view, problematic: we deviate from the universal just to the extent that we deviate from reason. And we do so insofar as we are misled by our desires and our sense-perceptions. And why would anybody value that? In one sense, it is a tautology to say that valuing deviation from reason is an error: it's just saying that it is irrational to value deviating from reason. So on this view—and we find various approaches to it in Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Kant—your "true self" is exactly the same as everybody else's "true self": it's the self that is aligned with Reason or Truth. From this vantage point, the different views about the "true self" that Knobe is discussing are all completely off the mark; it's also no wonder that people who are raised to think of themselves as unique individuals are likely to be systematically off the mark in this way. In a sense, whatever the survey respondents might say may be just as indicative of a widespread pathology as any insight into our concepts. And diagnosing such pathologies is—isn't it?—one of the key functions of philosophy. What does X-Phi contribute?


  1. James Rachels quotes a study in one of his little short ethics books. In it, a group of psychology graduate students all admit themselves into mental health clinics. They do not feign mental illness at all but merely go to observe. When confronted with the staff in almost all cases, the health care professionals are insistent that they suffer from "something" to the point that Rachels quotes the notes from one of the professionals as "subject is obsessed with taking notes." The grad student was merely recording observations. The point of the story is rather simple. Once a group have collectively decided and act under a rubric, confirmation bias may settle in. The simple fact that these grad students were admitted seemed to be reason enough to interpret everything they did as "sick." Now, I don't know if this is ever a problem for using twenty-five 18 yr. old students to test trolley cases, but the anecdote might suggest something on the part of those giving the survey as much as those taking it.

  2. I take it real philosophers don't erect and then raze straw men, no? As for your claim that your self-professed "cheap shot" is justified "because the most ardent proponents of X-Phi tend to motivate the project with a pretty ridiculous claim," I would like to see some actual references to the arguments in question. I suspect you won't be able to find any that are congruent with your summary of the alleged strategy adopted by ardent experimental philosophers. But no worries, it's more fun tilting at windmills I am sure. So, carry on...