At the New York Times’ Room for Debate some philosophy professors are discussing the following question:
As philosophy departments have come under attack for being costly and impractical, do experimental methods, called “x-phi” by its proponents, offer new horizons for old problems? Or are they immaterial and a waste of time?
Most of the participants note that Philosophy’s use of evidence from science and other disciplines (really, every and any discipline) is nothing new. Ernest Sosa points out that experimental philosophers go one step farther, becoming scientists rather than merely making use of science — “a welcome development”; yet “attacks on the traditional methodology based on experimental results have been unconvincing.” That traditional method is dialectic.
I’m inclined to agree with Timothy Williamson, who notes that there are:
philosophy-hating philosophers who would like to replace the traditional methodology of philosophy, with their stress on a combination of abstract reasoning and particular examples, by something more like imitation psychology. Without even properly defining what it is they are attacking, they use experimental results in a selective and unscientific spirit to try to discredit the traditional methodology.
In other cases experimentalists draw lessons for morality from the results of brain scans in comically naive ways, without realizing how many philosophical assumptions they are uncritically relying on in their inferences — precisely because they neglect traditional philosophical skills in making distinctions and assessing arguments. The danger is that the publicity such crude work attracts will give a bad name to constructive developments in which experimental results really do cast light on philosophical questions.
Philosophy has most to contribute to the pursuit of truth by refining its own distinctive methods, not by imitating other disciplines. Philosophers are not needed as amateur experimentalists or writers of pop science.