Monday, August 23, 2010

Interdisciplinary research

Practical market design is almost by definition an interdisciplinary activity, and fortunately Economics as an academic discipline revels in its interactions with other disciplines such as psychology, computer science, and neuroscience. Debate also breaks out periodically about the value of such work, and how to conduct it, or to assess it, or incorporate it.

So I find it very interesting (both as a market designer and an experimental economist) to follow the debate going on among philosophers about their field's so far tentative foray into "experimental philosophy." This debate recently surfaced in several short pieces in the New York Times "Room for Debate" blog.

Joshua Knobe, one of the young X-Phi pioneers, writes that experimental philosophy is A Return to Tradition:
"Traditionally, no one worried very much about the distinction between philosophy and psychology. Philosophers were just supposed to think, at a very broad and fundamental level, about the nature of the human condition. And, as a matter of course, they were supposed to make use of all the intellectual resources available to them, including psychology, history, literature, and much else besides. ...
"I find it puzzling that people sometimes regard these recent developments as somehow taking things in a radical new direction. A more natural response would be to say that they are taking things back to their old direction, back to the direction of David Hume’s immortal Treatise of Human Nature (1739), with its subtitle, "Being An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects."

A contrary view is given by Timothy Williamson: Is It Imitation Psychology?

"The real issue concerns the most effective way for each side to learn from the other. 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. We do more to help through our skill in logic, in imagining new possibilities and questions, in organizing systematic abstract theories, making distinctions and the like. "

Following either of the above links will also connect you to the contributions by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ernest Sosa, Brian Leiter, and Tim Maudlin.

Those of you who follow the debates about neuroeconomics will recognize the general terrain.

1 comment:

michael webster said...

1. Many of the more significant contributions to the foundations of utility/preference theory were made by people working in philosophy departments. They never thought of themselves as doing anything other than philosophy.

1a) For example, I don't think Brian Skyrms thinks that his work on the Stag hunt game is anything other than ordinary philosophy.

2. This new venture seems to replace armchair counter-factual thinking with surveys. I doubt that much will come of it -but, who knows?