Joshua Knobe (Yale)

I’m very lucky that I can post this week Dr Joshua Knobe’s answers to our questions. Dr Knobe is a fellow at Yale, appointed in both the Program in Cognitive Science and the Department of Philosophy. He is a founder of experimental philosophy and a trailblazer in working out how to apply empirical methods to study questions in philosophy. His publications address questions about intentional actions, responsibility, causation, and morality among other issues. Dr Knobe also edited with Shaun Nichols of volumes 1 and 2 of Experimental Philosophy. Enjoy!

1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?

1. Back when I was an undergraduate, I was working on a series of studies in collaboration with a graduate student named Bertram Malle. He was pursuing an exciting research program on the way people ordinarily distinguish between intentional and unintentional behavior – looking at the roles of belief, desire, skill, etc. – and we ended up publishing the results in a social psychology journal.

At the time, I did not regard this project as being in any way a contribution to the philosophy of action. I just saw it as a straightforward piece of social-psychological research. So when I went to graduate school in philosophy, I assumed that I would just be putting this kind of work aside.

The thing that changed my mind was a paper by the philosopher Alfred Mele. He wrote a response to our social psychology paper, treating it as a serious contribution to the world of philosophy. Of course, he disagreed with many of the claims we made, but what was really important – far more important than the individual points of agreement and disagreement – was just the raw idea that empirical work like this could be part of the philosophical conversation. After reading through his response, I started to feel that there was some real potential to keep working on this sort of topic but to to do it in a way that felt more deeply connected to the existing literature in philosophy.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

My latest project in the philosophy of action is a paper with psychologist Adam Bear about how people ordinarily understand causal determinism. We presented experimental participants with a description of a deterministic universe and then asked them various questions about what it would be possible to do in such a universe. If the universe were deterministic, would it be possible to fall in love? To construct complex arguments? To resist one's immediate impulses?

Participants thought that many things would be possible even if the universe were deterministic. It would still be possible to fall in love, to construct complex arguments, to have moral values. But participants also thought that some things would not be possible if the universe were deterministic. To give two examples, participants thought it would not be possible to leave their long-term spouse unexpectedly to pursue a new love interest and that it would not be possible to decide not to go to a party in order to study for an exam. Note that the point is not just that participants thought one could not be morally responsible for doing such things in a deterministic universe. Rather, they thought that it would not even be possible to do such things at all.

In subsequent studies, we found that people's responses to this type of question are surprisingly systematic and predictable. People see certain types of actions "going with the flow" and other types of actions as going against the flow of things and setting off on one's own distinctive course. Then people think that if the universe were completely deterministic, one could continue to perform actions that involved going with the flow but could not perform actions that involved setting off on one's own distinctive course.

Of course, many philosophers will disagree with the views that our participants are expressing in these studies, but even if one disagrees, it might be highly informative to learn these facts about ordinary folk judgment. On one hand, they show how fundamental the notion of indeterminism is to people's ordinary understanding of action.(People think that if the universe was deterministic, certain kinds of actions just would not be possible at all.) On the other, they help to pinpoint a striking aspect of the folk understanding – the notion of "going with the flow" – that might otherwise have gone more or less unnoticed.

3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?

In my view, this is not the question we should be asking. Suppose that we are interested in various properties that human behaviors can have: property F, property G, and so forth. We might investigate the significance of each of these properties for moral questions, for empirical questions, for legal questions, and all these investigations could help us to get at matters of real philosophical importance. But now suppose someone says: "But there is a further question that none of these investigations have addressed. Which of these properties is really the property of being an action? Is it property F? Or property G? Or some other one?" My view is that this further question is just a distraction from the important philosophical issues. If we have already identified these different properties, and if we are already thinking systematically about their significance for morality, explanation, law, etc., then nothing of real importance hangs on the question as to which of them counts as the property of being an action.

Yet, though the question itself is a bad one, a lot of the work that philosophers have done in an attempt to answer it has been deeply important. Much of this work proceeds by looking at people's intuitions about action. Now, it is plausible that people's intuitions about action provide evidence for claims about which property is the property of being an action, but the more important thing is that facts about people's intuitions also provide evidence for claims about people – about how our minds work, how we conceptualize the world, how we make sense of each other's behavior. These sorts of issues might not have been a focus of 20th century philosophy of action, but they were absolutely central to more traditional philosophical work, all the way from Aristotle to Nietzsche. My own view is that facts about people's intuitions about action are philosophically important primarily insofar as they contribute to the kinds of questions posed within this earlier tradition.

4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?

My own research is mostly in experimental philosophy, and in that field, things work a little bit differently from in most of the rest of the discipline. In many areas of philosophy, my sense is that a lot of the focus is on work by extremely established senior figures, and that more junior researchers are often writing papers framed in part as responses to work by these senior figures. In experimental philosophy, this pattern is clearly inverted. Many of the most important findings, the ones that really drive the field forward, are those from junior researchers who are not yet especially well-known. For that reason, it might be best for me to answer your question by talking about three developments coming out of the work of people who are still students or postdocs.

a. David Rose and his collaborators have an exciting series of papers showing that people's way of thinking about material objects is, in many ways, surprisingly similar to their way of thinking about actions. When an agent performs an action, it seems natural to think about that action in terms of its purpose. But one might think that physical objects are different in this respect. If people come upon a tree or a river, one might think that they would not think about it as having any kind of purpose but instead simply understand it as having a particular material constitution. Strikingly, Rose and his collaborators find that this is not the case. People seem to understand all of these objects as having a purpose, or telos, and this teleological understanding impacts way of thinking about mereology, persistence, and other issues that have traditionally been central to research on the metaphysics of material objects.

b. My students Joanna Demeree-Cotton and Jennifer Dangle have a new paper looking at why people are reluctant to ascribe moral responsibility to people who grew up in bad formative circumstances (as in Susan Wolf's famous JoJo case). The usual view is that this intuition provides evidence for something along the lines of a normative competence theory. (If you grew up in bad formative circumstances, you could not have figured out what was the right thing to do and are therefore not rightly held responsible.) Demeree-Cotton and Daigle find evidence that there is actually something more complex afoot here. In cases where an agent grew up with bad formative circumstances and then does something wrong, people are more inclined to say that the action does not reflect the agent's "true self." That is, people think that the agent has a morally good true self and that the action does not reflect the person she really is deep down inside.

c. Dylan Murray and collaborators have a series of papers looking at how people ordinarily understand determinism. When people learn that an agent's behavior was causally determined, what exactly do they conclude about that behavior? The most surprising finding coming out of this research is that people sometimes conclude that the behavior was not in any way influenced by the agent's own mental states. In other words, when people hear that a behavior was causally determined, they infer that the behavior was not in any way explained by the agent's beliefs, desires and intentions. In my view, the fact that people make this inference shows something truly fundamental about the way they ordinarily conceptualize action. There has been a lot of very fruitful work by other researchers building on Murray's findings (including my own paper with Adam Bear, which I mentioned above), but my sense is that we are still only scratching the surface of the phenomenon Murray has uncovered.

5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?

When I first began working in the philosophy of action, the field was relatively disconnected from research on action that took place outside the discipline of philosophy. Philosophers knew that there was ongoing research about action in psychology, linguistics, law, artificial intelligence, and so forth, but for the most part, philosophers were not especially concerned with these developments. There was a sense that one could have a serious research program in the philosophy of action even while remaining completely ignorant of research on the topic within any other discipline.

Clearly, philosophers proceeding along broadly these lines did a lot of great work, and I certainly wouldn't want to disparage the decades worth of valuable research that took this path. Still, my own sense is that the best way to make further progress is not just to continue pursuing the same approach.

Indeed, I would recommend conceptualizing the field in a somewhat different way. The core aim is to find the answers to certain questions about action. The people who are making valuable progress on these questions happen to be housed in different departments within the university (philosophy, psychology, linguistics, law, etc.), but the best path forward is not to make such a big deal of the distinctions between these different departments. Instead, the goal should be just to focus on the questions themselves and to draw on whichever existing research traditions most help us to make progress on them.

2018 August 26

Many thanks to Dr Knobe!

See all you next weekend with a new interview.