Mar 12

Arguments and Bias: An X-phi Experiment that should be Conducted

Despite the fact that I am a thoroughgoing rationalist, I find myself liking a lot of experimental philosophy.  Since I’m an advocate of common sense, studies about what people actually believe seem like a good place to at least start in checking that we’re right when we claim that the folk think something is true.  Although it’s certainly not the end of the discussion, these experiments have a lot of value to contribute to the field.

One problem with x-phi projects, however, is that most philosophers aren’t trained in how to properly conduct experiments, and they don’t have a lot of access to the funding needed to conduct studies.  Certainly, the average grad student can’t just run out and do one of these experiments at the drop of a hat.  This is too bad for me, because I came up with an idea for an experimental philosophy project that I think would be very valuable.  I couldn’t find any papers where someone had already done it, though, and I don’t have the resources or the training to do it properly.

My hypothesis is that people are irrationally drawn toward conclusions of arguments merely because they are presented as a conclusion.  There is some everyday data to support this contention.  Students in intro classes tend to want to accept every argument they see, even when they are incompatible.  Most people I know have found themselves drawn into the process of reasoning in an argument to a degree that makes them less questioning of the premises than they ought to be.  And then there’s the fact that otherwise sane and rational people can find themselves believing crazy things simply because they can’t see any way to avoid the conclusion of an argument.  I take all of this as evidence of a strong appeal we have for conclusions.  But there is a way to test this to be sure.

The experiment is based on the fact that arguments are logically interrelated.  In any valid argument, the conclusion will have to be true if all of the premises are.  That means that if the conclusion was false, and every other premise was true, the remaining one would have to be false.  So, for any argument, there are as many other logically related, valid arguments as there are premises.  You can construct these arguments by replacing the premises one at a time with the negation of the initial conclusion, and replacing the conclusion with the negation of the premise in question.  Each argument will be valid if the others are, but at most one of them can be sound.

To do an experiment on people’s biases toward conclusions, one could present various versions of logically interconnected arguments to separate groups of people, and ask them if they think the arguments are sound.  Since the arguments are mutually exclusive with respect to soundness, if people are rational, the sum of the percentages of people who answer “yes” to each version should be around 100%.  If people are biased away from conclusions, it will be lower, and if they are biased toward conclusions, it will be higher.  I suspect, given the aforementioned considerations, that while it will depend to some extent on the topic, the average set of arguments will garner far more than 100% collective support.

Since arguments are one of the central tools of philosophy, if people have a natural bias when evaluating them, then this poses a difficulty for how we do philosophy.  This would especially be true if philosophical training didn’t adequately correct for these problems, and so an experiment among professional philosophers would also be worth conducting.  I am of the opinion that philosophers put too much emphasis on arguments, and are too willing to change their minds in the face of an argument they don’t know how to respond to.  Perhaps if there were empirical data supporting the view that how we evaluate arguments isn’t fully rational, we could fight against this trend.  If our ability to evaluate arguments is not as good as we thought, then there are fewer issues on which rational debate would be the ideal method for pursuing the truth.   If we stop fighting over every little thing that we should already know from our basic capacity to understand the world, we can once again focus on the big, traditional questions that drive people toward philosophy in the first place.

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