Monday, September 08, 2008

Philosophy and empirical research

Basically, philosophy investigates themes that cannot be investigated empirically, like themes in the field of ethics, methodology, ontology, politics, and so on. However, I do not think that this means that empiricism has to be avoided. Not only is it so that philosophy formulates the foundations of empirical research (like in methodology) but the use of empirical findings in philosophical discussions can also improve these discussions. Nevertheless, it often happens that philosophers ignore empirical results, sometimes with weird consequences. Take for example the discussion in analytical philosophy about personal identity. The mainstream view in this discussion is the so-called “psychological view”, which states that personal identity is merely a psychological characteristic of man, not a bodily characteristic or a mixture of both. It is as if we still live in the days of Descartes and Locke and as if psychological research and other empirical research haven’t shown that there is a narrow relation between mind and body. However, these research findings do not play any role at all in the discussion. The psychological view is simply proved by means of thought experiments. As such, I have nothing against thought experiments. They can be useful when real experiments are not possible, but they cannot replace real experiments. And what is evident for one philosopher needs not to be so for another philosopher. In the case of personal identity, the psychological view is generally “proved” with the help of thought experiments like this: The brain of person A is transplanted into the body of person B. Or, alternatively, person A is teletransported (like a telephone call, by way of speaking) to another part of the world or to another planet, while the body that is left behind is not destroyed. Or what kind of thought experiment one succeeds to devise. The problem in these cases is, however, that what needs to be proved is in fact already being supposed: that brain and body can be separated without fundamental consequences for the former (or for the mind) or the latter. And just this contradicts the findings of empirical research. However, as said, these findings are simply ignored by the defendants of the psychological view. It is simply taken as true that body and brain can be separated. But with the help of a false thesis everything can be proved, including a false conclusion. And that’s why the results of empirical research cannot be disregarded in a philosophical discussion, in case they exist.

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