Ethical Perspectives 19 (2):268-276 (2012)

Basil Smith
Saddleback College
Can we test philosophical thought experiments, such as whether people would enter an experience machine or would leave one once they are inside? Dan Weijers argues that since 'rational' subjects (e.g. students taking surveys in college classes) are believable, we can do so. By contrast, I argue that because such subjects will probably have the wrong affect (i.e. emotional states) when they are tested, such tests are almost worthless. Moreover, understood as a general policy, such pretend testing would ruin the results of most psychological tests, such as those of helping behavior, attitudes to authority, moral transgressions, etc. However, I also argue that certain philosophical thought experiments do not require us to have as much (or any) affect to understand them, or to elicit intuitions, and so can be tested. Generally, experimental philosophy must adhere to this limit, on pain of offering vacuous results.
Keywords Experience Machine  Experimental Philosophy  Rationality  Robert Nozick  Thought Experiments
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