Experimental philosophy

I caught part of a Philosophy programme t’other evening that I thought was on radio 4 but I am unable to track down now. It was looking at ‘experimental philosophy’ and how environment affected moral decision making. It had some resonances with theology and living a life of contemplative discipleship that interested me.
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The central tenet was that moral behaviour could not be neatly accounted for by a theoretical philosophical position, that is notions of gaining good moral judgment. That this did not take account how much external stimuli could change things for the better or for the worse.
The first experiment cited was with a bunch of trainee ministers who’d been set the task of studying “The Good Samaritan’ narrative and preparing a sermon on it. The experimenters then concocted a highly plausible mix up with the ministers whereby some were individually told they were late to preach their sermon and some were not. Just off the path to the church, someone was placed who was clearly in distress. Even though the ministers had been musing on the story, only those who didn’t think they were late stopped to talk/help. (It was pointed out that this experiment was slightly flawed as the minister would also be considering a congregation that they didn’t want to let down).
Other experiments were even more fascinating such as the leaving of a coin in a phone box. People leaving the booth would be more likely to help if they had been in the group for whom a coin had been planted. Even more bizarrely people were more willing to give outside of the bakery where the smell of fresh bread was in the air, than outside a shop of neutral or no smell.
I wish I’d heard the whole programme. I was enjoying the discussion as to whether this was really philosophy or in fact ‘behavioural science.’ I thought this akin to the breaking down of theology as a academic discipline and realising that theological thinking must involve those who are experiencing it, ‘liberation theology’ etc
But it also made me think about the parable of the Good Samaritan and realise that living a life of thanks (experiencing the positives without finding a coin or a bread shop) that in these experiment more naturally engenders a compassionate response is vital, as is living a life with balance so that hurry doesn’t preclude a human to human response.
Thinking out loud as usual so may be just rabbitting. Wondering about what it means for the discipleship of young people? Wondering about experimental theology?

2 Replies to “Experimental philosophy”

  1. Fascinating stuff. Reminds me of the book Michael was reading a while ago called The Lucifer Effect by Robert Zimbardo – looks at the way circumstances can influence our moral choices.

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