A new study suggests the answer to that question is “no.” Rather, according to the study’s authors, what explains why the intuitions about particular cases of those who’ve studied philosophy differ from others is simply that they’ve been taught the standard interpretation of those specific cases, while the others have not.In “The influence of philosophical training on the evaluation of philosophical cases: a controlled longitudinal study,” which was published recently in Synthese, Bartosz Maćkiewicz, Katarzyna Kuś and Witold M. Hensel (University of Warsaw) report on a longitudinal study they conducted over three and half years on the changes in the intuitions of undergraduate philosophy students (compared with others) about several philosophical thought experiments.
Their data, they say, does not fit well with what they call the “expertise assumption,” that is, that “formal training in philosophy leads to the development of cognitive skills that improve the ability to make credible case judgments.” They consider three versions of such an assumption, and hold that their results are at best compatible with just the weakest version:
According to the Method Model, the student masters a general method of philosophical thought experimentation applicable to any area of philosophy. This model predicts that increased proficiency at philosophical thought experimentation informs all philosophical case judgments regardless of subfield. We found no such pattern in our data. In fact, all observed changes in case judgments were restricted to specific areas of philosophy.
This would seem to support the Subfield Model of philosophical expertise. However, the Subfield Model also predicts that changes in discipline-related cognitive skills affect all case judgments in the relevant subfield and our data indicate otherwise. For example, in the domain of moral philosophy, we found significant changes in responses to the Violinist and the Frankfurt case during and after the second year, when the students were required to take a two-semester course in ethics, but we observed no changes in judgments regarding the Experience Machine.
Thus, the only model that comports with our data is the Restricted Expertise Model, which predicts that cognitive skills involved in making case judgments are highly specific, affecting only some of the judgments relevant to a particular subfield or even concept.
This model is very weak, however. It would be supported even if each case judgment turned out to be affected by a separate cognitive skill. This is a problem because, intuitively, the ability to consistently make a single kind of case judgment hardly deserves the name of a skill. Since we found no persuasive evidence for a robust carryover effect—meaning that no cognitive skill acquired within a particular period seems to have had a significant impact on judgments about cases not discussed in class—we have to consider the possibility that formal training in philosophy does not improve the ability to make such judgments…
What’s the alternative to the expertise assumption? The authors write:
The weaknesses of an expertise-based account of our ﬁndings suggest that perhaps a better explanation of the data is possible that does not appeal to the assumption that variation in the curriculum inﬂuences case judgments via acquired cognitive skills. We believe that there is such an alternative explanation that ﬁts well with the data, though it cannot account for all our observations. This alternative explanation says that most of the changes we have observed did not result from the students’ deploying new cognitive skills, but from the fact that they simply adopted speciﬁc beliefs endorsed by their teachers. This is not to say that philosophy instructors are bent on preserving textbook consensus or indoctrinating their students. Rather, in many classes, the student is required to know the canonical analysis and interpretation of certain thought experiments, and, having learned what they are, may simply adopt the corresponding beliefs without much deliberation.
In sum, in light of our data, it is a plausible supposition that, when it comes to making case judgments elicited by philosophical thought experiments, professional philosophers do not have any special skills distinguishing them from laypeople. The signiﬁcant difference between the two populations is that philosophers have accepted the “standard” interpretation of a number of philosophical thought experiments whereas the folk have not.
You can read the whole study here.[via Josh Knobe]