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Experimenting with Morality

 by Bennett Gordon

Tags: Science, Spirituality, philosophy, x-phi, morality,

Questions of morality and free will are often relegated to the smoky libraries of philosophers. A new school of thought, known as the x-phi, is trying to change that by integrating brain-scanning technology, questionnaires, and field experiments to figure out the fundamental questions of human existence. Writing for Prospect, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton of the delightfully cerebral podcast Philosophy Bites, explore this emerging trend that straddles the line between philosophy and neurology.

Adherents of x-phi, or experimental philosophy, are trying to “to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre,” Edmonds and Warburton write. Instead of relying on traditional philosophical assertions like “we all know…” or “ we can all agree that…” the x-phi adherents rely on evidence to test assumptions about the human mind.

The experiments are yielding thought-provoking results. Edmonds and Warburton explain in depth how x-phi experimentation suggests surprising (though complicated) answers to fundamental questions of free will, responsibility in a world where free will may not exist, and the role that emotions play in clouding human judgments.

A recent finding that could be considered x-phi was published in Science a GoGo, contending that “specific brain circuits and pathways might be responsible for wisdom.” The researchers found that common areas of the brain are involved in moral decision making, conflict detection, and other traits associated with wisdom. New York Times columnist David Brooks has touched on similar ideas, most recently writing about an evolutionary approach to morality.

The popularization of x-phi also attracted plenty of detractors. Many question x-phi’s reliance on technology like brain scans. Current MRI technology is too crude to yield meaningful results, according to philosopher and medical scientist Raymond Tallis quoted in the Prospect piece. If an MRIs can’t differentiate between physical pain and social rejection, which both light up the same areas of the brain, they can scarcely be relied upon for meaningful real-world philosophical insights.

Criticism aside, the school of thought continues to gain adherents. There are now x-phi blogs, books, a logo (of an armchair on fire), and even an anthem posted on YouTube. Edmonds and Warburton write, “If philosophy can ever be, x-phi is trendy.”