Give It Up X-Phi Bitches — Science Cannot Measure Ethical Goodness

Illustration for article titled Give It Up X-Phi Bitches — Science Cannot Measure Ethical Goodness

Neuroscience cultural critic Jonah Lehrer has just written about a strange new subculture: experimental philosophy, or x-phi. These ethical innovators want to combine the scientific method and its tools, like fMRI brain scans, with traditional philosophy. Many x-phi adherents are eager to do things like, say, map the neurology of altruistic behavior. Find out why x-phi is also the first school of philosophy to advocate burning furniture and vidcasting after the jump.

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Rarely have I ever learned about a new philosophical trend on YouTube, but that's what's great about x-phi. It's all about the outreach. A guy who could be in Weezer, or could be your TA, offers a 3.5 minute rundown of twentieth century philosophical revolutions leading up to the x-phi revolution in this illuminating mini-lecture (note the stuffed deer head and weird music in background). Then there's the x-phi music video, featuring a burning chair (a reference to the idea that the best tool for doing philosophy is an old armchair).

But what kinds of scientific experiments have these radical philosophers of YouTube conducted? Have they located the seat of reason or judgment in the brain? Have they found neurons that twitch when you contemplate the Heidiggerian idea of "das Ding"?

Apparently, no. They spend a lot of time arguing about what counts as x-phi, and adding crap to their Facebook group page. When you investigate the "labs" where x-phi happens, you find out that they mostly study things like how people use language. They don't have EEG setups; they have discussion groups. The one reference I could find to an actual x-phi experiment involved giving people surveys to ask what they thought about a couple of basic ethical questions about the environment. This is not hard science, people.

I'm not going to take these x-phi geeks seriously until they start cutting up brains, torturing mice, and forcing undergraduates to look at weird pictures while strapped into MRI machines.

Experimental Philosophy [The Frontal Cortex]

DISCUSSION

zivbattus-old
ZivBattus

Firstly, your post and its title reflect very different objections. Your title criticizes X-phi for thinking science can tell us things it can't, whereas your post criticizes X-phi for not doing real science.

Secondly, if you want to know about the interaction between philosophers, FMRIs, brains, neural nets etc. then cognitive science is where that's happening, and has been for years. In case you don't know, it's basically a big, loose interdisciplinary undertaking between philosophers, logicians, linguists, neuroscientists, computer scientists and psychologists to map, theorize about and understand the mind/brain.

The main point of X-phi is a good one, I think, though perhaps less significant than they make it sound. Philosophers tend to put a lot of stock in intuition - they 'refute' opponents by showing their opponents' views to have counterintuitive consequences, they appeal to our intuitive responses to thought experiments in order to back up their conclusions, etc. The problem is it's very easy from the armchair to assume that everyone shares your intuitions. So the X-phi people say something like "oh, you think it's intuitive that P? really? well let's go ask the masses", hence conducting surveys etc. about the use of language. It's a modest but reasonable move.