Desiderata for a post on X-Phi

I’ve been struggling to complete a blog entry on the recent trend towards experimental philosophy (X-Phi) for more than a week now. (What’s X-Phi?The New New Philosophy, Dr. J’s Take) However, I’ve been trying to push some other writing out the door, and so it keeps taking a back seat. Things got worse when I went to Marc Hauser‘s lecture at GWU “How We Evolved a Moral Organ.” (I have a copy of the lecture if anyone’s interested.) Hauser is a cognitive scientist, working on a lot of the same issues that X-Phi-ers do, but thoroughly within the framework of the natural sciences.

I’ve found that I simply can’t navigate the competing demands of completeness and brevity if I let an issue stew too long. So, here are some issues I’ll try to address in more depth in other fora: over a cup of coffee, or in a journal-published book review sometime soon.

1. In the 1970s Benjamin Libet did groundbreaking work on consciousness and the phenomenology of time working with a friendly neurosurgeon who let him play around with patient’s brains. He discovered backdating and offered pretty damning proof of determinism. Philosophers of mind have been mining these experiments for decades, but notice the crucial thing about his work: he didn’t have any particular expertise in cutting people’s brains open, just in thinking up interesting tests and interpreting the results.

2. A lot of what X-Phi-ers do already happens in other departments: anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, etc. On the one hand, interdisciplinary work is good: I’ve benefited immeasurably from my time with political scientists and lawyers. On the other hand, departmental infighting for resources is already pretty bad…. let’s not make it worse. That said,  if X-Phi is really as good as its apologists claim, there will be more resources for all. The whole university is founded on the ‘love of wisdom’ we branded ourselves with back when we had to compete with the sophists for students, and look where that got us! Maybe competition is good.

3. Wearing my hat as a political philosopher, I struggle to see exactly what X-Phi has to offer me. I think I first heard of “X-Phi” through the work of Jonathan Haidt on partisanship and moral intuition. His research showed that conservative and progressive views could be attributed to certain fundamental intuitions that human beings don’t all share, and others have gone on to demonstrate that these differences are neurophysiological in orgin: even the brains of partisans work differently. Yet this experimental data merely confirmed what we already knew from careful attention to history, not to mention current events. Politics has long served as the only laboratory we need: democracy is the ultimate experiment. Something about X-Phi feels a little bit beside the point, especially those of us who feel an affinity for Marx’s original prescription that the point is not to describe the world but to change it. There’s great work in political science and sociology on decision theory, group polarization, Condorcet’s jury theorem, prejudice, preference-formation, trust, social cohesion, institutional design, and a host of issues directly relevant to the questions “What is Justice?” and “How shall we live?” X-Phi has a way to go before it can prove itself indispensable to my sub-field.

4. If X-phi is nothing new, then we’re looking at a branding phenomenon. Branding doesn’t have to be bad, of course: it’s useful to assemble a novel constellation of problems and practices under a new umbrella. When I first heard of it, I thought it was a stupid name… but then, I thought “google” was a stupid name for a search engine in the nineties. (I was an Alta Vista man!) What do I know? If people want an “X’ in their philosophy, or philia in their sophistry, more power to them. 

5. I do struggle to understand what was wrong with “cognitive science,” though. I thought that name was sexy and interdisciplinary enough to last more than the couple of decades we’ve gotten out of it. I mean come on! A functionalist account of mind developed under the title “COG-sci”. Get it? “Cog”? Like in a machine! Which is what the brain is ! No? Ok… nevermind.

6. There -is- something new about X-Phi: it’s drawing research dollars back to philosophy departments. X-Phi-ers need money for fMRIs, they need money to conduct largescale, controlled interviews and surveys. These projects put graduate students to work collating data, they let us teach new courses, invent new sub-specialties, attract new students. Philosophy departments are notoriously underfunded (insert the old joke about needing only pens and paper and dispensing with trash bins) and this is a chance to feed at the trough of federal science dollars and fancy institutes with endowments and grant money. However, remember Eisenhower’s warning that research funding is an addiction that ultimately subordinates inquiry to funding. Large sums of money generally come with thick and tightly-held strings attached. It starts with demanding testable hypotheses and the next thing you know, your funders want industrial applications and a prototype for the Pentagon.  Even as it has suffered for not being quite so well-funded as engineering or law, philosophy has benefited, a bit, from not being beholden to grant-makers.

7. The social sciences have people who devote themselves to methodology, who keep everyone’s statistics and research design honest. Philosphers don’t have in-house methods people: we’ve been content with symbolic logicians as our methodological police. In breaking new ground, there are probably going to be some major methodological snafu in the early years of X-Phi. By the same token, we don’t have a professional culture that cultivates a research ethos for human subjects. We can only hope for a controversy the size of the Stanford Prison Experiment… which, by the way, was a handy bit of pre-branded X-Phi.

8. I have a fundamental skepticism that I’ve been struggling to articulate without sounding like a fuddy-duddy. Here’s my best attempt: experimental inquiry into the neural sources of moral intuitions or the polled preferences of a population can accurately describe human beings, but it seems to beg the normative questions that philosophers have traditionally tackled. Of course, the descriptive/prescriptive divide has never been as wide as we philosophers would like to think. Theorists of moral reasoning have often assumed, without evidence, a particular relationship between calculation and the passions, but though Kantians and care-ethicists may draw fundamentally different conclusions on the basis of their differing assumptions, the truth of the matter is a scientific fact. Descriptive philosophy and philosophy that depends on ‘folk psychology’ is especially vulnerable to scientific disproof, which, put positively, means we stand to benefit most from scientific rigor. At the end of the day, though, you won’t find justice in an fMRI. Oh God, I do sound like a fuddy-duddy. So sue me: I’m a sentimental old codger who makes his living on the is-ought gap.

9. One last caveat: X-Phi currently seems to suffer from a lack of metastudies. Interpreting your own experimental data is well and good, but even in my limited experience as an enthusiastic outsider, I’ve seen enough X-Phi work to know that competing, mutually-exclusive theories are collecting mountains of experimental evidence in their favor. For instance, Hauser’s Moral Organ has as much evidence in its favor as the competing Kluge theory of ad hoc moral intuitions. When can we expect these experimenters to start trying to synthesize the competing data with their own? When can we expect, in the best tradition of the natural sciences, some theoretical winnowing to occur? Isn’t the great promise of X-Phi that we can finally resolve some of these big questions?

10. I hope none of this sounds like exclusion or “get-off-my-lawn-ism.” I do welcome our new experiemental colleagues. More questions, more answers, more rigor, more avenues for inquiry… what’s not to like? Just be sure to return that lawn mower: I need something to scare all these kids away.

Queen of the Sciences 4 Life!






3 responses to “Desiderata for a post on X-Phi”

  1. Dr. J Avatar

    Just gave this a quick read, and I’ll be back to comment more on the details, but I wanted to register an objection to your claim that your long-blog-posts go unread…

    I read them!

    1. admin Avatar

      You’re right: that sounded sort of whiny so I’ve cut the complaining from the original post. Thanks!

  2. Noel Holston Avatar
    Noel Holston

    Greetings. This is not a comment but, rather, a request. I’m looking for a source who can comment thoughtfully on TV’s antihero outbreak (old news, actually, but still underexplored, I think). Would appreciate an email to set up phone interview about this topic.

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