The Epiphenomenal Soul

Jeff Lipshaw has a good discussion of the recent journalistic obsession with experimental philosophy (x-phi). He also promotes a less modish work by Susan Neiman, entitled Moral Clarity. The x-phi crowd is very interested in recording the brain activity of subjects who are asked questions about whether, say, they would divert a trolley that was going to kill two persons onto a track where it would only strike one person. Neiman asks the following questions (among others):

What kinds of heroes are modern heroes? How do we talk about evil without slinging curses and mud? Learn to make moral judgments without clear instructions? Where does optimism end, and hope begin?

Having skimmed Neiman’s introduction, I hope her questions get at least the level of attention that the x-phi crowd gets.

Consider a recent transcript from the radio show Justice Talking, where a leading x-philer (Joshua Greene) discusses the implications of his research.

MARGOT ADLER: Brain scans are showing up in the courts for all kinds of cases, sometimes to raise questions about diminished capacity to form intent to commit a crime. Does brain imaging really show this?

STEPHEN MORSE: It couldn’t possibly show this. There are two points to make clear right at the beginning: The criteria in law for responsibility and competence are all behavioral, broadly speaking, to include mental states and actions, and unless there was an absolute precise correlation between the behaviors the law was concerned with and particular brain findings, brain findings can’t show diminished capacity. All they can show is a state of the brain. A stateof diminished capacity is a state of diminished rationality. That’s a behavioral state.

MARGOT ADLER: Josh, do you agree with that?

JOSHUA GREENE: I suppose that I come to this from psychology and philosophy as well as neuroscience. And I have some doubts about whether or not the letter of the law really conforms to people’s intuition about who’s responsible and who’s not. So the law says that you’re responsible for this bad thing, that you did — if you were rational at the time, that you committed the act. And that’s a consistent standard that one can attempt to apply. But I think that it’s not necessarily what people really deeply intuitively have in mind.

Was it this person? This mind? This soul that committed this crime? Or was it just some mechanical thing, like a brain tumor or something they couldn’t control, like their genes or something like that? And the reason why we’re prompted to ask this question — can brain imaging change the way we think about the law — is because what neuroscience does is it gives us a mechanical picture of a human agent. And I think that that mechanical picture — even though I think it correct, is not compatible with our ordinary intuitions about, responsibility. And so I think that’s where this tension comes from, and that’s why the questions about neuroscience and its implications arise. (emphasis added)

Greene is a scrupulous scientist, and I have no little doubt that he accurately conveys the “mechanical picture of a human agent” that his studies suggest. But every research program is driven by a particular agenda, and it’s useful to elucidate Greene’s:

MARGOT ADLER: Even if we don’t understand all of that, the fear, I think, that many people have is that as this goes forward all of our notions of free will are going to be sort of thrown out the window. Is that where we’re going? Josh?

JOSHUA GREENE: I think that what’s exactly going to happen, eventually, and this may take 500 years or 1,000 years, but eventually is that our major notions of free will are going to go out the window. That is, free will as we ordinarily conceive it as, the behavior of an unmoved mover, as a mind that is separate from the causal flow of the universe.

I’m perfectly willing to entertain Greene’s metaphysics here, but it’s important to see how much it may be driven by his theory of ethics. For example, consider his discussion of a hypothetical derived from a MASH episode in the last five minutes of this radio show (sorry, no transcript!).

To summarize very briefly, Greene posits a scenario whereby a mother in a village hiding from a vicious enemy faces a tragic choice: allow her baby to cry and thus alert the enemy to their hideout (leading to the death of the whole village), or smother the baby and save the village. Greene finds that the persons who make the traditional utilitarian choice (smother the baby) have more activity in the “rational calculating” part of the highly evolved human brain; those who resist that option are more attuned to their inner chimp–the visceral, emotional side of thought. Though Greene hedges a bit, the direction of his thought is clear: as we understand the brain better, perhaps we’ll be less enslaved to the counterproductive relics of evolution some deem central to their ethical thought.

The narrative of progress here reminds me of Martha Nussbaum’s take on Agamemnon’s self-justification in the face of killing his daughter in order to advance his war aims:

We notice two points in this strange and appalling utterance. First, his attitude towards the decision itself seems to have changed with the making of it. From the acknowledgment that a heavy doom awaits him either way, and that either alternative involves wrongdoing, he has moved to a peculiar optimism. . . . An act that we were prepared to view as the lesser of two hideous wrongs and impieties has now become for him pious and right. . . .[Fragility of Goodness, 35].

My sense is that Greene’s peculiar optimism lies in an expectation that if he can convince enough people that certain inconvenient or inefficient moral responses are simply artifacts of evolution, the world can be made a much better place. My pessimism lies in an awareness that the more a “mechanized” view of the human mind becomes widespread, the more likely we are to be subject to (or enthusiastically embrace) the “shaping mechanisms” that make us more efficient economic competitors.

Finally, here is a review of Anthony Appiah’s response to the x-phi trend:

[S]cientists around the world are exploring how we reason about right and wrong, looking not only at the usual pool of undergraduate volunteers but also at specialized populations like hunter-gatherers, children and psychopaths. And there is a rich body of theoretical work in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology that attempts to explore the rationale behind our moral thoughts and feelings.

If I were a philosopher, I’d find this flattering but also a bit worrying, particularly since some of the scientists see their work as ultimately replacing traditional philosophy. For them, it is not a collaboration; it is a hostile takeover.

In the short and brilliant “Experiments in Ethics,” the Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses this research and what it means for ethics. Appiah isn’t worried at all. He starts by pointing out that philosophy has almost always had an experimental side. David Hume, for instance, was adamant that moral philosophy had to be grounded in facts about human nature, in psychology and history. Even Kant, among the most abstract and abstruse of scholars, mixed his moral philosophy with practical observations and suggestions, on topics including child raising (“games with balls are among the best for children”). The idea of philosophy as an isolated discipline, Appiah argues, is a relatively newfangled idea, and not a good one.


Talking about the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, Appiah suggests that “if you or I had been planted on this earth as Hutus at that time and place, we too would probably have been participants.” While I think this point is often somewhat overstated (after all, there are those who behave nobly regardless of where they are, as well as those who are monsters in the best of times), Appiah is probably right when he concludes that we should place less emphasis on “character education” and focus more on trying to establish situations in which people’s better selves can flourish.

Some good support for the project of the Situationist blog.

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