A home for experimental philosophy

I received this note from Mark Phelan, one of the driving forces behind the New Experimental Philosophy. If you are interested, by all means pop over there to participate in some experiments (or even better, design some of your own!!).

Thank you all for signing up to the email list for the experimental philosophy experiment site at http://www.yale.edu/cogsci/XM/Home.html. Over the course of the last week, we have uploaded several new studies to the site and removed many of the old studies. We plan to make more additions over the course of the next week. I invite you to visit the site and participate in these new studies.

Perhaps even more importantly, I want to tell you about our long term goals for the site, and to enlist your help in accomplishing these goals. As many of you no doubt know, experimental philosophy is a new and developing field. In the first few years of the field, many studies were conducted in philosophy classrooms. Sadly, it’s possible that this may have resulted in biased samples, given the philosophical topics experimental philosophers are interested in. Recently, experimental philosophers have begun to run more and more studies online, which makes for a more diverse participant pool, but, given the current “pay-for-participants” resources (such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), can be a real economic drain on philosophers’, who have not traditionally had large research budgets. Our hope in building this site is to design a resource where experimental philosophers can run studies online for free, taking advantage of a large pool of participants who are willing to give a little bit of their time to help advance philosophical research. If this turns out to be a successful model, we hope in the near future to open this resource up to all experimental philosophers.
We thank you for what you have already done to help build this site, by participating in online studies. We believe that the key to the success of this project is building an email list of participants to notify as new studies arise. By signing up for this list, you have already helped us do this. But now we would like to invite you to do something more to help the project. I am attaching to this email several logos we have designed for the website (found at the bottom of the post, and in the image at the top). I invite you to post these on your Facebook, Myspace, or (even) personal webpage, or to forward these through Twitter with a link to our website, at: http://www.yale.edu/cogsci/XM/Home.html.
With your help, I believe we can grow this into the premier site for online research in experimental philosophy.
Mark Phelan
Lawrence University
Notice: Study responses remain completely anonymous and are never tied to your email address. These are collected and stored in different places.


Brain Matters – A Conference Report

bm4 copyLast week, Daniel Buchman and I travelled to Halifax to attend the Brain Matters Conference.  About 125 people attended – philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, and more.  The meeting was quite successful, particularly as it afforded lots of time for hallway conversations.  In the paragraphs below, Daniel and I summarize our impressions of the plenary lectures.

David Healy from Cardiff University gave the opening plenary.  Many will know that Healy had his job offer famously withdrawn by the University of Toronto, with much speculation revolving around the role that pharmaceutical companies had as a guiding hand in the background (for more about the matter, see here.)  At the time, Healy was one of the early voices raising concerns about both efficacy and safety of SSRIs, but in his plenary he focused on a more modern issue: conflict of interest in the pharmaceutical industry.  While there is a abundance of evidence out there about the topic these days,  unfortunately, Healy’s presentation was laced with more innuendo than facts, as was evident in the ensuing discussion when several people challenged him on his evidence and he was forced to back down.

The Friday morning plenary session belonged to Caroline Tait, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Tait, a Medical Anthropologist who identifies as Métis, spoke on how most First Nations or Métis people experience, interpret, and respond to illness, and how this understanding has implications in the formation of Indigenous identity and medical morality.  Tait argued for combining ethical regimes where local Indigenous worldviews are placed on an equal playing field to Western ethical principles. Tait described the case examples of Jordan River Anderson, a child from Norway First Nation House who died from a rare neuromuscular disorder called Carey Fineman Ziter syndrome while the provincial and federal governments fought incessantly on who was financially responsible for his home care. Professor Tait emphasized the reality of how many Indigenous peoples, and children in particular, fall through the cracks of both provincial/territorial and federal systems. The tragic story prompted a Private Members motion called Jordan’s Principle that was passed in the Canadian House of Commons in 2007, and other provinces have since moved to implement, to some extent, Jordan’s Principle to ensure access to government services for First Nations children with complex health challenges.

On Friday afternoon, Walter Glannon from the University of Calgary spoke to a question that has riddled the minds of philosophers since antiquity: do human beings have free will?  Glannon stated that recent studies in the brain sciences suggest that free will is a mere illusion (called the ‘threat’ of neuroscience). If this claim were true, Glannon suggested, society’s current practice of holding people accountable, both morally and legally, would be challenged. Glannon assumed a position of compatibilism and argued that free will and responsibility are not ‘threatened’ by recent empirical work in the brain sciences. Glannon referred to many of the usual suspects on both sides of the debate, such as the infamous Benjamin Libet studies and Daniel Wegner’s provocative book The Illusion of Conscious Will. Glannon also spoke to hard determinist claims, including Robert Kane’s “ultimate responsibility,”and  John Locke’s example of a man who wakes up locked (unknowingly) in a room. Hume’s “liberty of spontaneity,” Fischer’s “guidance control,” and others were offered as  in support of compatibilism. Despite the strength of the philosophical support, he unfortunately did not offer much in demonstrating the contribution of neuroscience to a compatibilist stance on free will. Although Wegner’s and Libet’s causal neurophilosophical models represented the brain science contribution, the only other evidence was a brief mention of Patrick Haggard’s work. Perhaps the most interesting part of the talk was the question period in which strong challenges were raised by members of the audience; at times Glannon answered his critics but other times he was forced to concede that he (or might we suggest, his brain?) could not marshall an appropriate riposte on the spot.

James Bernat from Dartmouth gave what amounted to a Master Class in Brain Death.  A neurologist who has been studying the issue for decades, Bernat took the group through the varying arguments about whether brain accurately represents the biology of human death or not.  Based in systems theory and the concept of emergence, he illustrated how modern technology has made the issue of brain death more challenging: not only has our ability to keep at least some components of biological processes ongoing for long periods of time in the absence of a functioning brain, but as transplantation has become more commonplace, the prospect of physician conflict of interest looms large.  A substantial part of his presentation represented a response to the arguments against the validity of brain death in the recently published study, “Controversies in the Determination of Death” by the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics. To respond to the President’s Council report, he used the framework offered by the recent paper by Raphael Bonelli and colleagues. Bernat’s thoughtful conclusion was that brain death remains the most accurate concept of human death.

Jonathan H. Marks, Director of the Bioethics & Medical Humanities Program at Penn State, injected a healthy dose of skepticism into claims that neuroscience enhances national security.  Reviewing the various tools that have been trotted out over the years to extract information from individuals, he systematically debunked the value of everything from lie detection to waterboarding. [My own personal favorite is the letter by convicted spy Aldrich Ames sent to the Federation of American Scientists.  I particularly like the handwritten version.]  Of course it is not just the futility of these technologies that purport to reveal the ‘truth’, but the ethically dubious grounds on which they were famously deployed under the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” that Marks decried.

The meeting was brought to a close with a rather inspiring lecture by Neil Levy from the University of Melbourne and Oxford University.  Reminding us of Adina Roskies description of neuroethics as constituting the ethics of neuroscience and the neuroscience of ethics, pointed out that the field of neuroethics has an unprecedented opportunity to move forward using the rigorous tools of experimental philosophy (i.e. the Knobe effect – see also video below), applied to the neuroscience of ethics.  The take-home point was not lost on the audience, and Neil’s lecture (complete with a slide of an iconic burning armchair  – as per the video below) concluded the meeting on a resoundingly high note.