One of the world’s most famous philosophy conundrums goes something like this:
You’re standing by a railway line when you see a train hurtling towards you, out of control: the breaks have clearly failed. Fortunately, the runaway train is approaching a junction with a side spur. If you flip a switch you can turn the train off the main route and onto this spur, saving five lives. That’s the good news. The not-quite-so-good news is that on this side-track another person is tied down. Still, the decision is easy, right? By altering the train’s direction only one life need be lost rather than five.
The problem continues:
This time you’re on a footbridge overlooking the railway track. You see the train hurtling towards you and, ahead, five people tied to the rails. Can these five be saved? Again, the moral philosopher has neatly arranged it so that they can. There’s a very fat man leaning over the footbridge. If you were to push him over the footbridge he would tumble over and squelch on to the track. He’s so obese that his bulk would bring the train – Trolley B – to a juddering halt. Sadly, the process would kill the fat man. But it would save the other five.
What should you do? Philosopher Nigel Warburton and journalist David Edmonds this month write an essay investigating such choices—not so much for their capacity for to puzzle, but for what you can learn about the hidden and hard wiring of the human mind by asking them. The fat man on the bridge problem lights up a different part of the brain to that thin man on the tracks. In the essay, the authors lift the lid on the new experimental philosophy, or “x-phi”, movement, which seeks to bring together arm chair theory, neuroscientists with MRIs and psychologists with clip boards and Jungian theory—all in the aid of trying to unpick the basic of human rationality. Not to put it too confusingly, it appears we don’t actually think the way we seem to think we think, one of the reasons why x-phi itself is so controversial among philosophers themselves.
In other news, as you’ll see to the right of this post, Prospect this month is launching its first podcast: you can find it on this very blog, just to the right in the middle of our menus. Nigel, who has become our Resident Philosopher, will every month examine a problem in the news. Its a small experiment, so do tell us if you like it.