Rationality Pills #2 - Can science tell us right or wrong?

This is how morality is studied in the laboratory.

Freepik image

Aristotle said that the human being is a 'rational animal'. And throughout history, many philosophers have shared this optimistic view, although some have pointed out weaknesses and blind alleys in human thinking. Only in the last fifty years, however, have cognitive sciences begun to study human rationality and irrationality experimentally. Psychologists, economists and neuroscientists have collected data on how we actually reason and make decisions, both at work and in everyday life. And these studies show us that we are often not rational at all, but victims of cognitive distortions (so-called biases) that lead us to make incorrect or inefficient choices and reasoning. These mental traps affect not only laymen but also experts (scientists, doctors, judges, politicians, consultants, etc.) and cast a shadow of pessimism over the possibility of human beings improving themselves and the society in which they live by using their reason. On the other hand, the increasingly accurate knowledge we have of our mind and its spontaneous reasoning and decision-making strategies (so-called heuristics) allows us to use countermeasures and cognitive tools to avoid traps and improve our decisions. The MInD research group at Scuola IMT studies both the theory and practice of human reasoning in order to understand and improve our decisions and their impact on society. In the videos of 'Pills of Rationality' we offer some food for thought.

Magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography and computer tomography are recent neuroimaging techniques that give us the opportunity to see a part of ourselves that has always fascinated us: our brain. And, above all, to see it in action. Scientists use these techniques to observe and study various functions and behaviours: what happens when we talk or count, when we think about a loved one, or while we dream. These same techniques are also used to see and understand what happens when we have to make ethically demanding decisions, moral decisions. Moral philosophy is the discipline that deals with trying to understand what is right and wrong, whether there are rules that must necessarily be followed and, if so, which ones. It is the philosophical debate par excellence. But we all know that understanding what is right to do, morally speaking, is anything but simple.

Neuroscientists study morality and how it works by combining the use of neuroimaging techniques with special experiments in philosophical reasoning, so-called moral dilemmas. The 'initiator' of this line of research was Joshua Greene, a researcher at Harvard University, who with his team presented various moral dilemmas to subjects within functional magnetic resonance imaging, observing the activation of different areas of the brain. From their studies, Greene and colleagues postulate the existence of two processes, which would seem to interact in responding to moral dilemmas: one process more based on abstract reasoning, which would prefer a response more focused on the consequences of the action, and one, on the other hand, more based on emotions, which would take into account other factors beyond the simple 'mathematical calculation' of consequences. It would seem that these two processes can co-exist and sometimes compete, leading different people to give diametrically opposed answers to the same moral dilemma. What these results tell us about the philosophical debate remains to be clarified.

Watch the video to learn more.

You might also be interested in

SocietyMind and Brain

Rationality Pills #4 - Experts are (not) always right

How do we decide whom to trust? The philosophy of science tries to answer.

SocietyMind and Brain

Rationality Pills #1 - What is nudge?

The MInD research group at Scuola IMT studies both the theory and practice of human reasoning.

SocietyMind and Brain

Rationality Pills #3 - Being better on social media

Here are some 'tricks' from the research to experience virtual environments more serenely.