Mark Alfano is a researcher for the SMV-funded research project, “Giving from the Heart: The Role of the Heart and the Brain in Virtuous Motivation and Integrity.”
My research is in moral psychology and applied ethics. After a brief stint in television news, I started my graduate work in philosophy studying American pragmatism. I became increasingly interested in the relationship between normative ethics and the philosophy of mind and my dissertation reflects this confluence. In a sentence, I argue that virtue theory is often overly individualistic, and that converging evidence from the biological and psychological sciences requires us to re-think operative notions of self, cognition, and affect.
The best part about working on questions of self, identity, character, etc., is that it’s very natural for the research to cross disciplinary boundaries. And it’s in this spirit that Christina, Mark, and I started working together. We were all interested in the many ways that many aspects of the self (e.g., implicit attitudes, explicit attitudes, behavior) can hang together – or not. We came at these questions from different angles given our background and training, but what we’ve ended up with, I think, are some pretty cool philosophically-informed experimental designs, and empirically-informed theories of self, generosity, and integrity.
In hindsight, one of the things that got me really jazzed about studying philosophy was the research in situated cognition. I remember one of my teachers telling me that situated cognition was like the punk rock of philosophy of mind. I liked that and it seemed right (though maybe it’s a bit more mainstream and ‘pop’ now?). While I had read quite a lot about embodied theories of mind, meaning, emotion, etc., it never occurred to me (or anyone I was reading) to study the actual, physiological underpinnings of all of these theoretical constructs. So when Christina introduced us to the huge literature in cardiac physiology and trained us on the methods, it really changed my perspective on a lot of philosophical theorizing about the importance of embodiment in moral psychology and the philosophy of mind. I hope our research can help to put some of these psychophysiological methods on the map for philosophers, because I think there is a lot of unrealized potential for fruitful exchange.