Research Projects

SAS relies on interdisciplinary research teams integrated into global academic networks; structurally, these teams replace traditional disciplinary departments and ensure intensive communication among faculty members within and across disciplines.

About Project

Across the world citizenship is increasingly beset by the challenges of political apathy, popular polarization, media wars, civil strife, minority exclusion, and commodification of passports. How to forge inclusive, cohesive and responsible citizenship? This question occupies the attention of many among the public, decision-makers, and scholars. Historically, four dimensions have been important in the analysis of citizenship: membership status, citizens’ rights and duties, political participation, and identity. Among these, citizen identity has been the important area of inquiry, having generated a vast amount of scholarship in history, sociology, political science, and psychology. However, contemporary theoretical approaches to identity in citizenship studies remain loosely connected to the adjacent fields and disciplines, which meanwhile have gone through the cognitive revolution. Indeed, while scholars of citizenship still focus on citizen identity as normative civil culture, mechanism of ethnocultural inclusion, and sense of political membership, many psychologists and political scientists have moved to the cognitive perspective (such as John Zaller, Susan Fiske, Shelley Taylor, John Turner). They have been treating identity as an interpretative frame and citizens’ minds as information processing systems which encode information based on existing memory structures and, thereby, guide decision-making. Instead of considering identity as a mere sense of belonging or a set of civil values, we consider identity as a “perceptual screen” through which citizens see the world of politics. The Cognitive Citizenship project attempts to bring the research on citizen identity in line with contemporary cognitive approaches in social sciences. It features several subprojects which draw on this shared theoretical perspective. Specifically, the team focuses on aspects of citizenship such as the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying political cognition, environmental action and minority inclusion.

Research Team

social neuroscience
media studies, sociology

About Project

The very framing of education today (to achieve economic success in an increasingly competitive and unstable labor market, to attain growingly unattainable normative standards of happiness and well-being, to develop adequate skills of civic participation to prop up fragile democratic cultures, etc.) seems to be one giant generator of anxiety for students, teachers, and society at large. We believe that these framings are in urgent need of interrogation, both from an empirical and an ideological standpoint. To this end we propose three streams of research converging around these issues of pedagogy, anxiety, and crisis.

The first is a conceptual analysis of the language by which we describe learning processes today. We want to develop a descriptive language that is more precise than prevailing attempts to name the current condition of learning. To this end, we are interested in critically interrogating conceptions of students, teachers, parents, and educational reformers of all stripes that overinflate a sense of agency and efficacy.

The second stream of research is empirical, drawing on methodologies in neurobiology and psychology to study existing cultures of learning. We would like to affirm the perceptions of students in our research, and thereby aim to incorporate students at SAS in both research design and as research subjects.

The third is an attempt at concept formation, in the philosophical and sociological tradition, wherein we try to develop more normative conceptions of learning processes in times of “crisis and anxiety.” A major part of this work will be to bring into conversation literature on tragedy, crisis, anxiety, and education, with education providing the primary domain in which we want to develop these normative concepts.

Research Team

philosophy, psychoanalysis, neuroscience
philosophy

About Project

The “problem of free will” (What is free will ? Do we really have free will ?) is a classic of philosophy; a staggering number of “great minds” have expressed their opinion on this topic, virtually from all disciplines, including Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Tolstoy, and Einstein. While philosophy was the mother discipline from which the topic sprang, in recent times several other disciplines have joined the debate, in particular neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, computer science and physics. Both in professional and broad-public texts the link between free will, consciousness and (in)determinism is often immediately made. For instance, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy starts its entry on free will thus1: “Most of us are certain that we have free will, though what exactly this amounts to is much less certain. According to David Hume, the question of the nature of free will is ‘the most contentious question of metaphysics.’ If this is correct, then figuring out what free will is will be no small task indeed. Minimally, to say that an agent has free will is to say that the agent has the capacity to choose his or her course of action. But animals seem to satisfy this criterion, and we typically think that only persons, and not animals, have free will. […] This article considers why we should care about free will and how freedom of will relates to freedom of action. It canvasses a number of the dominant accounts of what the will is, and then explores the persistent question of the relationship between free will and causal determinism […].” The typical human capacity referred to in this passage, not shared by animals, is usually considered to be consciousness or (other) cognitive capacities.

In recent years, a strong impetus has been given to the theoretical philosophical research by experimental advances in neurobiology, and by an increasing interest in humanoid functions and capacities that could be realized by robots, in general systems steered by artificial intelligence (AI). For instance, in 2008 neuroscientists have reported, based on the measurement of brain activity by fMRI, that ‘free’ choices of test persons (namely the choice to lift their left or right hand) could be predicted up to 10 seconds (!) before the test person consciously made the decision to pick one or the other hand2. To many researchers, notably neurobiologists, scientific results as these put free will in question. As another example among the many, in 2017 cognitive neuroscientists published an article in Science entitled “What is consciousness, and could machines have it?”3 – an example of the exponentially rising interest in machine-based forms of consciousness. In physics too, the question of free will has been discussed in 2018 and linked to one of the key problems of physics, i.e. the unification of quantum mechanics and relativity theory – namely by Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft4.

In this project, we start from the assumption that there is a clear case for studying free will and its link with consciousness and (in)determinism by a resolutely interdisciplinary approach. In particular, we intend to scrutinize the topic from the angle of philosophy, computer science / IT, neurobiology and physics. Some of the topics and questions we are interested in  

  • What is the scientific basis of free will and consciousness? What are interesting philosophical issues discussed in the contemporary literature? What lessons can be learned from philosophy and natural science for the formal and social sciences? And v.v.?
  • Artificial consciousness: what are the prospects for emulating consciousness (and free will) in AI-systems and robots? Is this even conceivable, and if yes, under which conditions? How could neuroscience inform this research? How can philosophy (of science, of mind) inform this research? Which approaches and tools from IT and computer science are relevant in this research?
  • Compatibility issue: Are free will and determinism compatible? Are free will and (quantum) indeterminism compatible? Explore the link with the Einstein-Bohr debate on the ultimate deterministic or indeterministic (= probabilistic) nature of physical reality. Can this topic meaningfully be linked to the unification program in physics? 
  • Distinguishing the various types of consciousness (e.g. rational consciousness [our emphasis until now], subjective or experiential consciousness, unconsciousness,…). Link between consciousness and cognition. How do people think? How to upgrade AI systems in order to approach (enhanced) human cognition?
  • Is retrocausality a metaphysical and/or a physical possibility? If so, how would it affect the notion of free agency and deliberation? Is quantum mechanics (especially the superdeterminism interpretation) compatible with retrocausality?

1 Cf. internet website https://www.iep.utm.edu/freewill/, retrieved 14.10.2019.

2 Chun Siong Soon et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain, Nature Neuroscience 11, 543 - 545 (2008)

3 Stanislas Dehaene et. al, What is consciousness, and could machines have it?, Science 27, Vol. 358, Issue 6362, pp. 486-492 (2017).

4 Gerard ‘t Hooft, Free Will in the Theory of Everything, arXiv:1709.02874 [quant-ph] (2018), cf. https://arxiv.org/abs/1709.02874

Research Team

molecular biology and neuroscience
philosophy, physics
IT, computer science

About Project

As liberal democracies around the world face the challenges of populism, constitutional crisis, and data-engineering, the rhetoric of a “democracy in danger” is ever-present. Recent critiques have perceived democracy to be either under attack (Howard 2019; Mounk 2018), weakened and in need of care (Honig 2016), or requiring urgent renewal (Hooker 2017). Within this climate, existing definitions of democracy — as a system in which community members take collective actions, or as a mode for securing common interests through direct or indirect participation in community decision-making — no longer seem fit for purpose (Laclau & Mouffe 1985; Cohen 1989; Dahl 2000; Crick 2003). Increasingly we find ourselves asking: Do we still know what democracy is? Moreover, would we necessarily recognize it if we saw it?

Laboratories of Democracy proposes starting off “on the ground,” investigating a set of case studies that may help us reframe debates about democracy’s nature, orientation, and capacities in the twenty-first century. Connecting research in political theory, environmental anthropology, pre-modern history, and cultural studies, the project will focus on a series of marginal experiments in autonomous communal living, each separated from the “outside world,” either geographically or ideologically. These cases will include: a set of intentional communities in the contemporary US; a commune of authors and activists in late-twentieth-century France; multispecies households, shared between humans, animals, and spirits, in present-day Southern Siberia; human-nature relationships in seventeenth-century Russia; and a constellation of monastic communities in twelfth-century England and Italy. While occupying disparate points in time and space, these experiments articulate an intriguing set of parallels in their vision of what communal living should be, and what it might do. As “laboratories of democracy,” they test the limits of an anti-political autonomy in isolation, simultaneously exposing potential fault-lines for mapping the democratic challenges of the century ahead.

We propose to analyze these case studies as a “nexus of intentionalities” (Gell 1996: 29), or as “architectures of relationships/socialities,” in which shared living spaces act as contact zones between community members. Our aim is to investigate how community members sustain their collective living through mutual entanglements and adjustments, and how — through these practices — they correspond to the outside world. We are also interested in analyzing how these entanglements of interests and intentionalities transform the shared living spaces we focus on. While not attempting to offer a solution for today’s challenges or to suggest a unifying model of communal living, we do seek to provide empirical material for thinking about the connections formed between community members as they adjust to each other’s practices, or as they unite their interests and, in doing so, build a shared space together.

Research Team

cultural studies, comparative literature, critical theory
history, cultural studies
history
Evgeny Grishin
(external member)
law, political science
Zachary Reyna
(external member)
environmental anthropology
Anna Varfolomeeva
(external member)

About Project

What are the social and individual implications of the manipulation of human natural characteristics and abilities related to sensory perception? The construct of society is determined by what members of that society perceive and how they interact in both competitive and cooperative manners. While nature and evolution selected a certain range of capabilities that imposed limits to the human capacity to perceive and perform, culture and technology have modified such abilities and changed the way we understand and interact with the environment.

Sensory perception evolved biologically as a network of neuro-mechanisms ensuring the survival and reproductive success of Homo sapiens. The sensitivity of the sensory systems was selected to favor the range of interactions that humans could physiologically respond to through autonomic and cognitive reactions. The evolution of advanced cognitive capabilities and the consequential evolution of culture propelled humanity into an area of sensory perception beyond that of those derived through genetic evolution. Humanity began hence to seek ways to manipulate sensory perception through conscious intervention in all steps along the operational chain of sensing—from stimuli to reception to neural processing, to obtain desired behavioral outputs.

The continuous pattern of such interventions through history suggests an innate desire to expand the boundaries of human neurobiology. By examining the history of modification, enhancement, compensation, and control of human physiological and psychological capabilities, this project will evaluate the impact of these manipulations so that causal relationships and predictive models can be conceptualized and studied.

Read more about the project

Research Team

film and media studies
anthropology, GIS
film and media studies