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 and arts, 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 psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, 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 thus: “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 hand. To many researchers, especially 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?” – 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 Hooft.
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, psychology, history and physics. Let us here present a succinct description of some of the lines of research we will explore in this project.
While the philosophical literature assumes that a close link exists between free will and consciousness, the philosophers of the team (Prof. Louis Vervoort and Prof. Julie Reshe) will spell out this link in more detail. The question of whether humans really have a free will or, rather, are entirely determined by their past experiences and the laws and determinants of psychology, sociology, biology, physics etc., hinges on the dichotomy determinism versus indeterminism. Indeed, one may wonder whether all the influences, regularities, “laws”, determinants to which humans are subject, are ultimately deterministic or indeterministic (probabilistic) in nature. This relates to such fundamental physical questions as whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or probabilistic, a topic at the interface of physics and philosophy of science investigated by the physicist of the team (Prof. Louis Vervoort). Determinism and free will / consciousness will also be at the heart of the psychologist’s (Prof. Julie Reshe) contribution to the project. Julie is interested in investigating hidden causal factors which influence human behavior, in other words hidden deterministic mechanisms that shape human consciousness. Following Zapffe's philosophical tradition, Julie tends to discuss consciousness in a tragic key, as a hurtful evolutionary impasse, which creates the illusion of free will. She may furthermore be interested in general psychological questions related to free will, as well as in the therapeutic practices that the present research might inspire.
The computer scientists of the team (Prof. Munesh Chauhan and Prof. Vitaly Nikolaev) will investigate computational models that are relevant for better understanding free will and consciousness from an information-theoretic point of view. Their research will address questions as: Can computer codes emulate forms of consciousness, cognition, free will? What are the main hurdles in developing more advanced AI mimicking consciousness? Can philosophy, psychology, physics trigger ideas that can be translated in computer code? Thus the computer scientists’ work will have a high degree of technicality and involve the study and mastering of computational techniques and sub-disciplines as ANN (artificial neural networks), deep learning, data mining, physical model simulation etc. Their skills may also intervene in a potential collaboration with experimental neuroscientists for interpretation of numerical data, in particular brain-imaging data. The interface of their research with physics, philosophy and psychology will be an active field of research shared with all team members.
In the team’s historian’s (Prof. Tomasz Blusiewicz) core discipline, free will is an implicit assumption of the field: key historical figures are in the vast majority of cases depicted as history-makers rather than as products of history, and even less as products of underlying and necessitating sociological, psychological, medical, neurological etc. infra-mechanisms. However, some historians have made the courageous move to delve into a different form of history writing, taking these largely hidden or unknown deterministic factors much more seriously, and engaging in interdisciplinary investigations involving psychology, medicine, pharmacology, sociology, neuroscience etc. After a literature review of paradigmatic examples of historians who have theorized this type of research, our historian plans to contribute to this debate on the basis of the team’s insights.
We anticipate that numerous surprising and relevant cross-disciplinary collaborations between team members will emerge in the research process, and look forward to collaborations with human and social scientists, neuroscientists, computer scientists and physicists from Russia and abroad!
Cf. internet website https://www.iep.utm.edu/freewill/, retrieved 14.10.2019.
Chun Siong Soon et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain, Nature Neuroscience 11, 543 - 545 (2008)
Stanislas Dehaene et. al, What is consciousness, and could machines have it?, Science 27, Vol. 358, Issue 6362, pp. 486-492 (2017).
Gerard ‘t Hooft, Free Will in the Theory of Everything, arXiv:1709.02874 [quant-ph] (2018), cf. https://arxiv.org/abs/1709.02874