Free Will, Consciousness, Determinism

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, economics, 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?
  • Human-AI interactions: ethical concerns, trust in AI, AI-based decision-making (e.g., personnel management including employment and dismissals)

1 Cf. internet website, 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.