The Problem of Free Will: When Philosophy Meets Modern Science

The question of whether we have free will has been studied since antiquity, and continues to be a hotly debated topic in contemporary philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, literature, physics and other disciplines. Almost all famous philosophers have proposed ideas on free will. We all have the feeling of being free creatures, but researchers from different backgrounds tell us that almost everything – even our thoughts and feelings – are actually determined (by laws of physics, biology, psychology, sociology etc.). Therefore: could free will be an illusion ? In this course we will explore the question of free will mainly from the point of view of philosophy, but occasionally also from the angle of neuroscience, quantum physics and other disciplines – even including the works of the great Tolstoy.

A large part of the course will be dedicated to the theories of well-known philosophers including Democritus, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Popper and with a special emphasis on various present-day thinkers. On the neuroscience side, special attention will be given to the findings of Libet regarding the neuronal activity involved in decision making. A link will be made with probably the most famous debate in physics, namely the Einstein – Bohr debate, on the question of whether nature is fundamentally deterministic or probabilistic ? Thus some of the questions we will study are: How to reconcile our obvious feeling of being free agents, with recent findings in natural science ? How can one define free will ? How to conceive of moral and legal responsibility and autonomy in view of a refined concept of free will ? Time permitting, we will also touch upon the following question (under investigation at the School of Advanced Studies): What are some of the most important consequences and lessons humanities and social sciences can draw from an informed debate on free will?

Louis Vervoort:

I studied physics in Ghent (MSc in engineering physics), Marseille (PhD) and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (post-doc). Already in this period my main interests shifted from classic physics to the foundations of the field – a research area in which the fundamental axioms are questioned and investigated. This brought me naturally to philosophy, which I studied at the University of Montreal (PhD). Some of the advantages of working in philosophy are that it allows to address a broad range of interests, and that it somehow incites to look for the unifying ideas, the fashionable ‘big picture’ (I will leave this little idea here very vague). Philosophy also encourages to ask ethical questions on research, technology, science and society. If I would have to summarize my most eye-opening experience of these last years, then it would be the observation that, at the very fundamental level, science and philosophy are solidly intertwined, and can greatly inspire each other. An idea popular among interdisciplinary practitioners, but not yet popular enough in other communities!