“FREE will is obviously an age old puzzle. Are we free to make our own choices or are we determined by our genes and our environments?”
Dr Tillmann Vierkant is a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University’s school of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, and has worked with the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology project including helping them report to the General Assembly in 2012.
Among other topics, he studies conscious will and the ‘zombie challenge.’ The zombie challenge is the worry that our behaviour is produced by unconscious processes and our conscious mind does not cause behaviour at all. He says there are many famous empirical findings that have been interpreted as supporting that claim and the discussion whether or not the zombie challenge actually succeeds is still one of the hot topics in philosophy of cognitive science.
Apart from free will and the zombie challenge he works on theory of mind, mental actions, metacognition, neuroethics and many other areas of philosophy of cognitive science.
Born in Bavaria, Tillmann grew up in a largely Catholic culture where the church influence was very present.
“My family was agnostic in spite of our surroundings, but I was always interested in, and on the whole, sympathetic to, the work of the church,” he says.
“As a young philosophy PhD student, I studied with an ethics reading group which was organised by three students with a church background, so I guess interacting with and discussing questions of psychology and matters of faith with people of faith has been part of my life for a long time.
“I went on to study moral and political philosophy in Munich but also worked, as a student job, at the Max Plank Institute for Psychological Research. After my undergraduate degree I was asked by the Director of the Institute, Professor Wolfgang Prinz whether I wanted to do my PhD with them and that’s how I ended up studying philosophy of cognitive sciences.
“Though it’s a topic that concerns many fields from, for example, linguistics to artificial intelligence, in my case it was mainly philosophy of psychology. Philosophy of psychology is on the one hand philosophically informed theoretical psychology and on the other hand a discipline that thinks about psychology as a science.
“When I was offered the chance to come here to Edinburgh to become a lecturer in the subject, being one of the best places to pursue my interests, I could not refuse.”
One of Tillmann’s specialist fields of study is free will. It’s a topic with implications for the Church and one the Society Religion and Technology group were interested in examining and considering.
“Free will” – or the ability to choose freely between different possible options, is a hot topic for those involved in religion. It has been closely linked to concepts of responsibility, guilt, and even sin. It’s a subject that’s been studied by psychologists throughout the years, and one debated by theologians. It’s one of the questions that has plagued mankind since even before the Greek philosophers of old. For some people, the feeling that God is omniscient – that is knows everything that there is to know and knows everything that will be – almost disproves free will. How can there be such a thing if everything is predetermined? We must all simply be living the life we are supposed to be living and doing the things that we need – indeed must – do, in order for God’s Will to be fulfilled. Seen in some ways, it would seem that free will is incompatible with faith in an all-powerful God. It also gives rise to the theory that if people are simply doing what they are destined to do, then can they really be held responsible for their actions?
“Free will is obviously an age old puzzle. Are we free to make our own choices or are we determined by our genes and our environments,” says Tillmann.
“In recent years that puzzle has become more urgent again, because some people in the sciences claimed that they could show that humans are not free.
“A series of experiments was done by neuroscientists who claimed to have shown that consciousness is not involved in the production of behaviour. Instead all our decisions are made by the unconscious brain and we live under the illusion that consciousness is playing a role.”
The theory is that under laboratory conditions, minute but distinct changes in the brain happen just before a decision is made – so that your ‘choice’ is not made by the conscious self, but instead determined by your brain even if just a fraction in advance of your action. Some psychologists have used these experiments to argue that there is no free will – it is all, in effect, pre-determined by your unconscious brain.
The work being done with DNA at the moment and the discovery of genes involved with violence or aggression is also contributing to the modern debate. Again how free is your will if your genetic make up is constantly pushing you in one direction, or to make one choice, over another?
This kind of thinking can in turn seem quite threatening to the church, because they see free will as an essential part of what it is to be a human being.
If Eve was predetermined to pick the apple and give it to Adam then was she guilty of any sin? If Judas was predetermined to betray Jesus, why is he cast as villain instead of being pitied? Some of the most fundamental aspects of Christianity depend on free will and bad choices (as well as good ones).
“I think that all my work is fully compatible with religion, but not with every possible religious claim, and that’s an important distinction,” he says. “Science does change our self-understanding, and obviously a changed self-understanding is a challenge for religion, which tends to be firmly rooted in tradition. Sometimes faith and belief challenges critical scientific thinking. I have always felt that religion can easily react to these changes, but probably this very much depends on which religious person you speak to and some will feel differently from others.
“I met Dr Murdo McDonald, the policy officer of the SRT and himself a molecular biologist, at a neuroethics conference in Glasgow and he invited me to join the SRT group. I admit I was curious and went along and I can say I have very much enjoyed our discussions in this forum.
“The whole thing just developed very organically from the first contact at the conference and my interaction and discussions with the group did not feel surprising really.
“In the project we tried to show that the church does not need to feel threatened by the scientific research because the challenge is flawed. Scientists are specialists in the experimental work they are doing, but their concepts of what free will is are often surprisingly philosophically naïve. Once we use more sophisticated concepts we can show that science and religion are not a threat to the perspective of the other, but can work together. “There are various arguments here, but the point I discussed most with the SRT group was that the scientists did not know the philosophical concept of compatibilism, which is mainstream in philosophy.
“Compatibilists believe that even if your behaviour is determined by your brain that does not mean that it cannot also be free. Great thinkers in the history of the church like Aquinas were compatibilists.
“Also, even if one did not want to accept compatibilism there are very many methodological worries with the experiments, so that at least for the moment the challenge does not seem to be acute.
“After a year or so of great discussion I was asked whether I would help to prepare a report about the work of the group. I only realised a bit later that the report would go to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
“It was an interesting process.
“The report condensed the discussion we had in the group.
I was not at the General Assembly so can’t say how it was received but I know that the Assembly decided to recommend the report for further consideration, so they must have found it interesting at least.
“The University was very happy with our co-operation with the Church and has gone on to use the work of the group as an impact case study.
“As a philosopher our main tool is conceptual analysis from the armchair. Having said that, I work in philosophy of cognitive science, so I get to read and work with lots of fantastic people in the empirical sciences. Actually, last summer I ventured into experimental philosophy. “Philosophers often start from intuitions and claim that they are shared by everybody. Experimental philosophy tests whether people actually have the intuitions philosophers claim they have, by asking them. In this case we wanted to know whether people really thought that an action was more free when it was done after deliberation. It turns out that people think deliberated actions are less free than spontaneous actions, but that they would not say the same thing for responsible actions. Here deliberation comes out on top.
“Working with a famous neuroscientist in Berlin we tried to settle a dispute between the two of us about what people outside academia think about the concept of freedom by asking them. It was a fascinating experience to be involved in setting up a survey.
“The study and work with the SRT is over for the time being but, of course, it would be great to work together again some time in the future. There is so much to be explored together.
“Murdo and I were discussing at some point that we should do more, but as so often in academic life there are too many things all going on at the same time, so until now we have not yet managed to come up with more detailed new ideas.
“I really enjoyed working with the Church on the project.
“It was a great experience. I very much enjoy being in touch with people outside academia. When you work in a highly theoretical discipline like philosophy it is quite easy to be cut off from the world outside. That is a shame because big topics like free will concern us all and not just a number of highly specialised philosophers.
“I have learnt a huge amount from my work with the SRT group and our work together!
“The discussions were absolutely fascinating. To a large part we mainly discussed the experiments and whether they had consequences for the free will debate or whether the zombie challenge held more weight.
“Again it is so important to not lose touch with other parts of the world that are not academic philosophy. SRT was simply wonderful for that.”
Time moves on as does academic research. Tillmann is working on other topics just now, but his principal interest is in free will.
“At the moment I am not working on free will specifically, but more on the nature of intentional mental actions or the question of how much and what kind of control we have over our thinking but free will is never far away. In fact I went to a conference on the topic of choice and free will recently and that opened up some new ideas that might connect my current interest in intentional mental actions with the topic of free will. The question here would be what kind of control we have over our choices and what kind of control over choices would be necessary for free will. It’s all fascinating stuff, and it’s good to know that mainstream churches are considering such philosophical and psychological questions as well.
It might be some time before we have any answers – if we ever do!”
This article first appeared in the September issue of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland. You can subscribe here http://www.lifeandwork.org/subscribe/subscribe
You can read about the SRT Project working group and the report SRT Neurobiology, Freewill and Moral Responsibility for the General Assembly in May 2012 here
Our Discussion Starters leaflet is also available to help you explore the topic further.