Photo of Dr Tillman Vierkant standing next to St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh

Scientific challenges to free will

Investigating whether science and religion are compatible on the issue of free will

Recent work in neurosciences and social psychology have called into question the idea that people possess free will. It suggests that our actions are really controlled by unconscious mechanisms and that the conscious self is nothing more than an illusion.

If free will is an illusion, then the idea that someone can be held morally responsible for their actions might also be an illusion.

Given this interpretation of recent developments in neuroscience, some organised religions have begun to investigate whether science and religion are compatible on the issue of free will. 

Society, Religion & Technology working group

A working group in the Church of Scotland was researching this question in order to establish a set of recommendations.

Dr Tillman Vierkant has produced internationally regarded research on the recent advances in neuroscience. Particularly in relation to the topics of free will and moral responsibility. On this basis, he was invited to join their working group and get involved in activities, such as the 2011 conference ‘It Wasn’t Me, It Was My Neurons’.

Drawing on his research, Till was asked to write roughly half of the group’s report, ‘Neurobiology, Free Will and Moral Responsibility’. He also helped formulate the report’s recommendations to the Church of Scotland. Till played an important role in formulating two specific recommendations:

  1. Recognise that the implications of contemporary neuroscience for free will and moral responsibility are more complex than sometimes supposed.
  2. The Church of Scotland should also play an active and on-going role in exploring these implications.

The recommendations set out in the group’s report are now part of the Church of Scotland’s official policy.

About Tillman Vierkant

Tillman Vierkant is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.
His research interests include philosophy of mind, free will and also neuroethics.

Related study programme

MSc Mind, Language & Embodied Cognition at the University of Edinburgh

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