Philosophy and Science of Free Will

Summer 2017 Seminar

Derk Pereboom (Cornell University)

Marcel Brass (Ghent University)

July 3-8, 2017 (9-12 pm)

600 Renwen Building
Renmin University of China

July 3

Philosophy Lecture 1
9-12 pm
What is the free will debate about, and what is its structure?

In this lecture, I will provide an account of the free will debate, focusing on what is at stake, and on the challenges that have been posed to our having free will. The lecture will focus specifically on the libertarian conception of freedom, according to which have the power to act without being causally determined by factors beyond our control. I will outline the different libertarian views that have been proposed, and the strongest responses to them. These responses indicate why there is a problem for belief in free will.

Science Lecture 1
2-5 pm
What is the human will and where can we find it?

In this lecture, I will give a brief overview of neurocognitive methods that have been used to investigate the neural correlates of human volition. Furthermore, I will outline cognitive neuroscience research on intentional control of action. I will propose a heuristic framework (the WWW model) that distinguishes different aspects of human volition. Finally, I will argue that these different aspects are related to different parts of the human brain.

– Brass, M., & Haggard, P. (2008). The what, when, whether model of intentional action. The Neuroscientist, 14(4), 319-325.
– Brass, M., Lynn, M. T., Demanet, J., & Rigoni, D. (2013). Imaging volition: what the brain can tell us about the will. Experimental Brain Research, 229(3), 301-312.

July 4

Philosophy Lecture 2
9-12 pm
Can free will be rescued given a naturalistic view of human beings?

In this second lecture, I will discuss ways of thinking about free will according to which it is compatible with the natural order, even if the natural order is causally deterministic. I will outline the most prominent versions of this kind of view. Whether such a compatibilist position is controversial depends on the notion of free will it invokes. The most debated sort of compatibilism claims that being causally determined by factors beyond one’s control is compatible with deserving to be blamed and punished, or praised and rewarded for it. I will present one challenge, the manipulation argument, for thinking that this sort of compatibilism is untenable.

July 5

Science Lecture 2
9-12 pm
How free is the will?

In the second lecture, I will address the question whether conscious decisions to act can be predicted from brain activity preceding these decisions. I will discuss the classical Libet experiment and objections against the main conclusions that have been drawn from this experiment. Furthermore, I will outline more recent research on predicting intentional decisions from brain activity. While these results demonstrate that intentional decisions are preceded by unconscious processes, they do not rule out a potential role of conscious decisions in human decision making.

– Bode, S., Murawski, C., Soon, C. S., Bode, P., Stahl, J., & Smith, P. L. (2014). Demystifying “free will”: The role of contextual information and evidence accumulation for predictive brain activity. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 636-645.
– Fried, I., Mukamel, R., & Kreiman, G. (2011). Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition. Neuron, 69(3), 548-562.

July 6

Philosophy Lecture 3
9-12 pm

Can human society function without the belief in free will?

In this final lecture, I will discuss the practical implications of denying that we have free will. One concern is that it would be too costly to believe that our decisions have neural causes. Another is that it would be too damaging to give up the belief that we deserve blame and praise, or punishment and reward for our actions. I will argue that how much of a change this would introduce depends on varying features of human cultures. Worries have been raised about giving up the retributive theory of punishment and the appropriateness of moral anger in human relationships. I will argue that we can live without either of these features of human practice.

July 7

Science Lecture 3
Does it matter whether we believe in free will or not?

In the last lecture, I will discuss the question whether it matters if we believe in free will or not. First, I will outline social psychological research that demonstrates that priming people with disbelief in free will changes their social behaviour. Furthermore, I will discuss research from my group showing that disbelief in free will has an influence on basic neurocognitive processes of intentional motor control. Finally, I will outline recent research demonstrating that free will beliefs influence the way we perceive our social environment.

– Vohs, Kathleen D., and Jonathan W. Schooler. “The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating.” Psychological Science 19.1 (2008): 49-54.
– Rigoni, D., Kühn, S., Sartori, G., & Brass, M. (2011). Inducing disbelief in free will alters brain correlates of preconscious motor preparation: The brain minds whether we believe in free will or not. Psychological Science, 22(5), 613-618.

July 8

Philosophy and Science of Free Will Dialogue
9-12 pm

Register Now!

This course is free but we require all participants to register ahead of time. If you would like to register please email the following address:

In your email be sure to include your: (i) full name, (ii) program of study (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and (iii) institution.

We have funds to support travel and accommodation fees for select students in China who reside outside of Beijing. Please specify if you would like to be considered for a travel / accommodation grant and include an explanation of how this short-course is related to and will benefit your current research along with your most recent CV.

The deadline to apply for travel funding is: June 1, 2017.

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