Neuroscience, Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and the Church of Scotland
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Edinburgh
Unit of AssessmentPhilosophy
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Applied Ethics, Philosophy
Summary of the impact
Vierkant has produced a distinctive body of work that explores the
implications of contemporary neuroscience for the notions of free
will and moral responsibility. As a result of this research, he was
invited by the Church of Scotland to participate in their Society,
Religion and Technology working group, which had, as part of its remit,
the role of producing the Church's official position on these issues.
Vierkant played a key role in formulating the group's recommendations in
this regard, which in 2012 were put before the General Assembly of the
Church of Scotland. These recommendations were approved and have now
become part of the `Blue Book' that contains the official laws and
policies of the Church of Scotland. In particular, the Church changed its
official stance on the implications of contemporary neuroscience with
regard to free will and moral responsibility as a direct result of
Vierkant's research-led recommendations in the working group report.
Vierkant's research has thus led to a demonstrable and significant impact
on the policy making of an important non-academic public body.
Over the last decade, Vierkant (appointed 2005, Senior Lecturer since
2013; philosophy of mind and cognitive science research cluster) has
published extensively on the implications of contemporary neuroscience and
social psychology for the notions of free will and moral responsibility.
Recent advances in neurosciences and social psychology have called into
question the very idea that people can possess free will. To take two
prominent examples, the work of the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet and
the social psychologist Daniel Wegner has been interpreted as showing that
the conscious self is nothing but an illusion and that our actions are
really fully controlled by `zombie' (i.e. unconscious) mechanisms. If it
is true that free will is an illusion, then this has profound
philosophical implications. For example, standard conceptions of moral
responsibility presuppose that moral agents are free, so if free will is
an illusion then so too, potentially, is the very idea that a subject can
be held morally responsible for her actions.
In a key thread of his research conducted over the last decade, Vierkant
(2005; 2007; 2008; 2011; 2012; 2013) has clarified the kinds of threats
posed to our conception of ourselves as free (and thus morally
responsible) agents by this scientific work. In particular, he argues that
while there is indeed a prima facie challenge in play here, the
real threat posed by this work is often misunderstood. For example, it is
often argued that these experiments show that we cannot be free, because
they demonstrate that our brains determine what we do. Vierkant (2007;
2008; 2013) claims that this line of argument is a red herring, because it
ignores the possibilityf8e7widely defended within philosophyf8e7that
determinism and free will are compatible. Vierkant (2013) further argues,
however, that there is a perfectly rational explanation for why the
science is perceived as threatening the possibility of free will. This is
because it is often portrayed as generating predictions of behaviour that
always come out true, independent of the choices of the subject. Portrayed
in this way, these scientific predictions appear to render the choices of
the conscious subject powerless. If these portrayals were accurate, then
it would indeed be rational to be fatalistic, in that free will would be
an illusion. By looking more closely at the experiments, Vierkant shows
that these portrayals are false. Indeed, conceptual analysis reveals that
this kind of prediction might even be metaphysically implausible.
More positively, Vierkant's (2005; 2007; 2008; 2011; 2012; 2013) research
also involves showing that while the challenges for free will routinely
portrayed from these scientific results is illusory, there is an
underlying challenge that is entirely genuine. This consists in the fact
that our picture of the autonomous, rational agent that underpins the
ordinary notion of free will and agential responsibility is demonstrated
by these results to be problematic, and is thus in need of substantial
amendment. It follows that contemporary neuroscience and social psychology
do have important implications for free will and thus moral
responsibility, albeit not quite the implications that are often reported.
Vierkant's research on these topics was also important to his role in two
large collaborative research grant projects with which he was involved
between 2006 and 2010, both of which have been judged to have been
successfully completed by the funding bodies concerned (see `grants'
References to the research
Vierkant, T. (2007). `Worin besteht die Herausforderung der
Kognitionswissenschaft an die Willenfreiheit Wirklich?' [`What is the Real
Challenge of Cognitive Science to Free Will?']. In T. Buchheim et al
(ed.), 69-87, Freiheit auf Basis von Natur? [`Free Will Based in
Nature'], Munster: Mentis. [Chapter available from HEI]
Vierkant, T. (2008). `Wille und Selbst' [`The Will and the Self']. In T.
Vierkant (ed.), Willenshandlungen [`Voluntary Actions'], 88-107,
Berlin: Suhrkamp. [Chapter available from HEI]
Vierkant, T. (2011). `Responsibility and the Automaticity Threat', SCRIPTed:
A Journal of Law, Technology and Society 8 (2): 184-91. [Available
Vierkant, T. (2012). `Self Knowledge and Knowing Other Minds: The
Implicit/Explicit Distinction as a Tool in Understanding Theory of Mind.'
British Journal of Developmental Psychology 30 (1): 141-55. [DOI:
Vierkant, T. (with J. Kiverstein & A. Clark) (2013). `Decomposing the
Will: Meeting the Zombie Challenge.' In A. Clark et al (eds.), Decomposing
the Will, 1-29, Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Chapter available
2006-09: Co-Investigator, VW Stiftung Project, `Kontrolle Und
Verantwortung' [`Control and Responsibility'], €770k [I/82 894].
2006-10: Co-Investigator in the UK element of the pan-European
`Consciousness in Interaction: The Role of the Natural and Social
Environment in Shaping Consciousness' (`CONTACT') Project, European
Science Foundation/AHRC: Eurocores, €1.9m (UK component £886k)
Details of the impact
Vierkant has a long-standing track-record of internationally regarded
research on the philosophical implications of recent advances in
neuroscience, particularly with regard to the topics of free will and
moral responsibility (Vierkant 2005; 2007; 2008; 2011; 2012; 2013). For
many years now Vierkant has been involved in using this research to tackle
misperceptions of the neurosciences in the public sphere, such as they
arise in the media or with regard to public policy and the law.
Since 2007 Vierkant has been extensively involved with the Scottish
Imaging Network (`SINAPSE') project on `Brain Imaging and Society'. This
project is concerned with the implications that brain imaging has for
society, where this covers such issues as the relationship between
contemporary neuroscience and free will. In 2010 he was a speaker and
commentator at a major international conference that was hosted as part of
this projectf8e7entitled `Brain Imaging and Society: Law'f8e7which looked
at the legal implications, such as in terms of the scope of an agent's
moral responsibility for her actions, of recent developments in
contemporary neuroscience. This event was attended by a wide cross-section
of interested parties, including judges, NHS medical directors, and
representatives of the Scottish Parliament's Scottish Future's Forum (an
organisation created by the Scottish Parliament to interface with policy
makers, business, and academia, with a view to formulating long-term
Scottish Government policy). While Vierkant's research has informed his
contribution to this project, he has also published research that has
directly arisen out of his engagement with the project, such as Vierkant
(2011). (See corroboration [1 a, b & c]).
In contributing to the SINAPSE project Vierkant came into contact with
the policy officer of the Church of Scotland. On the basis of Vierkant's
research expertise, he was invited by the policy officer to join their
Society, Religion and Technology working group. In particular, he was
commissioned by the Church of Scotland to advise them on issues
surrounding the importance of neuroscience for free will and moral
responsibility. (See corroboration , ).
Vierkant became a key member of this working group, and also participated
in related activities. For example, he participated in the organisation of
a Church of Scotland conference on the topic of neuroscience and ethics,
entitled, `It Wasn't Me, It Was My Neurons', which took place in 2011.
Vierkant was asked to write roughly half of the group's report,
`Neurobiology, Free Will and Moral Responsibility'. Vierkant also helped
formulate the report's recommendations to the Church of Scotland. In
particular, he played an important role in formulating two specific
recommendations. First, that the Church of Scotland should recognise that
the implications of contemporary neuroscience for free will and moral
responsibility are more complex than sometimes supposed (in the sense that
contemporary neuroscience on the one hand does not pose any direct
challenge to free will and moral responsibility, but on the other hand
does call for a re-evaluation of traditional philosophical concepts like
autonomy). Second, that the Church of Scotland should accordingly play an
active and on-going role in exploring these implications. Vierkant's
contribution to this report drew heavily on his research in this area,
particularly Vierkant (2005; 2007, 2008), but also Vierkant (2011, 2012,
2013). (See corroboration , , ).
This report was widely disseminated, including being made freely
available on the Church of Scotland's website and informing a widely
available Church of Scotland leaflet on Neurobiology. It was also
submitted to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly in 2012 where it
was discussed and, crucially, all of its recommendations approved. For
each report from a working group there is a series of resolutions (known
as `deliverances') for commissioners at the General Assembly to accept,
reject, add to or amend. During the General Assembly, council and
committee conveners present reports from the working groups to
commissioners for debate. Decisions agreed become `law' which means that
they determine how the Church of Scotland operates. It is precisely in
this sense that the recommendations set out in the Society, Religion and
Technology working group's report, substantially authored by Vierkant
(both as a whole, and as regards its recommendations), have now become
part of the Church of Scotland's official policy. In particular, these
recommendations have been integrated into the Church of Scotland's 2012
`Blue Book', which contains the laws and policies of the Church. (See
corroboration , , , ).
It was the quality of Vierkant's research, and his willingness to engage
with relevant non-academic partners, which led to this work being deemed
relevant to the Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology
working group. Vierkant's research then informed a significant part of the
report produced by this working group for the Church of Scotland's General
Assembly. Finally, by approving the recommendations made in this report,
and incorporating these recommendations into the laws and policies of the
Church, Vierkant's research has had an impact on the laws and policies of
a large socially important non-academic body.
Sources to corroborate the impact
CITED LINKS (tinyurl links to archived web content hosted by HEI)
[1a] [www.sinapse.ac.uk/ (or http://tinyurl.com/psjhnrt):
webpage for SINAPSE: The Scottish Imaging Network, which Vierkant worked
(or http://tinyurl.com/qj9r3lv): SINAPSE webpage for the `Brain Imaging
and Society: Law' conference which confirms Vierkant's participation].
(or http://tinyurl.com/qc9ypr4): webpage for Scotland's Future's Forum, a
body created by the Scottish Parliament and which participated in the
SINAPSE `Brain Imaging and Society: Law' conference which Vierkant
presented his research at].
 [www.srtp.org.uk/ (or
http://tinyurl.com/qc9ypr4): webpage for the Church of Scotland's Society,
Religion and Technology project, which Vierkant was an active member of].
(or http://tinyurl.com/o7o6v93): webpage for the `It Wasn't Me, It Was My
Neurons' conference which Vierkant organised as part of his role in the
Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology project].
(or http://tinyurl.com/q8hyt7g): the Church of Scotland's Society,
Religion and Technology working group report (entitled `Neurobiology, Free
Will and Moral Responsibility'), co- authored by Vierkant].
(or http://tinyurl.com/ncofcwz): Church of Scotland public leaflet on
neurobiology which substantially draws on the Church of Scotland's
Society, Religion and Technology working group report which Vierkant
(or http://tinyurl.com/osfbto5): information about how the Church of
Scotland's General Assembly operates].
the Church of Scotland's 2012 `Blue Book' which contains the laws and
policies of the Church, and which incorporates recommendations based on
 The Policy Officer for the Church of Scotland: can confirm Vierkant's
work for the Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology
project, as described in this impact case study.