Neuroscience and the Church of Scotland

Summary 

The Church of Scotland invited a philosopher from the University of Edinburgh to explore scientific challenges to free will and moral responsibility.

What was the problem? 

Advances in neurosciences and social psychology have called into question the idea that people possess free will.

Recent work in neuroscience seems to show that the conscious self is nothing but an illusion and that our actions are really controlled by ‘zombie’, or unconscious, mechanisms.

If it is true that free will is an illusion, then this has serious implications for our standard ideas of moral responsibility. We typically assume we are free to choose our actions. However, if free will is an illusion, then the notion that a subject 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. In particular, the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology working group was researching this question in order to establish a set of recommendations.

It was through this that they became aware of the work of University of Edinburgh researcher Dr Tillman Vierkant.

Dr Vierkant has an international reputation for his research into the implications of contemporary neuroscience for the notions of free will and moral responsibility. For this reason, he was invited to join the Church’s working group.

What did we do? 

Vierkant has produced internationally regarded research on the recent advances in neuroscience, particularly in relation to the topics of free will and moral responsibility. For many years, he has used this research to tackle public misperceptions of the neurosciences, including with regard to public policy and the law.

Vierkant came into contact with the policy officer of the Church of Scotland. On the basis of Vierkant’s research expertise, he was invited to join their Society, Religion and Technology working group.

In particular, the Church of Scotland asked him to advise the church on issues surrounding the importance of neuroscience for free will and moral responsibility.

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’. He also helped formulate the report's recommendations to the Church of Scotland.

Vierkant 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.

Second, that the Church of Scotland should 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.

A Christian understanding of free will can be informed by the scientific advances in neurobiology. These advances may also be helpful in clarifying the philosophical and ethical debates regarding freedom, autonomy, sin and moral responsibility.
Church of Scotland leaflet, 'neurobiology'
What happened next? 

This report was widely shared, 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.

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.

About the researcher(s)

Senior Lecturer

Research unit

Subject area:
  • Philosophy

Funder(s)

  • Arts & Humanities Research Council
  • VW Stiftung
  • European Science Foundation

Related study programmes