Philosophy of mind, in particular human freedom and the relationship between naturalism and normativity
Natural philosophy, in particular ontology and methodology of a science oriented metaphysics
Metaphysics of science, in particular laws of nature and the limits of scientific knowledge
Philosophy of physics, in particular quantum physics and space-time relationalism
Latest book: Science and human freedom (published 2020 with Palgrave-Macmillan; German version published as Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft; French version published by Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes)
Enlightenment has two faces: on the one hand, there is the liberation of man, as expressed, for instance, in Kant’s definition of enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity” (1784); on the other hand, there is scientism, that is, the idea that scientific knowledge is unlimited, encompassing also man and all aspects of our existence, as illustrated, for instance, in LaMettrie’s L’homme machine (1747). Both have the rejection of knowledge claims of traditional authorities (such as the church) in common. But whereas the former is precisely about giving each person the freedom to take their own decisions, the latter paves the way for assuming that scientific knowledge is in the position to predetermine the appropriate decisions, both individually and collectively.
Against this background, this book is about what the scientific image of the world is and what are its limits. Its central aim is to bring out how science makes us free and thereby contributes to the open society (in the sense of Popper’s famous book The open society and its enemies). Accordingly, this book shows what is wrong with the widespread claims to the effect that scientific laws (such as, notably, universal deterministic laws in physics), scientific discoveries (such as, for instance, discoveries in genetics or cognitive science) and scientific explanations (such as, for instance, explanations of human behaviour in evolutionary biology or neuroscience) infringe upon human free will. In brief, in the first place, the ontology of science is not rich enough to entitle conclusions to that effect. Moreover, scientific laws, discoveries and explanations are about contingent facts by contrast to something that is necessary. Most importantly, scientific theories are conceived, endorsed and justified in a normative sphere of giving and asking for reasons that presupposes the freedom of persons in formulating, testing and judging theories. Hence, science gives us information about the world, but not norms, neither for the individual life, nor for society. Science makes us free in that it shows that we have the freedom to set up the norms for what to think and how to act – as individuals as well as in societies –, but thereby also the burden of the responsibility for our thoughts and actions.
In a broader perspective, this book is an essay on the interplay between what Wilfrid Sellars calls the scientific and the manifest image of the world. Following Kant’s enlightenment philosophy and Sellars’s plea for a synoptic view of both these images, the book argues for a twofold conception of freedom: in the first place, there is freedom in the sense that the laws of science, even if they are deterministic laws, do not predetermine our motions. If the scientific image is the complete image, this is all the freedom that one gets. However, if one acknowledges that the scientific image is conceived, endorsed and justified by persons in a normative sphere of giving and asking for reasons, one realizes that there is a freedom that is characteristic of persons and that is a freedom from matter in motion, namely the freedom to set up norms for thought and action. There is nothing in science that prevents us from letting this freedom shape our actions.
Current collaborative research, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation: "A philosophical enquiry into a parsimonious ontology of the natural world" and "Parsimonious ontology and the relationship between science and persons"
This research investigates in detail to what extent a parsimonious ontology of science can shed new light on the relationship between the natural world as treated in our scientific theories and ourselves conceived as persons – in the famous terms of Wilfrid Sellars, the relationship between the scientific and the manifest image of the world. The guiding idea is that restricting the ontology of science to commitments that are minimally sufficient to understand what science tells us about the world will at least alleviate some of the conflicts between the scientific and the manifest image. In particular, this project examines whether and how the treatment of time in physics in a relationalist, parsimonious ontology leaves the conceptual space open to recognize the direction of time, temporal becoming and an open future and thereby build a bridge to integrating free will, freedom and normativity in a metaphysics that takes science seriously.
within the excellence scheme of the SNSF "Parsimonious ontology and the relationship between science and persons", from December 2021 on Forerunner "A philosophical enquiry into a parsimonious ontology of the natural world", November 2017 to November 2021, with Andrea Oldofredi (Postdoc), Frida Trotter (PhD student), Federico Benitez (PhD student, until 30 April 2021) and Alban Ridet (PhD student, from 1 May 2021 on).
"The Metaphysics of Physics: Natural Philosophy", November 2013 to November 2016, with Antonio Vassallo (Postdoc), Andrea Oldofredi (PhD student) and Davide Romano (PhD student), both PhD theses defended 19 November 2016.
“Causal properties and laws in the philosophy of science”, October 2010 to September 2015, with Pietro Snider (PhD student, Oct. 2010 to June 2012), Jakob Sprickerhof (PhD student, March 2011 to Sept. 2012) and Mario Hubert (PhD student from Jan. 2013 to Sept. 2015) (project within the ProDoc “Mind and reality”).
“Structural realism as a philosophy of nature”, May 2009 to September 2013, with Vincent Lam (Postdoc) (until 1 March 2010) and Tim Raez (PhD student) (1 March 2010- 30 September 2013), PhD thesis defended 2 December 2013.
“Direct realism and the threat from perceptual delusions”, August 2008 to July 2011, with Michael Sollberger (PhD student), PhD thesis defended 12 November 2010.
“Mental causation, functionalism and the metaphysics of causation”, December 2007 to November 2010, with Patrice Soom (PhD student) (project within the ProDoc “Mind, normativity, self and properties”), PhD thesis defended 15 October 2010. “Mental causation and reductionism”, October 2004 to September 2007, with Jens Harbecke and Christian Sachse, PhD theses defended 13 February and 4 September 2007.
Funded by the Cogito Foundation "The fundamental ontology of the natural world", December 2015 to July 2017, with Dustin Lazarovici (Postdoc).
Funded by the Programme Collaborative Research on Science and Society (CROSS) EPFL-UNIL “The quantum state as the memory of a quantum system”, January to December 2014, with Vincenzo Savona (EPFL) and Antonio Vassallo (Postdoc).
Alban Ridet, Heterodox non-naturalism: a new kind of moral realism, since May 2021.
Alin Cucu, Interactive dualism in the physical world, since December 2019.
Guillaume Koestner, Ontologie de la normativité, since February 2018.
Frida Trotter, Theoretical observation, since December 2017.
Federico Benitez Conte, Back to the dissecting table. Scientific realism and theory classification, Thesis defended 25 June 2020.
Dustin Lazarovici, Typicality as a way of reasoning in physics and metaphysics, Thesis defended 24 June 2020; Paul Bernays Award of the Swiss Society for Logic and Philosophy of Science.
Tiziano Ferrando, Structure and ontology, Thesis defended 9 November 2019.
Cristian López, The problem of the arrow of time in the micro-world, co-supervision with Olimpia Lombardi (Buenos Aires), Thesis defended 7 November 2019; Arnold Reymond Award of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Lausanne.
Davide Romano,The emergence of the classical world from a Bohmian universe, Thesis defended 19 November 2016.
Andrea Oldofredi, Particle creation and annihilation: Bohmian approaches. A metaphysical inquiry into the ontology of quantum field theory, Thesis defended 19 November 2016, co-supervision with Nino Zanghì (Genova).
Mario Hubert, Particles and laws of nature in classical and quantum physics, Thesis defended 18 November 2016.
Laurent Cordonier, Sociologie et sciences de la nature humaine. Une approche intégrative, Thesis defended 19 December 2016, co-supervision with Laurence Kaufmann (SSP-UNIL).
Pietro Snider, Causation and the self-constitution of the conscious mind, Thesis defended 26 October 2015, co-supervision with Markus Wild (Basel).
Marion Hämmerli, Parts, places, and perspectives: A theory of spatial relations based on mereotopology and convexity, Thesis defended 3 July 2014, co-supervision with Achille Varzi (Columbia University, New York); Award of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Lausanne.
Tim Räz, On the applicability of mathematics—philosophical and historical perspectives, Thesis defended 2 December 2013.
Antonio Vassallo, The metaphysics of quantum gravity: a causal approach, Thesis defended 22 July 2013.
Matthias Egg, Causal explanations and unobservable entities in particle physics, Thesis defended 12 October 2012.
Michael Sollberger, The structural nature of perception, Thesis defended 12 November 2010.
Patrice Soom, From psychology to neuroscience. A new reductive account, Thesis defended 15 October 2010.
Georg Sparber, Unorthodox Humeanism, Thesis defended 3 December 2008.
Vincent Lam, Space-time within general relativity: a stuctural realist understanding, Thesis defended 30 November 2007; Award of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Lausanne.
Jens Harbecke, Mental causation. Investigating the mind’s powers in a natural world, Thesis defended 4 September 2007.
Christian Sachse, Reductionism in the philosophy of science, Thesis defended 13 February 2007; Prix de la Société académique vaudoise 2007.