Natural philosophy, in particular ontology and methodology of a science oriented metaphysics
Metaphysics of science, in particular laws of nature
Philosophy of physics, in particular quantum physics and space-time relationalism
Philosophy of mind, in particular mental causation, freedom and the relationship between naturalism and normativity
Book project: Science and freedom
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: Naturalized metaphysics as minimalist ontology of the natural world
In any theory of the world, some things are regarded as fundamental, whereas all the other things in the domain of the theory then come in as being derived (or explained) in terms of the fundamental things. What is endorsed as fundamental should be as sparse as possible – the more parsimonious the basic ontological commitments are, the greater is their explanatory power (although the explanations will be longer the lesser notions are admitted as basic). When it comes to finding out what is fundamental about the natural world, it is reasonable to turn to physics. That is the idea of naturalized metaphysics, that is, metaphysics informed by the natural sciences, in contrast to metaphysics done from the armchair. In that spirit, the question about the fundamental can be formulated in this way: What are the minimal ontological commitments that are sufficient in order to understand what physics tells us about the world? The idea that this project pursues is that the following two axioms constitute such a minimal ontological commitment: (1) There are distance relations that individuate simple objects, namely matter points. (2) The matter points are permanent, with the distances between them changing. Working this idea out requires on the one hand the elaboration of a detailed argument of how the physics as we know it can be recovered on such a sparse basis. This research focuses on relationalism about space-time and the structural individuation of objects with respect to both relativistic and quantum physics (as well as the relationship between the two). On the other hand, it requires elaborating on a theory of laws of nature and explanations that fits with these minimal ontological commitments. This research does so by pursuing (Super-)Humeanism, arguing that any further ontological commitments do not lead to a gain in explanation, but only to pseudo-problems.
"A philosophical enquiry into a parsimonious ontology of the natural world", November 2017 to November 2021, with Andrea Oldofredi (Postdoc), Federico Benitez (PhD student) and Frida Trotter (PhD student).
"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).
Guillaume Koestner, Ontologie de la normativité, since February 2018.
Frida Trotter, Theoretical observation, since December 2017.
Federico Benitez Conte, Consistent metaphysical analysis of fundamental physical theories, since December 2017.
Dustin Lazarovici, Typicality and the metaphysics of laws, since September 2017.
Cristian López, The problem of the arrow of time in the micro-world, co-supervision with Olimpia Lombardi (Buenos Aires), since June 2017.
Tiziano Ferrando, Structure and ontology, since February 2015.
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-direction 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); Prix de la Faculté des lettres.
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; Prix de la Faculté des lettres.
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.