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Sawyier Philosophy Lecture: "Does Determinism Clash With Freedom? A fresh look at human action through the lenses of (classical) physics"

Jenann IsmaelJenann Ismael
Professor of Philosophy
Columbia University

When we are faced with a decision, it seems to us that before we make choice, multiple different futures remain open possibilities. With the advent of classical mechanics in the 17th century, however, it became possible to write down equations that could in principle allow us to calculate everything that we will ever do from the initial conditions of the universe.

There’s a simple and powerful argument in the philosophical literature that makes the apparent conflict between these two things explicit.  It goes like this: 

Determinism entails that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future. 

The past is not under our control. 

Laws of nature are not under our control. 

Our actions are entailed by the past and laws of nature.  

Hence, our actions are not under our control. 

This talk will take a closer look at what physics (in its classical, deterministic form) actually says about human action, and argue that the conflict is merely apparent. It will be argued that there is nothing in the fact of determinism—even the particularly strong form of local determinism that we have in classical physics—that is incompatible with the idea that human beings exercise genuinely pivotal control over their actions.  

Refreshments will be served prior to the lecture at 2:45 p.m.

The Sawyier Philosophy Lecture in Science, Technology, and Society is hosted by the Department of Humanities. Please contact Warren Schmaus with any questions.


Sep 20, 3:15pm


McCormick Tribune Campus Center Ballroom