Agency and (Quantum) Physics
TWCF Number
Project Duration
May 1 / 2014
- April 30 / 2017
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
Amount Awarded
Grant DOI*

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Hans Briegel
Institution University of Innsbruck

We live in a world that seems to be governed, at all scales, by the laws of physics. How can there be agency in such a world? How can agents influence the course of nature if they are, at the same time, subjected to her universal laws? How do we “fit in”? This problem of agency constitutes the overarching Big Question that this project is intended to address. An answer to this question is a necessary precondition for an understanding of free will and responsibility. While traditionally the subject of philosophy and theology, the ultimate scope and power of agents – as embodied and physical objects – has recently also become a topic of interest in quantum physics, both from a foundational perspective and through its revolutionary impact in the fields of quantum information and computation. Despite these recent advances, we are still facing age-old conceptual problems about agency and the effectiveness of our thoughts and intentions, to the point that many people are now convinced that in a fully scientific world view there is no room for a reasonable notion of agency. Our project is devoted to a critical evaluation of this trend, which we see as detrimental to the growth and development of humanity in our world.

We expect to break new ground for our understanding of agency by using a multidisciplinary approach that brings together experienced researchers in quantum physics and in philosophy. We will connect these disciplines by focusing on explicit models that retain a high degree of disciplinary embedding. On the physics side, we will develop models of agency that can be fully described in the language of physics and information processing. This will include models of quantum agents that exploit basic features of quantum physics, such as quantum superposition, interference, as well as de-coherence, as a resource for their agency. On the philosophical side, research will start by analyzing these simple, but explicit physical models for agents, employing methods from analytical philosophy. We will thereby take a fresh look on different current philosophical positions regarding the problem of agency, causation, diachronic identity, intentionality, and powers.

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