DATE: Saturday, May 30, 2015
TIME: 8:00 PM-9:30 PM
VENUE: NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
MODERATOR: Emily Senay
PARTICIPANTS: Christof Koch, Tamar Kushnir, Alfred Mele, Azim Shariff

Do we make conscious decisions? Or are all of our actions predetermined? And if we don't have free will, are we responsible for what we do? Modern neurotechnology is now allowing scientists to study brain activity neuron by neuron to try to determine how and when our brains decide to act. In this program, experts probe the latest research and explore the question of just how much agency we have in the world, and how the answer impacts our ethics, our behavior, and our society.

The Big Ideas series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

  • Share This:


Physican Journalist

Emily Senay is a physician, medical and public health educator, broadcast journalist, and author. She is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a clinician in the World Trade Center Health Program in New York City. For more than 20 years she worked in broadcast journalism, first for CBS News then PBS News, with an interest in the health of women, the role of environment and climate change in public health and health policy. In addition to her clinical duties she also chairs the sustainability committee for the Mount Sinai Health System and continues to teach in the medical school and public health programs at Mount Sinai. Dr. Senay graduated from the University of Chicago and Icahn School of Medicine. A married mother of three she is a devout pedestrian.



Born in the American Midwest, Christof Koch grew up in Holland, Germany, Canada, and Morocco. He studied Physics and Philosophy and was awarded his Ph.D. in Biophysics. In 1987, Koch joined the California Institute of Technology as a Professor in Biology and Engineering. After a quarter of a century, he left academia for the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, where he is now President and Chief Scientific Officer, leading a decade-long, large-scale effort to build brain observatories to map, analyze, and understand the mouse and human cerebral cortex. Koch has authored more than 300 scientific papers and five books concerned with the way computers and neurons process information and the neuronal and computational basis of visual perception. Together with his longtime collaborator, Francis Crick, Koch pioneered the scientific study of consciousness. His latest book is Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.

Developmental Psychologist

Tamar Kushnir is an associate professor at Cornell University and the director of the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory. Her research examines the origins of causal and social knowledge in early childhood, and how children acquire this knowledge through play, observation, and social interaction. Questions include: Do infants use statistical information to learn about other people’s preferences? Do toddlers read social cues to gain valuable information about culture? Do preschoolers consider knowledge and expertise when deciding who to learn from? Do young children understand choice and free will? Do complex causal understandings of mind and self influence children’s social and moral behavior?

Alfred Mele for Everything FSU

Alfred Mele is the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He is the author of 10 books, including Free Will and Luck, Effective Intentions, A Dialogue on Free Will and Science, and Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. Mele is also the author of over 200 articles and the editor or co-editor of six books. He previously worked as the director of the Big Questions in Free Will project and he’s the current director of the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control project—multimillion-dollar projects featuring collaborative research by scientists and philosophers.

Azim Shariff

Azim Shariff is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the director of the Culture and Morality Lab. He graduated with his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of British Columbia in 2010, before joining the UO faculty. His research explores the evolutionary origins of and psychological mechanisms underlying moral behavior, with a special focus on the positive and negative social consequences of religions and related cultural beliefs—including that of free will. His work has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed and popular press outlets including Science, Scientific American, and The New York Times. In 2012, he was awarded the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association (Division 36).