Human Volition, Agency and Responsibility (HUMVOL)
Human Volition, Agency and Responsibility
Start date: Jun 1, 2013,
End date: May 31, 2018
At the heart of human nature lies the idea of a free agent, whose conscious thoughts and decisions motivate their voluntary actions, and who is therefore responsible for what they do. Voluntary actions can be defined as actions that an individual agent generates internally, rather than in response to any environmental event. However, the concept of voluntary action remains controversial, and lacks a scientific evidence base. Neuroscience rejects dualistic notions of ‘conscious free will’, and instead views actions as products of mechanistic brain processes, which are often unconscious. Thus, volition is often eliminated from psychology, or replaced with alternative, more behaviourist formulations such as ‘executive function’, or ‘reward-directed action’. However, the generative quality of human action, and the strong subjective experience of agency and responsibility for one’s own actions, still require scientific investigation. Even if we may not have conscious free will as envisaged, cognitive neuroscience has acquired appropriate methods to investigate and measure what we do have, and to explore implications for society.HUMVOL therefore aims to investigate scientifically the neural bases of human volition (Work Package WP1), agency (WP2) and responsibility (WP3). Subjective aspects are not neglected, because they may offer powerful cues to the mechanisms and functions of voluntary action. The core methods are behavioural, psychophysical and neural experiments with healthy volunteers. EEG and fMRI will allow direct measures of brain processes associated with volition, while subliminal priming and non-invasive brain stimulation will allow their direct manipulation. Mental chronometry and explicit agency judgements allow the impact of these processes on subjective experience to be assessed. Finally, interdisciplinary engagements will focus on how neuroscientific evidence could influence societal concepts of voluntary action, particularly in the Law.
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