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The (Neuro)scientific Study of Voluntary Action: Multidisciplinary Perspectives

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Volition is the phenomenological experience that an action, usually an external movement, is the consequence of one’s will. Even though philosophy has had a long-standing interest in free-will, intention, volition and agency, intention was awarded a first status in science when reflex circuits were isolated ...

Volition is the phenomenological experience that an action, usually an external movement, is the consequence of one’s will. Even though philosophy has had a long-standing interest in free-will, intention, volition and agency, intention was awarded a first status in science when reflex circuits were isolated at the end of the nineteenth century, blazing the trail to distinguishing neural bases for conscious and unconscious processes. More than half a century has passed since Kornhuber and Deecke discovered that self-initiated action is preceded by the “Bereitshaftspotential”, thereby placing voluntary action on the experimental agenda. In these fifty years, the field developed tremendously, and has produced a wealth of knowledge about the networks involved in intentional action, and the nature and timing of decision and preparatory processes.

In cognitive neuroscience, models of action typically place intentional action at the ultimate, highest level of control of movements, and its position has remained largely outside the workbench of experimental science, somehow reminiscent of its classical transcendence. In this respect the neurocognitive approach has remained much closer to Descartes’ rational empire than to Spinoza’s determinism. Clinical approaches have focused on deficits of intention and thus observe the consequence of its absence, i.e. mostly exploring the inhibitory side of intention. Basic investigations focused on issues such as the timing or the neural correlates of voluntary action. The question about where and when does volition arise has largely overtaken the fundamental question about how it is formed.

In real life, we experience volition when decisions have to be made in front of alternative choices, but this has proven to be hard to translate to an experimental setting. The hand movements used by Kornhuber and Deecke, and the finger and wrist flexes by Libet bear little resemblance to the meaningful actions we perform outside of scientific settings, and these movements were voluntary only in a very limited sense and very limited time-scale.

Additionally, more profound theoretical issues –going back to Wittgenstein- about the nature of voluntary action have been raised. Voluntary action is only meaningful, it is argued, when it is performed in a meaningful context, by agents that have interests, motivation and reasons. This critique highlights the importance of extra-neural factors in the generation and understanding of behavior, and hence in explaining the phenomenon of voluntary action. This may pose serious obstacles for studying voluntary action from a purely neuroscientific perspective.

Can we overcome these problems, and study intentional action in a way that acknowledges the complexity of this multifaceted phenomenon? Do we have to revise change the way we conceive and explore it? What would this imply for the body of knowledge that has been generated over the past decades?

In this Research Topic, we strive to present a balanced picture of research into voluntary action by foregrounding different perspectives: critical opinions as well as scientific advancements, with a special focus on innovative and more comprehensive approaches. We welcome both theoretical and empirical (including clinical) contributions from neuroscience, philosophy and psychology as well as sociology and anthropology.

[Image: 099. Untitled, 1991 ©Teun Hocks, courtesy Torch Gallery Amsterdam]


Keywords: Volition, Action, Decisions, Intention


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