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Voluntary Action and the Brain

The year is 2015. We academics are finally accustoming ourselves to the brave new world of neuro-this and neuro-that: not only neurology and neurobiology  but  neuropsychiatry, neuropsychology, neuroimaging, neurolaw, neuroeconomics,  neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neurosurgery, neuroethology, neuroengineering, euroinformatics, neuroethics, ... The list is long already, and it grows longer year by year.

What drives this turbulence of subdisciplines, in our view, is different from the drivers of the biological sciences in general. We neuroprofessionals focus on continually changing answers to a series of mostly unchanging questions that are as old as philosophy itself: questions about the meaning of human life and especially the essence of individual and collective human intelligence, one of the criteria that we used to believe separated us from "the animals."

Over the twentieth century the study of human intelligence has split into a myriad of separate strands, ranging, one might say, from domains whose data are mostly shared with other species (sociobiology, for instance, or cognitive biology) through reading and writing, the construction of dynamos, and like activities seemingly unique to our species. One key milestone helping to delimit domains of study like these is the concept of CONSCIOUSNESS, a particularly intriguing variant of the "nonstructural memory" (W. Elsasser) that distinguishes the biological sciences in general from the physical sciences of "space, time, and energy."

For all the technical bravura of those functional MR images of "the thinking brain" and pictures of connectomes, our understanding of the fundamentals of consciousness as a state of  matter has progressed hardly at all since Descartes. We still do not understand how consciousness attaches to the fabric of the physical universe, let alone the physical brain, not to mention the same brain as it grows or ages. In spite of that seductive word "the", we do not understand "the self" or "the person" in any philosophically robust sense. And we do not know how to enunciate the implications of  the limits of our present knowledge, both what we do know and what we don't, for the other natural and social sciences, from the EEG through Amazon's "Big Data”, that pretend to translate our scientific knowledge for the benefit of individuals and human societies. 

The present conference, like its two predecessors, continues to explore a selection of topics arising along the boundary where conscious behavior overlaps with the subjects or modes of study of diverse other disciplines. This year's survey about “Voluntary Action and the Brain” takes the form of five lectures each followed by a moderated discussion.

Voluntary action is a goal-directed behaviour. It is guided by plans that are based on decisions that are constituted by imaginations of the desired final situation that are emotionally evaluated and related to expectations about the likeliness of the outcome.  These processes occur consciousness and subconsciousnessly. 
This is a descriptive view of present psychology of action. Some cognitive scientists already have transformed this concept into computational models that allow to simulate decision processes. Additionally, neurobiologists found neuronal correlates that accompany decisional situations. Many of these scientists claim a neural determination of volition. This concept corresponds with traditional positions of philosophers who analyzed the causal structure of this behaviour: some found a reflex-like determination, others found a reflective deliberation of determination.  In this conference we will present and discuss some of these issues of voluntary action and brain.

Our discussions, even when they are driven by facts, will not lead to answers - not in any sense that would satisfy a philosopher for long.  We do expect that the five lectures will lead to more than five new interactions among their multiple themes and to new questions in turn. Those questions will continue to engage this exhilaratingly large collection of disciplines all dipping into our prescientific vocabularies for concepts like "will," "reason," and "consciousness" itself that provide the rubrics for the arguments that will drive further meetings in this series. Consciousness is one of the fundamental characteristics of being human; it is also, therefore, one of the fundamental things that human intellectuals, particularly professors, cannot stop talking about. This meeting, the third in our series, is intended to seed many such conversations - indeed, indefinitely many.

The point is the journey, not the destination: the permanence of the questions, not the transience of the answers.   


Fred L. Bookstein







hosted by

Vienna Conference on Consciousness
Department für Verhaltensbiologie
Universität Wien

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