The disquieting experience of acting unthinkingly is not uncommon. You may find yourself half way to the office when you set out for the store. Or you might decide to switch jobs and realize, looking back, that you had made the decision to leave at a much earlier time—a time when you still thought the decision was up in the air. In such cases, you are falling short of a freedom that we ordinarily assume: that, as full-fledged free agents, our consciousness guides our conduct. When consciousness is not engaged, we fall short of the ideal of freedom—the freedom that also defines our individual liberties and enables virtue development. Free agents thus possess what we call “conscious control”. The nature of conscious control poses a challenging philosophical question. How frequently, if ever, we exercise conscious control is a challenging empirical question. Our project aims to answer this empirical question via close collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers. In particular, we will test (1) whether human intentions are causally efficacious for our decisions and behavior; (2) what is the specific role of consciousness when intentions guide behavior; and (3) what, if any, is the difference between conscious control in deliberate versus arbitrary decisions. We plan to answer these questions using the best experimental and computational tools of current neuroscience together with the best account of conscious control that contemporary philosophy and cognitive psychology can provide.
We further expect that—beyond progress on one of the most fundamental questions in the debate on free-will—this large-scale project will be central to ushering in a new, interdisciplinary scientific field: the philosophically guided neuroscientific study of free will. Support from the John Templeton Foundation and Fetzer Franklin Fund will thus influence a wide spectrum of scholars and thinkers and have considerable academic and social impact.
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