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Reclaiming volition: An alternative interpretation of Libet's experiment

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Based on his experimental studies, Libet claims that voluntary actions are initiated by unconscious brain activities well before intentions or decisions to act are consciously experienced by people. This account conflicts with our common-sense conception of human agency, in which people consciously and intentionally exert volitions or acts of will to initiate voluntary actions. This paper offers an alternative interpretation of Libet's experiment. The cause of the intentional acts performed by the subjects in Libet's experiment should not be exclusively attributed to special cerebral processes; conscious intentions formed at the beginning of the experiment, when the subjects received experimental instructions, must be taken into account. In addition, what the subjects were required to report was not a conscious intention or decision to act that conventionally figures in the etiology of voluntary action, but rather a perceived effective urge to move induced by specific experimental instructions. According to the alternative interpretation, the most suitable mental term correlated with the specific brain activity that precedes conscious, self-initiated voluntary bodily movements is volition. This account is supported by recent theories of function of the supplementary motor area (SMA). Therefore, the notion that we are the authors or originators of our own actions, which is fundamental to our common understanding of free will, moral responsibility and human dignity, can be preserved
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Sciences, 19(A) Yu Quan Road, Beijing, 100039, China., Email:

Publication date: 2003-01-01

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