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Rethinking Conscious Agency

Periodic Reporting for period 5 - ReConAg (Rethinking Conscious Agency)

Reporting period: 2023-05-01 to 2023-10-31

The Rethinking Conscious Agency project explored the nature and significance of conscious agency along multiple fronts.
First, we studied the nature and structure of the conscious experiences agents have in different contexts of action. Our research posed questions about what kinds of evidence reports about conscious experience in action should have for the science of action control, and about how different aspects of conscious experience – bodily experience, visual experience, experiences of effort and of acting – come together to assist or to undermine skilled agency.
Along this front, our project produced a number of publications in high-impact venues. A key conclusion of this part of our project can be measured, not in terms of final statements, but in terms of new questions and avenues of research our work opens. These new avenues call for further integration between philosophy and the mind sciences.
Second, we studied models of action control. Our project was interested in how expertise is built up over time, in how this changes cognitive architecture via influences on memory and concepts, and in what roles conscious experience has to play in action control across differences of context and differences of skill level.
Along this front, we again published a number of papers in high-impact venues. A key conclusion of this wing of our work is that understanding several long-standing issues in the philosophy of action requires an in-depth understanding of the kinds of cognitive architecture that support skilled agency.
Third, we studied the practical and moral significance of conscious agency. We asked whether consciousness is important for free will, and why people think that it is. We asked whether models of skilled action can be transferred to philosophical reflection on morally responsible action, and what the implications of different views of moral skill might be for our moral practices. And we asked fundamental questions about the moral significance of consciousness, and how this should impact policy towards research on different populations (e.g. cerebral organoids, or non-human animals), as well as policy motivated by our moral obligations to different populations (e.g. people with traumatic brain injuries). A key conclusion of this wing of our project is that the moral significance of consciousness is two-sided, impacting moral agency as well as moral patiency, and also that the moral significance of consciousness is multi-faceted, and requires more rigorous investigation than many have hitherto recognized.
Our progress along all three fronts is important to society for a number of reasons. First, conscious agency plays an intimate role in our conception of ourselves as free, responsible agents, capable of pursuing goals and effecting change in the world. It is important to map the structure of conscious agency to illuminate our self-conception further, and to understand ways this self-conception might change in response to scientific progress. Second, the nature of consciousness is one of the great outstanding scientific problem areas. Progress on the science of consciousness requires collaborative efforts from philosophers as well as mind scientists, and our project is a part of a global network seeking to advance knowledge in this foundational area. Third, moral and legal frameworks make commitments and assumptions to implicit models of agency and action control. It is important for the viability and trustworthiness of these frameworks that these commitments be made explicit and held up to the light of the best available philosophy and science regarding agency and action control.
This project contributed to important conversations along all of the main areas of our research. We articulated foundational questions along all three fronts, and contributed to philosophical and scientific progress by offering clear conceptual frameworks for further investigation into these issues.
The Rethinking Conscious Agency project team aimed to explore the nature and significance of conscious agency along multiple fronts. Across three work streams, the PI and team members (post-docs) performed individual and collaborative research. In the end, the three work streams became much more connected, with several papers targeting themes in more than one work stream. As a quick summary of our achievements, over the life of the project:
-to date, we have published 32 outputs: 1 book, 25 journal articles (many in the top journals in our fields), and 6 book chapters. These publications have received over 360 citations to date (according to google scholar).
-we gave 64 talks at conferences, workshops, and universities, in Europe, Canada, the United States. The average audience at these events was roughly 20 academic scholars; thus, our lectures reached an estimated 1250 expert stakeholders in multiple countries and continents.
-we hosted 7 workshops/conferences in Barcelona, as well as a virtual talk series during the pandemic that catalyzed a community of promising young philosophers of action across the world. Each conference was well-attended, and indluded speakers and participants from multiple countries and continents. An estimated 200 philosophers and scientists participated in our events over the life of the project. (See, for example, a summary of one of our workshops, on twitter: https://twitter.com/ERC_Conscious/status/1127559299457269760)
This project produced a large and diverse number of papers that push on central issues at the foundation of our understanding of consciousness and of skilled agency. Our progress beyond the state of the art consists in the number of questions and avenues for further research we have been able to articulate, concerning, for example:
the way that the mind represents the body in egocentric space;
the role of agency in understanding unconscious perception;
the nature of the flow experience;
the role of consciousness in understanding dysmennorhea;
the cognitive mechanisms that underlie mindwandering;
the role of knowledge in skilled action;
the relationship between control of action and knowledge of what one is doing;
the different forms of representation that contribute to bodily action;
the place of cognitive control in mediating the effect of intentions on behavior;
the role of attributions of consciousness in understanding aspects of the free will problem (e.g. the understanding of determinism);
whether moral skill is possible to develop, and the limits of moral skill;
the moral significance of consciousness and the practical importance of consciousness for research on cerebral organoids, disorders of consciousness, and non-human animals.
Speaker at Metacognition Workshop, May 2019