The evolutionary origins of volition

Abstract
It appears to be a straightforward implication of distributed cognition principles that there is no integrated executive control system (e.g. Brooks 1991, Clark 1997). If distributed cognition is taken as a credible paradigm for cognitive science this in turn presents a challenge to volition because the concept of volition assumes integrated information processing and action control. For instance the process of forming a goal should integrate information about the available action options. If the goal is acted upon these processes should control motor behavior. If there were no executive system then it would seem that processes of action selection and performance couldn’t be functionally integrated in the right way. The apparently centralized decision and action control processes of volition would be an illusion arising from the competitive and cooperative interaction of many relatively simple cognitive systems. Here I will make a case that this conclusion is not well-founded. Prima facie it is not clear that distributed organization can achieve coherent functional activity when there are many complex interacting systems, there is high potential for interference between systems, and there is a need for focus. Resolving conflict and providing focus are key reasons why executive systems have been proposed (Baddeley 1986, Norman and Shallice 1986, Posner and Raichle 1994). This chapter develops an extended theoretical argument based on this idea, according to which selective pressures operating in the evolution of cognition favor high order control organization with a ‘highest-order’ control system that performs executive functions.
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