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Daniel M.Wegner


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Debates about free will have traditionally been a matter for philosophers, but advances in experimental psychology and neurophysiology now mean that science is altering the terms of the argument. Wegner draws on this information to put forward the view encapsulated by his title: namely, that the feeling of willing is an illusion.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is refreshingly free from jargon. Wegner writes well and clearly and there are numerous witty asides. As an added bonus there are genuine footnotes at the bottom of the page instead of the usual tiresome end notes; congratulations to MIT Press for these.

Research in the 1960s showed that there are measurable electrical changes in the brain in the run-up to a voluntary movement such as lifting a finger. Some regarded this as evidence for the input of a conscious self. However, later work by Benjamin Libet produced the disconcerting information that electrical brain activity begins before the person is conscious of the decision to move. The obvious implication is that consciousness appears to be an epiphenomenon or accompaniment to action rather than its originator.

The essence of the view that Wegner wants to defend is encapsulated in a diagram on p.68. This shows both conscious thought and action as arising from unknown events in the brain. There are two pathways leading to action: the "real" but unconscious pathway that produces the action, and a second "apparent" pathway that produces the illusion of conscious initiation of action.

This counterintuitive view is explained in the first few chapters, and the remainder of the book expands the idea with reference to various unusual psychological states such as automatic writing, mediumship and channelling, and hypnosis. Wegner shows that it is possible to think one is willing an action when one is not and also to will an action when one thinks one isn't. These strange situations come about because conscious will is, in fact, an illusion, and hence the brain can be tricked into thinking that will is present when it isn't or vice versa.

If Wegner is right— and he certainly makes a very persuasive case for his view— the implications are clearly pretty disturbing. What are we to make of our ordinary ideas of responsibility, justice, retribution and so on? And why does this illusion of conscious will exist anyway? The philosophical aspectes of the theory are treated, albeit rather briefly, in the final chapter.

Wegner compares the conscious will to a ship's compass. The compass does not directly control the movement of the ship but it is nevertheless essential for navigation. This is an interesting metaphor, but of course one could say that the compass is linked indirectly to the steering via the brain of the helmsman. However, Wegner's argument, as I understand it, is that there is no necessary connection between the compass reading and the movement of the ship. I suppose one could contrast the compass with the automatic pilot of an aircraft, which does control how the plane flies.

Free will, Wegner suggests, is best thought of as an emotion. "The experience of will marks our actions for us. It helps us to know the difference between a light we have turned on at the switch and a light that has flickered on without our influence… Will is a kind of authorship emotion." The feeling of willing, it seems, is an illusion but a necessary one.

Many philosophers have reached the same conclusion as Wegner does in this book. The difference is that they support their arguments with abstract reasoning whereas Wegner does so with direct experimental evidence.

1 May 2007

%T The Illusion of Conscious Will
%A Daniel M.Wegner
%I The MIT Press
%C Cambridge, Massachusetts
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0-262-23222-7
%P 405pp
%K psychology

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