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Wishful Thinking?

David Wilson

The Illusion of Conscious Will. Daniel M. Wegner. xiv + 405 pp. The MIT Press, 2002. $34.95.

Does conscious will drive our actions, or do our minds merely generate a false sense of being in control? In The Illusion of Conscious Will, Daniel Wegner argues for the latter view, giving numerous examples of how we can be mistaken about the role of conscious will in particular cases of human action.

Wegner, a psychologist who has done some interesting experiments concerning the role of willing in human behavior, points to numerous cases of mistaken beliefs—the belief that we have acted when we have not, or that we have not acted when we have. His examples include acts performed under hypnosis, virtual agents (including spirit possession and trance channeling), Ouija-board actions, other automatisms, dissociative personalities, phantom-limb experiences and a variety of special experimental arrangements and circumstances that he and his colleagues, among others, have created. He makes a very convincing case that we can be mistaken when we believe that our conscious will has, or has not, caused actions.

Wegner also tries to make the case for a stronger hypothesis: that "people experience conscious will quite independently of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and their actions." Thus we always are deceived by our belief that we are able to produce action through conscious will. His is not the only such epiphenomenalist view: Among others, Michael Gazzaniga in The Mind's Past (University of California Press, 1998) and Tor Nørretranders in The User Illusion (Viking, 1998) have taken similar positions. Wegner proposes that the actual causal path that begins with unconscious brain processes and ends in human action does not include what is experienced as conscious will. Instead, unconscious mental events produce both thought and action, and the will that we experience is the result of brain activity in a parallel, ineffectual path.

The causal path in the brain that leads to action can be viewed as one rail of a railroad track, and the generation of the feeling of will as the other. Wegner does not allow for the possibility of crossties between the two rails, but evidence for such connections certainly exists.

Wegner does attempt to distinguish between conscious will and free will. He makes creative use of a hypothetical "Free Willer" brain module to demonstrate some of the well-recognized problems associated with the idea of free will. He also has bigger fish to fry: His interests go beyond denying free will to denying the effectiveness of conscious will of any sort, while still acknowledging that such will is an important characteristic of humans. But each time I came across one of his attempts to go from an example of mistaken will, such as in posthypnotic suggestion, to a general rule that conscious will is always an illusion, I found myself filling the book's margins with counterarguments, and I remain unconvinced.

Wegner does not deal with a number of more general arguments that have been made against epiphenomenalist views such as his, including one very obvious link between conscious will and action: We can talk about our conscious will. Somehow our conscious will must be able to exert some control over human actions, because we are able to speak about our will and describe it, which are obvious actions. If conscious will were in a separate path, parallel and unconnected to the pathway in the brain that leads to action, then there would be no way for us to speak about our feeling of conscious willing, as there would be no connection between our feeling of willing and our brain's speech apparatus. The fact that we can talk about our conscious will suggests strongly that we have, at the least, functional connections (crossties) between our feeling of will and our motor systems controlling speech. Also, Wegner does not address the arguments made by others, including Owen Flanagan in Consciousness Reconsidered (MIT Press, 1992) and A. Graham Cairns-Smith in Evolving the Mind,(Cambridge University Press, 1996), that point to serious problems with any epiphenomenal view. In his description of experiments by Benjamin Libet and colleagues on the timing of conscious willing, Wegner fails to address interpretations of the experiments that others have given that do not support his view.

Wegner even appears to slip, at times, into allowing conscious will to play certain kinds of general roles in future action. As he describes it, conscious will, in addition to serving as a kind of emotion that tells us what events to attribute to our own authorship, also allows for a sense of responsibility for our actions, which influences our individual sense of morality and thus our future behavior.

Wegner has contributed much to the science of conscious will, and his book is well worth reading for his interesting analysis and insights. He makes a strong case for our sometimes being mistaken about whether we have willed something; for our sometimes acting without conscious will and confabulating willful reasons afterward; and even for our claiming as ours some acts we could not have caused. Clearly we are not perfect agents, but none of these errors prevents us from being effective, willing agents at other times. The very reports of conscious will from subjects in Wegner's own research are strong evidence that we are able to influence our own acts, because our speaking about conscious will itself is an action.—David L. Wilson, Biology, University of Miami

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