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by Daniel M. Wegner
MIT Press, 2002
Review by Isabel Gois on Oct 22nd 2002

The Illusion of Conscious Will

A book with this title is likely to cause a reaction even before you read it. Some will immediately dismiss it as more of the obviously wrong idea that, despite appearances, iron laws rule our behaviour, while others will welcome it as a much-needed thump on our grandiose convictions of free-will. Those who actually read the book may very well be surprised to find out that Daniel Wegner is not so much concerned with taking sides on the subject of free-will vs. determinism, but rather in providing a psychological theory of how the experience of conscious will arises in us and how reliable it is in tracking down the causes of our behaviour. To be sure, the book is of direct relevance to all those interested in the more traditional puzzles about the nature of free will but warning should be made that what you’ll find here is mostly on the theme of mental causation.

This said, the word ‘illusion’ in the title is revealing enough of what Wegner has to say about our experience of consciously willing our actions (or, more rigorously put, about our subjective conviction that some of our actions have their causal origin in prior conscious intentions to perform them, while others sort of happen to us). His view is that “the experience of consciously willing an action is not a direct indication that the conscious thought has caused the action” (p.2, italics in the original), and the book does a good job of supporting that claim with empirical studies showing how our experience of consciously willing (or not) an action often bears little relation to the actual causes of the action. While at times we will claim authorship for actions we could not possibly have caused, others we will dismiss authorship for actions that clearly have been cause by us. Particularly instructive in this respect are Wegner’s analyses of automatisms (i.e., actions we would deny having consciously willed) such as ‘table turning’, ‘pendulum divining’ and ‘automatic writing’, and action projection (chapters 4 and 6, respectively). Equally interesting is his exploration of the ‘ideal agent’, someone who always knows his actions prior to their occurrence (Chapter 5). The use of the term ‘illusion’ to characterize the experience of conscious will is, thus, justified by the fact that first-person impressions of agency are not by themselves guarantee that the subject is indeed the cause of a particular action.

Now, if Wegner’s objective was simply to remind us that we are not the ‘ideal agents’ we like to portray ourselves as, then all I’d have to say about this book is that it provides for good reading, and you’ll certainly learn a thing or two about the complexities of voluntary behaviour, but don’t expect to be tremendously surprised by the overall message of the book. I, for one, find his case against first-person authority regarding conscious actions somewhat old-news and hardly contentious since studies showing that we put an unjustifiable amount of trust in personal reports of conscious agency (or lack thereof) have been around for a while and, I should think, are fairly well known among the expected audience this book. Wegner, however, does have more to say about conscious will and it is precisely when he gets to the mechanics of the illusion that I find him at his most interesting and controversial.

Rather broadly put, Wegner’s picture of what’s behind the illusion of conscious will involves two independent sets of brain mechanisms, one effectively establishing a causal link from thoughts to actions and another giving rise to the experience of will via a process of interpretation of the possible role that thoughts available to consciousness play in the production of our actions. Given that the ‘interpretative mechanism’ doesn’t have direct access to the production of voluntary action but must instead infer what role the mind played in it, it shouldn’t be surprising if at times the experience of having consciously willed (or not) a particular action affords little evidence as to whether we in fact caused the action. In other words, there are occasions when what’s present to consciousness inclines us to claim or dismiss authorship for certain actions, but a person’s reported experience of will is not the last word on the actual causes of her actions.

Those perhaps more widely read in the literature on consciousness will easily recognise here what Daniel Dennett in his Consciousness Explained the Cartesian Theatre model, i.e., the idea that the brain somehow puts up a show to convince the self that he’s in the driver’s seat when in fact he’s not. Together with other theorists if the will (e.g., Libet, Hoffman and Prinz), Wegner seems ultimately unable to escape the temptation of positing a little screen in the mind where the self comes to be informed of what’s happening with(in) it. The much that this leaves explained regarding the interpretative process supposed to underlie the experience of will (for example, we’re told close to nothing of how thoughts potentially available to consciousness get selected to ‘enter’ in it), plus the anatomical implausibility of Wegner’s picture, makes me think that this is a book that ultimately wastes a good opportunity to truly demystify one of our most endearing myths regarding the mind.


© 2002 Isabel Gois



Isabel Gois is a PhD student at King’s College London working on Consciousness. Her research interests include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology, and Mental Disorder. She has articles published on Emotions, Computationalism, and Consciousness.