Thoughts on “The Illusion of Conscious Will”

So as part of reading some books on free will, I had bought and read “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel M. Wegner.  I’m not going to go through this in detail since I don’t think the thesis ends up being all that interesting, and instead I’m going to give some general comments on the idea and the thesis and maybe one or two points that interest me.  So there also aren’t going to be a lot of quotes here.

Anyway, the main overall thesis, as I understand it, is that we have a sense or feeling of the cases where we are consciously willing an action and where we aren’t consciously willing an action and it is happening due to an external force or some automatic habit.  We use this to drive our sense that we have free will and are making choices:  we work things out in our consciousness and then feel that our actions follow from that conscious decision.  What Wegner wants to argue is that our conscious will doesn’t always align with our actual actions, and so spends a lot of time providing instances where they come apart, and where we think the action wasn’t conscious when it was and where we think the action was conscious when it wasn’t.  And I agree that these cases happen and that our conscious sense of what we do and what the full cause of our actions are can be out-of-sync.  I noted that this suggests that what we have are two different modules or things that talk to each other and can interpret the outcomes in different ways.  The problem is that in order to have this conclusion hold for the cases where we do think it obvious, Wegner needs to show that he can generalize from these cases to the general case, and he both fails to do so and his examples are not ones that strongly imply that sort of connection.

The main issue is that everyone — even the most staunch libertarian about free will — accepts that we have automatic responses and that there are cases where we can be fooled into thinking that those responses weren’t kicking in and weren’t influencing our decisions.  We can be fooled, so what he needs are cases where we wouldn’t think that was a case where we are fooled, and yet we are.  And yet most of his cases are not those sorts of cases.  He references the Libet experiments, but those aren’t examples of full-on decision-making like we think are the paradigmatic cases of conscious will (and I find them suspect as well).  Other than that, most of his cases are cases where people are manipulated or tricked, or else cases where he’s tracking influences as opposed to outright determinants.  He relies a lot on cases like hypnosis and even later on “spirit possession”, but most people will agree that these are cases that might interfere with conscious will.  So we aren’t at all surprised.  He also talks a lot about a lot of experiments where the participants are tricked in some way, but again in situations where it is deliberately vague where the true agency lies it won’t surprise anyone at all that sometimes we get it incorrect.  This does apply to most of his cases, which means that his case for this being a general feature of us is a bit weak.

I will concede this:  I think from the evidence he has shown it is clear that we don’t have a simple intuitive sense of when our conscious will is responsible for our actions and when it isn’t.  So this suggests, at a minimum, that the consciousness part of our brains isn’t getting something like a return code from the action saying that it was done in response to it, but is indeed trying to infer from what it observes what happened and if it was in line with what it suggested, and then concluding that things are working fine or if there’s a problem from that (we can all cite cases where our conscious will seemed to want to do something and we did something different, and were puzzled by that, and looked for an explanation).  So, yes, the two can come apart.  The basic problem with this thesis, for me, is that while they can come apart they usually don’t.  For the most part, the actions we take are indeed in line with our conscious will, and while Wegner gives some examples — mostly cases of hypnosis — where we seem to rationalize our actions after the fact, for most people for the most part we don’t do that.  We don’t need to.  So it’s difficult to imagine that our conscious will could really be so completely separate from our actions and yet stay aligned so much of the time.  Surely we would notice this far more than we do?

This also gets into the issue of:  if conscious will doesn’t cause our actions in any strong way, then what does it do?  Wegner tries to address this in his last chapter, but runs into the overarching issue with this sort of analysis:  in order for the experience of conscious will to have a purpose, it must have some sort of causal impact on what our actions ultimately are.  It may not need to be before the actions are taken, but at a minimum our analysis of that would have to make a change in the structure of the things that really determine the action so that on subsequent occasions we would act differently.  This, then, requires that there be some kind of causal connection between our experiences and our actions.  But if that is going to be necessary, then why can’t that be before the actions are taken?  If we are going to trust Libet, we may not be willing to accept direct causation, but we’d have to accept that conscious deliberation could very well set up the same sort of structures that can be activated when it is time to take the action.  And then for immediate choices, it could do so immediately before the action is taken and so indeed be responsible for the action that happens, even if some of the potentials are activated beforehand.  So, then, it wouldn’t really be an illusion of conscious will.  Our conscious deliberations would be responsible for our actions most of the time.  Wegner’s evidence might eliminate direct interaction, but unless he wants to declare conscious will useless then he needs some sort of causal connection that can be used both after we take actions and before preserving conscious will.  And conscious will is so prominent and takes up so many resources that it is difficult to imagine that it could do absolutely nothing for us.

So I concede that Wegner makes a good case for separating conscious will from action.  So, at a minimum, those are probably in different “modules” in the brain.  But I don’t think he can get from there to insisting that it’s all an illusion, and don’t think his examples or arguments get us there.  The examples are not of the typical cases of conscious will, and his discussions of how the experience of conscious will could be useful requires a causal connection that we could use to actually implement conscious will, making it no longer an illusion.  Thus, I don’t think his book gets him to where he seems to want to go.


One Response to “Thoughts on “The Illusion of Conscious Will””

  1. Jonathan MS Pearce on Free Will | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] However, that example never actually said that it determines their decisions or that it was even moral decisions, but that it focused them more on considering the consequences of their actions than the strict morality of them.  As noted above, that could be just impacting our decision-making processes to make them less — or more, depending on what your view of morality is — correct.  So it’s not really changing our moral judgements because it isn’t clear from the example that people still thought of it as a moral decision.  At any rate, it’s all influence, and libertarians accept evidence.  And as Pearce himself notes, the issue with Libet-type experiments is that they don’t look like actual decisions of the sort that we care about.  (I’ve already addressed Wegner’s view here). […]

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