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The Illusion of Conscious Will

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  514 Ratings  ·  55 Reviews
Do we consciously cause our actions, or do they happen to us? Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, theologians, and lawyers have long debated the existence of free will versus determinism. In this book Daniel Wegner offers a novel understanding of the issue. Like actions, he argues, the feeling of conscious will is created by the mind and brain. Yet if psychologic ...more
Paperback, 440 pages
Published August 11th 2003 by Bradford Book (first published 2002)
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Sep 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This excerpt from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary appears at the very beginning of the book:

DECIDE, v.i. To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
"I mean to fall to earth," said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
"Eastward," said he, "I now shall steer."

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: "'Twere wise to change my course."

With equal power they contend.
He said: "My judgment I suspend."

Down died the wind
Miki Habryn
Dec 22, 2007 marked it as to-read
Recommends it for: post-modern insomniacs
Shelves: default
I've been carrying this book around, half-read, for three years now. It has come with me from home to home halfway around the world. I love it to bits, but I'll probably never actually pick it up again to finish it.

It contains report after report on studies and experiments designed which tease out the biochemical and neurological underpinnings of volition, and each demonstrates a different aspect of how hallucinatory our self-awareness really is.

At a good proportion of dinner parties I go to, I
Jul 11, 2007 rated it really liked it
Humans grossly misunderstand themselves -- as should come as no surprise. We assume ourselves to be far more than we actually are. This book takes a superb look at that deepest level of self-deception -- conscious will.

Buddhists will find this not surprising, but others may be disturbed when their investments are shaken

"The experience of will occurs through a system that presents the idea of voluntary action to consciousnes and also produces the action." (pg 61)

Spinoza (The Ethics -1677) said: "
Dec 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
Forget Dennett; start here for discussion of "free will" issues

Along with that, it's an excellent refutation of the illogic and weak knees of someone like Dan Dennett, as well as seeming to scare the hell out of a lot of amateur readers who perhaps should never be allowed near material like this in the first place.

The title speaks for itself. Wegner then looks at the latest findings in modern neuroscience, along with the latest speculation in cognitive philosophy, and offers up his ideas as to h
Apr 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book that debates, at a fairly basic level, the issue of free will v determinism. The author says 2 ideas are true: we believe in our own conscious will, and our actions happen to us, and determine our thinking, rather than the other way around. A blow to the free-thinkers, but brilliantly argued.
Dec 28, 2008 marked it as to-read
Heard about this on WNYC podcast...sounds interesting.
Feb 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This quote says it all :
”Usually we assume that how things seem is how they are. We experience willing a walk in the park, winding a clock, or smiling at someone,and the feeling keeps our notion of ourselves as persons intact. Our sense of being a conscious agent who does things comes at a cost of being technically wrong all the time. The feeling of doing is how it seems, not what it is—but that is as it should be. All is well because the illusion makes us human. Albert Einstein (quoted in Home
Sep 04, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone who like's deep thinking about the illusion of consicous will!! haha
I am still reading this book, every now and then I pick it up and read it, but it's incredibly heavy and find myself reverting to trashier texts to boost my flagging ego when I get confused and overwhelmed. Very good points and really gets you thinking, but that's not always what you want for instance when you're lying by the pool sunbathing.
May 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
Well done hard core investigation. A little technical to wade through, but addresses the subject with a good dash of humor to make an interesting read. Loads of documented study and experimental data. Very informing. Addressed the 'magic' of the mind head on, but the author is hard pressed to prove that his data supports his hypothesis.
Read it as a great study, but draw your own conclusions.
Jake Cooper
Jan 20, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science
A tour of the psycho/physiological bases of volition. Decent science, but repetitive and hardly page-turning.

(If you don't already think volition is a fabricated, false emotion, maybe start with Cashmore's PNAS article "The Lucretian Swerve", since the reviewed book assumes you're on the no-free-will train.)
Victoria Zabuzova
Jan 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: psychology
Wit and delightful trip alon ephemeral link between what human think and what we actually do. A must read for social scientists engaged into qualitative research, therapy adepts and everyone wishing to make sense of humanity
Aug 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Interesting perspective - I think the author does an good job in demonstrating that there is a substantial unconscious component to human will; but does not demonstrate that that unconsious component equates to an absence of free will.
Jim Robles
Nov 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
The title says it all.

Part of the assigned reading for Phil 270. I can see why, given limited time, Professor Clearfield did not assign all of it, but I did find some of the unassigned material personally meaningful and useful. I like the way Wegner occasionally indulges himself in an expression of his rather dry sense of humor: p. 299 for example - "This seems unlikely . . . myself."

It may have helped that this book was written by a single author, but it is the most "accessible" thing we read.

Morteza Ansarinia
It took me almost a year to finish this masterpiece. Long story short, the book concludes with this quote (Home and Robinson 1995, 172):

"If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord. ... So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to h
Loyd Mbabu
Oct 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Explains in fine detail the intricacies of the multitude of processes that happen in the brain that we either take for granted of lump together as one.
David Curtis
Jun 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book. Not a totally straightforward read and a knowledge of psychology helps. But written in a clear and even entertaining way.
Dec 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
True to its telling title, Wegner forwards the convincing thesis that our experience of will over our actions is nothing more than an illusion. That is, each time you feel that you're the captain of your own ship, the accompanying sensation of "it's me who caused this" is nothing more than a reoccurring feeling that has evolved out of common coincidence. Wegner backs up this unsettling claim (unsettling if you are were a hardcore ‘free will’ subscriber) with a long research career of studies tha ...more
Feb 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Want to question everything about the human experience ever? Try this book!
Dec 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2009
This book was a great read. Though the writing did have dry spots, the author had a goofy sense of humor that was surprising and that lightened things.

We know that so many things are out of our control: our upbringings, our heredity, the actions of others, and so on... that we take great relief and pride in the few things that are under our control. But what if even those things just seem to be under our control? This is the subject that the author is tackling, and he comes up with some great an
Chris Nowakowski
Aug 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Does free will really exist? Any scientist or even rational human being will say that a question is meaningless unless its terms are well defined. From that perspective, we must first define what we mean by free will.
Wegner's point is an interesting one. In the current state of our knowledge, we cannot answer that question in a definite way, even though the title clearly indicates that he leans towards the opinion that it does not exist. On the other hand, he says that the fact that so many peo
The authors argues that conscious will a.k.a. free will is not causally related to the act that follows since it is not always present, can be denied, can be forgotten. Instead "conscious will" falls into the category of emotion, it serves to mark in our memory that an act is going to be performed, and that "we" are the responsible agent. It's not so much about free will as about the definition of the "self," to find our place in this world. Yet, as Thomas Metzinger points out in his book "The E ...more
May 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone interested in such things
Recommended to Erin by: William Hirstein
A courageous, refreshing, and extremely readable take on free will. Wegner tackles the question of "will" from a novel psychological and neuroscientific perspective, presenting his "theory of apparent mental causation". He asserts that "conscious will" is merely the feeling that we get when we notice that our thoughts correspond nicely with a subsequent action that we perform. The bulk of the book is devoted to exploring cases in which this illusory feeling of will is misguided -- automatism, hy ...more
P Chulhi
Jan 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Psychologist Daniel Wegner makes the case that what we think of as conscious will does not in fact determine the outcome of our actions. The conscious will instead is an illusion the mind creates to simplify and rationalize an underlying decision-making process. Wegner examines many examples in psychology where the conscious will has gone awry, which in turn helps us understand the function of the conscious will and its role in relation (or rather, its non-relation) to action.

I personally found
Dec 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: psychology
This is the sort of book that many psychologists wish they had written. Wegner's achievement was to collect separate bits of research and put them together in an organized whole, providing impressive support for the notion that the subjective feeling of freely willed actions and thoughts is an illusion. It is an illusion that is constantly with us, and only by examining the research Wegner so brilliantly describes and analyzes, can the illusion be unmasked. Although the book is much admired with ...more
Apr 04, 2015 rated it liked it
I didn't finish but I'm not going to so I'm clearing it out. It was interesting for the first few chapters, but at that point I was fully on board and didn't think the case needed to be made any more. I should say there's essentially a negative case (there is no such thing as conscious will) that is really easy to accept, and then a positive case for why we feel like there is such a thing as conscious will. My sense is that the book makes the negative case quickly and persuasively and then makes ...more
Jan 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The Illusion of Conscious Will is cog sci/philosophy of mind writing of the highest order. Wegner is a superb stylist -- clear, concise, compelling, and often very funny -- and the subject matter of the book is fascinating throughout. Wegner reviews an enormous wealth of research on the topic of conscious will. He also sets forth numerous interesting hypotheses. As such, the book is -- I think -- equally well pitched to both specialists and interested lay readers (like myself). In addition to my ...more
Jul 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Very well-written and fun to read for what could have been a dry subject.

I skipped a lot of the centre of the book as I am already familiar with the topic, but the last chapter offered a wonderful insight into the experience of conscious will. I am happy with the description found within, though I do not fully agree with the conclusions of the author.

The only flaw I found in the book was that the author continuously referred to the experience of conscious will as a universal human phenomenon. I,
Aug 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
I found this book to be rather interesting and provided me with much to consider regarding the question of free will. The approach is primarily from a scientific point of view. The sprinkling of humour makes this text accessible and lightens the scientific tone a bit.

My only critique would be that I found the author to belabour some points. The material seemed to be repetitive at times and I found myself wanting to see the analysis to develop more. Aside from these points, I would suggest this t
Viktor Davion
Aug 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: psychology
Book presents very interesting point of view to the phenomena of will. Though it hard to imagine that conscious will is an illusion, arguments and examples in book is quite convincing. At least this is possible and you cannot this theory just throw away. It also explains some phenomenons.
Book is written in simple and understandable language, so I'd call it popular science. It gives good overlook on described problem and good food for inquisitive mind. If you are interested in psychology you sho
Nov 13, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
A book about the disconnects between our experience of willing actions and the actions themselves. Founded solidly in scientific research and interesting. There is an underlying assumption (possibly necessary to do good research in this area) that everything can be explained mechanistically. It's a great starting place, but results in a deterministic philosophy for which there is no evidence. If you can ignore that, then you might enjoy the book. Otherwise, I'd recommend looking for other books ...more
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