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The Illusion of Conscious Will

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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 psychological and neural mechanisms are responsible for all human behavior, how could we have conscious will? The feeling of conscious will, Wegner shows, helps us to appreciate and remember our authorship of the things our minds and bodies do. Yes, we feel that we consciously will our actions, Wegner says, but at the same time, our actions happen to us. Although conscious will is an illusion, it serves as a guide to understanding ourselves and to developing a sense of responsibility and morality.

Approaching conscious will as a topic of psychological study, Wegner examines the issue from a variety of angles. He looks at illusions of the will?-those cases where people feel that they are willing an act that they are not doing or, conversely, are not willing an act that they in fact are doing. He explores conscious will in hypnosis, Ouija board spelling, automatic writing, and facilitated communication, as well as in such phenomena as spirit possession, dissociative identity disorder, and trance channeling. The result is a book that sidesteps endless debates to focus, more fruitfully, on the impact on our lives of the illusion of conscious will.

Selected as a Finalist in the category of Psychology/Mental Health in the 2002 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) presented by Independent Publisher Magazine., Silver Award Winner for Philosophy in the 2002 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards. and Selected as an Outstanding Academic Book for 2002 by Choice Magazine

440 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2002

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Daniel M. Wegner

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 68 reviews
Profile Image for Edward.
417 reviews392 followers
September 8, 2018
"Some have asserted... that we feel an energy, or power, in our own mind.... But to convince us how fallacious this reasoning is, we need only consider that the will being here consider'd as a cause, has no more a discoverable connexion with its effects, than any material cause has with its proper effect.... In short, the actions of the mind are, in this respect, the same with those of matter. We perceive only their constant conjunction; nor can we ever reason beyond it. No internal impression has an apparent energy, more than external objects have."
- David Hume, 1739

I find the most convincing argument against free will goes something like this: We live in a deterministic universe; that is, one where actions are strictly dictated by cause and effect. If force is exerted on an object, the object moves in consistent and predictable ways (these, we colloquially describe as the "laws" of the universe). For any action, cause and effect can be observed to be either strictly predictable (i.e.: the same outcome will be observed through multiple repetitions) or probabilistic (i.e.: the effect is partially random, so the outcome cannot be exactly predicted, but falls within a predictable range). But what is not possible is for an object to move in a way other than that described by the universal "laws". A single atom hurtling through space does not have the option of stopping at will, however its speed and direction will be affected by external factors, such as collisions with other particles, its proximity to large gravitational bodies, and so on. The atom's movement through space is deterministic: it always moves in strict adherence with the rules of cause and effect, and it cannot do otherwise. Our minds are solely the result of physical processes within our brains and bodies, which are in turn comprised of exactly that same matter (the atom hurtling through space) which is governed by physical processes. Therefore, each electron in our brain strictly follows the same deterministic rules of cause and effect as does all matter. There is no electron which, when acted on by processes inside the brain, can take an action other than that which is has been naturally caused. Therefore the mind is a complex material system that operates as the aggregate sum of its physical state and external influences. Regardless of how complex this system may become, what it can never do is "reach back" into itself and change the course of any single electron beyond what has been naturally caused, and if there is no way to deviate from a predefined natural course, there can be no free will. (Note: the above is not a new or radical idea - it's the same sort of thing that Hume was getting at 280 years ago, in the quote at the top of this review)

This logical argument has been enough to convince me, and I think it's really the foundation of any convincing argument against free will. However authors like Dennett (I can see why he loves this book) shun this core challenge to free will, sometimes even taking the position that it is obvious and already generally accepted. They prefer instead to examine other definitions of free will which are compatible with determinism and are meaningful philosophically and ethically. While I don't generally disagree with these definitions and approaches, I also agree with Sam Harris in a belief that there is something very significant in the simple concept of the absence of "pure" free will that deserves to be clearly stated and understood, and I strongly believe that most ordinary people aren't familiar with this concept at all (let alone accept it), though it may be fairly mundane in some academic circles.

And so, I think the key failing of this book, The Illusion of Conscious Will in largely ignoring "pure" free will, is that it does not present a clear or convincing enough argument for its thesis. I cannot imagine that a reader who is not already convinced that conscious will is an illusion, would be moved to that position by this book. What the book does well, however, for a reader who already accepts the axiom, is to explain in detail the ways in which illusory will is compatible with experimental evidence and our everyday experiences of free will. He breaks down what constitutes our perception of actions being "willed", and shows how these do not always correlate with actions that we cause; he examines actions of which we are just as much the author, but for which we do not experience the feeling of "will"; he examines the ways in which perception and memory can be fallible, even imposing a sense of will after the fact; he demonstrates the ways in which our definition of the "self" can be malleable in ways which further render incoherent the idea of personal will; and finally, he briefly attempts to tackle the implications of all this on how we live our lives. All of this is a fascinating and worthwhile examination in itself, but the problem with using this approach as a basis for an overall argument against the existence of free will, is that the evidence is too loose, the science far from settled. Scientific understanding of the human brain is in its infancy - we do not have anything approaching an accurate and complete model of the brain - and therefore much of what is presented can be interpreted ambiguously, and the case made is far from ironclad.
10 reviews1 follower
September 8, 2013
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 winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: "I've decided to fall straight."

Between the title of the book and this quote at the beginning, Wegner has pretty much given everything away. He then goes on to do an excellent job of demonstrating some of the scientific evidence for what is usually considered to be more of a philosophical proposition.
Profile Image for Socraticgadfly.
964 reviews321 followers
April 7, 2022
Forget Dennett; start here for discussion of "free will" issues

Update: I have done a second read; the review from it follows, and the initial read's review is below the dotted line.

Daniel Wegner doesn't totally, or perhaps even primarily, disagree with the likes of a Dan Dennett as he talks in a different direction entirely, one that gets out of the Cartesian box that Dennett is still in, despite his rejection of a "Cartesian meaner." (See more on the original review.)

Rather, Wegner seriously means it when he says that conscious will is an illusion. And, along with that, rejects the twosiderism and polarity that posits determinism as the opposite.

He says that to think that is to think wrongly about volition in general. (And, if one accepts that, then one doesn't have to embrace "compatibilism" on free will as the likes of Dennett do [he IS a compatibilist, denials aside] if one doesn't want to brace free will on randomness.)

Rather, that illusion of conscious will is a psychological state, almost an emotion, if you will.

Or, elsewhere, Wegner says it's like producing a probability scan on our own actions; if we think our actions and the psychology behind them affected something the way "we" intended, that's the illusion of conscious will.

Of what good is this? Plenty.

And, here we get back to this illusion being called by Wegner as something like an emotion. By encouraging psychological, emotional, investment in our actions, it promotes a sense of agency. In turn, getting back to Dennett, this squares the circle on his Cartesian meaner probably better than he does himself. The illusion of conscious will, by eventual promotion of agency, promotes the illusion of a meaner. That, in turn, may further promote the illusion of conscious will.

In short, think of one of M.C. Escher's most famous illustrations, that of the two hands drawing each other. There you go. It's a classical, classical illustration of an emergent property. (But, what's emerging is a firmer version of the illusion of conscious will, not the actuality. Likewise, to extend beyond Wegner, I'd say what is emerging is a firmer version of the illusion of personal agency, not the actuality, therefore again getting at the illusion of a "Cartesian" meaner, as well as a free willer.)

As for backing for the idea that conscious will is an illusion? Wegner, a psychology prof at MIT (and an almost exact contemporary of Dennett across Boston at Tufts) looks at various psychological syndromes, fads of the past like mesmerism, modern experimentation with things like dummy hands and so forth, and how, just as humans can be overactive agency imputers, they can also be overactive will imputers.

In short, this is a must-read on the whole subject of free will and volition, and an excellent breaking out of the free will-determinism polarity. It's also a good example of how good psychology can lead to good philosophy.

(Side note: Though a contemporary of Dennett's, Wegner sadly died in his early 60s. He surely would have given us at least one more book-length writing in this general area. In my original, shorter review, I note some things he "left on the table" in this book that I hope he would have addressed in a follow-up.)


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 how and why this illusion arose.

And here is where I say he is an excellent refutation to Dennett.

It's been roughly two decades since Dennett came out with his claim that we have no Cartesian Central Meaner at the core of our minds, ie. no homunculus or metaphorical little man serving as the central director of our consciousness.

But, but, but, Dennett refuses to come to the logical conclusion that, if we don't have a Central Meaner, we can't have a Central Willer, either. It's not just a lack of goal to go down this road; in his latest books to touch on free will, it's a willful (nice pun, eh?) rejection of this logical conclusion.

Well, Wegner is not afraid to take the plunge, and does so in convincing fashion, although he does pull back somewhat at the end.

That said, and although I gave this a five-star rating, there's plenty to still study on this issue that Wegner (and Dennett, et al) have not tackled.

1. Is there an Unconscious Willer? After all, as Dennett won't tell you, much of the working of our mind is unconscious or subconscious (and I mean no Deepak Chopra New Ageism by that statement). Isn't it possible, at least, that there is a Central Meaner, or several quasi-Central Meaners, in one or more subconscious brain routines? Of course, these quasi-Meaners would generate quasi-Willers.

2. Again, without getting into New Ageism, dimestore Zen, bogus metaphysics, etc., there's room for Wegner to go further down the path of just what "I" is and is not, without not only a Central Meaner but a Central Willer.

3. Handwringing and gnashing of teeth aside from fundamentalist Christians or people in that general direction (the ones who shouldn't be reading books like this in the first place) where do theories of morals (or aesthetics, for that matter) get grounded with no Central Willer as well as no Central Meaner? Here is where Wegner most pulls his punches in this book when he had the chance to meaningfully explore this from a non-willer perspective.

Folks, we've got enough material here for another book. Hopefully, Wegner, or someone else, is in the process of writing it.
Profile Image for Miki.
499 reviews22 followers
Want to read
January 27, 2022
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 find myself trotting out some half-remembered anecdote from this book at some point, which isn't necessarily a good thing, but it shows how fascinating and addictive the data within really is. I just wish it had been written a little more lightly.
Profile Image for Sabio.
70 reviews11 followers
July 12, 2007
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: "Men are mistake in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their won actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause for their actions."

Marvin Minsky (1985) - "None of us enjoys the thought that what we do depends on processes we do not know; we prefer to attribute our choices to volition, wil, or self-control. . . . Perhaps it would be more honest to say, 'My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand' ".

Profile Image for Nick.
Author 22 books98 followers
April 13, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Courtney.
17 reviews2 followers
Want to read
December 28, 2008
Heard about this on WNYC podcast...sounds interesting.
Profile Image for Fulvia.
25 reviews6 followers
April 13, 2014
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 and Robinson 1995, 172) had a few words on this that make a good conclusion:
If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with selfconsciousness, 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 his own free will.”
Profile Image for Fin.
27 reviews1 follower
September 4, 2007
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.
Profile Image for Geoff.
52 reviews5 followers
January 23, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Jake Cooper.
397 reviews16 followers
August 6, 2014
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.)
Profile Image for Les.
122 reviews9 followers
September 9, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Victoria Zabuzova.
110 reviews3 followers
February 1, 2017
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
Profile Image for Jim Robles.
436 reviews40 followers
December 16, 2013
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.

The ninety-first book I have finished this year, by my (shelfari) count. The sixty-eighth according to GoodReads.

p. ix. This is a book about a different sort of answer to the question. Here it is: Yes, we feel that we consciously cause what we do; and yes, our actions happen to us.

1. The Illusion

It usually seems that we consciously will our voluntary actions, but this is an illusion.

p. 3. One might assume that the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of the action by the person's conscious mind are the same thing. As it turns out, they are entirely distinct, and the tendency to confuse them is the source of of the illusion of conscious will that this book is about.

p. 4. Consciously willing an action requires a feeling of doing . . .

p. 4. . . . alien hand syndrome . . . One such person was the character played by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove who couldn't control one hand and found it alternately steering his wheelchair astray and gesturing a Nazi salute.

p. 11. . . . remind us action and the feeling of doing are not locked together inevitably. They come apart often enough to make one wonder whether they may be produced by separate systems in the mind.

p. 12. We seem to experience the force within us that keeps the cookie our of our mouths, but the force is not the same thing as the experience.

p. 13. Hume pointed out, thought, that you can't see causation in something but must only infer it from the constant relation between cause and effect.

p. 14. The experience of will is merely a feeling that occurs to a person.

p. 18. And perceiving causal agency in oneself involves coming to an understanding of one's actions in light of one's own conscious intentions.

p. 22. Children often neglect intention in making moral judgments and yet they sometimes overattribute intentions to inanimate objects.

p. 24. The main preoccupation of much of psychology in the twentieth century was translating mind talk into mechanism talk on the assumption that the two were entirely interchangeable.

A very interesting bit on autism on p. 25.

p. 26. We're now getting close to a basic principle about the illusion of conscious will. . . . We don't see our own gears turning because we're busy reading our minds.

Not from this reading, but rather from:
Brooks, David, 2010 July 22. The Moral Naturalists. The New York Times.

This week a group of moral naturalists gathered in Connecticut at a conference . . . Their implied description of the moral life is gentle, fair, and grounded. But it is all lower case. So far, at least, it might not satisfy those who want the morality to be awesome, formidable, transcendent or great.

p. 28. We believe in the magic of our own causal agency.

2. Brain and Body

Conscious will arises from the processes that are psychologically and anatomically distinct from the processes whereby mind creates action.

p. 33. Involuntary movement didn't serve as a model for voluntary movement.

p. 37. This suggests that in the intentional movement of the eye, there is some sensation of the effort of eye movement that can then be used by the brain to adjust its perception of the visual world for the movement.

p. 40. . . . it suggests that the intention to move can create the experience of conscious will without any action at all.

p. 44. . . . is that willful movement can be experienced merely by watching any body move where one's own body ought to be.

p. 49. The experience of will may be manufactured by the interconnected operation of multiple brain systems, and these do not seem to be the same as the systems that yield action.

p. 54. The conclusion suggested by this research is that the experience of conscious will kicks in a some point after the brain has already started preparing for the action.

p. 56. Acting Quickly . . . One cannot slow down one's reaction until one becomes conscious of the stimulus and of having reacted, and this takes lots of extra time.

A randome thought occurs to me reading p. 60: we really have not given much consideration of evolutionary imperatives in Phil 270. "The Illusion of Conscious Will" could simply be part of what makes a species, of our complexity, more likely to survive. Altruism, moral responsibility, and all that.

p. 61. Rather, it appears that the experience of will occurs through a system that presents the idea of a voluntary action to consciousness and also produces the action.

3. The Experience of Will

The experience of conscious will arises when we infer that our conscious intention has caused our voluntary action, although both intention and action are themselves caused by mental processes that do not feel willed.

Web definitions
moving an object without apparent use of physical means

p. 64. This is beginning to sound like a theory.
noun: automatism
the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention.
the avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, esp. by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations.
an action performed unconsciously or involuntarily.
plural noun: automatisms

Hume's constant conjunction on p. 64 is a model for inferring conscious will.

p. 65. In this analysis, the experience of will is not a direct readout of some psychological force that causes action from inside the head. Rather, will is experienced as a result of an interpretation of the apparent link between the conscious thoughts that appear i association with action and the nature of the observed action.

p. 67. This theory of apparent mental causation depends on the idea that consciousness doesn't know how conscious mental processes work.

p. 69. These observations point to three key sources of the experience of conscious will - the priority, consistency, and, exclusivity of thought about the action (. . .).

p. 69 - 70. Studies . . . The candidate for the role of cause must come first or at least at the same time as the effect, it must yield movement that is consistent with its own movement, and it must be unaccompanied by rival causal events.

The above is a great quote for dealing with "backward causation" and the "natural experiment" in discussions of how we know that Global Warming is not anthropogenic.

p. 71. The lesson, then, is that to be perceived as truly a cause, an event can't start too soon or too late; it has to occur just before the effect.

p. 73. Although thinking of an action far in advance of doing it would seem to be a signal characteristic of a premeditated action (. . .), the present analysis suggests that such distant foresight yields less will perception than does immediately prior apprehension of the act.

Lower on p. 73 the discussion of triggering events could apply to reflexive actions also. I may will reprogrammed responses to some stimuli as an evolutionary imperative.

p. 79. . . . and bad people are seen as more likely to have done bad things.

p. 79. Educated adults in North America, for example, are inaccurate in throwing darts at a picture when it portrays a person they like (. . . ).

p. 83. Creative insights differ from other problem solutions primarily in these qualities of suddenness and unexpectedness. Without a preview in thought, then, the creative leap fills more like a gift than something we have consciously willed.

I have to disagree here. There is nothing unusual about putting an unsolved problem on the back burner to let the subconscious work on it, or to sleep on it.

p. 83. Instead, we attribute usually attribute them to our unconscious minds.

O.K. - he anticipated my disagreement.

Near the bottom of p. 84 I find I still disagree. "Unconscious" athletic performances are driven by will.

p. 86. Indeed, when patients hum or keep their mouths open, they experience the voices less frequently (. . .).

p. 88. The tendency to think that our inconsistent thoughts are not our own is not just a feature of schizophrenia.

p. 94. Stanley Milgram (1974) brought up this possibility in the interpretation of his famous obedience experiments.

p. 95. Much of the discussion in later chapters (particularly chapters 6, 7, and 8) focuses on how it is that people discern their own willed actions from those of other sin complicated interactions when the exclusivity of one's own thoughts as a cause of cation cannot be assumed.

4. Am Analysis of Automatism

The experience of will can be reduced to very low levels under certain conditions, even for actions that are voluntary, purposive, and complex - and what remains is automatism.

p. 99. Automatisms involve this lack of feeling of doing an action but may even go beyond this to include distinct feeling that we are not doing. . . . The loss of perceived voluntariness is so remarkable during an automatism that the person may vehemently resist describing the action as consciously or personally caused.

p. 112. The exclusivity principle of apparent mental causation would suggest that co-actions reduce the individual's tendency to assume a relation between his thoughts and the observed movements because these movements may have been produced by the other persons.

p. 113. Such a tendency to ignore ore even suppress one's own conscious contribution to a group product may be part of the production of social behaviors other than automatisms as well.

p. 121. In essence, he said the idea of an action can make us perform the action, without and special influence of the will. . . . For ideomotor theory, the will becomes a counterforce, a holding back of the natural tendency for thought to yield action.

p. 125. These demonstrations suggest that thinking about acting can produce movement quite without the feeling of doing.

p. 130. The surprising thing about ideomotor action, then, is not that the behavior occurs - behavior occurs with conscious and unconscious prior thoughts all the time - but rather that the behavior occurs without the experience of conscious will.

p. 138. The curious feature of all this was that the word was spelled right after one of the students, who happened to be Jewish, made fun of the Ouija session and left the room.

p. 139. If people can indeed rid their minds, even for awhile, of the thoughts that they would normally associate with the action, they might be able to overcome the experience of will. . . . "intentionally excluded."

p. 140. In essence, resistance produces a circumstance that is ripe for the experience of automatism in that the individual is deeply focused on both the thought and action but at the same time is precisely opposed to the notion that the thought is the cause of the action.

p. 141. The mind appears to search, unconsciously and automatically, for whatever thought, action, or emotion the person is trying to control. . . . this ironic monitoring process can actually create the mental contents for which it was searching.

p. 142. Both of these possibilities follow from the exclusivity principal.

p. 144. The automatisms and ideomotor effects become models of how thought can cause action in all those moments in everyday life when we don't seem to be conscious control.

5. Protecting the Illusion

The illusion of will is so compelling that it can prompt the belief that acts were intended when they could not have been. It is as though people aspire to be ideal agents who know all their actions in advance.

p. 147. This idealization of agency serves as the basis for going back and filling in such goal and intention knowledge even when it doesn't exist.

p. 149. It may, in fact, push them to claim to claim they did things intentionally when this is provably false.

p. 155. The curious operating rule for very young children, then, seems to be that newly learned information is assumed always to have been known.

p. 157. How would you know if you were doing something unconsciously? . . . perhaps to find out later, or more likely, never to know at all.

p. 161 - 162. Although the notion of the ideal conscious agent only allows for causation by conscious thoughts, we must consider as well the whole range of thoughts or mental states that might influence action without consciousness.

Bottom of page 162 - top of page 163 addresses stereotype threat.

6. Action Projection

The authorship of one's own action can be lost, projected away form self to other people or groups or even animals.

p. 188. When we impute our actions to such agents, we engage in a curious charade in which we behave on behalf of others or groups without knowing we are actually causing what we see them doing.

The way Jan and I interact is captured very well on p. 192 - 195, 200, 210, 212, 218, 219, 300, 307.

p. 198. Why would a person serving as the facilitator in this situation fail to recognize his or her own active contribution?

p. 199. The two parts of action projection, in sum, can be be described as conscious will loss and attribution to outside agency. . . . reduced perceptions of the priority, consistency, and exclusivity of thought about action . . .

Bottom paragraph on p. 199 and bottom 214/top 215 could be relevant for Hitler's Furies?

p. 209. Apparently, the decision of whether self is the cause of an action is heavily influenced by the unconscious accessibility of self versus nonself agents.

p. 212. The tendency to simplify the computation of will by focusing on another person while ignoring the self can oversimplify and blind us to what we are doing.

p. 214 - 215. There is a decrease in the use of the pronoun I by individuals in a group . . . dividuation . . . reduction of personal responsibility and morality that comes with the immersion of individuals in crowds and active groups. . . . The loss of self-awareness in such groups makes individuals less inclined to focus on themselves as responsible agents and so yields disinhibition of immoral impulses (. . .).

p. 217. . . . the fictions of inaction, reaction, stimulation, and collaboration . . .

p. 219. . . . projection of action to others is still not well understood in current scientific psychology.

7. Virtual Agency

When people project action to imaginary agents, they create virtual agents, apparent sources of their own action. This process underlies spirit possession and dissociative identity disorder as well as the formation of the agent self.

p. 269. The point of this chapter has been establishing whether and under what conditions people might change the sense of self they experience as they act.

8. Hypnosis and Will

In hypnosis the person experiences a loss of conscious will. This loss accompanies an apparent transfer of control to someone else, along with the creation of some exceptional forms of control over the self.

p. 272. In this sense while hypnosis may undermine the experience of will, it seems paradoxically to expand and alter the force of will.

p. 273. It concludes that hypnosis really only makes sense when we recognize that the experience of conscious will can be influenced by factors that are independent of the factors that cause human action.

p. 282. Hypnosis may be another version of the placebo effect, a way in which people behave when they thing something is going to have an influence on them.

p. 287. This suggests that the experience of involuntariness is the result of an interpretive exercise, a self-observation . . . because of the way it is described (. . .).

Voodoo death threats on p. 288 - 289.

p. 291. The great majority of subjects in these studies did the awful acts - they reached out to the snake, or they threw the acid. . . . discovered an important caveat. . . . Apparently, hypnosis had no special impact on the effectiveness of the experimenter's demands that people perform these nasty acts.

p. 292. The well-known obedience experiments by Stanely Milgram (1974), . . . so harmful if would be done by a psychopath. Still, some 60 percent of people . . .

p. 296. Experience Control Hypnotized individuals show a remarkable reduction in the tendency to report the experience of conscious will.

p. 299. It is easy to develop the unflattering suspicion that researchers of hypnosis may be domineering and argumentative by nature. . . . self-selected . . . This seems unlikely, however, now that I've starting studying hypnosis myself.

p. 300. Ideas and their associated actions can be dissociated or split off from normal consciousness such that they no longer allow consciousness of will.

p. 306. Figure 8.7

p. 308. In hypnosis, the person doesn't fall asleep because anther person's voice takes over and the plan generation function and deeps the body moving.

p. 310. The ironic processes of mental control (Wegner 1994) suggest that there are times when it might be good to stop planning and striving.

p. 313. In 1862, Charcot became physician to the Salpetriere, the Paris asylum for women, and inherited the supervision of a ward that housed epileptics and hysterics (. . . ).

9. The Mind's Compass

Although the experience of conscious will is not evidence of mental causation, it does signal personal authorship of action to the individual and so influences both the sense of achievement and the acceptance of moral responsibility.

This is, I think, a biological imperative. See Hobbes.

p. 322. The usual clash fails on both sides because free will is a feeling, whereas determinism is a process. They are incommensurable.

p. 325. Even though this experience is not an adequate theory of behavior causation, it needs to be acknowledged as an important characteristic of what it is to be human.

p. 328. This is turn allows us to deserve things.

This is the biological / the evolutionary imperative. It provides the "moral responsibility" justification for punishment.

p. 335. The idea that conscious will might be an illusion is radically disturbing to those who believe that our conscious choices determine our eternal futures.

As in it would be very strange if I were to burn my automation.

p. 336. Both the legal and the religious free will theories assume that that person's experience of conscious will is a direct sensation of the actual causal relation between a person's thought and action.

p. 337. The matter-of-fact, concrete accounts of their acts of murder given by German police and soldiers following the Holocaust of World War II, for instance reflect little experience of conscious will and more of the "I was only obeying orders" logic we have come to expect of people who are obeying commands (e.g., Browning 1992).

p. 338. Personal responsibility can't be founded only on self-reports of will.

p. 340. None of these functions of the robot would need to be conscious, but all should be in place to allow it to function successfully in Asimov's robot world. . . . human beings. . . . These thought about action need not be causes of the action to server moral functions. . . . information about a person's state of mind is important for determining what the crime i, how the person should be treated after the crime, how the person's tendency to commit further crime should be predicted and whether the person's tendency to perform the crime might be modified in the future.

p. 341. The function of conscious will is not to be absolutely cor
73 reviews
July 23, 2019
Clever? But the evidence is often about witchcraft, Ouija boards, drug abuse, and demonic possession which I found unusual (at least in my limited experience with psych metaphysics). I didn’t like the oily, almost condescending tone and snide comments about faith. That being said he makes a clever argument and is clearly a smart guy. He basically says we don’t choose what we do and that rather we just duped ourselves into thinking we have any effect on our own behavior. I wish he had talked more about what his theory would do with personal responsibility for actions, such as crimes and difficult choices. It all sounds very good on paper to say we have no control over what we do but it’s just not a practical theory for everyday decision-making, let alone rubber-hits-the-road morality. The book just induces out of body mentality and non agentic responsibility paradigms without any redeeming qualities beyond casuistical and supercilious intellectual elitism.
Profile Image for Alireza Manzoori.
6 reviews3 followers
August 28, 2022
Explores the experience of free will from a neuroscientific point of view, reviewing the body of evidence suggesting that it is an experience that is generated separately from the actual causation of the action in our brains. Lots of interesting insights, yet not an easy read at times.

Although I really liked the book, I'm giving it 4 stars because of two down sides:
1) IMHO, it goes into too much detail in some of the chapters about certain phenomena, and even though it is often interesting, that level of detail is not necessary for the main point. Therefore it's easy to feel lost and forget the main point about the experience of conscious will, at least for non-expert readers.
2) In some of the chapters, there is only weak and preliminary evidence that is not very conclusive (which is simply a result of the fact that there was very limited evidence at the time the book was written).
Profile Image for Hassan.
212 reviews2 followers
June 20, 2021
To be fair, didn't quite finish. Maybe 70%?

If you possess a serious philosophical, or especially empirical, interest in the concept of free will, this is your book. I like how Wegner thinks and writes. He states his central premises up front, very clearly, and explains how he'll use each chapter to explore and support them. The amount of psychological research he covers is impressive, and a lot of it is fascinating. Stuff that you thought bordered on pseudo-science, but which he carefully dissects and analyzes. And of course, I agree with him. Free will is an "illusion" - an epiphenomenon which fools us into believing we are in control of our actions. But it's also an illusion with a causal explanation and potentially a purpose.

Good stuff, if strictly for nerds.
Profile Image for Leonardo Kruse.
22 reviews
December 26, 2022

"People are destined by the lack of consciousness of much of their own behavior to attribute to others the impetus for what they themselves have set in motion." (218)

"Albert Einstein, the epitome of the good scientist, remarked on the mental peace that can come from relaxing the striving for control and accepting a philosophy of resignation to determinism: 'The conviction that a law of necessity governs human activities introduces into our conception of man and life a mildness, a reverence and an excellence, such as would be unattainable without this conviction.' " (333)

(I'd give this book a 3.5) This book was super interesting. At first, I grabbed it off the shelf from the store because it was cheap and it seemed like it talked about philosophical reminiscing on free will and determinism, but it was way different from what I thought. It is all about the different ways that we do not act in accordance with out will, or how our wills do not follow perfectly our actions. Wenger shows that will is much more malleable than what we think it is, and that our wills and our perceptions of what comes from then don't even line up correctly with what happens in reality. I liked Wegner's sense of humor throughout, and really will enjoy looking back through this book.

Profile Image for Leonardo.
1,984 reviews58 followers
Shelved as 'to-keep-reference'
November 29, 2019
Muchos científicos estiman que [...] todas nuestras acciones están psicológicamente determinadas. Pero en mi opinión tienden a respaldar la hipótesis contraria. Entendemos todos estos casos, de hipnósis, engaños, confabulación, etc. si los contrastamos con el caso convencional en el cual realizamos una acción voluntaria libre.

La Mente Pág.281-282
January 26, 2023
I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone. If you've never found the arguments for scientific determinism convincing, you're probably better off not reading this book. If, on the other hand, you've grappled with this question and struggled to find the right way to approach it, this might be THE book you're looking for. In that case, I recommend not reading only parts of it, but all the way to end. The first 8 chapters thoroughly dismantle the illusion of conscious will, whereas the final chapter puts conscious will back together in a way that resonates with the scientific worldview.
Profile Image for Ogi Ogas.
Author 11 books85 followers
October 18, 2019
My ratings of books on Goodreads are solely a crude ranking of their utility to me, and not an evaluation of literary merit, entertainment value, social importance, humor, insightfulness, scientific accuracy, creative vigor, suspensefulness of plot, depth of characters, vitality of theme, excitement of climax, satisfaction of ending, or any other combination of dimensions of value which we are expected to boil down through some fabulous alchemy into a single digit.
Profile Image for Edward.
116 reviews4 followers
June 10, 2020
Wegner does an impressive job citing evidence in a fair manner from “automatism”, spirit possession, hypnosis, and others to prove his thesis that we are often mistaken when we experience that we are consciously willing our actions.
February 3, 2023
☕️ 3.7/ 5. ☕️

● well written and easy to understand
● I enjoyed the light humour Wegner included here and there
● a few theories and topics were explained in a bit of a long-winded manner
● some didn't need as long chapters as they got, as far as I see it
● I learned quite a bit, saw a few things from a perspective I hadn't thought of yet - it is (mostly) a very interesting read
Profile Image for Loyd Mbabu.
5 reviews
October 4, 2017
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.
Profile Image for David Curtis.
13 reviews7 followers
June 13, 2018
Excellent book. Not a totally straightforward read and a knowledge of psychology helps. But written in a clear and even entertaining way.
1 review
October 23, 2020
This has been one of the most enlightening books I've read this year. Well-written and deeply insightful. Highly recommend to anyone interested in understanding the human condition
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