This review of The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel Wegner appeared in Philosophy in Review 33.4 (2003):299-301
DANIEL M. WEGNER. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Bradford Books, The MIT Press 2002. Pp. xi+405. (Cloth: ISBN 0-262-23222-7);
Daniel Wegner, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has devoted much of his career to understanding the nature of self-control and its limitations. He is perhaps best known to the general public as author of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts (New York: Viking Press, 1989) that summarized research on the difficulty we have in controlling the contents of our thoughts. His new book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, branches out into the realm of philosophy, and surveys a wide range of phenomena and experimental work relevant to agency. It has chapters on neurophysiology, phenomenology, automatism (including automatic writing, Ouija boards, water divining, and dissociative personality), protecting the illusion of conscious agency (including posthypnotic suggestion, confabulation in split-brain patients, phenomena of 'alien control' in schizophrenia), projection of agency (including beliefs in intelligent horses and pigs, and facilitated communication), virtual agency (including possession, mediumship, multiple personalities), hypnosis, and a final chapter on the importance of our beliefs in free will and authorship. These chapters are for the most part sprawling and unfocused. Wegner examines many topics and gives his opinion of how best to interpret them, but the book is full of unsubstantiated interpretations. It is often unclear whether the facts he presents are meant to serve as evidence for his main thesis about the illusion of free will, whether they are meant to be consequences of his view, or whether they are merely interesting phenomena that are tangentially related to his main theme. There is repetition of ideas from chapter to chapter, but often the examination of particular topics is cursory. In short, the book reads like a rough draft rather than a finished version.
Wegner's writing style is often casual and he peppers his text with jokes and asides. There are many illustrations, from diagrams explaining his views about the will and setting out details of scientific experiments to drawings of mesmerism, a reproduction of an advertisement for the "hypno-coin," and a photograph of Peter Sellers in the role of Dr. Strangelove. One might hope this would make the book more readable, but instead, the book fails to be either good scholarship or popular psychology, and is likely to leave both academic philosophers and psychologists and the general reader unsatisfied.
Wegner's main claim is that "the experience of consciously willing an action is not a direct indication that the conscious thought has caused the action" (2). He defines will as a feeling (3) and says (apparently by way of explicating our concept of will) that an action is not willed if the person says it is not (4) – ignoring the possibility of error or deception on the part of the agent. Wegner then makes a great deal of cases of people who perform actions with no apparent experience of willing them, but he makes no effort to prove that his initial definition of will is satisfactory or that it is a conceptual truth that will is a feeling. It remains open to a defender of free will to argue that our knowledge of willing is defeasible, and so that Wegner's many cases of action without awareness of willing fail to prove that the will is an illusion.
A potentially useful distinction Wegner makes is between the phenomenal will – the person's reported experience of will – and empirical will – the causality of the person's conscious thoughts as established by a scientific analysis of their covariation with the person's behavior (14). At times, Wegner's main thesis seems to be the modest one that the phenomenal will and the empirical will are not the same, rather than a denial of the existence of will. He says we accept a simple explanation of our behavior, "We intended to do it, so we did it" and we do not see the physical and mental processes that go to make up the empirical will (27). However, Wegner never makes a strong case that the phenomenal will is indeed generally incompatible with the empirical will, and the claim is prima facie implausible. The common sense psychology of ordinary folk assumes that the empirical will and the phenomenal will are different, and that the former explains the latter.
The most interesting argument for the illusory nature of conscious will stems from the research of Libet and others on the timing of consciousness awareness of willing relative to the action performed. The awareness of willing of finger movement occurs after neurophysiological activity that leads to the finger movement, and this suggests the awareness is causally irrelevant to the action. Wegner concludes from such experiments that "consciousness is kind of a slug" (58). He seems oblivious to the need to be very careful about the interpretation of the experimental data and the risk in generalizing from such specialized experimental conditions to ordinary life. Suffice to say, he casts very little doubt on the ordinary supposition that through deliberating about our lives we can often decide what is best and then act on our decision.
The remaining discussion of the book provides a wealth of fascinating cases where a person's agency is contestable. Especially provocative is Wegner's claim that the experience of conscious will occurs only when conscious thoughts are (mistakenly) seen as causing perceived actions. Philosophers new to the psychological literature on the will should find the bibliography an excellent resource for further research, and Wegner's work makes a strong case that the psychological literature deserves attention from philosophers working on freedom of the will and personal autonomy. The central failing of Wegner's argument is that he attributes to defenders of the will implausible beliefs about the nature of will and its role in agency. When he proceeds to show how the experimental data are incompatible with those beliefs, the implications are not as significant as he claims. Psychology has shown how humans tend to be less rational than we like to suppose, and there are many cases where are self-understanding is limited. However, just as the claims of psychoanalysis and behaviorism to undermine our central beliefs in our self-control have in the past been shown to be overblown, so too Wegner's use of modern cognitive and social psychology to undermine our belief in conscious will is ultimately unpersuasive.