The Illusion of Conscious Will (Bradford Books) )

Readable, Entertaining, and Enlightening!

, May 17, 2002


A Customer

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The Illusion of Conscious Will (Bradford Books) (Hardcover)

Daniel Wegner, (Harvard Professor of Psychology) has written a technical book that is readable, entertaining, enlightening. My introduction to Dr. Wegner was in "White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts". His sense of humor combined with his presentation of details put that book on my top ten list.

Since my primary interest is in spirituality, I was anxiously awaiting The Illusion of Conscious Will. In my opinion there is no topic that can be more seductive in the study of spirituality or philosophy. If we think we have "free-will" our thought-life takes one path, if we come down on the side of determinism (or predestination in some circles) our life will follow a different path. The author jumps right into the fray at the very start:

"So here you are reading a book on conscious will. How could this have happened? If [a team of scientific psychologists] had access to all the information they could ever want, the assumption of psychology is that they would uncover the mechanisms that give rise to all of your behavior and so could certainly explain why you picked up this book at this moment. However, another way to explain the fact of your reading this book is just to say that you decided to pick up the book and begin reading. You consciously willed what you are doing"

A sample of topics cover everything from spirit possession, animals that communicate, hypnosis, morality, and a host of other topics including a brief but interesting insight regarding a confession by the Amazing Kreskin.

Since my background is not in psychology, this became a challenging read but always entertaining. At the very least you will be impressed with how psychologists approach a problem that philosophers and theologians have debated for a thousand years. But if you are like me, this book is destined to change your outlook on life.

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The Illusion of Conscious Will will radically change your view of human behavior, including your own. It manages to controvert the most basic of our intuitive assumptions about our actions and decisions -- that they are governed by our conscious thought processes. Wegner presents ample anecdotal and scientific evidence to suggest that what we call consciousness is just a byproduct of our underlying, unconscious decision making process. And, what is more, he does so with an entertaining and readily accessible writing style. A great read for anyone who is interested in learning why they do what they do!

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I found the book via on online discussion group, as such it is not in a field that i feel particularly able to judge the quality of the work, or where it fits into the overall field.The book is an extended discussion of the question: "do we consciously cause what happens to us? or as the author puts the question- is the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of the action by the person's conscious mind the same thing?" pg.3 The book feels like a dialogue between a psychologist and a brain researcher with a philosopher as umpire. The overall structure of the book is particularly good as the author avoids the great temptation to stray from his point while he investigates weird and interesting behaviors, it is to his great credit that the book makes good sense and continues to hammer away at his main point. All the while exploring related avenues of information that might have derailed the study.

The book, at least for me with my limited background in the issues, is rather self authenticating. So i would like to share several very good quotes:

"The real and apparent casual sequences relating thought and action probably do tend to correspond with each other some proportion of the time. After all, people are pretty good information processors when given access to the right information. The occurrence of conscious intention prior to action is often wonderful information because it provides a fine clue as to how things that are on the person' mind might pertain to what the person does. In fact, the mental system that introduces throughts of action to mind and keeps them coordinated with the actions is itself an intriguing mechanism. However, if conscious will is an experience that arises from the interpretation of clues to cognitive casuality, then apparent mental causation is generated by an interpretive process that is fundamentally separate from the mechanistic process of real mental causation. The experience of will can be an indication that mind is causing action, especially if the person is a good self-interpreter, but it is not conclusive." pg 96

"The phenomena of dissociative identity disorder reminds us that our familiar subjective sense of being and doing are open to remarkable transformations. The self is not locked into place somewhere an inch or so behind our eyes, a fixture in the mind. Rather, the agent self is a fabrication put in place by the mechanisms of thought, a virtual agent that has experiences and feels as though it is doing things but that could conceivably be replaced by some other virtual agent that is implemented in the same mind. The experience of consciously willing an action is something that happens in a virtual agent, not in a brain or mind. The sense of being an agent creates our sense of subjective self and identity." pg 263

"Conscious will is the somatic marker of personal authorship, an emotion that authenticates the action's owner as the self. With the feeling of doing an act, we get a conscious sensation of will attached to the action. Often, this marker is quite correct. In many cases, we have intentions that preview our action, and we draw causal inferences linking our thoughts and actions in ways that track quite well our own psychological processes. Our experiences of will, in other words, often do correspond correctly with the empirical will--the actual casual connection between our thought and action. The experience of will then serves to mark the moment and in memory the actions that have been singled out in this way. We know them as ours, as authored by us, because we have felt ourselves doing them. This helps us to tell the difference between things we're doing and all the other things that are happening in and around us. In the melee of actions that occur in daily life, and in the social interaction of self with others, this body-based signature is a highly useful tool. We resonate with what we do, whereas we only notice what otherwise happens or what others have done. Thus, we can keep track of our own contributions without pencils or tally sheets." pg 327

And from the concluding page, 342, " Sometimes how things seem is more important than what they are. This is true in theater, in art, in used car sales, in economics, and -- it now turns out-- in the scientific analysis of conscious will. The fact is, it seems to each of us that we have conscious will . It seems we have selves. It seems we have minds. It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do. Although it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion, it is a mistake to conclude that the illusory is trivial. On the contrary, the illusions piled atop apparent mental causation are the building blocks of human psychology and social life. It is only with the feeling of conscious will that we can being to solve the problems of knowing who we are as individuals, of discerning what we can and cannot do, and of judging ourselves morally right or wrong for what we have done."

From these you can conclude for yourself the author's position on the question of the book. From them as well you can determine the quality of the writing and the level of the argumentation. For my part, i found the time i spent understanding the author's argument constructive, the examples illuminating and most interesting, despite being a scientific writing it held my interest and was emotionally as well as intellectually fulfilling. I hope you find it likewise.

thanks for reading the review, i would certainly invite recommendation for further reading on this topic. send to [local website]

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(CT) -

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The start of this book is excellent. Wegner begins by explaining what criteria have to be met for us to feel we have done something freely. These include: 1) a thought precedes an action (usually just before). 2) the thought always precedes the action 3) the action always follows the thought. He explains why this provides an illusion of freely chosen action. First, he gives examples of situations where people feel they are willing action, but someone else in fact, controls the action. The examples are amazing!! Then he gives many examples when people are controlling the action, but feel they are not. He finishes by concluding that free will is an emotion that allows us to keep track of our own actions and thus makes it possible for us to learn from our actions and keep track of who does what. He likens this sense of free will to a speedometer that is helping to measure a link between thought and action, but explains that the feeling of will is not itself causal.First, I think Wegner should include in his list of criteria for us to conclude we have willed action this idea: That we cannot attribute the action to forces outside our control, including overwhelming emotions (passions, if you will) and external physical causes. He doesn't say this outright though much of the book IS devoted to explaining this idea.

Wegner agrees that thoughts can "cause" actions, but that the feeling of choosing does not. The problem I have with the book is that, at the end, he fails to stand firmly behind the conclusions that surely must follow from all he has said. We do not control our thoughts any more than our actions is the only logical conclusion. Thus our ideas of morality are based on an illusion.

We must also conclude that people's reports on their mental states are almost never accurate. Such reports of mental states thus have no place in a court of law for example.

Wegner seems to use the idea of a guilty conscience as an indication that the person knew what he was doing when he did it. I strongly disagree. He may have acted unconsciously and later realized his behavior was inconsistent with his beliefs. A guilty mind, in my view, should be a sign of a person who is less likely to act in a bad way again, not more worthy of blame. For example, sociopaths will never have a guilty mind, and are the ones most likely to repeat harmful behavior

I think we have to fall back on the position of Gilbert Ryle, the only real clues we have to a person¡¦s mental state (including our own) is behavior. By this criteria, anyone who shows behavioral signs of genuine remorse (we could be fooled by very good actors, but usually when people fake someone can see it--there will be some inconsistency in behavior) is providing clues that the person did something he did not feel was morally right and it is also an indicator that, unless they have an uncontrollable compulsion, they will be more likely to avoid the behavior in the future. Feelings of remorse, if strong, should act as a deterrent (Wegner does suggest this).

In the end Wegner is unable to give up on the idea that we WILL our actions. He devotes a book to saying this is an illusion, but ultimately he does not want to give up on will as a causal force and that was a disappointment

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(Sydney, Australia) - 

This book seeks to make the case that the experience of conscious will, although seeming to cause our actions, does not. The argument presented in doing this is broad-ranging, covering topics in philosophy, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, child development, and social psychology.

Like his Harvard Colleague Daniel Gilbert, Daniel Wegner has the dual gifts of being a gifted researcher and gifted writer. There is insufficient space in a brief review to outline all the arguments raised by this book, or all the topics covered. The good ideas come thick and fast, but are presented with sufficient clarity that they should be understandable to most intelligent readers, even those without an extensive background in psychology or philosophy.

On top of his writing and research, Wegner's ability to theorize from the evidence and consider evidence in light of theory is outstanding. A great deal of the research Wegner reports in this book is his own. In addition, he does a masterful job of scouring current and historical literature for interesting examples to support his case.

There are some good concise summaries of the arguments made in this book in academic psychology articles by Wegner. Some of which can be downloaded from his homepage: these may provide a good start if you are presently unsure about buying the book. I think people who enjoy Daniel Dennett's philosophical writings on consciousness would enjoy this book.

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