Illusion of conscious will

Daniel Wegner

The author’s purpose is to demonstrate that conscious will is not efficacious. The Libet experiments suggested that unconscious processing drives trivial actions such as moving a finger. Wegner argues that it is the same for more important activities. To do this, he must separate conscious desires, plans and intentions from bodily actions. Although the claimed fact of such a separation is repeated exhaustively throughout the book, the argument really rests on a single example. This involves a dinner at which the intention to observe a diet is abandoned in favour of eating a dessert. This is supposed to show that not just this but all such original plans have no causal influence, but only the final intention, which is in turn is actually driven by non-conscious processing. Three things are not discussed in this argument. Firstly, there are the many occasions on which conscious plans are carried out. No clearly stated reason is given, as to why there should be seen to be any separation between plan and action in these cases. The between-the- lines reason for rejecting this possibility is that consciousness is deemed to be non-physical and therefore non-efficacious, but such an argument steps outside the scientific paradigm by positing the existence of the non-physical. Without this assumption, the burden of proof is very much on Wegner to show why the conscious experience does not lead to the conscious act. Secondly, we might think that the effect of the conscious anticipation of a dessert would have some influence, rather than simply resorting to unconscious processing as an answer. Finally, a recent study shows that subjects that believe they can affect the outcome of their activities actually perform better at them, than those who do not.

Right from the beginning, this book expresses an assumption that is ubiquitous in consciousness studies, but appears to be a contradiction of the scientific paradigm. This is the belief that our knowledge of genes, nurture and neuroscience is in the scientific box, but consciousness is something separate from this, and therefore can never be efficacious. This is specifically argued on pp. 12-13, where it is claimed that if we believe in the efficacy of freewill, we must believe in something supernatural. However, the whole point of the scientific paradigm is that there is nothing outside the physical world. There should be a physical explanation for everything we experience, including the experience of consciousness. Wegner in fact accepts this in parts of his book, but is still stuck with the assumption that at all costs consciousness must be shown to be non-efficacious. Thus if we accept the scientific paradigm, we have to accept consciousness as something physical, and therefore efficacious within the physical world. There is a further curious assumption made towards the end of the book that freewill, if it existed would have to be something acausal and random. However, no reason is put forward as to why physical consciousness should not be causally acted on by sensory input or rational processing of data.

Later on this book, Wegner describes the Libet experiments that are the modern basis for denying the existence of free will. These demonstrate that with actions such as moving a finger, unconscious processing in the brain precedes the conscious will to act. A criticism of arguments based on the Libet experiments is that these only involve trivial actions, which everyone knows are often done on autopilot. More strategic or deliberative long-term decisions would seem to be the type of decisions that might involve freewill. To his credit, Wegner, in contrast to most writers on the subject, does recognise this problem, and the main import of the book is to try and demonstrate that more strategic decisions also do not involve any element of free or conscious will.

Wegner accepts both that we experience conscious desires, plans and intentions, and that when we perform the desired, planned or intended actions, we have the experience of having performed a willed action. However, his purpose is to show that these two experiences have no causal connection. Early on, Wegner draws on Hume’s argument that we did not know enough about the sources of our conscious will to attribute to it any ability to act. However, this is an argument that cuts both ways. There is still no consensus view on the basis of consciousness even within mainstream thinking, and it is therefore not possible to make a definitive statement on the basis of our knowledge of consciousness that it either is, or is not efficacious, in terms of our behaviour.

However, it seems fair to argue that the burden of proof lies more on those who deny the possibility of freewill, since Wegner himself stresses the very frequent coincidence of the experience of conscious will and the experience of a conscious action. This permits an a priori assumption that the two experiences are causally connected, with some positive evidence needed to move the balance of probability towards a negative assumption. The Libet experiments do go some way in this direction, in showing unconscious processing as the origin of trivial actions. However, even with these actions, we should consider Libet’s own suggestion of the possible existence of a ‘free won’t‘, an ability to override unconscious decisions, where they are suddenly deemed inappropriate. The experience of suddenly deciding against an action or impulse is a common conscious experience. Libet’s suggestion has never been successfully answered, so it is surprising that it is not discussed by Wegner. If there is a capacity to intervene, then even some trivial acts are in the last resort governed by a freewill backstop.

Wegner tries to caste the experience of having performed an action into an entirely passive mode. He compares the conscious experience of having voluntarily performed an action, with the experience of pain activated within the brain after receiving an adverse stimulus from some part of the body. This is a false analogy, in that it compares a process that is well understood, as a simple electrochemical signal from some part of the body to the brain, to a process that is not yet understood by science, but, even in a mainstream approach, looks likely to involve a much more complex interplay of sensations, reasoning and emotion, with some of these inputs conflicting with one another.

In the core part of his argument, Wegner goes on to discuss the areas of intention, desires and plans that appear to lie upstream of action. He takes as an example the action of watering plants. More trivial actions such as bending the arm etc. are seen as being nested within this more highly intentional action of watering the plants. As the actions become more intentional, the more they need to be understood in the context of the wider world, which is usually seen to involve a desire for something that motivates the action. In this example, it is suggested that the intention to water the plants derives from a desire to win a gardening competition. Desires are somewhat akin to plans in that they describe the working through to a medium or longer-term desire. Wegner himself suggests the example of a planned holiday in Hawaii as something deliberated in the conscious mind.

It is at this point that we reach the crux of Wegner’s book with his attempt to separate off the conscious experience of desiring, planning or intending an action, from the conscious experience of having performed the action. He wants us to think that the immediate intention to perform an action, which he knows can be shown to be the result of unconscious processing, is decisive to the exclusion of any previous desires or plans. The whole argument appears to rest on a single example. We are on a diet and intend to have no dessert at dinner, but in the event we weaken and have a dessert. Wegner claims triumphantly that the diet is a false intention apparently cut off from causality, and only the final action of gobbling the dessert is relevant. This mean, in the context of the Libet experiments that the decision to eat the dessert comes solely from unconscious processing, and has nothing to do with any conscious perception of the likely deliciousness of the dessert. The total discarding of the original diet as a ‘false intention’ also appears to be an extreme interpretation, given that the wish to diet is likely to persist and could influence future actions.

Here we have to recall that in totally denying freewill the bar is set at the highest level. It is not by any means sufficient to show that in particular instances our plans and desires are not carried through, rather it is necessary to show that in all instances, they have no causal influence at all on our subsequent actions. Wegner himself advances his holiday as an instance of planning. Assuming he takes the holiday, it seems unreasonable to separate out the laborious or pleasurable deliberations that go into deciding the holiday from the action of taking it. On this argument, the only really intentional thing would be the unconsciously driven process of getting into the taxi to go to the airport. There is something of a sleight of hand in the selection of the dinner example. Everybody is familiar with good intentions that are overridden by attractive temptations, although most would probably not describe the original intentions as false intentions, as Wegner does. However, just as valid as an example would be the plan or desire to spend the evening getting drunk with friends. Here there is unlikely be any overriding temptation that prevents the realisation of our plan, and it becomes much more difficult to see a causal break between conscious intention and conscious action. Furthermore even the dinner party example does not look particularly water tight. Wegner would like us to believe that an unconscious process overrides our dietary intentions, but the real villain would appear to be our all too conscious image or anticipation of a delicious dessert. There is no way in which the consciousness of the desirability of the dessert can be said to come after the action of eating it. The unscientific assumption of a non-physical and therefore absolutely non-efficacious consciousness seems to be required in order to excluding our conscious perception of the dessert from having some effect on the decision to abandon the diet.

We reach this point already in chapter 1, and if we are not convinced by the dinner party example, it becomes difficult to connect with the author from this point on. Much of the time, the disconnection of consciousness from the underlying causal mechanisms is repeated as something of a mantra. The book as a whole has a curious approach to understanding the mind, and could be seen as somewhat old fashioned. There is almost no discussion of the role of rational thought or deliberation, despite a modern view that the sophisticated nature of our reasoning lies behind the much greater development of the prefrontal in humans. References to emotions are cursory, which is very much the attitude of the previous generation in neuroscience. Even within the mainstream, it is nowadays at variance with studies such as Edmund Rolls’ ‘Emotion Explained’ or Zald and Rauch’s ‘Orbitofrontal Cortex’ that  emphasise the vital importance of the interplay between the orbitofrontal cortex and the limbic areas of the brain, particularly the amygdala. These mechanisms are curiously ignored in Wegner’s book. In modern approaches to emotion, we also find the useful concept of a common neural currency of emotion, in which we can, for instance, balance the desire to control our weight, against the desire to eat a dessert. There is no explanation of quite how values are established in this currency, but it does get us away from the improbable suggestion that one side of the dinner dilemma has in fact no influence at all. In particular, Wegner makes no attempt to explain the link between the sometimes vivid experience of emotions and our actions. As mentioned above, the loss of will at dinner might be better accounted for by the feeling of desire for dessert rather than something unconscious. Instead of addressing these core areas of neural processing and how these relate to his theory, Wegner spends a very large part of the book on extraordinary and peripheral areas, such as spiritualism and table turning, hypnotism and pathological conditions. Further to these are experiments that show that conscious will can be an illusion, but involve contrived and deliberately misleading conditions with sophisticated technology, unlikely to have often been replicated in the hunter-gather life for which we are adapted.

The last chapter of the book is an unconvincing attempt to explain why we evolved an apparently useless consciousness. There is a suggestion that conscious will is like a compass on a ship, not causal to its navigation, but an aid to steering. But who is the steersperson? Surely not some Cartesian spirit, rejected by the whole of scientific thinking. But the only alternative in this example would be a consciousness with some, albeit indirect, influence on unconscious processing, in which case consciousness is actually efficacious after all.

A further attempt at providing an evolutionary advantage for non-efficacious consciousness is to argue for the advantage of perceived (but actually illusory) control. Studies show that people cope better under many circumstances, when they perceive that they have a measure of control over their lives. What Wegner does not explain is why this should be the case. The obvious explanation is that people evolved to have some measure of conscious control over their lives, and become unsettled when this is constrained. In respect of these studies, Wegner has not demonstrated an advantage from having perceived control, but merely a disadvantage from not having it, in which case it is evolutionarily maladaptive. Further to this, the author neglects to mention that some studies show that subjects that believe they have some control over the outcome of their activities, say during an academic course, actually perform better than a group that see the outcome as pre-determined by a test of their abilities, taken at the beginning of the course.


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