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The Illusion of Conscious Will

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The Illusion of Conscious Will

MIT Press,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Text available

What's inside?

You believe your thoughts cause your actions, but perhaps your will is not always really in charge.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


Daniel M. Wegner’s book is a lucid, entertaining exploration of one of the most important issues in philosophy and psychology: the existence of will. Extreme determinists contend that people are mechanisms programmed to do what they do and that any notion of freedom or choice is merely illusory. Their antagonists, the proponents of free will, say that people consciously freely choose to act (at least some of the time). Wegner falls into the former camp. Conscious will, he says, is an illusion. But in a wide-ranging ramble that touches on law and the courts, spirit possession, hypnotism, neuroscience, phantom limbs and Ouija boards among other things, he builds a strong anecdotal case that this illusion is essential to being human. The book is curiously desultory, now citing some experiment on the brain in deadly earnest academic language, and then tossing off a flip remark about a popular stage magician or an apparently very clever horse. finds it both entertaining and elucidating, although it may not always rise to the most demanding standards of philosophical evidence and argument.


The Problem of Will

It seems that we make up our minds; it also seems that after making up our minds, we act. It seems that, sometimes, in the midst of acting we change our minds and stop acting.

What if none of what seems to be is true? What if it is all an illusion? In fact, our feelings do mislead us, perhaps nowhere more fundamentally or thoroughly than when they suggest that our conscious will causes us to act or to stop acting. In fact, our feelings or experiences of willing an action and carrying it out may be utterly unrelated to each other - or if they are related, they may not be linked in the sense of a cause and effect.

This is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance. Often, what people feel or experience is strangely at odds with what an observer would call facts. Consider the odd case of alien hand syndrome. This describes the disorder afflicting a person whose hand has its own mind and will. The sufferer cannot control one hand; it does what it pleases, often against the person’s will and repeated efforts. In one case, a patient with this disorder was playing a game of checkers. His alien hand made a move that he did not want to make. ...

About the Author

Daniel M. Wegner is a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

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