Academic Studies of Human Consciousness

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Consciousness Concepts of Daniel Wegner

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The unique human experience of conscious thoughts that preview our actions gives us the privilege of feeling that we willfully cause what we do.  In fact, however, unconscious and inscrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as cause of the action.  So, while our thoughts may have deep, important, and unconscious causal connections to our actions, the experience of consciousness will arises from a process that interprets these connections, not from the connections themselves.

(Quotation is taken from Wegner's book, published in 2002,  entitled The Illusion of Conscious Will, chapter 3, page 98.)

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Daniel M. Wegner was born in 1948; he received his B.A. (1970), M.A. (1972) and Ph. D. (1974) from Michigan State University.  From 1974-1990, he was on the faculty of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  From 1990-2000, he was a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. Since 2000, he has been a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.  His current work focuses on the role of thought in self-control and social life.

The following brief summary of Wegner's ideas pertaining to consciousness and volition is based entirely upon his book, published in 2002, entitled The Illusion of Conscious Will.

The title of Wegner's book gives the expectation that it will show that conscious agency is an illusion, but in fact, the book is really about the feeling of conscious agency.  His basic belief seems to be that the human conscious mind generates an entirely false feeling of being in control with respect to most situations involving actions taken by the human body. In other words, our ordinary conscious feelings are completely mistaken in the believe that our conscious will has caused such actions.

Wegner also makes the even stronger assertion that:

People experience conscious will quite independently of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and their actions.

Thus we always are deceived by our belief that we are able to produce action through conscious will.  This is an epiphenomenalist viewpoint. Recent neurological research, most notably that of Benjamin Libet (1992) and Wegner himself (1998),  indicates that the actual causal path begins with unconscious brain processes and ends in human action but does not include what is experienced as conscious will. Instead, unconscious mental events produce both thought and action, and the will that we experience is the result of brain activity in a parallel, ineffectual path.  In other words, Wegner argues that the causal element in the brain that leads to action should be viewed as a two track simultaneous process: one track leads to the body part that executes the action;  the other track generates the feeling of will in ordinary consciousness.

I believe that many neuroscientists would assert that the feeling of conscious will can be distinguished from the real thing and this "real thing" is a phenomenon that can be scientifically studied. But that possibility notwithstanding, what implications do Wegner's findings have for the issue of human responsibility? Do people consciously cause their actions, or do these actions just happen to them?

Wegner's position on this issue seems to be ambiguous. On one hand, he vigorously asserts that our actions happen to us; conscious will is an illusion. For example, he concludes his discussion of various types of human automatisms such as automatic writing, water dowsing, etc. by saying that they:

 " ... represent a class of instances in which apparent mental causation fails. This means that if conscious will is illusory, automatisms are somehow the 'real thing,' fundamental mechanisms of mind that are left over once the illusion has been stripped away. Rather than conscious will being the rule and automatism the exception, the opposite may be true; automatism is the rule, and the illusion of conscious will is the exception. ... "

On the other hand, in the book, Wegner frequently speaks about human causal agency and uses examples of mismatches between felt agency and actual agency.  However, for such mismatches to occur one would have to acknowledge that people genuinely do act as agents.

In my view, the most important impact of Wegner's book concerns the debate concerning the existence of free will by showing that the experience of conscious will cannot be used as evidence for the existence of human free will.

I conclude this essay with the bottom-line assessment of Wegner's book made by English psychologist Susan Blackmore, that appeared in the New York Times Book Review:

The illusion ... is ... the false idea that our conscious thoughts cause our actions. This, he says, is caused by the simple mistake of confusing correlation with causality. It works like this. When we decide to do something, we are first aware of our conscious thoughts about the action, then we observe the action happening, and finally we conclude that our thoughts caused the action. In fact, says Wegner, unconscious processes caused both the conscious thoughts and the action.

By revealing these illusions Wegner may do for free will what science has finally done for God. Since we no longer need him to explain the origins of Life, the Universe and Everything, we have stopped arguing about Godís existence. So if we no longer need real free will to explain our feelings maybe we can stop arguing about that too Ė but somehow I doubt it will be that easy.

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