Precis and Peer Review of 'The Illusion of Conscious Will'
Wegner (Daniel)
Source: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2004), 27
Paper - Abstract

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    The experience of conscious will is the feeling that we are doing things. This feeling occurs for many things we do, conveying to us again and again the sense that we consciously cause our actions. But the feeling may not be a true reading of what is happening in our minds, brains, and bodies as our actions are produced. The feeling of conscious will can be fooled. This happens in clinical disorders such as alien hand syndrome, dissociative identity disorder, and schizophrenic auditory hallucinations. And in people without disorders, phenomena such as hypnosis, automatic writing, Ouija board spelling, water dowsing, facilitated communication, speaking in tongues, spirit possession, and trance channeling also illustrate anomalies of will – cases when actions occur without will or will occurs without action. This book brings these cases together with research evidence from laboratories in psychology and neuroscience to explore a theory of apparent mental causation1. According to this theory, when a thought appears in consciousness just prior to an action, is consistent with the action, and appears exclusive of salient alternative causes of the action, we experience conscious will and ascribe authorship to ourselves for the action. Experiences of conscious will thus arise from processes whereby the mind interprets itself – not from processes whereby mind creates action. Conscious will, in this view, is an indication that we think we have caused an action, not a revelation of the causal sequence by which the action was produced.
  1. The illusion (Ch. 1)
    … 1.1. Conscious will
    … … 1.1.1. The experience of conscious will.
    … … 1.1.2. The force of conscious will.
    … 1.2. Mind perception
    … … 1.2.1. Causal agency.
    … … 1.2.2. Mechanisms and minds.
    … 1.3. Real and apparent mental causation2
  2. Apparent mental causation3 (Ch. 3)
    … 2.1. A theory of apparent mental causation4
    … 2.2. Principles of causal inference
    … 2.3. Intentions as previews
  3. The mind’s compass (Ch. 9)
    … 3.1. Free will and determinism
    … … 3.1.1. The usual choice.
    … … 3.1.2. Authorship emotion.
    … 3.2. How things seem
    … 3.3. Postscript
Open Peer Commentary
  1. The self is virtual, the will is not illusory
    • George Ainslie, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Coatesville, PA 19320.
    • Abstract: Wegner makes an excellent case that our sense of ownership of our actions depends on multiple factors, to such an extent that it could be called virtual or even illusory. However, two other core functions of will are initiation of movement and maintenance of resolution, which depend on our accurate monitoring of them. This book shows that will is not an imponderable black box but, rather, an increasingly accessible set of specific functions.
  2. The experience of will: Affective or cognitive?
    • Joseph E. Bogen, Neurologic Surgery, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and Division of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91105
    • Abstract: Wegner vacillates between considering the experience of will as a directly-sensed feeling and as a cognitive construct. Most of his book is devoted to examples of erroneous cognition. The brain basis of will as an immediately-sensed emotion receives minimal attention.
  3. Calling in the Cartesian loans
    • Daniel C. Dennett, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155.
    • Abstract: Wegner’s tactic of describing the conscious mind as if it inhabited a Cartesian Theater in the brain is a stopgap solution that needs to be redeemed by paying off these loans of comprehension. Just how does Wegner propose to recast his points?
  4. We believe in freedom of the will so that we can learn
    • Clark Glymour, Department of Philosophy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, and Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL 32507
    • Abstract: The central theoretical issue of Wegner’s book is: Why do we have the illusion of conscious will? I suggest that learning requires belief in the autonomy of action.
  5. The elusive illusion of sensation
    • Valerie Gray Hardcastle, Department of Science and Technology in Society, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0247.
    • Abstract: The sensation of will is not the same thing as the will itself any more than the sensation of hunger is the same thing as being devoid of nutrients. This is not a really surprising claim, but it is the only claim to which Wegner is entitled in his book.
  6. The sense of conscious will
    • Gene M. Heyman, BPRL and Psychiatry, McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Belmont, MA 02478.
    • Abstract: Wegner’s conclusion that conscious will is an illusion follows from a key omission in his analysis. Although he describes conscious will as an experience, akin to one of the senses, he omits its objective correlate. The degree to which behavior can be influenced by its consequences (voluntariness) provides an objective correlate for conscious will. With conscious will anchored to voluntariness, the illusion disappears.
  7. How neuroscience accounts for the illusion of conscious will
    • Masao Ito, Brain Science Institute, Institution RIKEN, Wako, Saitama, 351-0198, Japan
    • Abstract: Wegner’s monograph presents the view that conscious will is a feeling that we experience when we perform an action through a mechanistic process of the brain, rather than a mental force that causes the action. The view is supported by several lines of evidence in which conscious will is dissociated from the actual performance of voluntary movements, as in automatism. The book further extends an insightful analysis of the mental system behind the illusion of conscious will and inspires neuroscientists to reflect on its neural substrates.
  8. The illusory triumph of machine over mind: Wegner’s eliminativism and the real promise of psychology
    • Anthony I. Jack and Philip Robbins , Department of Neurology, Washington University in St Louis School of Medicine, St Louis, MO 63110; Department of Philosophy, Philosophy- Neuroscience-Psychology Program, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
    • Abstract: Wegner’s thesis that the experience of will is an illusion is not just wrong, it is an impediment to progress in psychology. We discuss two readings of Wegner’s thesis and find that neither can motivate his larger conclusion. Wegner thinks science requires us to dismiss our experiences. Its real promise is to help us to make better sense of them.
  9. “An unwarrantable impertinence”
    • John F. Kihlstrom, Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1650.
    • Abstract: Wegner’s many examples of illusory involuntariness do not warrant the conclusion that the experience of voluntariness is also an illusion. His arguments appear to be related to the contemporary emphasis on automaticity in social cognition and behavior; both appear to represent a revival of situationism in social psychology.
  10. Hypnosis and will
    • Irving Kirscha and Steven Jay Lynn, Faculty of Health and Social Work, University of Plymouth, Plymouth PL4 8AA, Devon, United Kingdom; Psychology Department, State University of New York at Binghamton, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000.
    • Abstract: Although we are sympathetic to his central thesis about the illusion of will, having previously advanced a similar proposal, Wegner’s account of hypnosis is flawed. Hypnotic behavior derives from specific suggestions that are given, rather than from the induction, of trance, and it can be observed in 90% of the population. Thus, it is very pertinent to the illusion of will. However, Wegner exaggerates the loss of subjective will in hypnosis.
  11. Experimental psychology cannot solve the problem of conscious will (yet we must try)
    • Joachim I. Krueger, Department of Psychology, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912.
    • Abstract: According to the view that humans are conscious automata, the experience of conscious will is illusory. Epistemic theories of causation5, however, make room for causal will, planned behavior, and moral action.
  12. Free will for everyone – with flaws
    • George Mandler, Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA
    • Abstract: Wegner’s refutation of the notion of a conscious free will is addressed to a general reader. Despite a wide ranging and instructive survey and a conclusion acceptable to current psychological thinking, it is flawed by terminological confusions and lack of attention to relevant evidence and previous psychological approaches. It is suggested that psychology best drop the term will altogether.
  13. Inferences are just folk psychology
    • Thomas Metzinger, Philosophisches Seminar, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, D-55099 Mainz, Germany.
    • Abstract: To speak of “inferences,” “interpretations,” and so forth is just folk psychology. It creates new homunculi, and it is also implausible from a purely phenomenological perspective. Phenomenal volition must be described in the conceptual framework of an empirically plausible theory of mental representation. It is a non sequitur to conclude from dissociability that the functional properties determining phenomenal volition never make a causal contribution.
  14. Differentiating dissociation and repression
    • John Morton, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London WC1N 3AR, United Kingdom.
    • Abstract: Now that consciousness is thoroughly out of the way, we can focus more precisely on the kinds of things that can happen underneath. A contrast can be made between dissociation and repression. Dissociation is where a memory record or set of autobiographical memory records cannot be retrieved; repression is where there is retrieval of a record but, because of the current task specification, the contents of the record, though entering into current processing, are not allowed into consciousness. I look at hypnotic amnesia and dissociative identity disorder in relation to this contrast.
  15. Free will and the varieties of affective and conative selves
    • Jaak Panksepp, J. P. Scott Center for Neuroscience Mind and Behavior, Department of Psychology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403; and Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, McCormick School of Engineering, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208.
    • Abstract: A causally efficacious conscious will is a small part of our everyday activities, but a part that deserves to be recognized, studied, and cherished, perhaps as a fundamental, emotion- and conation-related, right hemispheric neuronal process. Such brain functions might be less in doubt if we consider all the pieces of the larger pie, especially those where our passions and desires reside.
  16. The illusion of explanation: The experience of volition, mental effort, and mental imagery
    • Zenon Pylyshyn, Center for Cognitive Science, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8020.
    • Abstract: This commentary argues that the “illusion” to which Wegner refers in The Illusion of Conscious Will is actually the illusion that our conscious experience of mentally causing certain behaviors explains the behavior in question: It is not the subjective experience itself that is illusory, but the implied causal explanation. The experience of “mental effort” is cited as another example of this sort of illusion. Another significant example is the experience that properties of the representation of our mental images are responsible for certain patterns of behavior observed in mental imagery experiments. Examples include the increase in reaction time found when details are reported from smaller images or when attention is switched between different places and features (imagined as further apart than they are) within a single image. These examples illustrate the nature of the “illusion” involved: It is the illusion that certain observed regularities occur because of the content of the experience, as opposed to the converse – that experience has the content it does because of what the person figures out would happen in the imagined situation.
  17. A social psychologist illuminates cognition
    • Amir Raz and Kim L. Norman, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY 10032; Barnard College, Department of Psychology, New York, NY 10027
    • Abstract: Sprinkled with humor, social psychology illuminates cognition in Wegner’s beautifully written and cleverly crafted book. However, scantily exploiting such themes as psychopathology6, development, and neural correlates of consciousness, Wegner’s account does not fully project into cognitive neuroscience. Broaching the topic of self-regulation, we outline neurocognitive data supplementing the notion that voluntariness is perhaps more post-hoc ascriptions than bona fide introspection.
  18. Conscious will in the absence of ghosts, hypnotists, and other people
    • Johannes Schultz, Natalie Sebanz, and Chris Frith, Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, University College London, London, WC1N 3BG, United Kingdom; Max-Planck Institute for Psychological Research, 80799 Munich, Germany.
    • Abstract: We suggest that certain experiences reported by patients with schizophrenia show that priority, consistency, and exclusivity are not sufficient for the experience of willing an action. Furthermore, we argue that even if priority, consistency, and exclusivity cause the experience of being the author of an action, this does not mean that conscious will is an illusion.
  19. Is the illusion of conscious will an illusion?
    • Robert J. Sternberg, PACE Center, Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520-8358.
    • Abstract: This book is a tour de force in showing that what we believe to be actions dictated by conscious will are not, in fact, wholly dictated by conscious will. However, Wegner has fallen into the trap of making claims that go beyond his data to make his case more compelling and newsworthy. Psychology needs to be informed by common sense.
  20. Wegner’s “illusion” anticipated: Jonathan Edwards on the will
    • Ryan D. Tweney and Amy B. Wachholtz, Department of Psychology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403.
    • Abstract: Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002) ignores an important aspect of the history of the concept: the determinism of Jonathan Edwards (1754) and the later response to this determinism by William James and others. We argue that Edwards’ formulation, and James’ resolution of the resulting dilemma, are superior to Wegner’s.
  21. Why conscious free will both is and isn’t an illusion
    • Max Velmans, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, London SE14 6NW, United Kingdom.
    • Abstract: Wegner’s analysis of the illusion of conscious will is close to my own account of how conscious experiences relate to brain processes. But our analyses differ somewhat on how conscious will is not an illusion. Wegner argues that once conscious will arises it enters causally into subsequent mental processing. I argue that while his causal story is accurate, it remains a first-person story. Conscious free will is not an illusion in the sense that this first-person story is compatible with and complementary to a third person account of voluntary processing in the mind/brain.
  22. The short- and long-term consequences of believing an illusion
    • Michael E. Young, Department of Psychology, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Carbondale, IL 62901-6502.
    • Abstract: The experience of free will has causal consequences, albeit not immediate ones. Although Wegner recognizes this, his model failed to incorporate this causal link. Is this experience central to “what makes us human?” A broad acceptance of Wegner’s claim that free will is illusory has significant societal and religious consequences, therefore the threshold of evidence needs to be correspondingly high.
  23. Conscious will and agent causation7
    • G. E. Zuriff, Department of Psychology, Wheaton College, Norton, MA 02766.
    • Abstract: Wegner (2002) fails to (1) distinguish conscious will and voluntariness; (2) account for everyday willed acts; and (3) individuate thoughts and acts. Wegner incorrectly implies that (4) we experience acts as willed only when they are caused by unwilled thoughts; (5) thoughts are never true causes of actions; and (6) we experience ourselves as first performing mental acts which then cause our intentional actions.
Author’s Response: Frequently asked questions about conscious will
  1. Daniel M. Wegner, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.
  2. Abstract: The commentators’ responses to The Illusion of Conscious Will reveal a healthy range of opinions – pro, con, and occasionally stray. Common concerns and issues are summarized here in terms of 11 “frequently asked questions,” which often center on the theme of how the experience of conscious will supports the creation of the self as author of action.
  3. What you may have heard me say:
    • Cognition does not cause action.
    • Planning does not influence action.
    • There is no intention and no responsibility.
    • Life as we know it on earth is now over.
  4. What I was hoping to say:
    • Conscious will is based on interpreting one’s thought as causing one’s action.
    • The experience of will comes and goes in accord with principles governing that interpretive mechanism and not in accord with a causal link between thought and action.
    • The experience of conscious will thus is not direct evidence of a causal relation between thought and action.
  5. FAQs
    • R1. How could anyone possibly ever believe that conscious will does not cause action?
    • R2. Is conscious will really no more than a feeling?
    • R3. What does it mean to call conscious will an illusion?
    • R4. What conclusion should be drawn when the feeling of conscious will is mistaken?
    • R5. If the feeling of conscious will is not authentic, can thought still cause action?
    • R6. Is conscious will that occurs before action more causal than conscious will that occurs during action?
    • R7. Where does the theory lead empirically?
    • R8. Who came up with this idea anyway?
    • R9. How does neuroscience inform questions of conscious will?
    • R10. How can we understand responsibility in light of this theory?
    • R11. How should we speak of ourselves?
    • R12. Conclusion


This is a Precis and peer review, with the author's responses, of "Wegner (Daniel) - The Illusion of Conscious Will".

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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