Review of The Illusion of Conscious Will
by Daniel M. Wegner

The Illusion of Conscious Will Daniel M. Wegner, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press. 405 pp illustrated, index

Reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement by Susan Blackmore

This is the original version. An edited version was published in the TLS 23.8.02 p 27

Do you believe in free will? This question touches the heart of what it means to be human, which is perhaps why it is said to be the most discussed of all of philosophical questions. Samuel Johnson summed up the problem nicely when he said “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.”

In The Illusion of Conscious Will, Harvard psychologist, Daniel Wegner, has finessed all the usual arguments in a remarkable demonstration that psychology can sometimes transform philosophy. Instead of struggling with the usual debates about the compatibility (or not) of determinism and free will, Wegner shows how the feeling of willing arises. This means that we might at last understand why “all experience is for it” without having to invoke the real thing.

The feeling of willing, says Wegner, arises because we have to decide whether actions are caused by ourselves or by other people. This decision depends on three principles; priority, consistency, and exclusivity. Put simply, if our thoughts come before an action, are compatible with that action, and there are no other likely causes, then we conclude that we did it, and we get the feeling of conscious will.

Many ingenious experiments provide evidence for Wegner’s theory. The spiritualists’ ouija board might seem a strange choice, but lends itself well to investigating the feeling of control. In a classic ouija session, people sit around a table with their forefingers on a upturned glass or a little wheeled board which, without them deliberately pushing, soon begins to move about and point to letters placed in a circle around it.

In Wegner’s modern version a small board is fixed to a computer mouse. Wearing headphones, his two participants hear the names of objects while letting the mouse roam freely over an “I-spy” board covered with little pictures. They then stop the mouse on any picture they like. The first participant is asked to rate how strongly she felt that she chose the stopping place herself. Unbeknown to her, the other person is a confederate and, on some trials, forces the mouse to a particular picture. Even on these occasions the dupe is often convinced that she willed the choice herself. Further experiments confirm Wegner’s ‘priority principle’; that the stopping place is experienced as “willed” when the picture name is heard just before the stop.

In the traditional ouija board, the messages are supposedly from spirits of the dead but, as Michael Faraday showed in 1853, the pointer is actually moved by unconscious muscular action, or ideomotor influence. Wegner reviews the evidence for ideomotor effects, and it is most refreshing, in a twenty-first century book, not only to find the early studies are not ignored, but to read such a thorough and engaging review of them. Wegner writes with humour and clarity, and even had me laughing out loud. Along the way he gives a new twist to mediumship, automatic writing, dowsing and even that thorny old mystery – hypnosis. He also describes more modern ideomotor effects, such as the odd fact that after being asked to think about old people, students walk more slowly, and when asked to think about professors rather than models, they do better on a test of Trivial Pursuit questions.

My favourite analysis concerns the effects of trying not to do something. Not surprisingly when Wegner asked people not to think of a white bear, they were plagued by thoughts of white bears, but the same effect can happen with actions. This can explain that peculiar conviction I sometimes have that I might do something terrible, like throwing myself under a tube train. Once the dangerous thought comes up I try to suppress it, which makes me think about it more. Then, by ideomotor action, I am more likely actually to do it. So I don’t, after all, have some repressed death wish or dire mental sickness. It’s just the feeling of willing.

The illusion of Wegner’s title is not this feeling, but 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 God’s existence. So if we no longer need real free will to explain our feelings maybe we can stop arguing about that too – but somehow I doubt it will be that easy.