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The Illusion of Conscious Will (Bradford Books) [Hardcover]

by Daniel M. Wegner
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 15, 2002 0262232227 978-0262232227
Selected as a Finalist in the category of Psychology/Mental Health in the 2002 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) presented by Independent Publisher Magazine., Silver Award Winner for Philosophy in the 2002 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards. and Selected as an Outstanding Academic Book for 2002 by Choice Magazine

Do we consciously cause our actions, or do they happen to us? Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, theologians, and lawyers have long debated the existence of free will versus determinism. In this book Daniel Wegner offers a novel understanding of the issue. Like actions, he argues, the feeling of conscious will is created by the mind and brain. Yet if psychological and neural mechanisms are responsible for all human behavior, how could we have conscious will? The feeling of conscious will, Wegner shows, helps us to appreciate and remember our authorship of the things our minds and bodies do. Yes, we feel that we consciously will our actions, Wegner says, but at the same time, our actions happen to us. Although conscious will is an illusion, it serves as a guide to understanding ourselves and to developing a sense of responsibility and morality.

Approaching conscious will as a topic of psychological study, Wegner examines the issue from a variety of angles. He looks at illusions of the will—-those cases where people feel that they are willing an act that they are not doing or, conversely, are not willing an act that they in fact are doing. He explores conscious will in hypnosis, Ouija board spelling, automatic writing, and facilitated communication, as well as in such phenomena as spirit possession, dissociative identity disorder, and trance channeling. The result is a book that sidesteps endless debates to focus, more fruitfully, on the impact on our lives of the illusion of conscious will.

Editorial Reviews


"Wegner is a terrific writer, sharing his encyclopedic purchase on the material in amusing, entertaining, and masterful ways."
David Brizer, M.D., Psychiatric Services

"Fascinating...I recommend the book as a first-rate intellectual adventure."
Herbert Silverman, Science Books & Films

"...Dr. Wegner's critique ... is less philosophical than empirical, drawing heavily upon recent research in cognitive science and neurology."
John Horgan, The New York Times

"Wegner has finessed all the usual arguments into a remarkable demonstration of how psychology can sometimes transform philosophy.... [He] writes with humour and clarity."
Sue Blackmore, TLS

"...well worth reading for [the author's]interesting analysis and insights."
David Wilson, American Scientist

"...very convincing."
David Wilson, American Scientist

About the Author

Daniel M. Wegner is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

Product Details

  • Series: Bradford Books
  • Hardcover: 419 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (April 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262232227
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262232227
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #933,772 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
147 of 171 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but fails near the end October 9, 2002
I loved the way this book started. For example, the evidence that people can feel they are controlling other people's actions is fascinating. The overall theory of how we feel we are willing things is well presented, as is the idea that such a feeling is an illusion. This isn't shocking stuff to some, but to others it will be a huge revelation.
I do have complaints. For the tiny ones first (big one at the end). First, I object to calling the loss of pain and loss of memory during hypnosis examples of increased mental control. By that definition, Alzheimers patients have increased control. What one isn't aware of one isn't aware of and this hardly seems like control.
As far as not being able to avoid thinking of things, it seems to me the explanation is simpler. Words conjure images, but negative words have no images associated with them so when you say "Don't think about a bear" the only word causing an image is bear, and so you think of a bear. Trying to monitor bear thoughts will lead to bear thoughts. Also he says, if you are distracted while you are trying not to do something you will be more likely to do it. I can see that since trying not to do something (like drop a jar) requires action in an opposite direction, i.e. it requires effort. But is this true when you are trying NOT to think of something? If I tried not to think of Wegner's white bear and was then asked to recite the Gettysburg address I strongly suspect I would forget the bear. Not thinking about something, unlike not doing does not require any positive action. Distraction ought to make it easier to forget and he never distinguishes between these and acts as if what is true of behavior is true of thoughts.
But my BIG complaint is the last chapter.
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66 of 76 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Workmanly, helpful step forward on a central question September 22, 2002
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Wegner makes an interesting step forward in the free will/determinism debate. He argues that "conscious will" is indeed an important EXPERIENCE, which serves vital purposes; but he denies that ACTS of conscious will CAUSE the actions we believe them to cause. "Will" is not how I bring about the things I do, but perceiving and understanding what I do--though the "I" is mostly unconscious, and the causes of actions more or less entirely so.
Thus, Wegner does NOT deny that we are the authors of our own actions or that thoughts cause actions; but he denies that "will" is among the causally effective psychological events. "Will" is a way of keeping track of which actions are caused by me--by my intentions, beliefs, desires, and so forth. It is an indicator, and a vitally important one, but not more than that.
I will be surprised if this this theory turns out to be ultimately correct, mostly because Wegner seems to lack an adequate general theory of consciousness and its functions within which to house and understand will. Consciousness did not arise for no reason--any trait that occurs at a rate above chance must be naturally selected, hence evolutionarily important, and consciousness occurs in about 100% of humans and apparently huge numbers of other animal species. Consciousness could turn out to be just sort of a matter of taste, effectively useless, like the peacock's tail. But that seems unlikely, since consciousness seems to be much more universal that shiny big tails. Conscious will needs to be understood as part of consciousness, and very good science--theoretical and experiemtnal--demonstrates that consciousness has causal efficacy. (See, for instance, Bernard J. Baars' nice intro to "consciousness science" in his book, "In the Theater of Conscousness.
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93 of 109 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best kept secret December 9, 2004
News flash: there is no such thing as free will. I notice that this fact really irritates a lot of the reviewers here, which makes a good deal of sense. If we accept that there is no free will, we feel our own glory diminished, much as some feel when contemplating the idea that there is no afterlife. A lot of the arguments in favor of free will start with unfounded assumptions that there "must be" some form of free will, because that is the only possible explanation for order in the Universe. Order is really just a manifestation of the laws of physics, and doesn't need intelligent intervention, thank you. When a drop of water freezes into an exquisite snowflake, there is no sentience that guides it. It simply follows the path of least resistance. So too is life, and by extension, intelligence. We feel a bias towards free will because our very sense of self is derived from the ingrained feeling that our thoughts precede our actions. Oh, but do they? As the book rehashes, Libet was one of the first to test this idea emprically, and found that the sequence of electrical events in the brain that accompanied actions always began a noticeable amount of time before the conscious awareness of initiating an action. In the big picture, the vast majority of our actions are mediated by subconscious output, with a trickle of actions being refined by conscious stimuli when we have no experience with a particular situation. It is this subconscious co-opting of thought that enables us to ride a bike, walk, talk, and so on, without the need to consciously consider the steps involved. We take this for granted, but, for example, victims of stroke often find that certain actions they could once do without thinking require considerable attention if not handled automatically. Read more ›
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Another faith-based argument by a thinker who believes he's a robot
Imagine going to a neuroscience convention with a number of presenters giving evidence that consciousness arises in the brain and that we are essentially programmed to think and... Read more
Published 1 month ago by P Hawkwood
3.0 out of 5 stars You'll either agree with this author's premise or you won't...
I agree with some of what he postulates, but not all of it. It is always best to take ideas such as this author advances and consider them, but use your own powers of observation... Read more
Published 4 months ago by suzgrrl
4.0 out of 5 stars He's preaching to the choir
This book is very defensive about it's original premise, but well founded for all of that. He has definitely done his research but I think he expects more flack than he will be... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Graeme E. Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars A great research-based approach to conscious will
I really enjoyed this book. I received a BS in Psychology and minored in philosophy. Too often conscious will was completely ignored in my psychology classes and treated as some... Read more
Published on February 7, 2012 by Bri
5.0 out of 5 stars A book worth reading for any introspective person
As I have been introspective, educated and am a practicing physiologist, and meditative for long stretches of my life, much of what I read in this book was not a big surprise! Read more
Published on January 6, 2010 by L. F. Gainey Jr.
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Book But Still Unsubstantiated and Wrong
Wegner attempts to make an interesting case, but ultimately both skews the interpretation and fails to consider fundamentally contrary evidence. Read more
Published on September 16, 2009 by Richard H. Moore
2.0 out of 5 stars Pretty thin gruel
I had two problems with this book. First, a stylistic complaint - I found the writing to be much too self-consciously cute. Read more
Published on December 2, 2007 by Buckeye
1.0 out of 5 stars A terrible book on an interesting topic
Those interested in the nexus and sometimes disconnect between conscious thought and action are likely to find this book an enormous disappointment. Read more
Published on July 17, 2006 by Paul V. Keller
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent step forward an a core issue of cognitive science, but...
Along with that, it's an excellent refutation of the illogic and weak knees of someone like Dan Dennett, as well as seeming to scare the hell out of a lot of amateur readers who... Read more
Published on April 29, 2006 by S. J. Snyder
3.0 out of 5 stars Armchair Psychology Meets Corporate Academic Propaganda
Throughout the book I kept getting the distinct impression that Wegner is an armchair warrior. He writes with obvious eloquence, erudition and wit, but it is more like his position... Read more
Published on February 23, 2006 by Morpheus
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