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The Illusion of Conscious Will

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.
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Wegner has written a devishly clever, witty, and thorough book. He brings all the pieces together to tackle the problem of free will. This book will serve as the foundation for an untold number of hot debates on who is in charge of our personal destinies. -- Michael S. Gazzaniga, Program in Cognitive Neuroscience, Dartmouth College Philosophers have argues for centuries about the existence of free will. In this exciting book Daniel M. Wegner presents the facts about our experience of controlling our own actions. He persuasively argues that our experience of will is an illusion, but that this illusions is crucial for our concepts of morality and personal responsibility. This book should be read by anyone with an interest in how the mind works. -- Christopher Frith, Wellcome Department of Imaging Science, Institute of Neurology, University College London Daniel Wegner is our foremost modern investigator of illusions of conscious agency -- our tendency to believe that we really have more control over our own actions and thoughts than we do. In this book, Wegner boldly pursues the claim that our sense of conscious agency is ALWAYS imaginary. His arguments are based on clever experiments and deep analysis of the issues. This book will stand as a challenge to anyone trying to understand the nature of voluntary thought and action. -- Bernard J. Baars, Senior Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology, The Neurosciences Institute Wegner presents diverse, persuasive, and entertaining evidence for his thesis that the experience of conscious will is an illusion. The book is a profound treatise on a central issue in psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. -- Gordon H. Bower, Professor of Psychology, Stanford University Wegner may well have made a historic breakthrough in the age-old, nettlesome problem of 'free will' -- namely, conceptualizing it as an act of causal attribution. His recounting of the history of the issue is rich with fascinating examples and illustrations. This sets us up for what may be the first experimental approach to this nettlesome philosophical problem. Because we know a lot about how people make causal attributions, we may suddenly and for the first time, thanks to Wegner's analysis, know a lot about why people believe so strongly that they have free will. Wegner shows that by manipulating the variables underlying these attributions, one changes the feeling of having acted or thought freely. This is nothing short of 'experimental philosophy' in its application of cognitive scientific principles and methods to previously intractable issues in the philosophy of mind. -- John A. Bargh, Department of Psychology, Yale University

About the Author

The late Daniel M. Wegner was Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.


Wegner is a terrific writer, sharing his encyclopedic purchase on the material in amusing, entertaining, and masterful ways. -- David Brizer, M.D. * Psychiatric Services * Wegner has finessed all the usual arguments into a remarkable demonstration of how psychology can sometimes transform philosophy.... [He] writes with humour and clarity. -- Susan Blackmore * Times Literary Supplement * ... very convincing. -- David Wilson * American Scientist * 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 *

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