The notion that free will exists has great historical appeal among human beings. After all, as a subjective experience, its plausibility is undeniable. However, although this experience of conscious will is very convincing, certain empirical observations lend themselves to the notion that our intuitive understanding of free will is inaccurate. In light of these empirical observations, Daniel Wegner offers an alternative view according to which the actual causes of our actions are unconscious mental processes, in support of which he cites an experiment by Benjamin Libet. Ultimately, Wegner maintains, our actions are caused by unconscious mental processes, the brain routinely decides what one will do before one becomes conscious of any sort of decision, and the experience of conscious will is nothing more than an illusion, an epiphenomenal event with no causal efficacy.
To begin with, it is helpful to be clear on free will as it is popularly understood. According to Wegner, humans tend to feel that they are consciously willing their actions, to experience themselves as consciously willing things. We each “have a profound sense that we consciously will much of what we do, and we experience ourselves willing our actions many times a day” (Wegner, 2). We feel, in other words, that much of the time we cause ourselves to behave the way we do. This experience of consciously willing an action can be defined as “a kind of internal ‘oomph’ that somehow certifies authentically that one has done the action” (Wegner, 4). In short, because of its frequency and apparent authenticity, the experience of “conscious will [is something that] we experience…very acutely” (Wegner, 2). Further, human beings have the tendency to equate “the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of that action by the…conscious mind” (Wegner, 3). We often believe that a causal connection exists between our experience of consciously willing an action and the action itself.
In order to ascertain whether or not this causal link does, in fact, exist, Wegner screens a large body of relevant studies. One such study, conducted by Brasil-Neto and colleagues, involved exposing participants to transcranial magnetic stimulation of the motor area of the brain, because high levels of magnetic stimulation have been shown to influence brain function. In the experiment, a stimulation magnet was placed above participants’ heads and aimed in random alternation at the motor area on either side of the brain. Participants were asked to choose freely whether to move their right or left index finger on each trial. Interestingly, “the stimulation led participants to have a marked preference to move the finger contralateral to the site stimulated” (Wegner, 48) by the magnet. Even more interestingly, participants “perceived that they were voluntarily choosing which finger to move…[and] showed no inkling that something other than their will was creating their choice” (Wegner, 48). Participants had the feeling, then, that their conscious will determined which finger they held up when it was actually determined—to some extent, at least—by the magnet. The Brasil-Neto experiment shows that “the experience of conscious will can arise independently of actual causal forces influencing behavior” (Wegner, 49), problematizing the notion that “the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of the action by the conscious mind are the same thing” (Wegner, 3). Thus, Wegner concludes, the experience of consciously willing an action is not a direct indication that conscious thought has caused the action. Insofar as this is true, then, the experience of conscious will is nothing more than an illusion.
Having shown that the experience of conscious will is an illusion, Wegner proceeds to explain what he believes is the actual cause of action. As opposed to the experience of conscious will causing action, both, rather, are caused by something else entirely: unconscious mental processes. These “unconscious mental processes give rise to conscious thought about the action, and…[also] give rise to the action” (Wegner, 67) itself. Further, it is the “perception of an apparent causal path from conscious thought to action…[that] gives rise to the experience of [conscious] will” (Wegner, 67-8). In sum, unconscious mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action itself, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as cause of the action.
In support of this claim, Wegner cites an experiment conducted by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. In the experiment, each participant was instructed to voluntarily move a finger, to “let the urge to act appear on its own any time without any preplanning or concentration on when to act” (Wegner, 52). Seated before an oscilloscope, on which a spot of light revolved in a clock-like fashion, each participant was further instructed “to report for each finger movement where the dot was on the [oscilloscope] when [they] experienced conscious awareness of wanting to perform a given self-initiated movement” (Wegner, 52). In addition, the brain activity of each participant was also measured in each trial. To summarize, the experiment sought to timestamp the occurrence of three discrete variables: finger movement, conscious awareness of willing said finger movement, and corresponding activity in the brain.
After conducting the experiment, which contained a large number of participants each subjected to upwards of 40 trials, Libet and colleagues were able to construct a timeline cataloguing brain activity, the conscious awareness of willing finger movement, and actual finger movement. Not surprisingly, according to the timeline, actual finger movement was preceded by both brain activity and the conscious awareness of willing said finger movement. Interestingly, however, brain activity preceded actual movement by 535 milliseconds, whereas the conscious willing of finger movement preceded actual movement by only 204 milliseconds (Wegner, 53). Thus, “the conscious willing of finger movement occurred at a significant interval after the onset of [brain activity]” (Wegner, 53). Put more simply, “the brain started first, followed by the experience of conscious will, and finally followed by action” (Wegner, 55). Ultimately, Wegner holds, the upshot of the Libet experiment seems to be that “the experience of conscious will kicks in at some point after the brain has already started preparing for the action” (Wegner, 54).
According to the study, again, brain activity preceded actual movement by 535 milliseconds, while the conscious willing of finger movement preceded actual movement by only 204 milliseconds. On Wegner’s view, this initial brain activity represents the “unconscious mental processes” he has in mind. The conscious willing of finger movement corresponds to what he calls “conscious thoughts about the action”. Finally, the actual movement is the same as what he refers to as “action”. The chronological timeline of Libet’s findings neatly coincides with the sequence leading to action that Wegner propounds. Thus, there seems to be some empirical backing for Wegner’s alternative view of what causes our actions.
In short, Wegner attempts to show that free will, as traditionally conceived, does not, in fact, exist. Further, he presents his own view of what processes lead to action, a view in support of which he cites the Libet experiment. Assuming he is correct, a number of intuitively disagreeable truths seem to follow: first, the actual causes of our actions are unconscious mental processes; second, the brain routinely decides what one will do before one becomes conscious of any sort of decision; and third, the experience of conscious will—often so salient and utterly convincing—is ultimately an illusion, playing no causal role in our actions. Furthermore, if true, these findings have a number of grave implications for ethics, personal responsibility, and the law.
Wegner, Daniel M. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. Print