Epiphenomenalism and the Illusion of Conscious Will

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

About these ads

8 thoughts on “Epiphenomenalism and the Illusion of Conscious Will

  1. These are some very dangerous results.

    1. Can we hold anyone culpable for their actions? I believe so, even if our “unconscious” self (also known as System 2 thinking) is out of our control.

    Gazzaniga, another cognitive scientist, in “Who’s in Charge: Abandoning the Concept of Free Will” provides a comprehensive list of experiments and observations in nature against free will. For example, imagine a hammer smashing your finger. You THINK you feel pain and then move your hand away, but in reality your hand is already moving away before the pain registers in your brain. What happens is that the pain receptors send a signal along the nerve to the spinal, which then send a signal back along the motor nerves to move your finger–a reflex. The pain signal is also sent up to the brain but it doesn’t receive and interpret it until after the reflex.

    There are many other great examples that “expose” the illusion of free will. One study by Hakwan Lau, professor at Columbia, for example found that there is a “temporal shift;” using TMS he found that the perceived intention to act is moved BACKWARDS and the perceived moment you are conscious of action is moved FORWARD.

    Back to ethics. It seems we have reflexes for simple events (the hammer ex.) and complex ones (choosing what color shirt to wear). All are preconditioned in some manner–whether it be biological/neurological or social.

    Malcolm Gladwell once visited my class at school and gave a lecture on this very debate. He argued that every decision a convict in prison had made could be logically traced back through his history to understand it and see how the convict was a “prisoner” of his own social location. Gladwell proclaimed he could no longer assign responsibility to anyone. Not even Hitler (though he backpedaled and avoided the question).

    Gladwell, and those claiming these scientific results abdicate free will, are surely misguided. And the implications of their understanding can be dangerous.

    We are DETERMINED to be FREE, as David Hume would say. The decision/reflex/intention/will to act is more complicated than “just originating in the brain.” Yes, the signal could come before the perception of choice is given in the immediate, but let us not forget how this choice–unique to each individual–was conditioned in the first place. There are just too many variables. Where the participant grew up, who his friends were, what school he went to, the community culture, his extra circulars, his exposure to languages, etc etc all play a role in conditioning response..that are, during short/”intuitive” decisions, emotional.

    In other words, we may not be “free” in the sense of our fate or where our life is headed, including how we understand it. But we are free to watch it happen and unfold. We have been conditioned socially to act a certain way, and even questioning whether it is good or bad (ex. thinking about killing someone), has a grounding in experience (maybe you played GTA and killed some people).

    In conclusion, for this debate we have to ask what the author means by “free” and “will.” Does not being “free” mean external to the human mind? Does “will” have to be reasoned out? What about decisions—what is a decision? Are there different kinds of decisions? In this literature, for example, there is a big difference between fast (guided by emotion and known as intuition) and slow (deliberate, reasoned) decisions.

    The sum may be greater than the parts. Future studies might find explore in detail what occurs during a problem-solving period.

    • >>For example, imagine a hammer smashing your finger. You THINK you feel pain and then move your hand away, but in reality your hand is already moving away before the pain registers in your brain. What happens is that the pain receptors send a signal along the nerve to the spinal, which then send a signal back along the motor nerves to move your finger–a reflex. The pain signal is also sent up to the brain but it doesn’t receive and interpret it until after the reflex.

      There are many other great examples that “expose” the illusion of free will.<<

      If these other 'great examples' are similar in nature to this flawed thought experiment, then they leave a lot to be desired. This is obviously a case of confusing a reflex response with an act of free will. Any child would understand the difference. The only illusion here is that a substantive case is being made that proves anything at all.

  2. As the comment by ‘ibristle’ points out, it’s helpful to be clear about the precise meaning of terms. In particular here, what do we mean by ‘conscious’ i.e. being ‘with knowledge’? It is perhaps useful to distinguish the representations of the mind, which we may call ‘consciousness’, from ‘awareness’, which can be thought of as primary sentience, or a priori knowledge (prior to re-presentation). We can then ask where, if at all, any border of responsibility or agency lies.

    Anyway, leaving all that aside, may I congratulate you in covering this fascinating subject eloquently, straightforwardly and concisely. That is not an easy thing to do, and I can see that nit-picky commenters with time to kill (like me), are going to plague you with their pedantic demands to include the entire history of the universe in each article. In keeping with the closing attitude of ‘ibristle’, perhaps it’s best just say ‘fuck ‘em all’?

    Keep up the good work; I look forward to reading more.

    Hariod Brawn.

  3. Timing finger movements and measuring electrical brain activity? Really? That’s the basis for dismissing conscious will? Seriously?

    Talk to me when these undefined ‘unconscious mental processes’ write a novel, fall in love, paint a masterpiece or design an engine. Draw a direct connection between specific electrical impulses and *meaningful* conscious decisions or I call bullshit. Reducing the enormity of free will to twitching a finger is insulting. Until you can actually completely control someone electrically and have them perform a complex task while they believe they are on control of themselves, this is simply nonsense.

    • The basis for dismissing conscious will (as it is traditionally conceived) comes from a growing body of studies in neuroscience and psychology (only a couple of which are mentioned here) to the effect that there is not a reliable causal link between the causes of our actions and the experience of conscious will. In other words, traditionally people believe that when they experience themselves consciously willing something, their actions are being caused by that conscious willing. But a number of studies tell otherwise.

      The Libet experiment, which as you mentioned looked at finger movements and neuronal activity in the brain, was NOT cited in order to support the dismissal of the causal efficacy of conscious will. It was cited, instead, to lend some modicum of viability to the alternative view of conscious will propounded by Wegner. Essentially, it gives some empirical backing for the account of the events preceding action that he outlines in his book.

  4. Hariod Brawn linked me your post and I enjoyed the read. I always find reading about these experiments to be quite interesting – really rubs in how unreliable our personal interpretations of events happen to be.

    I’ve heard quite a few neuroscientists say that extrapolating this to any conclusion that conscious will is irrelevant in other types of actions is premature. But they certainly open the realm of possibility. It makes perfect sense that – as physical creatures – our conscious “exercise” of free will would stem from unchosen wants, desires, events, etc. but I think seeing it actually happen is always a bit off-putting!

    I do think a case could be formulated that the feeling of making a choice can arise after the choice is made.. The only guarantee is that it has to have a bearing on future choices in some way, or we would not have evolved it at all.

    Best

    • ‘I do think a case could be formulated that the feeling of making a choice can arise after the choice is made.’

      Sorry to butt in here folks; most ungracious I know. Just to say that the late Zoltan Torey argues precisely this point in his book ‘The Crucible of Consciousness’. In it, he argues that selection takes place in terms of what he calls ‘intuitive valencies’ and that it is the attendant proprioceptive feeling that causes us to believe we have made a choice. To be consciously aware that choice has taken place does not mean that the operation that generated the conscious state did the deciding.

      For what it’s worth, Dennett appears to have accepted the hypothesis upon which the above inadequate summary is based.

      Hariod Brawn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s