By Paul Chance, published on March 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
On PT's Bookshelf
The Illusion Of Conscious Will
MIT Press, 2002) Daniel R. Wegner, D.M.
Reviewed by Nancey Murphy, Ph.D., Th.D.
No one could fail to enjoy or benefit from Daniel Wegner's
frustrating new book.
Wegner's thesis would seem to be expressed in the title: Conscious
will is an illusion. He distinguishes two ways of talking about conscious
will: as a feeling of voluntariness or of doing something on purpose, and
as "a force of mind, a name for the causal link between our minds and our
actions." Wegner draws from a rich variety of sources to show that the
feeling of conscious will does not always correspond with will in the
One kind of evidence for Wegner's thesis is cases in which it is
highly likely that people are in fact the causes of their own actions,
but they experience the acts as being controlled by some other source.
His accounts of these occurrences such as automatic writing, spirit
possession, table turning and the like, are fascinating as well as
informative. For example, there is the case of Pearl Curran, who began
experimenting with a Ouija Board and received "communications" from a
personality called Patience Worth, who had allegedly lived in the
seventeenth century. Worth "dictated" poems, essays and novels, many of
which were subsequently published.
A second kind of evidence involves cases in which the feeling of
will is present but causation is absent. An example is neuroscientist
Benjamin Libet's finding that the conscious decision to move a finger
follows the neural signal associated with the movement. Since a cause
must necessarily precede its effect, the decision cannot possibly cause
Wegner presents this material in an entertaining way. For example,
in surveying theories about the nature of hypnosis, he writes, "We know
Mesmer thought it was 'animal magnetism,' a colorful idea that inspires
nice images of people being stuck to cattle, but which has little else to
Yet the book is also frustrating. The title leads us to expect that
it will show that conscious agency is an illusion, but in fact, the book
is really about the feeling of conscious agency. This is an important
topic in itself. It is useful to recognize that the feeling can be
distinguished from the real thing and studied productively by
psychologists. But what, if any, implications does this have for the
age-old question about human responsibility? In Wegner's words, "Do we
consciously cause our actions, or do they happen to us?"
It is hard to see where Wegner comes down on this question. On the
one hand, he asserts more or less forcefully that our actions happen to
us; conscious will is an illusion. He sums up his discussion of
automatisms (automatic writing and so on) by saying that they "represent
a class of instances in which apparent mental causation fails. This means
that if conscious will is illusory, automatisms are somehow the 'real
thing,' fundamental mechanisms of mind that are left over once the
illusion has been stripped away. Rather than conscious will being the
rule and automatism the exception, the opposite may be true; automatism
is the rule, and the illusion of conscious will is the exception." On the
other hand, Wegner speaks throughout the book about our causal agency. In
fact, his examples of a mismatch between felt agency and actual agency
could not get off the ground without his understanding that people act as
agents most of the time.
But even if Wegner's position on free will is not clear, he has
provided good food for thought and has made an extremely important
contribution to the discussion by showing that the experience of
conscious will cannot be used as evidence for the existence of free
The Pop-Up Book Of Nightmares
St. Martins Press, $29.95
A pop-up book aimed at adults, this work illustrates in three
dimensions every nightmare you've ever had, and some you don't want to
know about. (One, based on the Freudian interpretation of cars as phallic
symbols, suggests that dreams about traffic accidents imply anxiety about
impotence). But it's the mobile graphics by Balvis Rubess and Matthew
Reinhart that really make this book fun. Turn the page to the birthing
dream, for instance, and you find yourself being presented with a newborn
resembling William Donald Schaefer, former governor of Maryland.
Whale Done! The Power Of Positive Relationships
Free Press, $19.95
In this management parable, Wes Kingsley is a no-nonsense manager
of the "Gotcha!" school, where managing means pointing out mistakes. But
the more conscientious he is, the worse things become. Thoroughly
demoralized, he visits SeaWorld for some R&R. There he watches Shamu
and other whales performing stunts for their human "managers" and learns
that the trainers' secret is positive reinforcement: Instead of focusing
on errors, they focus on what the animals do right. This sounds obvious,
but the bias toward "Gotcha!" is so innate in most of us that it will
seem new to many readers. Written by businessman Ken Blanchard (author of
The One Minute Manager) and three professional trainers, this book shows
behavior modification as it was meant to be done.
The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery
In 1865, 18-year-old Mollie Fancher was thrown from a horse cart.
Thereafter, she complained of a variety of ailments, including paralysis
and blindness, but she became most famous for thriving despite ostensibly
refusing to eat. Doctors, journalists, spiritualists and the curious
traveled worldwide to marvel at her 12-year fast, and many were convinced
she truly survived without a bite of food. Though wiser souls called her
claims ridiculous, Mollie managed to stay in or near the public eye for
50 years. Journalist Michelle Stacey argues that Mollie was as much a
product of her era, when "hysteria" was in fashion, as are the anorexic
women of today, now that thin is in.
Free Press, $24
If you think girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, you're
in for a surprise. According to author Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., professor of
psychology at Saint Michael's College in Vermont, the recipe for girls
also calls for vinegar and hot sauce. Drawing from 125 interviews with
girls and women, Lamb provides a peek at sex games that involve kissing
and pretend intercourse, as well as aggressive acts that include hurtful
words and occasional blows. Girls of all ages may experience great relief
at finding their own secret experiences shared by others, and boys of all
ages may find themselves saying, "Hmm. Girls are a lot like us."
Keep Your Brain Young: The Complete Guide To Physical And
Emotional Health And Longevity
John Wiley & Sons, $24.95
Are your gray cells getting slightly sluggish? Age-proof your brain
with this book by Guy McKhann, M.D., professor of neurology and
neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Marilyn Albert,
Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and neurology at Harvard Medical School.
They provide tips on dealing with everyday problems such as forgetfulness
and depression, explain how to recognize and cope with serious brain
diseases such as Alzheimer's and offer advice on keeping your brain fit
through diet and exercise.