Do Our Thoughts Cause Actions?

Review: The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner (MIT Press, 2002):

“A book with this title is likely to cause a reaction even before you read it. Some will immediately dismiss it as more of the obviously wrong idea that, despite appearances, iron laws rule our behaviour, while others will welcome it as a much-needed thump on our grandiose convictions of free-will. Those who actually read the book may very well be surprised to find out that Daniel Wegner is not so much concerned with taking sides on the subject of free-will vs. determinism, but rather in providing a psychological theory of how the experience of conscious will arises in us and how reliable it is in tracking down the causes of our behaviour. To be sure, the book is of direct relevance to all those interested in the more traditional puzzles about the nature of free will but warning should be made that what you’ll find here is mostly on the theme of mental causation.

…His view is that “the experience of consciously willing an action is not a direct indication that the conscious thought has caused the action”, and the book does a good job of supporting that claim with empirical studies showing how our experience of consciously willing (or not) an action often bears little relation to the actual causes of the action. While at times we will claim authorship for actions we could not possibly have caused, others we will dismiss authorship for actions that clearly have been cause by us. Particularly instructive in this respect are Wegner’s analyses of automatisms (i.e., actions we would deny having consciously willed) such as ‘table turning’, ‘pendulum divining’ and ‘automatic writing’, and action projection. Equally interesting is his exploration of the ‘ideal agent’, someone who always knows his actions prior to their occurrence. The use of the term ‘illusion’ to characterize the experience of conscious will is, thus, justified by the fact that first-person impressions of agency are not by themselves guarantee that the subject is indeed the cause of a particular action.”