Exploring The Illusion Of Conscious Will Philosophy Essay

The experience of conscious will can be defined as the feeling that we are doing things, that we consciously cause our actions. However, this feeling may not be an accurate interpretation of what is happening in our minds, brain and bodies as our actions are produced.

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If we had access to a variety of information we could uncover the mechanisms that activate our behavior and we could explain why we are acting in a specific way. However, another way to explain our actions is that we consciously willed what we are doing. There is a confliction between the ideas of conscious will and psychological mechanism, having never been reconciled in a proper way. One solution for bridging the gap is that the explanation given from the mechanistic approach is preferred for scientific purposes, but that the person’s experience of conscious will is very convincing and important to the person and must also be examined and be understood as well.

Conscious will can be perceived in two ways. First, we can assume conscious will as the experience of consciously causing an action. This feeling of voluntariness or performing an action on purpose can be considered as an indication of conscious will. Secondly, we can think of conscious will as a force of mind, in other words, as the causal link between our minds and our actions. One might infer that this two interpretations of conscious will are corresponding to the same thing but it turns out that they are completely distinct and we are often tend to confuse them. This confusion is considered as the source of the illusion of conscious will.

By examining conscious will as an experience it is concluded that will is a feeling. In other words, will is not consider as a cause or a force by itself but the personal conscious feeling of such causing and forcing. Also, this experience of willing an action is accompanied by a feeling of doing, which is an internal force that certifies genuinely that one has produced the action. Experiences of conscious will can only be confirmed by self- reports. The problem is that self- reports are not always corresponding with some other external evidence of the experience. There are several examples in which the experience of will does not seem to accompany actions that appear to be willed by other external factors. Considering the alien hand syndrome which is a neuropsychological disorder patients typically experience one hand as acting independently, in its own conscious intention. In this case there is a problem classing the alien hand’s movement as willed or unwilled. On the one hand the actions that are performed by the alien hand are seemed to be willful while on the other hand the person states that these actions are not consciously willed by himself. Another example in which the feeling of involuntariness is observed is hypnosis. People in this case feeling that their actions are happening to them rather than they perform the actions themselves. The only difference between hypnosis and alien hand syndrome is that in the second case the person can’t predict what the hand will do but in hypnosis conscious will is lacking even though the person knows that the action is present. Considering these examples it is useful to draw a distinction between action and the sense of acting willfully. There are four basic conditions of human action. In the first two conditions we can observe the expected correspondence between the action and the sense of acting willfully. More specifically there is no controversy when a person does something and feels also that he is doing it or when a person is not doing anything and feels he is not. However, the case in which the person does not have the feeling of will when there is in fact action encompasses the examples of the alien hand syndrome and hypnosis. These instances can be classed as automatisms and draw a distinction between action and the sense of acting willfully. Another special case that highlights this distinction is the illusion of control. This term was used in order to describe instances in which people have the feeling that they perform an action when they actually don’t do anything. This illusion of control can be observed in the interactions between humans and machines or when someone is rolling a dice or flip a coin in a specific way hoping to influence the outcome. Examining these two last conditions it is concluded that the action and the feeling of doing are not coexist inevitably. This might happens because the process of mind that produce the experience of will is different from the process of mind that produce the action itself.

As it was mentioned before will is not only considered as an experience, but also as a force. Wegner states that “conscious experience is an immediate perception of one’s conscious mind causing an action”. From this point of view will is considered as a quality of power that resides in the person and causes his or her actions. There are two fundamental problems arising from this concept. First, conscious will is considered as an entity that explains a variety of thing but nothing can explains it. In this way this entity cannot be examined in a scientific way because assuming that will is a force that causes a person’s actions is like saying that God is causing an event. This is a barrier to any other explanation because it is not predictable what will is going to do as it cannot be said what God is going to do either. Secondly, the assumption that will is a force that resides inside the person creates further objections. As Hume pointed out causality is not an attribution inhering in objects. Another thing that was stated by Hume is that “it cannot be seen causation in something, but must only be inferred from the constant relation between cause and effect”. Causation is not a characteristic that is nestled in objects but an event. Thus it cannot be assumed that causation is an attribution of person’s intention. It cannot be observed that an action is caused by one’s conscious intention but it can only be inferred from the relation between the intention and action.

One reason why people confuse the experience of will for a causal mechanism is because they try to make sense of themselves as causal agents. Most humans perceive themselves and the other people as entities that acting independently in order to achieve a future goal. The concept of causal agency is very important for people because it helps them understand in a deeper sense human action. Humans are considered to be agents that are acting in purpose and they have the capacity to discern their goals consciously in advance of action. Thus the experience of will seems to be a causal agent. People perceive their own minds as systems that have mental causing properties, as causal agents and in this way they need to accept that the experience of conscious will is real.

2. Theory of Apparent Mental Causation

What are the mechanisms that give rise to the experience of conscious will? Why do people feel like they are doing things? Wegner states that “the experience of consciously willing an action is departing when people interpret their own thought as the cause of their action”. In this sense conscious will is experienced independently of any actual relationship between one’s thoughts and actions. This perception of will usually arises when people think themselves before the action takes place and that produces the sense of agency. In other words people seem to see themselves as the authors of an action when they perceive relevant thoughts about this specific action in advance and in this way they tend to infer that their mental processes caused this action. However will is not perceived as s force that causes action but as a conscious experience that depicts weakly the actual causal connection between the person’s cognition and action. In this way, there is a fundamental distinction between mental process and the perception and the verbal report of that process. The mental process does not reveal the person any further information about the mechanism of this process and in this case it may be that the person uses prior causal theories to explain his or her own psychological functions. The conscious will may depart from a theory that was formed in order to explain the constant relationship between thought and action. But many scientific findings support that conscious will does not reflect the real causal relation. In fact brain events are those that determine intention and action while conscious intention itself cannot cause action. According to many studies the feeling of will is not tied inevitably to voluntary action and so must be considered as a distinctive phenomenon.

Wegner propose a model of mental system that explains how people end up having the experience of will which is consistent with various empirical findings. According to this model, there are a series of events that end up to a voluntary action. In this network conscious thought and action are activated by unconscious mental processes which are may be linked to each other. But the path that gives rise to the experience of will is not actual but apparent. More specifically, when someone believes that his conscious intention caused the voluntary action he is experiencing a sense of will, that he willfully caused the action. The problem is that the perceived conscious will is not always corresponding with the actual mechanisms that connect the thought and the action. In other words, the experience of conscious will is not an indication of the actual relation between the mind and the action. What is truly might be happening is that conscious will arises from a causal illusion, from a third variable that interferes. As it can never be drawn with certainty that A causes B because there is always exist a variable C that cause both of them, in the same way it is not certain that one’s thought cause his actions because there are unconscious mechanisms that produce both of them.

Wegner’s theory proposes that experience of will is arising when people infer that their thoughts have caused their actions, whether this inference is true or not. According to this people tend to infer that thought causes action when the principles of priority, consistency and exclusivity are fulfilled. First, the thought must be appear in consciousness prior to the action (priority) secondly, it should be consistent with the action (consistency) and finally there must not be other potential causes of the action (exclusivity). Studies have shown that the perception of causality is based on these principles in order to be established a relationship between the cause and the effect. In fact, these principles do not depict an actual causal relation because the perceptions of causality that are based on these principles arise from reality.

In a nutshell, the theory of apparent mental causation assumes that the experience of consciously willing our actions is a construction. When a thought appears to be prior and consistent with the action and exclusive of any other alternative causes this construction produces the feeling that we are the authors of this action. However, this feeling is just an inference that our thoughts cause our action, not a direct perception of this causal relationship.

3. Why do we have the illusion?

Why do people occupied with experience of intention if it is no causally effective? As we mentioned before conscious will departs from the interpretation that our thoughts cause our actions. In this way, apparent mental causation is produced by an interpretive mechanism that is completely different from the mechanistic process that forms the real mental causation. Thus, the experience of will is considered to be an indication that mind determines our actions, is the way that mind illustrates their functions to us, not their real functions. These prior thoughts that people have are not intentions that cause things but previews of what we may do.

Wegner states that conscious will is “the mind’s compass”. More specifically is the experience that alerts our minds when actions are present and that these actions are the products of their own agency. Therefore the will is an indicator that informs us about the way we operate, does not cause our actions. Will also serve another purpose, is it a feeling that gives us information about our understanding of our own agency. In other words, it is an emotion of authorship and functions as a guide to ourselves and marks out our own functions. It informs us about who we are and what we are able to do. Finally, the most important thing is that will cultivates feelings about our responsibility for our actions and our sense of morality and guilt.

4. Empirical evidence

Is free will exists? What is causing our actions? Libet (1999) had taken an experimental approach in order to give conclusive answers to these questions. In his empirical study, he found that free voluntary actions were preceded by the readiness potential RP, that is a specific electrical shift in the brain, that starts 550ms before the action. The awareness of the intention to act comes 350-400 ms after RP begins but 200ms before the action. Therefore, the processing of the voluntary acting was initiated unconsciously. In this way it can be drawn that if the brain initiate this voluntary action before conscious intention is appeared then consciousness is too difficult to be the cause of the action (Blackmore). However, the conscious processing can control the result if it veto the action and that confirms that free will cannot be excluded. It is supported that free will is not able to initiate a voluntary action but it can control it (Libet, 1999).

Libet experiments had raised many philosophical and methodological problems. First of all, he has been critised

Mele(book) tried to interpret Libet findings in an alternative way. According to him there is a crucial distinction between the concepts of deciding and intending on the one hand and other states such as wanting on the other hand. Libet uses the terms of “intending”, “urging”, “wanting”, “deciding”, “willing” alternatively without making any discrimination among them. In particular, in order to explain how does a specific intention for an action arises in the subjects he strongly claims that “the brain ‘decides’ to initiate or at least to prepare to initiate the act before there is any reportable subjective awareness that such a decision has taken place”. Therefore, Libet believes that decisions are causing our actions and that this electrical shift that happens in our brains seems to be correlated with the causes of our actions because they precede of the muscle motion by approximately half a second. In this way the brain made the decision 500ms earlier before the subjects become aware of that. But this can lead to contradiction because decisions cannot be made without being conscious of them. According to Mele, deciding to do something is completely distinct from having an urge or wanting to do something. One might want to produce an action but finally not decide to do it. In this way it is more plausible that brain produces urges rather than decisions because urges correspond to an unconscious processing. Thereafter, this unconscious urges helps the decision to be generated in order for the act to be produced. As Libet point out the conscious self can control or permit or veto the final motor action by deciding to do so and in this case the decision to initiate the action is more direct from the unconscious urge that initiated the whole process. In this way the conscious self that is intending and deciding still has a causal efficacy.(mele)

Trevena and Miller (2009) disproved Libet’s core assumption that the electrophysiological shifts of the brain that prepare the action, that are present before the subjects are consciously aware of making the decision to move, is not evidence that voluntary action is initiated unconsciously. It is also concluded that these signs are not related only with the preparation of the movement. In the experiment that it was conducted the researchers compared the electrophysiological sign before a decision to move with signs before a decision not to move and they found that there were no significant differences between the signs in the two conditions. In this way these signs are not in charge of preparing these movements. Thus, Libet findings don’t prove that voluntary actions are initiated unconsciously.