Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Illusion of Conscious Will

The Illusion of Conscious Will

In The Illusion of Conscious Will, Daniel Wegner attempts to explain the relationship between thoughts and actions. He says that it is sheer human nature to feel in control of one’s personal behavior. Human beings tend to think of themselves as the conscious agents of their actions, and given certain experiments done on subjects, it can be suggested that people feel more capable and comfortable performing a task when they possess a sense of self-mastery, or personal liberty in choosing one thing or another. However, Wegner argues that if scientists were to compile all of the environmental influences in a person’s life, they would be able to accurately predict the person’s actions before he does them. Fairly recently, there have been actual experiments in which neuroscientists found that they are even capable of tracking a person’s thought seconds before it reaches his consciousness, through various brain-monitoring devices. Such evidence would seem to indicate that free will is in fact some sort of illusion of the brain.

In his book, Wegner emphasizes that although a person feels like he is consciously acting, the feeling of conscious action itself is produced in the brain by stimuli that the person has virtually no control over. This supports his notion that people are quite literally products of their environment. If the sheer feeling that one is in control of one’s behavior is chemically produced in the brain, then how can we realistically claim responsibility for our own actions? In other words, free will is merely one of many different conscious experiences that one undergoes. The notion that it, in itself, is in experience, however, indicates that something external is manipulating it – something other than ourselves. He provides a helpful example of conscious will being manipulated through hypnosis. In the act of hypnosis, the actions are, in a sense, controlling the subject, rather than the subject controlling the actions. This, he claims, is evidence that one’s actions, even when he believes them to be authentic, are inherently involuntary on an intricate physiological level. 

This issue is deeply Humanistic, as it relates strongly to Humanism’s stance of rationality and humbleness in the face of humanity’s limitations. Therefore, Humanism is very well fit to accept the concept of free will as an illusion; morality is equally important regardless of whether or not people hold the capacity to make choices, because it pertains to the overall well being of humanity and not the condition of one’s individual soul. Its rival philosophies, mainly being various religions, have a much more difficult time making their ideologies compatible with this discovery. Most sects of Christianity, with the exception of Calvanism, highlight the significance of free will; it explains the presence of evil in the world and it is the means by which God can hold people accountable. Given that the scientific evidence on conscious will appears to contradict most theologies, Humanism’s rivals don’t seem to be able to stand against it on a logical level. 

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