Wegner’s Illusion: An Overview

Daniel Wegner’s ‘Illusion of Conscious Will’ is exceedingly put-downable as any great thought-provoking book should be, which might explain why it’s taken so long to get through. Here’s an overview. In the book, each chapter has a short summary. I’ve added my chapter summary or additional notes in italics following each chapter:

  1. The Illusion: It usually seems that we consciously will our voluntary actions but this is an illusion. Laplace’s demon, alien hand syndrome, Piaget and more!
  2. Brain and Body: Conscious will arises from processes that are psychologically and anatomically distinct from the processes whereby mind creates action. Ear wiggling, Ian Waterman, phantom limbs, electrical and transcranial magnetic stimulation, Kornhuber and Libet.
  3. The Experience of Will: The experience of conscious will arises when we infer that our conscious intention has caused our voluntary action although both intention and action are them selves caused by mental processes that do not feel willed. Fair enough!
  4. An Analysis of Automatism: The experience of will can be reduced to very low levels under certain conditions even for actions that are voluntary, purposive and complex – and what remains is automatism. Automatism: doing without feeling that you’re doing. Ideomotor effect of involuntary movements with Ouija boards, dowsing and resisting when standing close to cliff edges.
  5. Protecting the Illusion: The illusion of will is so compelling that it can prompt the belief that acts were intended when they could not have been. It is as though people aspire to be ideal agents who know all their actions in advance. Aspiring to be ideal agents. If 2 out of intention, will or action is present, the 3rd will also be present. See previous blog entry.
  6. Action Projection: The authorship of one’s actions can be lost, projected away from self to other people or groups or even animals. Clever Hans the counting horse responding to owner’s unconscious gestures; the owner projected authorship of action to the horse. Similarly with Facilitated Communication: ‘facilitators’ aiding autistic people to type; projecting authorship from themselves to the patient.
  7. Virtual Agency: When people project action to imaginary agents, they create virtual agents, apparent source of their own action. This process underlies spirit possession and dissociative identity disorder as well as the formation of the agent self. we have a tendency to see agents everywhere and have an ability to see things from their perspective. Mediums are able to switch identities: an imaginary (‘spirit’) agent replaces the created ‘virtual agent’ that is the self.
  8. Hypnosis and Will: In hypnosis the person experiences a loss of conscious will. This loss accompanies an apparent transfer of control to someone else along with the creation of some exceptional forms of control over the self. If people can be hypnotized to do something, they can be motivated by social influence to do it; they have a readiness to submit. There is no attention to intention hence no feeling of conscious will;
  9. The Mind’s Compass: Although the experience of conscious will is not evidence of mental causation it does signal personal authorship of action to the individual and so influences both the sense of achievement and the acceptance of moral responsibility. Conscious Will is the mind’s compass (the ship’s captain uses it to steer), a form of emotion that, like other emotions, clears away thoughts to allow us to focus attention (in contrast to Zen Buddhist relinquishing of control). Approaches to moral responsibility can be traditional ‘free will’ theory or a ‘behavioural’ position. Surprising punchline on Asimov’s Laws of Robotics (see below).

Wegner and Asimov

The penultimate section of the last chapter is entitled ‘Robot Morality’. Wegner suggests that Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (see blog post) imply some mechanism in is required in robots that is analogous to conscious will in humans – an attention-directing authorship-detection emotion to intervene when necessary.

If a robot finds itself in an environment in which harm is being done to others, it is imperative that it determines whether its own actions are a cause of this, in which case it must stop. This mechanism provides this function (there is no need for this function to be ‘conscious’). As well as notifying its host, this mechanism can notify others:

  • via telemetry: in case the robot cannot stop itself for some reason (malfunction), or
  • via a black-box recorder: to provide an ‘it wasn’t me’ proof for its own defence – something not available to us mere humans.

Wegner is just providing this connection to help illuminate and summarize the purpose and of conscious will in humans (rather than advancing robotics!).

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