The Illusion of Conscious Will?

Jason's comments to my Dispatches from the Post-Cartesian World post have prompted me to put some stuff out front for those interested in looking into the issues presented by the work of Wegner and Libet. Thank you Jason for your comments and link (which I'll note below).

First, Libet's famous diagram is presented here. Time moves from left to right in milliseconds. Recall, the task was for the person to initiate a motor action. The subject was to do two things. First, the subject was to note when the feeling of "choice" occurred. Second, the subject was to execute the motor movement initiated by the "choice." In the diagram above the moment of "choice" is marked by W (for Will). The motor movement is marked by M (for Movement). Note the gap between W and M, Libet's Veto Window: The time lag between choice and behavior where I can, presumably, change my mind and veto the choice.

The point of the diagram, however, is that, as you can see, the readiness potential (the neural activity) of choice is occurring well before the moment of conscious choice. W happens well up the slope of increasing neural activity, well after the body is showing signs that an unconscious choice has been initiated (i.e., true moment of “choice”). W, the conscious experience of will, comes after the increase in neural activity, not before.

Daniel Wegner's work expands on Libet's research. As I noted to Jason, Wegner's book The Illusion of Conscious Will is considered to be a pivotal book in the area of free will studies as he replaces armchair philosophizing with laboratory research. Wegner's conclusion is this: "Will" is a feeling (akin to an emotion). Specifically, a feeling of authorship, as in "this experience is mine." That is, the "feeling of will" developed to help the organism sort and organize, to use William James' phrase, the "great blooming, buzzing confusion" of conscious experience. "Will" helps me sort out those experiences I am the "author" of versus those which act upon me. Obviously, for adaptive/survival purposes such a distinction would be critical.

Jason then linked us to Tim Bayne's chapter Phenomenology and the Feeling of Doing: Wegner on the Conscious Will which is critical of Wegner on philosophical grounds. This chapter comes from a new book by MIT Press entitled Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?. If you go to the site of the book you can download two of the chapters (the Libet diagram above comes from the introductory chapter of the book).

So, plenty to read for everyone, both for and against the illusion of conscious will!

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