Remarks on "The Mind's Best Trick: how we experience conscious will," by Daniel Wegner Cognitive Science Vol. 7. No. 2. 2003.

      Could the belief that consciousness causes actions be an illusion of nature? How we answer this will depend on a number of things, including what, precisely, is meant by saying that consciousness causes action. Being conscious does not entail will, and without some such thing as will, if only at the level of what Sellars called our "manifest image," it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is being suggested by the notion of consciousness as possessing causal efficacy. Not being an event, at least in any obvious sense, it is uncertain what the notion of 'cause' at issue actually is; and, as long as what it is to be conscious is simply assumed there is little telling what it means to reject the notion, either in part or in its totality, of consciousness either as cause or effect.

      Daniel Wegner has made it a point of raising some important scientific considerations in connection with the issue of human action. In what follows I will reply to a number of comments he makes with the objective of a attaining a clarity on the subject that encourages the indulgence of philosophers who simply assume some sort of mind/body identity thesis and, then, become impatient with scientists who "go" philosophical without examining the philosophy at issue. For it is a common mistake, even within the scientific community, to assume that 'consiousness', 'cause', 'illusion'etc. are commonplace and require no special treatment or technical analysis. No scientific enterprise can hope to be enduringly relevant that doesn't take the complexities of these notions into account, just as no philosophy that assumes the science of its time can hope to long survive in a world where ideas are in constant conflict.

      One thinks about doing something and then does it. This is the paradigm with which Wegner begins. It codifies the notion that thinking, being conscious, and leading to action implies that the ensuing action is in some sense its result; the result, that is, of consciousness. At the very onset this is problematic. Being conscious may belong to lower forms of life; forms so primitive that the notion of a will, as we understand it, may not be applicable. A being incapable of illusion may, nonetheless, possess consciousness and act on perceptual stimuli. If so, or even if this is a possibility, the philosopher may plead skepticism; that is, he may say that consciousness at the very most may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for the causation of acts of will. He may go further and deny that while "consciousness" is the basis of action - or, perhaps, "consciousness of" - this is not to say that the behavior which ensues upon consciousness is caused at all, since consciousness may not be an event and causation relates only events. This is not the only approach but it infuses the issue Wegner hopes to examine with a complexity that cannot be addressed by introducing illusions connected with the efficacy (or inefficacy) of consciousness. Let us take a brief look at the arguments adduced for the notion that the mind tricks us into thinking that consciousness causes action. I won't address the difference between actions and events, but will pass this important consideration by for another occasion.

      The suggestion is, at one point, that consciousness is merely an "add on" without causal consequence - to adopt a metaphor from Wittgenstein, a lever on a machine that has no function. What would this conception explain? Let's consider a few bits of evidence for the idea that consciousness is an "add on." Wegner reports on the results of W. Penfield:

Conscious patients were prompted by stimulation of the exposed brain to produce movements that were not simple reflexes and, instead, appeared to be complex, multi-staged, and voluntary. Yet their common report was that they did not 'do' the action, and instead felt that Penfield had 'pulled it out' of them.
What is strange here, and this is why I will not discuss this at any length, is that, at first, we are told that the action appeared 'volutary', then we are told subjects didn't feel that they actually performed the action. Now a voluntary action can only be an action one performs and if the subjects reported that they did not feel that they had performed the action the meaning of 'voluntary' must, at least, be questioned. The issue, here may not be one of substance but more needs to be said, I believe, in order to make the case Wegner wants to make. Wegner raises another interesting case, discussing a study by Ammon and Gandevia:
People in one study, for instance, were asked to choose to move one or the other index finger whenever they heard a click. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)P was applied alternatively to the left or right motor cortex to influence the movement, and this influence over which finger was moved was strong at short response times. Respondents reported consciously willing the movements during the TMS influence...
It is important that in this experiments response times were very short, and the actions at issue were what philosophers call "basic." For our purpose, this will mean, merely, that in order to perform such an action no other action is required. Such actions are movements of the body and are to be distinguished from actions where some sort of plan is involved. One does not move one's finger according to some sort of plan; one may have an intention in moving one's finger, but moving one's finger is not accompanied by a plan to do so; one simply moves one's finger. At the very least, we can say this case differs from other cases where conscious will consists in a plan or intention in the doing of a basic action. This is important since most of our hand movements are not accompanied by a conscious will. I reach for the door knob. What I will to do is leave the room or open the door. I am not conscious of events, if any, that lead up to moving my hand. Underlying any full discussion of the phenonenon is a need to distinguish volition and will. This is not without controversy. Still, the illusion of voluntariness may suggest that a "trick" can be employed to make it appear that an act is voluntary. This is sufficient, perhaps, to establish that the awareness of voluntary action can be illusory (at small time intervals at that) but it does not establish that, universally, it is nature's deception. Indeed, a recurring question throughout this discussion, but one which is never raised explicitely, is what "purpose" such a deception would serve? That is, why it has survived; or, whether it is merely a phenomenon without function. This is unlikely. Further,it is possible to create perceptual illusions, even illusions (Muller) that cannot be overcome, but this in and of itself will not go far in showing that all perception is illusory. This case does suggest, however, that consciousness of volition, unlike pain, can be illusory; it does not show that consciousness as essential to willful action is illusory. If I apply for a new job, voluntarily, there appears to be little plausibility in denying a role to consciousness in this action. There is one other such case we must mention, one first noticed by Libet and mentioned by Wegner.

      This case appears, however, only to show that brain activity precedes intention rather than the other way around. Here one must add "conscious" intention since the mere presence of a neurological antecedent does not establish an epiphenomenal quality of the intention, since the conscious intention may be preceded by a nconscious intention, although much would need to be said in defense of this notion. Wegner notes that in Libet's experiment,

In spontaneous, intentional finger movement, Libet found that a scalp-recorded brain readiness potential (RP) preceded the movement...This finding indicates only that some sort of brain activity reliably precedes the onset of voluntary action.
This is something of an overstatement. It suggests brain activity prior to felt voluntary action, but it doesn't address the consciousness of voluntary action. Libet was aware of this and Wegner adds that:
However, participants were also asked to recall the position of a clock at their initial awareness of intending to move their finger, and this awareness followed the RP by some 350-400ms.
It may be argued that this shows that consciousness of the intention is caused, at least in part, by brain activity, but it does not show, as well, that the cause of the brain activity is independent of the will; nor does it suggest that consciousness of the intention either coincides with the formation of the intention or that it is a trick of nature. All this may be so, but this is not what the results suggest as such. In addition the evidence cited from pathological cases is on the face of has not been shown conclusively to be relevant to the thesis that the experience of willed action is illusory. Take, for instance, 'alien hand syndrome'. The subject whose hand moves contrary to his or her will attributes the action to the voluntary behavior of another controlling agent. Similarly, schizophrenics hear their own voices as being produced by other speakers. But notice that in these cases it is not the existence of voluntary action that is illusory, but rather there is the illusion that the agent is not the subject of the volition. In other words, there is consciousness of volition; it is just that it is not being self-attributed to the subject. This is quite different from consciousness of voluntary action being illusory. Within the realm of cognitive illusion the analogue here, as in the case of automatisms, is the mirror image that creates the illusion of a larger room, not the illusion of water on the road that is in fact nonexistent. All of this suggests a very striking and interesting theory advanced by Wegner.

      The suggestion is that the experience of conscious will occurs "when we draw the inference that our thought has caused our action - whether or not this inference is correct." But this can't be the whole story, even if it enjoys a correctness within a limited domain of psychical experience. Take the case of attempted telekinesis. This idea was explored by Wm. James, F. H. Bradley, Alexander Shand, Anscombe and others, none of whom believed in its possibility.

      What these researchers did was entertain what goes on when one attempts telekinesis. Take Bradley's approach. I focus my attention on an object. I will that it move; just as I might will to move my hand which is tied down, say, by a rope. The difference is that nothing happens. The similarity is that there is a conscious effort to move one's hand - no inference required! There are other sorts of considerations, scientifically more in keeping with recent advances; but the idea is simple: there is, in these case, no inference involved, contrary to the hypothesis. This is not intended as dismissive of all that Wegner says in connection with the role of inference. Indeed, if there had never been such inferences, perhaps, there would have never been a concept of will. But this raises a question I don't believe Wegner has fully explored.

      Suppose for a moment that the conscious will is an illusion. Why does it exist? Could it be that it is merely the fanciful by-product of complex processes, a sort of epiphenomenon without function? Here is a suggestion, and a half-baked one at that. It may be the case that the experience of conscious will facilitates the construction of intentions and projects. If it should turn out that constructing reasons for our actions requires an awareness not only of what we are doing but what we are about to do, then, where reasons and causes are distinct, consciousness my be essential in order to "compute" reasons. In the case of basic actions reasons enter only secondarily when they are part of a plan or intention. Such considerations must be born in mind both in assessing the theory at hand as well as evaluating the relevance of the evidence.

Steve Bayne
Oct. 17, 2005