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Psyche 9(13): 'Is Mental Life Possible Without the Will?' by Bruce Bridgeman

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patrick wilken

May 5, 2003, 10:50:44 AM5/5/03


Bruce Bridgeman
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA 95064

Copyright (c) Bruce Bridgeman 2003

PSYCHE, 9(13), May 2003

KEYWORDS: consciousness, will, dualism, determinism.

REVIEW OF: Wegner, D.M. (2002). *The Illusion of Conscious Will.*
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books. 419 pp. ISBN: 0262731622.
$18 pbk.

ABSTRACT: Though we share an irresistible introspection that we
possess a will governing our behavior and not controlled by outside
forces or previous states, empirical research shows that such a will
does not exist. Rather, actions are triggered unconsciously, and a
memory-related part of the brain produces a narrative to explain the
behavior after the fact.

This is a terrifying book. It demolishes the idea of free will that has
dominated Western thought for 3000 years, not with just another
philosopher's opinions but with dispassionate research, some of it from
the author's own laboratory, combined with evidence from a surprising
variety of scientific and non-scientific sources. This is evidence that
cannot be denied.

The demolition of free will violates the very core of our existence as
autonomous human beings, capable of planning, foresight, and responsible
action. Who or what are we without the power to choose, to refuse, to
accept, to deny, to sacrifice and struggle? "Nothing seems to us to
belong so closely to our personality, to be so completely our property
as our will" (W. Wundt, quoted in Jaensch, 1920). According to Wenger,
willed acts and feelings are illusions, and always have been; they are
stories that one part of our brain makes up after another part has

In an abstract sense, the idea of free will has been untenable for a
long time. In Western thought it is bound up with the medieval
theological concept of the immortal soul, that part of us that goes to
heaven or hell when we die. It is non-physical, escaping the limitations
of behavior as well as the inevitability of death and decay. The demise
of the soul is bound up with Cartesian dualism, which made it clear that
the non-physical and the physical could not interact. A physical entity,
after all, must by definition obey the laws of physics, being affected
only by other physical influences. Since the soul is non-physical, it
could not affect our physical behavior, including our communications of
feelings, thoughts and memories. Descartes exploited this idea to make
behavior part of the natural world, isolated from the purview of the
church and its inquisitors. Until now the impossibility of the soul, and
with it the impossibility of free will, have been hidden behind a haze
of uncertainty about the ultimate causes of behavior. Like the exact
moment of losing consciousness in falling asleep, they seemed forever
just out of reach.

Modern neurophysiology, though, leaves no room for the soul. A
neurophysiologist can change our perceptions, our opinions, our
motivations and memories by removing or stimulating tiny but
well-defined fragments of the brain, or by administering small amounts
of a hormone or neurotransmitter to the right place. What seemed a font
of life is now part logical engine, part chemical soup, and all
vulnerable to outside physical influences. Specific neurological
deficits can make us feel that our family members are impostors, that a
leg does not belong to us, that others are plotting against us, even
that we are ourselves dead, all deeply personal feelings yet driven by
ordinary interactions of neurons. Certain drugs or stimulation of parts
of the temporal lobe can even elicit religious experiences.

Physical penetration into the depths of the self on this scale allows no
free will -- neurons are affected only by other neurons, not by will or
effort. The only remaining alternatives are a deterministic mechanism or
an element of randomness. Determinism obviously would rule out free
will. But the workings of the axons, dendrites and synapses are only
determined to a first approximation. Unfortunately the indeterminacy of
random errors does not help, for free will is defined as goal-directed,
not random. In the neurophysiological context, randomness and chaos
offer an escape from predetermination, but fall short of restoring free

Until recently considerations of free will have been the purview of a
branch of modern philosophy, the philosophy of mind. Wegner makes short
work of the philosophers, for without empirical progress there is
nothing more to go on than yet another speculation or introspection. The
introspection of free will, though irresistably powerful, is not
science. And science is just a systematic way of looking closely at the
world and at ourselves.

If free will is no longer tenable, what is the alternative? Wenger's
thesis is that behavior is always driven by unconscious processes,
motivations that organize behaviors without the intervention of a will.
Once the behaviors happen, a part of the brain connected with organizing
memory has the job of making sense of the behavior, fitting it into a
consistent behavioral story about ourselves. The brain uses the story in
turn to organize further unconsciously triggered behaviors.

This idea is testable, and test it Wegner does, with a variety of
ingenious experiments designed to investigate how the process works. The
duality of memory and action can be seen in split-brain patients, when
the non-linguistic hemisphere initiates an act while the linguistic
hemisphere justifies it. When sensory information that informs action is
segregated in the two hemispheres, the justifying process becomes

In normal subjects, actions can be triggered without a sense of willing
them, and conversely an act can be intended but not executed. Wenger's
subjects can be convinced that they are willing an act when they are
not, while under other conditions they perform behaviors without a sense
of willed control. By separating the action and the story, Wenger shows
with double dissociation that they are distinct processes. After these
strictly empirical considerations, Wenger considers a number of
behaviors and traditions that had previously been written off as
bizarre, kooky, irrational. The ouija board, popular in Victorian
parlors, had a pointer that mysteriously indicated letters of a message
when supported by a group of believers. According to Wenger, the
participants were unconsciously moving the board without ascribing the
actions to themselves. Other psychic phenomena yield to similar
explanations, supporting in Wenger's interpretation the separation of
will and action.

If free will is an illusion, what of all the virtues that it supports?
Here the going gets even tougher. The scientific argument for a lack of
free will, and the argument is logically overwhelming, is easy to state
but hard to accept. A consistent illusion, however, defines reality for
us just as surely as reality itself does. The illusion that our eyes
provide a detailed, sharp and full-color image of the world, for
example, is physiologically unsupported, yet the consistency of the
illusion gives us the confidence to operate in a visual world that we
barely apprehend. Similarly, the feeling of will helps us to organize
our behaviors and to interpret the behaviors of others. In the end, the
illusion of will is itself a story we tell ourselves to justify our
behaviors and experiences.


Jaensch, E. R. (1920) Zur Methodik experimenteller Untersuchungen an
optischen Anschauungsbildern. Zeitschrift fuer Psychologie, 85,

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