Illusion of Conscious Will (Anglais) Broché – 2 septembre 2003
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This could have been a good book, if the author stuck to what he can show, which is that there are interesting illusions of conscious will. The faulty logic is this: if there are consistent and replicable illusions of conscious will in humans, then all experiences of conscious will are illusions.
How do we know (or at least comfortably believe) that this logic is incorrect? Well, what about optical illusions? There are many optical illusions that prove that humans can reliably judge reality to be different from the objective truth (e.g., comparing the length of two lines, or the relative brightness of two patches). This does not imply that reality is an illusion, or that our faith in ourselves to use our eyes to assess reality is unfounded.
Do I believe in conscious will? I have read a lot about this, and I know a lot of natural and behavioral science, as well as philosophy. Yet I am not sure. I do know that none of the arguments I have encountered, on one side or the other, is at all convincing. The common assertion that modern science supports strict determinism is clearly wrong. If we extend deterministic causality to "mechanistic causality," which adds quantum-level randomness and possibly chaotic dynamics, it is more plausible to assert that if there is free will, it must be compatible with mechanistic causality. The problem here is that we simply do not know all the forces of nature. We know four types of forces (strong, weak,electromagnetic, and gravity, which is not really a force), but we also know our theories are incomplete. Moreover, either general relativity is wrong (unlikely) or most of the matter in the Universe involves forces other than those with which we are familiar. Conclusion: there could be other forces that control our choices and behaviors other than the four known forces, and they might render human consciousness a causal material force in the Universe.
I am inclined toward the possibility of such an interpretation of consciousness because consciousness is a costly evolved trait of a few biological species, and costly traits are likely to be fitness-enhancing. Fitness-enhancing traits cannot be epiphenominal.
The standard philosophical argument against this view is that if there is free will, then the individual must have been able to make a different choice under exactly the same material conditions. But if there is mechanistic causality, the individual might have been able to make a different choice, but only because of quantum (or other) randomness. But, despite its popularity, this notion is clearly faulty. If an evil person makes and evil choice, in what sense could he have done otherwise? Evil people make evil choices. The counterfactual statement (he could have done otherwise) is fraught with metaphysical imprecision, and I reject it without qualification.
When we say someone is morally responsible for an evil choice, we do not me "he could have done otherwise." We mean that some individuals in that situation would have made different decisions, and we have no reason to believe this individual has some special life-history or medical reason (e.g., a tumor in the cortex) that relieves him of responsibility. This has nothing to do with the ontology of modern physics.
But it seems to me that Wegner begs the more interesting question of what influence, if any, our conscious mind has over our actions. If we accept that our conscious decisions are not the proximate cause of our actions, what influence does the conscious mind have over our behavior? After all, I can program a computer to take an action at a later time, without my direct intervention. So it is possible that while our conscious mind's experience of being the immediate author of our actions is illusory, it remains possible that our conscious mind is more indirectly in control--in essence, programming our unconscious mind. Wegner speaks of the importance of having a mental plan in creating one's sense of authorship over one's actions, but he does not address the possibility that that plan may influence those actions.