How might our feelings of will be mistaken? Here is a scenario from Dan Wegner:
What if our minds keep showing us the same set of appearances, leading to an impression of conscious will again and again, but never revealing to us how our actions are actually caused? One way this could happen is if both the thought about action and the action itself are caused by unperceived forces of mind: you think of doing X and then do X – not because conscious thinking causes doing, but because other mental processes (that are not consciously perceived) cause both the thinking and the doing. Based on your conscious perceptions of your thoughts and actions, it would be impossible to tell in any given case whethe your thought was causing your action, or something else was causing both of them. Could it be that the deep intuition we all have about the power of our conscious will is the result of this ‘sleight of mind’? Perhaps we experience conscious will when we infer that our thought causes our action, although we can’t really know that this is the causal path1.Wegner argues that the experience of will is something that goes along with action, rather than being the cause of it. As evidence, he has conducted several studies in which people observe an action with an external cause, but are tricked into believing that they themselves caused it. They are able to do this because they can simulate the conditions that cause us to believe that we have consciously caused an action. For a person to believe that he or she is the cause of an action, his or her thoughts must occur prior to the action, be consistent with the action, and be exclusive (i.e., there are no immediately available plausible alternative causal explanations). Here are some examples research by Wegner and others:
From Wegner & Wheatley (1999). Click to enlarge.
From Wegner et al. (2004). Click to enlarge.
In the first two and fourth set of experiments, participants mistakenly felt like they were the cause of an event of which they were not. In the first Wegner experiment, and the Nielson experiment, participants even believed that they had caused the events that had actually been caused by an experimenter. In the second set of experiments by Wegner, the ones with the arm movements, participants felt like they had caused the arm movements even though they knew that the arms were not their own, and their physiological responses to the rubber band strikes indicate that their body reacted as though the arms were their own when they felt like they had caused the movements. In the one set of experiments in which participants did not mistakenly feel like they had caused an action, they mistakenly attributed the cause of the action to the experimenter when they themselves were in fact the cause. The lesson to be learned from these studies is that our experience of agency is a poor indicator of whether we are in fact causing an event. What does this mean for theories of free will that rely on the experience of willing? I'm not sure. It probably indicates that our introspective feeling of willing cannot be the only justification for holding a particular theory of free will. Reliance on the phenomenology of free will alone is problematic since our experience of willing is unreliable.
1 Wegner, D. M. (2003). The mind's best trick: How we experience conscious will. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7, 65-69.
2 Wegner, D.M. and Wheatley, T.P. (1999) Apparent mental causation: sources of the experience of will. American Psycholist, 54, 480–492
3 Wegner, D. M., Sparrow, B., & Winerman, L. (2004). Vicarious agency: Experiencing control over the movements of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 838-848.
4 The Illusion of Conscious Will by Dan Wegner.
5 Nielson, T. I. (1963). Volition: A new experimental approach. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 4, 215–230.