Illusion of conscious will: what it is and how it affects us

To what extent is our conscious behavior deliberately decided? In other words, are we ourselves in control of our behavior or is there something that even within us decides for us?

Many would think these questions are absurd, because when we want to do something, we decide to do it. We first thought about, say, eating a burger, and then we ate it, but what if that decision was nothing more than a warning?

Then we will try to understand the illusion of conscious will, A concept that has its origin in neuroscience but touches on aspects much discussed in the history of modern philosophy and psychology.

    What is the illusion of conscious will?

    Humans have long discussed free will throughout the history of philosophy, a cliché inherited from psychology and neuroscience. Some consider that all of our behavior is the result of a series of actions which, through cause and effect relationships, cause us to behave as we do. Others believe the exact opposite, that as rational and free beings we have the ability to change our behavior as we please.

    It could be said that both those who defend extreme determinism and the defenders of the most liberal free will are wrong. We are supposed to be able to influence our behavior, which would explain why we sometimes get it wrong about things that in theory we knew we had to do, but there is also the fact that we are not isolated from our environment or free from our genes and, through their influence, we behave in one way or another.

    It seems that we don’t really have the capacity to consciously decide our behavior, although not everything is conditioned by factors outside of our mind. In fact, it seems that it is her, our mind, that decides for us without our realizing it, but she has her own criteria for deciding what to do. It gives us the impression that our decisions are conscious, but it is only an illusion.

    The illusion of conscious will is an idea expounded by Dr. Daniel Wegner (1948-2013) in his book of the same name “The illusion of conscious will” (2002), by relating it to the theory of mental causality. related. In essence, this theory maintains that when we engage in a behavior, it gives us the feeling that we have consciously decided to do so beforehandBut in reality, the decision had already been taken much earlier and less consciously.

    Illusion and apparent mental causation

    All people who have a healthy brain, without neurological damage or mental disorder, are aware of their actions, the actions of those who believe they have made a conscious decision to do them or not. That is to say, he attributes to his conduct a will, a free decision, in short, he believes he has free will and rationally decides (or not) what to do and what not to make. People believe we have absolute control over our behavior.

    But it is one thing to be aware of what we are doing and another to consciously decide what to do. In other words, not knowing what we are doing means that we have decided it ourselves, or at least that we have thought about it rationally. The decision may have been made by us, but not consciously: there is something hidden in the depths of our mind that decided for us.

    According to Wegner and relating it to an apparent mental causality, the illusion of conscious will occurs because human beings attribute to our thinking the cause of further behavior, Although this does not mean that the two phenomena really have a cause and effect relationship. That is, when we first consciously think about doing something, and then adopt that behavior, we think that behavior is the result of that thinking, but it really is not necessary.

    For example, if I start to think about smoking a cigarette and then smoke one, it is logical to think that the act of smoking was decided upon when I thought about smoking a cigarette. However, this decision may have already been subconsciously made by my mind. At one point this idea that was originally in my subconscious came into my consciousness and I interpreted it as a decision at the time, but it was really just a warning of what I was going to do. smoking at the time.

    Indeed, both the conscious idea of ​​wanting to smoke (B) and the act of smoking itself (C) are the consequence of an unconscious decision to want to smoke (A), that is to say that this is not that B causes C, but that Because B and C, but as a is quite mysterious and it turns out that B occurs before C and they have a thematic relationship (smoking), we think that there is a causal relationship between them, which is in fact fictitious.

    Counted and debated, what would happen according to the idea of ​​the conscious will illusion is that our decisions are made through unconscious processes which we cannot know exactly how they work. The idea that we think about the behavior we are going to do before we do it wouldn’t be the decision itself, as it would have already been done, but rather a kind of warning of what is going to happen. For example, since I have unconsciously decided to smoke, my mind warns me before I smoke that I am going to do so, so I start to think that I feel like a cigarette.

      Unconscious, hypnotists and neuroscience

      While it is impossible to say that he spoke explicitly of the illusion of conscious will, Sigmund Freud’s work on hypnosis is not at all ignorant and may well be related to Wegner’s research. Hypnosis encouraged Freud to understand that there were unconscious processes mobilizing the behavior of people, behaviors that our species thinks are consciously controlled.

      This “will”, as we have indicated, would only be an illusion, and post-hypnotic rationalization is a clear example of this.. Rationalization is understood to mean the defense mechanism in which the individual gives convincing but false reasons for the action he has taken. Applied to the field of hypnosis, post-hypnotic rationalization is the explanation given by the suggested individual after performing a behavior during the hypnotic trance, behavior that the hypnotist ordered him to do after giving him a signal.

      Think of a prototypical hypnosis session where the hypnotist tells the volunteer, in full swing, that when he counts to three (signal), he should scratch his chin (action). The hypnotist counts to three and the subject scratches his chin as told. When asked why he did it, subject says he did it because it stung his chin, an explanation that makes sense but is false. It wasn’t he who voluntarily decided to scratch here, but the hypnotist decided for him, and made him behave this way by giving him the signal.

      While most of our behaviors are decided by our mind, albeit unconsciously, the example of hypnotist and post-hypnotic rationalization comes to illustrate very well what our relationship is between our unconscious, conscious thought, and our mind. behaviour. The hypnotist might just be a metaphor for our subconscious processes and the explanation of why his chin has itched so badly serves to explain these warnings that something is going to be done.

      Finish, you can’t talk about decisions made before creating without talking about who found neurophysiological evidence for it. Benjamin Libet (1916-2007) discovered that the nerve impulse to perform an action occurs 300 milliseconds before a conscious recording of that decision passes, i.e. our brain decides how to act before we do. know what we’re going to do.

      to summarize

      It seems that our behavior is decided by us, but not consciously. Whatever we do, our subconscious seems to be the one making the decision. The fact that just before we do something, we think about that thing is nothing more than a warning, a warning that we are going to perform some behavior. It’s not that we think about smoking a cigarette and smoking, or that we want to eat a burger and then eat it, but our mind has decided in advance.

      Our belief that we are totally free and rational beings, masters of our own behavior, coupled with the need to find causal relationships with our thinking and behavior, causes us to fall into the illusion of conscious will. It makes sense because, after all, in the end, that the idea comes first and then the act is done is something that makes it almost impossible for us to attribute cause and effect to them. What we are going to do is already decided, we justify it “rationally”.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Carruthers, P. (2007). The illusion of conscious will. Synthesis 159, 197-213 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-007-9204-7
      • Wegner, DM (2002). The illusion of conscious will. MIT Press.

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