Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The Nature of Will

The nature of Will and the concept of Free Will - there are few things which are more instinctively intuitive and a priori in our everyday experience. I'm currently reading a book entitled "The Illusion of Conscious Will" by Daniel Wegner, and it's a fascinating look into the psychological and physiological mechanisms of Will. The crux of his argument is that:

"The experience of conscious will arises when we infer that our conscious intention has caused our voluntary action, although both intention and action are themselves caused by mental processes we do not feel."

There is evidence to support this, the first of which was Benjamin Libet's work in 1983. By way of a cleverly designed experiment, Libet and colleagues were able to determine that the subject's brains began to execute a physical movement (in this case the lifting of a finger) before the subject was himself aware of the experience of consciously willing it. Further research indicates that it does indeed seem to be the case that the brain compares any actions we take against our internal set of plans, beliefs, and desires - and if the action taken is a reasonable match with these internal indicators, we experience the sensation of will. Researchers have been quite successful at making people believe they had willed an action when they had not, and cases of people acting in ways which are at odds with their conscious will are well documented (hypnosis, alien hand syndrome, spirit possession, glossalia or speaking in tongues, etc).

This is quite a deviation from the way we typically intuit will. Will is experienced as the motive force in the mind, the causal agent which animates our actions. In the model outlined above, the experience of will is not unlike feeling a burning sensation when you touch a hot pan - the experience of will is entirely distinct from and only sometimes indicative of the internal causal agent.

Something tells me that experiencing will in this way is a biological necessity. I don't believe it would be efficient, or even possible, for humans to be fully aware of the myriad factors which determine our activities. Yet at the same time, we need a system available to us for determining which actions we perform are willed and which ones are not.

The question I'm grappling with at this point is: how should this bit of information change the way I perceive my thoughts, my actions, and my world? A part of me would like to believe that this insight shouldn't change anything. The experience of will may be secondary to the antecedent event which actually causes the activity, but I still caused the activity either way, right? But I can't help but feeling a bit disconnected at this point. Although I am experiencing the sensation of consciously willing my fingers to type these words, I know that something in me commands my fingertips before I experience the sensation of actually willing them to type. My actions seem relegated to the subconscious, that shadowy world of obscurity outside my control. My conscious Self is just along for the ride, all the while conspiring to trick itself into believing it's in the drivers seat.

My body is telling me it's tired, and I'm following it to bed.

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