Cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Epigraph

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pp. i-vi

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Foreword

Daniel Gilbert

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pp. ix-xii

Dan Wegner was many things—a scientist, a scholar, a teacher, a mentor, and for thirty years, my very closest friend. But first and foremost, Dan was an inventor. Although he would ultimately become a widely celebrated éminence grise who received every major award the scientific community could offer him, he never stopped being that ten-year-old boy who sat in the attic of his parents’ home in East Lansing, Michigan, with an issue of Popular Mechanics and a chemistry set, trying to develop a formula that would turn the family cat into a family dog, because, as Dan would maintain for the...

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Preface to the New Edition

Thalia Wheatley

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pp. xiii-xvi

If you picked up this book, you probably have an opinion on whether conscious will is—as Dan Wegner put it—an illusion. Perhaps you find the claim absurd. After all, didn’t it feel like you consciously decided to read this page? The “whodunit” of action seems obvious—so obvious, in fact, that the possibility of it being illusory tickled one of the greatest minds in science. Here, Dan Wegner delights in unmasking what he called “the most compelling illusion”—the feeling that we consciously will what we do.

Wegner’s main thesis is that if the feeling of will drives action, then...

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Preface

Daniel Wegner

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pp. xvii-xx

Do we consciously cause what we do, or do our actions happen to us? Most people are willing to accept that these alternatives are in fact opposites, and then they immediately become embroiled in argument. Determinism? Free will? Some middle ground? Philosophers have given us plenty of “isms” to use in describing the positions that can be taken on this question, meanwhile not really answering it in a satisfying way. Psychologists and neuroscientists, in turn, haven’t helped things much by often assuming that our actions are happenings that must, of course, be caused by prior events—and...

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1 The Illusion

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pp. 1-26

So, here you are reading a book on conscious will. How could this have happened? One way to explain it would be to examine the causes of your behavior. A team of scientific psychologists could study your reported thoughts, emotions, and motives, your genetics and your history of learning, experience, and development, your social situation and culture, your memories and reaction times, your physiology and neuroanatomy, and lots of other things as well. If they somehow had access to all the information they could ever want, the assumption of psychology is that they could...

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2 Brain and Body

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pp. 27-58

It is not always a simple matter to know when someone is doing something on purpose. This judgment is easy to make for animated cartoon characters because a lightbulb usually appears over their heads at this time and they then rear back and look quickly to each side before charging off to do their obviously intended and voluntary action. Often a cloud of dust remains. In the case of real people, however, knowing whether another person has done something willfully can be a detective exercise. In some of the most important cases, these things must even be decided by the courts or by...

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3 The Experience of Will

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pp. 59-92

Imagine for a moment that by some magical process you could always know when a particular tree branch would move in the wind. Just before it moved, you would know it was going to move, in which direction, and just how it would do it. Not only would you know this, but let’s assume that the same magic would guarantee that you would happen to be thinking about the branch just before each move. You’d look over, and then just as you realized it was going to move, it would do it. In this imaginary situation, you could eventually come to think that you were somehow causing the...

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4 An Analysis of Automatism

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pp. 93-136

Our sense that we consciously cause what we do ebbs and flows through the day and even changes by the moment. We feel ourselves willing our actions almost the way we use the accelerator pedal in an automobile: Once in a while we floor it; more normally we give it a little punch from time to time; but for long periods we just have a foot on it and maintain speed, experiencing little sense at all that we are pushing on the pedal. Either because we are very good at what we are doing, because we have simply lost interest, or for yet other reasons, there are intervals when we lose the...

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5 Protecting the Illusion

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pp. 137-176

By some rules in the game of pool, you have to call your shots. You have to say where the ball is going to go, and sometimes even how it will get there (“Thirteen in the corner pocket off the nine”). This prevents you from claiming you meant to do that when half a dozen balls drop into pockets on a lucky shot. Life, however, is not always played by this rule. For some amount of what we do every day, our conscious intentions are vague, inchoate, unstudied, or just plain absent. We just don’t think consciously in advance about everything we do, although we try to maintain...

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6 Action Projection

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pp. 177-210

When you do something, how do you know that you are the one who did it? And when someone else does something, how do you know that you weren’t the one who did it? These questions seldom arise in everyday conversation because the answer is usually obvious: Everybody knows that they are the authors of their own actions and not the authors of other people’s actions. If people got this sort of thing mixed up on a regular basis, right now you might think that you are the one who is writing this sentence and I might think that I am reading it. With such a breakdown of the notion...

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7 Virtual Agency

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pp. 211-256

The ventriloquist Edgar Bergen became famous in the 1930s with his dummy Charlie McCarthy (fig. 7.1). His act was immensely popular on radio, and there were many news items on Bergen’s colorful life and times. One account goes like this:

One day, a visitor came into Bergen’s room and found him talking—not rehearsing—with Charlie. Bergen was asking Charlie a number of philosophical questions about the nature of life, virtue, and love. Charlie was responding with brilliant Socratic answers. When Bergen noticed that he had a visitor, he turned red and said he was...

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8 Hypnosis and Will

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pp. 257-300

You’re at someone’s house for dinner, and you have absolutely stuffed yourself. You lean back, basking in the glow of serious overfeeding. But the host is not quite done with you and offers you a bit more stuffing. This you decline with a smile and wave of the hand. I’ve had quite sufficient, you think to yourself. But the host says “Are you sure? Not just a little more? Otherwise it will go to waste.” You wag your head no and look searchingly in another direction, but the host goes on, “Really, just one tiny spoonful more—you already ate yours up so fast! You must like it. Have a little more,...

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9 The Mind’s Compass

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pp. 301-326

Does the compass steer the ship? In some sense, you could say that it does, because the pilot makes reference to the compass in determining whether adjustments should be made to the ship’s course. If it looks as though the ship is headed west into the rocky shore, a calamity can be avoided with a turn north into the harbor. But, of course, the compass does not steer the ship in any physical sense. The needle is just gliding around in the compass housing, doing no actual steering at all. It is thus tempting to relegate the little magnetic pointer to the class of epiphenomena—things that don’t...

Notes

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pp. 327-340

References

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pp. 341-390

Author Index

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pp. 391-404

Subject Index

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pp. 405-411