One thing that fascinates me is the contrast between implicit (or un/sub/pre-conscious cognition of which we are unaware) and explicit cognition (the thoughts that we are actually aware of having), and the relationship between these two types of cognition to our behaviour and how we actually live our lives. I’ve been reading a really fascinating book by Dan Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard, called The Illusion of Conscious Will. I’m not through reading the book yet (actually, I’m only on chapter 3!), but some of the quotes were fascinating and I thought I would share them here. [I’ve added some commentary of my own–BPZ]

People have a tendency to think that the cause for any voluntary action is their consciously willing the action, but this is not the case. The book’s key point is that the thing that we call “conscious will” which drives our actions and behaviour, is actually not a causal force, but “an illusion”. Wegner points out that what we know as “conscious will” – the apparent conscious decision that we make to do or engage in something – is psychologically and biologically distinct from how the mind actually creates action. For example, it is scientifically well documented that people’s voluntary action first begins with brain activity, then the conscious awareness of the will, then action–meaning that the conscious will followed, not preceded, the brain activity that prompted action.

“It usually seems that we consciously will our voluntary actions, but this is an illusion.” (p. 1)

“One might assume that the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of the action by the person’s conscious mind are the same thing. As it turns out, however, they are entirely distinct, and the tendency to confuse them is the source of the illusion of conscious will that this book is about.” (p. 3)

“Will is a feeling. David Hume […] proposed to define the will in this way, as “nothing but the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion for our body, or new perception of our mind” (1739, p. 399).” (p. 3)

“Apparently, we cannot yet trace the experience of wil to any particular signal in the nervous system–from brain to body, or from body to brain […] It appears that the experience of will occurs through a system that presents the idea of a volntary action to consciousness and also produces the action. The idea can occur just in advance of the action, as when people are allowed to act a lib, or the idea may come to mind just after the action, as when people are prompted to act rapidly. People get the experience of will primarily when the idea of acting occurs to them before they act.” (p. 60)

So why do people have this experience of the conscious will? Wegner draws from research about how people make inferences about cause an effect to answer this question. Basically, people will infer causality when things happen within a specific window of time. For example, if you hit a billiard ball and it moves to hit another billiard ball just before the second ball moved, you would probably infer that ball 1 caused ball 2 to move. But if ball 2 moved before ball 1 touched it, or if there was movement long after the two billiard balls touched, then you might not infer that ball 1 caused ball 2 to move. People also seem to infer causality when the effect resembles its (perceived) cause. For example, if you came to my house for dinner and the food was terrible, and you also knew that I was a bad cook, you might infer that I made dinner. (For the record, I’m a relatively good cook!)

“The unique human convenience of conscious thoughts that preview our actions gives us the privilege of feeling we willfully cause what we do. In fact, however, unconscious and inscrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as cause of the action. So, while our thoughts may have deep, important, and unconscious causal connections to our actions, the experience of conscious will arises from a process that interprets these connections, not from the connections themselves.” (p. 98)

Ethics, philosophy and religion put a premium on the conscious will as a determinant of personal responsibility–if you didn’t consciously will something, you couldn’t be held (entirely) responsible. Wegner’s book and these findings about the illusion of conscious will may have immense bearings on what we know about the things that we consider part of our everyday lives. The Bible also talks a lot about making our thoughts captive to Christ (e.g., 2 Cor 10:5), assuming that conscious thought is the cause for our behavour. I can’t count the number of times I’ve consciously willed myself to not think about something, only to find ourselves thinking about the same thing 3 seconds later. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve consciously willed myself to not do something, but do it anyway (e.g., Romans 7). I’ll leave you with a few things to ponder: There’s a disconnect between our conscious will and action. If we don’t consciously will our actions, are we still responsible for them? How does this influence our understanding of our sin(s)? More importantly, how does this influence our understanding of grace-enabled action and transformation?