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Epistemology & Philosophy of Science

Volume 57, Issue 1, 2020

Maria A. Sekatskaya
Pages 79-95

Causal Efficiency of Intentional Acts

Willusionists claim that recent developments in psychology and neuroscience demonstrate that consciousness is causally inefficient [Carruthers, 2007; Eagleman, 2012; Wegner, 2002]. In section 1, I show that willusionists provide two types of evidence: first, evidence that we do not always know the causes of our actions; second, evidence that we lack introspective awareness of the causal efficiency of our intentional acts. In section 2, I analyze the first type of evidence. Recent research in the field of social psychology has shown that irrelevant factors affect human behavior. For example, it has been shown that pleasant smells make a person more helpful toward strangers [Baron, 1997], whereas images of eyes that a person sees on a poster reduce the likelihood of cheating [Bateson, Nettle, & Roberts, 2006]. I argue that minor influences do not necessarily lead to something more sinister, and the contrary has not been empirically proven so far. In section 3, I analyze the second type of evidence that Daniel Wegner [2002] provides in favor of willusionism. Wegner claims that conscious will is usually understood in one of two ways: (1) «as something that is experienced when we perform an action» [Wegner, 2002, p. 3] or (2) «as a force of mind, a name for the causal link between our minds and our actions» [ibid.]. According to Wegner, it is a conceptual truth that for something to count as an instance of conscious will it must both be (1) felt as voluntary, and (2) causally efficient in bringing about a certain effect. Wegner claims that what satisfies (1) can fail to satisfy (2), and vice versa. The major part of Wegner’s book is the review and analysis of diverse psychological phenomena: automatisms, hypnosis, illusions of control, influence of unconscious factors on human behavior, as well as some neuroscientific data. I briefly review the data provided by Wegner, and come to the conclusion that, although they show that there is a double dissociation between consciously willed processes and the acts that are supposedly caused by these processes, they do not justify further conclusions made by Wegner. According to Wegner, the feeling of conscious will is just an indicator of unconscious processes which, in fact, cause our behavior. I argue that the data considered by Wegner do not provide direct information about the neuronal processes that underlie conscious intentional processes. Moreover, double dissociation can only show that one process neither a necessary nor sufficient cause of another process. It cannot show that one process is not among the causes leading to another process. In section 4, I argue that the experimental data discussed in the article are important for philosophical theories of intentionality.

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