beliefs about personality and free will. In his 2002 book The Illusion of Conscious Will, the psychologist Daniel Wegner gives experimental evidence about the relation between a person’s sense of volition— which leads to a bodily action like reaching for a wine glass—and the neural impulse that actually moves the hand.The unexpected result is that the decision to move does not necessarily precede the motion.As Wegner puts it,“It usually seems that we consciously will our volun- tary actions, but this is an illusion. . . . Our sense of being a conscious agent who does things comes at a cost of being technically wrong all the time.” He goes on to argue that our experience of conscious will nevertheless makes us feel that we are beings who can make moral choices, but his results tend to undermine bedrock assumptions about human choice and responsibility for our actions.
The cognitive theorist Daniel Dennett of Tufts University takes an even stronger view of consciousness as illusion, as articulated in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, and other writings. According to Dennett, what goes on in the brain is distributed cognition, a com- plex pattern of events occurring at different times and at different physical sites in the neural array. Thought dispersed temporally and spatially is a far cry from Descartes’s idea that the center of the self resides in a single location, and eliminates the idea of a physical core for consciousness.Taking the argument further, Dennett believes that there is no central core of any kind for personhood. Self-conscious- ness, he says,
is that special inner light, that private way that is with you that nobody else can share, something that is forever outside the bounds of computer science. . . . That belief, that very gripping, powerful intuition, is in the end, I think, simply an illusion of common sense . . . as gripping as the commonsense illusion that the earth stands still and the sun goes around the earth.
Instead, he says, “you can imagine how all that complicated slew of activity in the brain amounts to conscious experience . . . the way to imagine this is to think of the brain as a computer of sorts.” (Italics in the original.)
If Dennett downplays the strong internal sense of our own con- sciousness, the philosopher John Searle gives great weight to those