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The Role of Unconsciousness in Free Will

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Does neuroscience show that free will is an illusion? No, it shows that unconscious mental states are causally effective in action. Because free will includes initiation by both conscious and unconscious states, the self as free agent should be characterized in terms of more than her conscious deliberations to range over unconscious beliefs, memories and feelings. Further, the ways social relations influence action and the ways actions influence the social environment are relevant to a full account of free will. Given this broader perspective, it is clear that recent neuroscientific studies only show that the conscious feeling of volition does not play the agential role it seems to play. Consciousness is nonetheless causally effective in planning and monitoring actions to ensure they conform to goals. This causal process unfolds over a span of time and encompasses a wide array of factors.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Philosophy Department, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16801, Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2010


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