A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

4. Chapter Four


1.         Knowledge of Volition


There is little mystery left as to how to theoretically define causation and how we get to establish it in practice. A mixture of epistemological and ontological issues is involved, which are resolved with relative ease. Causation in general may be expressed in terms of conditional propositions, or more profoundly with reference to matricial analysis. And particular causative relations can be established inductively, by observation of conjunctions and separations of events and their negations, and appropriate generalizations and particularizations.

Not so easy for volition. Many philosophers and psychologists are discouraged by the difficulties surrounding the concept of volition (or will). How is it known? How can it be defined in general? How are particular acts of will apprehended? How can we prove they belong to the agent, are his responsibility? How to conceive freedom of the will, let alone prove it? And so forth. But a thinker should not despair too early. We can gradually build up our reflection on the subject, and hope to clarify issues.

As earlier suggested, volition – unlike causation – cannot entirely be defined by means of hypothetical (if–then) propositions. However, we can partially delimit volition that way, as follows.

First, we focus on volition as the presumed ‘causal’ relation between an agent (soul) and certain events in or around him (called events of will), whatever be the exact form of that relation. That relation may intuitively be assumed to be other than causation, though some causation may be involved in it. A general causative statement “without an agent, there would be no volition” can be invoked to show partial involvement of causation.

Second, we point out that without that particular agent, those particular events would not – indeed could not – occur; they are reserved for that soul, it is irreplaceable in their genesis. This may be expressed as a conditional proposition: “if not this particular soul, then not those particular events”. The latter just means that the agent concerned (as an individual, and not just as an instance of a kind) is a sine qua non of the particular events (presumed ‘of will’) under scrutiny.

However, while the soul is thus a necessary causative of the events, it does not causatively necessitate them, i.e. it is not a complete causative of them. For it is clear that, in what we call volition, the soul is not invariably followed by those events (the presumed events of will), but remains at all times – till they do occur – also compatible with their negations. That is to say, with regard to causation, the compound conditional proposition “if this soul, not-then these events and not-then their negations” is true[1].

However – and therein lies the mystery of volition – we intuit that the agent alone does somehow ‘make necessary’ or ‘completely cause’ the events concerned when they do occur. At that time, the proposition “if this soul, then these events” becomes effectively true, although such a change of ‘natural law’ is not possible under the relation called causation. Therefore, some other category of causality must be involved in such cases, which we call volition.

That is about as far as we can get into a definition by means of ordinary conditional propositions. We can delimit the concept of volition to a large extent, and clearly distinguish it from causation, but that is still not enough to fully specify its formal structure. We can, however, go further by other means, step by step, as we shall see by and by.

Certain epistemological questions can be answered readily. To begin with, as I have argued in Phenomenology, the raw data for the concept of volition has to be personal ‘intuitions’ – in the sense of direct experience, self-knowledge – of one’s own particular acts of will.

Will has no phenomenal qualities: it should not be confused with its phenomenal products in the mental or material domains; volition cannot therefore be an abstraction from material or mental experiences. We evidently know introspectively – at least in some cases, when we make the effort of honest introspection – when we have willed, and what we have willed, and even the effort involved, i.e. to what degree we have willed. Such particular intuitions of will in the present tense give rise to the abstraction of will, i.e. the concept of volition.

Thus, the conception of volition is an ordinary inductive process, except that its experienced instances are not phenomenal percepts but intuitions. This of course does not tell us the definition of volition as a causal relation. But it does tell us that there is something to discuss and define, as in the above initial attempt.

But of course, we do not only assign volition to ourselves, but we assume it in other people (some of us assume it further in other animals[2], and also in God). Here, the thought involved is more intricate. A person knows from his own experience which externally visible actions of his are due to will (and which are not) – for example, moving one’s arm (as distinct from having it moved by someone or something). Having recorded the descriptions and conditions of willed (and unwilled) externally visible actions, we can by generalization assume that, when we see the same external behavior in others, we can infer a similar internal behavior in them.

In other words, whereas with regard to ourselves, we know the cause first and thereafter observe its effects, with regard to other agents, we infer the cause from the observed effect, by analogy.

Of course, none of this implies omniscience, either of our own acts, and much less of others’ acts. Sometimes, we have difficulties discerning our will – for instance, what we really wanted, or whether we acted voluntarily or involuntarily. Introspection is not always successful, especially if one has the habit of keeping one’s inner life murky and inaccessible to scrutiny. Sometimes, even if one is sincere and transparent, contradictory subliminal forces are at play, causing confusion in us. All the more so, with respect to other people: we may not have all the evidence at hand allowing us to draw a conclusion. What we observe of their behavior may be only a partial picture, leaving us uncertain as to their intentions. And so forth; no need to go into detail at this stage.

Thus, it should be understood that in this field of knowledge, as in all others, our conclusions are ultimately inductive rather than deductive. We have a certain database – consisting of our own self-observations and all other information – and we use it, and our powers of imagination, to formulate and test hypotheses. The logic involved is similar to that in the natural sciences. The only difference is the nature and source of some of the data used: it is non-phenomenal and personally intuited. This is of course a significant ontological and epistemological difference, but once realized the issues are much simplified.


2.         Freedom of the Will


With regard to the concept of freedom of the will, the following can be said at the outset.

We can roughly define freedom of the will by saying that “agent A is ‘free’ to will or not will something (say, W) in a given set of circumstances, if neither W nor notW is inevitable in those circumstances”. This of course does not define ‘will’ for us; but granting the term willing (or doing, in the sense of volition) understood, its freedom is relatively definable. Note that strictly speaking it is the agent who is free, not his will.

This definition is rough, in that it does not tell us how we are to know that under the exact same conditions, either event W or notW is potential – since conditions are in fact never identical again. However, this is an epistemological issue regarding the degree of empiricism of our knowledge of freedom. We can suggest that we have intimate knowledge (intuition) of our freedom as well as of our volition; or we may propose that freedom is known more hypothetically, by way of extrapolation from approximately similar conditions, i.e. by adduction. The former would be direct, particular knowledge; the latter, indirect, general knowledge.

A way to distinguish causation and volition is with reference to identity. In causation, the cause is viewed as being ‘caused to cause’ the effects it causes, by virtue of the underlying natural characteristics or essences of the entities involved; whereas in volition, the cause is ‘free’ – its nature or identity does not allow a hundred percent prediction of all its actions. In comparison to a deterministic entity, what distinguishes a volitional agent is such lack of definite identity.

Even the agent of volition cannot till he acts definitely predict his own acts, for he may at the last moment ‘change his mind’ for some reason (or even, perhaps, for no ‘reason’ – in which case we characterize the will as pure whim or caprice). The agent of volition is distinguished by creating (some of) his own identity as he proceeds. His ‘identity’ at any given moment is the sum of previous such creations, but they do not fully determine his next creations, his later identity. The agent of volition has a distinctively ‘open-ended’ nature.

A way to express the freedom of (direct) volition is by reference to autonomy – that is, own (auto) lawmaking (nomy)[3]. Whereas natural objects are effectively subject to law, the agent of volition (to some extent, within certain natural boundaries) makes up his own laws for himself as he proceeds. These ‘laws’ may be ad hoc or they may have some regularity, of course. For the agent may choose to will on a singular basis, or may act by instituting personal rules, i.e. intended longer term patterns – predictable or repetitive behavior, plans, habits, etc.

We may, in the latter case, fashionably speak of self-programming. Such temporally stretched intentions may require a discipline of will to fulfill; often, however, by presetting personal conduct, we achieve an economy of effort, as comparatively less attention may be needed to perform. Many of the rules people adopt are of course collective, interpersonal promises. Some are imposed on them; still, most are ultimately self-imposed. Even when one fails to keep such personal or social promises, they may have considerable influence on action.

Perseverance of will (in the face of difficulty of some sort, over time) may be due to a series of punctual wills, or have some real continuity. Whether punctual or persistent, acts of will vary in the intensity of awareness and reflection they invest – some are the fruit of long and careful consideration (emotional or rational), others are seemingly impetuous (though often in fact merely the end product of a long gestation of more or less conscious thought).

The distinction of the freedom inherent in volition from that of chance must be stressed. Though there is an element of spontaneity in volition, it is not the blind spontaneity of chance. On the contrary, volition is in a way even more ‘deterministic’ than natural law, in the sense that the causal entity (agent) does not merely react into producing some effect (whatever is willed), but specifically chooses it out of two or more possibilities. Some awareness and intention is involved in all choice. At its most focused, choice is very conscious, with a clear goal in mind; the volitional act is normally purposive, it has an ‘end’ or, in Aristotelian language, a ‘final cause’. Notwithstanding, we should not at the outset exclude the possibility of truly purposeless acts of volition, with a strict minimum of awareness.

Volition may be influenced in some direction rather than another by the agent’s right or wrong view of the world in which he acts. But that influence is not determining: this is what we mean by freedom. You may coerce a man into doing what you want by threatening him with violence or other punishments, but even so, as experience shows, he can still disregard such threats, and even act in a suicidal manner. You may dangle great rewards under his nose, but he may still act seemingly against his own interests. Acts of will may equally well be rational or irrational, intelligent or stupid; they may be explicable by self-interest or altruism, or be quite whimsical. Their ‘logic’ may be sound or faulty; i.e. logic does not definitely determine them.

Another important concept is that of degrees of freedom. Freedom of the will is not absolute, except perhaps for God. And even in that case, He is supposedly limited by the laws of logic, and cannot create things without identity, or that both are and are-not, or that neither are nor are-not. In the case of humans, freedom of the will varies; from time to time in any individual, and from one individual to another, according to the health and structure of his or her many faculties.

Likewise, the freedom of our will is broader than the freedom of will of other animal species in some respects, and admittedly narrower in other respects. To affirm that animals have some volition does not imply that one has to regard them as having powers of choice equal to those of humans. Each animal species has specific volitional powers, some of which may be found in other species and some not. Similarly, we suppose by extrapolation, God’s will is the broadest possible of all.

But furthermore, one may have the freedom to do or not do something, and yet not have the freedom to do or not to do some other thing. One may have the freedom to do something conditionally, lacking it if certain conditions are not met. Some people (laymen or philosophers) are confused by the term ‘freedom’, thinking that freedom can only be total and unconditional! Freedom need not be viewed as limitless. We are quite able to develop a logical discourse about freewill, such that each specific freedom is predicated specifically to a given individual subject, at a given time or in given circumstances. We can then inductively generalize, and describe ranges of freedom applicable to classes of individuals, as the case may be.

Some people tend to deny volition to animals, because they confuse the issues and think volition has only one measure. Indeed, some deny volition even to humans, thinking that the concept requires absolute freedom. Not so. Each agent, according to his natural constitution, has or lacks freedom in relation to each kind of action. A duck can apparently choose to fly off or not, as you approach it; some do, some don’t. But a duck cannot apparently choose to add five and six together, nor can an elephant flap its ears and fly. Likewise, humans are favored in some respects and deficient in others.

Many, or perhaps all, freedoms are also conditional. One may be free to run or stay, except in cases of extreme fear, or under hypnosis, which might exceptionally ‘force’ one to behave mechanically (like a zombie). Emotions normally play a role in volition as influences, but in some more extreme circumstances, they might become determining factors that paralyze freedom of the will altogether or generate automatic reactions. Likewise, one may temporarily lose certain freedoms, as when one cannot move because one is physically tied up or sick; or more permanently, as when one is deprived of a limb. In such cases, volition is temporarily or permanently lost and causation takes over.

To construct a realistic logic of volitional causality one must take all such variations into consideration; i.e. consider its intertwining with causation. Each agent has specific powers and limits, which may vary in time and according to surrounding conditions for any given individual, and which may vary from individual to individual of a species and from species to species.


3.         Decision and Choice


The precise relationship between consciousness and volition, or between the status of being a Subject and that of being an Agent, needs elucidation. Empirically, the two seem tied together, though it is not clear just why. Conceptually, at first sight at least, one can imagine a Subject, floating in the universe as a pure observer, unable to do anything; and likewise, perhaps, an Agent that simply wills certain things without awareness. Maybe such entities exist somewhere, but we have not encountered any.

In any case, we must keep in mind that consciousness varies in intensity or scope. An insect’s consciousness (which we infer from its sense-organs and its responses to stimuli) is seemingly weak and limited; that of a bird is somewhat more elaborate; and so forth. The powers of volition of different organisms seem proportionate to their powers of consciousness.

However, some intelligent people seem weak-willed (perhaps through indecision) and some stupid people seem strong-willed (perhaps through inability to conceive alternatives). It may not be merely an issue of character flaws; there may be an issue of uneven biological development of faculties.

In humans, at least (and perhaps, though to a much lesser extent, in higher animals), acts of will are usually preceded by some thought (in the largest sense, not necessarily meaning verbal deliberation; possibly merely an imaging).

There is usually a decision (which may be wordless, to repeat), followed by a choice of one course rather than another (or than no choice). But it should be stressed that some acts of will seem virtually devoid of decision-making (this is one more sense of the concept of spontaneity); however, a minimal level of consciousness may be involved even in such cases (‘without conscious decision’ may simply mean without very-conscious decision).

Also, decisions do not necessarily result in corresponding acts of will. The issue, here, is not whether an effort of will is successful in producing some intended result, but what we call will-power, arousing one’s faculty of will. Sometimes, of course, hesitation or paralysis is due to indecision, when the pros and cons of a course of action seem balanced or too full of uncertainties.

A decision may be punctual or large, specific or general. A punctual decision relates to a single act of will; but a decision may be large, in the sense of an indefinite general resolve to pursue some goal over time, through numerous acts of will yet to be intellectually determined as events unfold. For this reason, the concept of decision is distinct from that of will.

An example of such general policy is what we call ‘good will’, the resolve to do whatever happens to seem like the right thing at any time, and avoid doing what seems wrong; good will implies a certain openness or eagerness, which facilitates many actions. The contrary attitude is that of ‘bad will’, a tendency to resist doing what one is supposed to, if not to perversely prefer doing what one is not supposed to; this often makes things more difficult.[4]

What we call choice is the logical aspect of a decision – two or more alternative courses of action are open to the agent, though possibly to different degrees, i.e. requiring different expenditures of effort, and one of them is ‘taken’ or ‘opted for’. The alternatives may simply, of course, be to do or not-do one thing; or there may literally be several contrary or combinable alternatives.

Another important aspect of decision is intention – the pursuit by the agent of some goal or purpose. Without intention, the agent has no ‘reason’ to do anything. This is why Aristotle regarded ‘final causes’ (intentions) as causes of motion. Intention, note, implies memory and anticipation, both of which imply consciousness. We project an image of the kind of thing we wish to attain.

In volition, purposeless motion seems virtually impossible. The purpose may just be to keep moving, or to exercise one’s faculties, or to discover or demonstrate one’s abilities, or to prove one can will without motive, but there seems to be need of some purpose. ‘Art for art’s sake’ or ‘spontaneous art’ also have a goal of sorts, be it self-expression, beauty or humor, money or sex. Of course, the result of one’s action may not be what one intended.

Non-willing entities remain essentially passive objects, even when they are causes (within the domain of causation), or the result or theater of spontaneous events (in an apparently causeless domain, one governed by chance). Whereas willing entities are truly active: they are more than objects, they are subjects and agents.

Influence is the interface between these two kinds of entity: objects impinging on subjects; or in some cases, subjects producing objects that impinge on subjects. The impact may be to stimulate, inhibit, or direct hither rather than thither, some event of will.


4.         Goals and Means


What we have just said about volition requiring intention shows the interdependence between meta-psychology and ethical and legal studies. In formal logic, aetiology leads to teleology: “To obtain Y, X is required” is based on “If not X, then not Y”. Philosophically, consideration of intention naturally raises the question: what ought we intend – what goals or ends shall we pursue? Thereafter, the question arises: by what means may such goals be reached, i.e. what is needed or required to attain them?

Goals may be broad and long-term, or narrow and immediate. They may be consciously ordered in a consistent hierarchy, or may be a confused mix of unrelated or even contradictory directions. They may in either case, for any individual, change over time, or be doggedly adhered to. Some may be very consciously developed, others very instinctive. Our goals may be reduced to a limited number of basic goals, or standards or norms.

Means also vary greatly. They may be appropriate or inappropriate to one’s goals. They must be timely, to be effective. There may be many possible means to the same goal, of which some are known and some not (or not yet). Some may be easier, some harder. Means may take time to identify, and the identification, as said, may be correct or incorrect. All these details will emerge in the course of formal analysis.

It is a common error to think that logic has nothing to say in the setting of standards for ethics or politics. The anarchist premise that ‘anything goes’ in these fields is logically untenable. The anarchist cannot plead against legalism, since by virtue of his advocacy of general unlimited freedom he allows for legalism; but the legalist can in all fairness frown on the anarchist without inconsistency. Thus, whereas anarchism paradoxically allows for its logical opposite, legalism – the latter logically excludes the former. It follows that anarchism is a self-inconsistent and so false thesis, while legalism is a coherent and true thesis. That is, we can in principle aspire to justifying some ‘objective’ norms of behavior.

Note well the form of norm-setting argument; it is essentially dilemmatic: “If X, then Y, and if not X, then Y; therefore, in any case, Y”.

In this way, we can argue, for instance, that the use of logic (meaning: any epistemological ways and means that are demonstrably effective in increasing or improving knowledge of reality) is an absolute imperative. No matter what our norms or standards of value be, whatever the goals we pursue – to find out the means that indeed result in these desired results, we need to know reality; it follows that all aspects of scientific methodology are imperative, since they are the way the truth gets to be known, i.e. the way any intellectual issues encountered are resolved. Thus, science (in this broad, open sense) is a means common to all goals, a fundamental and general imperative.

From a biological point of view, of course, the ultimate (minimal) goal of all volitional action is or should be survival of the individual living organism, or at least of its descendents, or its other family or larger group members, or the species it belongs to, or life itself on earth and perhaps beyond. That is because survival is the necessary precondition, the sine qua non of all other pursuits.[5]

It is a minimum need; but of course, maximum health and wellbeing is preferable; and this implies realizing one’s full potential, psychologically and spiritually as well as physically. In other words, our cognitive and volitional nature must be taken into account in our understanding of what we mean by ‘life’.

For ethics in general, then: life, cognition and volition are three natural norms, insofar as nothing that a particular ethics might recommend can be done without these three basic values. Being relative to no norm in particular, these values are absolute for all in general.

Intention presupposes imagination: one imagines something not yet there and proceeds to bring it about. Such imagination of a goal presupposes an informational context, which may be realistic or unrealistic, i.e. based on knowledge or mere belief. Even if the subject’s ideas on what it is possible for him to have and how it is possible for him to get it are illusory, they are influential; and they may even be efficacious! Realistic ideas are, of course, likewise influential; and in principle, and statistically, no doubt more efficacious, but they do not always or necessarily lead to success.

The motive of an action is the thought of its goal, or perhaps more precisely, the pressure or attraction one feels towards that goal. This is stated to clarify that it is not really or directly ‘the goal’ that influences one’s action; logically, the goal cannot do anything since it lies in the future! So rather we must refer to the present thought of that intended end; and even that mental image has little power, except insofar as it stirs a desire within the agent. Thus, the relation of the goal to our striving activity must be specified with reference to a motive (analogous to a force, a motor), a present influence by a mental image and the stirring it produces in us to get into action.

Note in passing that having a certain motive, and being aware of having it, and publicly admitting to having it – are three different things. Often, we conceal our real motive from ourselves or from others, and replace it with a more acceptable pretext. Such rationalization is made possible by the fact that our actions often have incidental or even accidental consequences, in addition to the goals they intended to pursue. We pretend these side effects are our ‘motive’, to divert attention from our effective motive, and give ourselves a good conscience or a virtuous facade.[6]

The most fundamental faculties of the soul are, in that order, cognition, volition and valuation. Cognition refers to consciousness, volition to actions, and valuation to affections and appetites. The soul has three corresponding and interdependent roles, as subject, agent and evaluator. Volition implies, and is impossible without, cognition. Valuation implies, and is impossible without, cognition and volition. With regard to goals and means: the goal is the value sought (seeking implies consciousness anticipating, note) by act(s) of will; the means is identified (rightly or wrongly) by consciousness, and is executed by the act(s) of will.


Drawn from Volition and Allied Causal Concepts (2004), Chapter 3.


[1]           The “if–not-then” form of hypothetical, I remind the reader, is the exact contradictory of the “if–then” form. It simply means that the consequent “does not follow” the antecedent.

[2]           As I write, it is mid-February, and almost every day, as I drink my morning coffee, I watch a pair of magpies not ten meters away, enacting a ritual. Each in turn tears a twig off the tree they are perched on, and places it precariously on the same branch for a moment, letting it eventually fall. They are, evidently, not yet trying to build a nest; rather, they seem to be making common plans, coming to an agreement as to where they intend to do it when the time is ripe. I even once saw them rehearsing feeding, with one bird pretending to put a small nut into the other’s beak. They, supposedly the same birds, actually started building their nest in late March. What I thought was rehearsal of feeding may have been that of cementing, because I saw that they bring each other what seems to be mud pellets that are stuffed between twigs. Anyone observing animals cannot but suppose they are able to imagine goals and to pursue them, as well as communicate (at least by such physical demonstrations) and cooperate (effectively sharing duties).

[3]           The free agent is ‘autonomous’ – this term is of course not to be confused with ‘autonomic’ motor system, which means the opposite, referring to the functioning of certain organs without recourse to will. Descartes’ term for autonomy is ‘self-determination’.

[4]           Note how the attitude tends to influence results. Good will gives us moral credit for trying, even if we do not succeed; and bad will tends to discredit us, even if we do succeed. Of course, often we role-play good will, to give ourselves a good conscience, or to look good in other people’s eyes. Also, of course, as the saying goes: “hell is paved with good intentions”, and good will cannot be taken as the sole basis of moral judgments – contrary to Kant’s doctrine that the intention (to act as duty dictates) is the overriding consideration.

[5]           In more artificial perspectives (viz. certain religious, political or behavioral doctrines, like sadomasochism), survival is not essential; however, the founding arguments of such doctrines are logically very debatable.

[6]           The problem with such distortions of reality is that they eventually boomerang psychologically and socially. Deceiving ourselves, we lose track of the truth; deceiving others, we lose their trust.

Go Back


Blog Search

Blog Archive


There are currently no blog comments.