A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

8. Chapter Eight


1.         Volition and Biology


It is interesting to note, to start with, that biology textbooks may refer to voluntary and involuntary processes without ever admitting volition or asking questions about it. Yet (I would say), volition is central to many issues in biology.

a.         We have here suggested that consciousness and volition occur in tandem. On an abstract level, the following propositions concerning them seem reasonable. Consciousness is, of course, the prior of the two, and conceivable without volition (since we are sometimes aware of things without reacting to them). But all volition requires some consciousness, and cannot occur without it. This is even true of whim, and all the more of volition with a purpose. Volition is distinguishable from a spontaneous mechanical event by the involvement in it of consciousness. Volition is free will; there is no such thing as non-free volition. Nevertheless, the degree and range of freewill may vary enormously. The power of will is proportional to the power of consciousness.

Consciousness would be without practical utility to an organism if not complemented by volition. By informing volition, cognition becomes meaningful as a tool of survival. Furthermore, most of our cognitive processes depend on acts of volition. At the sensory level, for instance, opening or focusing our eyes is volition. At the mental level, recalling a memory or imagining is often volitional. In thought, volition is needed to direct our attention hither and thither and to intensify it as appropriate. Our consciousness, not being infinite, would not get us very far without volition. The conjunction of volition and consciousness in organisms is thus no accident of nature, but necessary.

These propositions are based on observation of living beings, but also may serve as postulates for biology. Consciousness and volition are found wherever nervous systems are found. In humans and higher animals, the latter include a central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and a peripheral one, with sensory and motor capabilities. In lower animals, such as insects or worms, the physiological apparatus for consciousness and volition is much less elaborate, but identifiable nonetheless. In plant life, and (I presume offhand) in single cell animal life, no organs for consciousness and volition have been identified.

Movement following sensation does not necessarily indicate volitional reaction; response to stimuli may be reflex. All the same, at least for higher forms of animal life, volition to some extent comparable to ours may be assumed, in view of their observable behavior. Such assumption seems further justified by the major morphological and genetic similarities between them and us, suggesting our evolution from common life forms. It remains true that human cognitive and volitional capabilities, including speech and reasoning[1], are significantly superior, suggesting a quantum leap in evolution. But we can point to notable differences in brain structure and size to explain this; it does not ignore or contradict any law of biology.

Also noteworthy are the observable facts of social interaction among animals and/or humans, and in particular the emergence of culture in human groups. These are indicative of consciousness and volition. They make possible the transmission, between contemporaries and from generation to generation, of living skills (e.g. hunting techniques) and, in the case of human culture, historical and abstract knowledge, as well as possessions and technology.

In sum, the distinction between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ animals might be made by saying that the former are more sensory and reflexive, responding immediately to present stimuli in standardized ways, while the latter increasingly function through the medium of a mind, i.e. with reference to memory (storing and recalling past sensations), imagination (reshuffling memories, dreaming) and anticipation (considering alternatives, making choices), which makes possible their powers of cognition, volition and valuation stretched over time. Among the latter, humans apparently excel, probably mainly due to their development of language, in thought and speech (probably concurrently).

Biologists today are content to describe rather than explain physical processes in living organisms, using apparently neutral terms like “doing” or “organization”, which avoid mention of volition or even consciousness, let alone soul. But to sidestep certain issues is not to resolve them. However, it is up to biologists to find some credible bridge between the philosophy of soul and their material concerns and findings. There is no hurry, and no justification for offhand rejection. If philosophers are right in postulating soul, biologists will eventually come around, and no doubt then greatly enrich the concept.

b.         As we have argued, consciousness and volition imply a soul, serving respectively as subject and agent in them. Soul is logically needed to explain both them and our knowledge of them. Soul of course implies belief in some sort of ‘vitalism’ (here understood as the belief that animal organisms, including humans, have a ‘soul’)[2], as against ‘mechanism’ (the belief that beasts at least, if not also humans, are merely very complex machines). However, vitalism need not be understood simplistically, as the traditional assumption of a ‘ghost in the machine’ of human and animal organisms. For, as we have explained, soul has no phenomenal qualities, not even spatial extension or position. Thus, any imagination of the soul as a transparent cloud animating the body is misconstrued, and any attack on the soul that assumes such a symbol literally is an unfair criticism.

The vitalist-mechanist dispute is of course far from academic, but scientifically, ethically and politically extremely charged. It is paradoxical that the mechanistic doctrine, which is touted as empirical and positivistic, emerged as a pillar of modern thought some 400 years ago, thanks to René Descartes. For all his intelligence in many other respects, he was nevertheless very much an ‘ivory tower’ philosopher, and his assumption that unlike humans, (the other) animals have no soul was based on no observation or scientific process. Yet, as often in the history of philosophy, his prestige sufficed to give respectability, credence and momentum to the idea.

The horrendous practical consequences of mechanism are today increasingly evident all around us. Many people do not look upon animals (other than their pets, perhaps) as living beings who can suffer, but as ‘things’ that utter cries and make faces because they are so programmed to do by ‘nature’. Therefore, industrial agriculture subjects animals to brutal living and dying conditions, and daily sacrifices millions of them, under the pretense that the masses can only be fed that way. Animals are cruelly tortured daily in laboratories, under the pretext that the needs of ‘life science’ justify such ‘experiments’. And now, we witness the coming of genetic engineering, the ultimate in disregard for the difference between living organisms and inanimate matter, driven by the utmost greed, endangering major species[3]. Altogether, it is an orgy of unconsciousness and moral ignorance.

The Nazis used similar degradation to justify and make possible the Holocaust of Jews in 1933-45. As Paul Johnson writes: “Rather as the medieval anti-Semite saw the Jew as non-human, a devil or a sort of animal (hence the Judensau), the Nazi extremist absorbed Hitler’s sub-scientific phraseology and came to regard Jews as bacilli or a particularly dangerous kind of vermin”[4]. Mechanism degrades animals to the level of mere objects; racial and similar hatreds degrade humans to the level of animals, and therefore (by way of a syllogism) of ‘things’.

Mechanism is not innocuous; it promotes such heartless mentality. One may well consider it as a dogma designed to conveniently rationalize inhumane treatment, against beasts and eventually humans. Surely, its advocates, and their practicing disciples, should be in prison, or at the very least in lunatic asylums, considering the harm they have done, are doing and are about to do on this planet; instead of which, our society honors them and enriches them.

The success of physics does not justify mechanism in biology. Mechanism cannot in reason claim the benefit of the doubt normally accorded to an untested scientific hypothesis, in view of its deadly practical consequences. As already stated, until its proponents actually come forward with mathematical formulas that exactly predict all the actions of animals, or even humans, they cannot pretend to defend scientific truth.

c.         With regard to the theory of evolution, to which I subscribe, the following can simply be said. We can conceive that when inorganic matter (itself star dust, the end result of a long history of astronomical events) coalesced in certain sufficiently complex structures, it became living matter (single cells). These structures evolved into still more complex structures, viz. plants and lower animals; then the latter further evolved into higher animals, including humans. In this latest stage, at least, nature has allowed for living organisms with souls to appear, having considerable special powers of cognition, volition and valuation. There is nothing inconceivable in that from the point of view of evolutionary theory.

These special characteristics appeared in nature, and have so far been more or less compatible with the environment. They have seemed, at first, like particularly good adaptations. They could well, however, over a longer term prove incompatible. Indeed, it seems more and more likely, in view of mankind’s current propensity to destroy other species and the biosphere itself. Our own demise is perhaps even, for all we know, already now inevitable within the next few decades. So, if only on planet Earth, these special characteristics, in the degree found in the human species at least, may well turn out to have been self-destructive – an unsuccessful, overambitious experiment of nature. But for now, they are here.

(More is said on biological issues in a later chapter of Volition.)


2.         Therapeutic Psychology


The special sciences aimed at the study of human (and more broadly animal) behavior, notably psychology and sociology, are of course, implicitly if not explicitly, closely tied up with the concept of volition and its allies. All too often, students of behavior ignore or conceal this basic truth, and develop their analyses without explicit reference to it, thinking by such omission to appear more ‘scientific’. They appeal to chemicals and statistics, without formally analyzing what logically underlies their discourse. This is foolish, if not dishonest. My hope is that the present work will help to overcome such distortion.

A few comments are worth making here regarding mental disease and its cure, without claiming any clinical knowledge. The concept of mental disease is presumably derived by analogy from that of bodily disease. We refer by it to any state of affairs in our mental life that is experienced as chronically uncomfortable, or as seriously damaging our efficacy in dealing with our everyday life, whether intellectually, emotionally, existentially, socially or otherwise. Hopefully, such dysfunction is curable; although we may not ourselves now know how to cure it.

Some psychologists imagine ‘the mind’ (or psyche) as a kind of cupboard, with the top shelf containing conscious mental items, the middle shelf subconscious ones and the bottom shelf unconscious ones. The trouble with this viewpoint is that it implies the mind to be some kind of entity, made of ‘mental stuff’, suspended somewhere in our heads, with a structure of some sort such that, by analogy to diseases of the human body, parts of it may be wrongly constructed or be misplaced or missing or extraneous or inappropriately moved about.

Furthermore, the contents of this cupboard (the said ‘mental items’) are identified principally with ‘ideas’, a catchall term including units of information, intentional events and bits of emotion, which are themselves viewed as ‘entities’ of mental substance. The motions of these entities, within a shelf and from shelf to shelf, make up the inner life of the psyche. It is not made clear how these entities arise, change, move and depart – whether spontaneously (inexplicably), by interaction with each other (like billiard balls, subject to causation), and/or by the will of some additional entity (a person, a who) placed adjacent to the cupboard.

Also, we might ask: what makes an informative idea cognized, an intentional idea willed or an emotional idea valued? Where is the self in this account? These peculiar qualities are left unexplained. This currently popular model of the mind (in origin partly Cartesian, partly Freudian[5]) is obviously simplistic. It fragments and reifies excessively. It fails to explain mental events convincingly, and indeed considerably obstructs explanation, being essentially mechanistic.

Additionally, it leaves the relation of the mind to the brain (and thence body) as a mystery, since it suggests a duplication of functions between mind and brain – an inexplicable redundancy (called ‘parallelism’). Substituting for it a purely materialistic equivalent (a 100% ‘neurological’ model), as many try today, is no solution – for though the substance is changed, the structural and causal problems remain.

My own analysis of the psyche, in the present work and elsewhere, acknowledges no such scenarios. I refer to a material body including a nervous system, a mental ‘matrix’ on which cognitive items are temporarily displayed (memories, imaginations, mental feelings), and a soul in which events of cognition, volition and valuation properly occur. This means that there is no storage of mental items as such, either in the mental matrix or in the soul. Whatever occurs in our ‘mental life’ that requires storage can only be stored on a material plane, supposedly in the brain.

In the latter perspective, mental disease cannot be located in the mental matrix, since everything occurring there is a mere fleeting projection of images or sounds or other phenomenal chimera. It might be located in the brain, as stored data items of questionable accuracy or value, and/or as neurological or physiological dysfunctions. Or it might be located in the soul, but not as something stored or structural or mechanical, only as repeated personal choices of a certain kind in the face of certain recurring influences and terms and conditions.

The ‘conscious’ and the ‘subconscious’ are both volitional, i.e. actions or states of the soul – some of which have mental and/or physical outcomes, but not all of them. The subconscious differs from the conscious only in degree: ‘involuntary will’ involves minimal, ad hoc awareness, while ‘voluntary will’ involves broader, more comprehensive attention. The psyche is thus essentially not a mechanical system, though some mechanical forces (physical and mental conditions) may affect it, and though the soul may be influenced by mental and physical objects of consciousness.

The ‘unconscious’ is not part of the mind, but in its material infrastructure, the nervous system. Strictly unconscious actions or states are not volitional, but mindless; they are generated by the nervous system, like the autonomic motor system functions (automatic breathing, heartbeat, etc.). The psyche is not occupied by ‘entities’ other than the soul and images flashing in the mind – the other components are not entities, but intentions, actions and states of the soul, as well as movements and changes caused by the soul or the brain of mental images.

It is wise, therefore, to avoid ontologically misleading terminology. Epistemologically, note well, conscious and subconscious thoughts, intentions, emotions or drives are ultimately observable by introspection – the former more easily and clearly so than the latter. On the other hand, ‘unconscious’ thoughts, intentions, emotions or drives are necessarily inferred, i.e. things we assume by implication from things observed, by adductive logic. For instance, if we speak of ‘a conflict’, we need not mean something actual and concretely expressed, but may refer to something abstractly known to potentially occur.

For example, if agent A at once believes (or wants) something X and its opposite notX (as often happens) – we can characterize this situation as a potential conflict, even though the agent A may not have become aware of it or yet experienced any unpleasant consequences from it. There is an implicit, objective conflict that we can logically infer from the two beliefs (or wants), knowing that if A should ever try to realize them both together he would be bound to fail, since X and notX are incompatible.

In this view, then, the concept of mental disease proper, as something not chosen, should be referred to the brain – while what concerns the soul cannot strictly speaking be so characterized, being an issue of freewill, but should be regarded as the domain of morality, ethics or ‘spiritual path’. Even so, as shown further on, the essentially free soul can still get entangled in some pretty confusing situations, like bad habits, obsessions and compulsions, so we may use the term ‘mental disease’ loosely with reference to such hard to untangle situations. As we shall explain further on, too, personality disorders are rooted in our ego construction.

With regard to ‘curing’ such mental diseases, the following generalities are worth adding. A cause is some behavior or character of the soul, which generates, sustains or amplifies that which we consider as a disease. A cure is something that will prevent, remove or attenuate the disease. The cure does not necessarily pass through knowledge of the cause, though such knowledge is often useful and sometimes essential[6]. Once the cause has produced its undesirable effect, the cause may no longer be the issue, except insofar as it may be repeated[7]. If the cause keeps recurring, the effect may recur successively with about the same intensity, or it may snowball. The cure may sometimes be aimed at neutralizing the cause, and thence indirectly the effect. Or it may be aimed at neutralizing the effect, directly. It is in any case wise to look out for eventual unforeseen side effects.

To take some examples of mental dysfunction: suppose a person has abnormally strong, unwanted, disturbing or uncomfortable, recurrent or persistent, thoughts, dreams, inner images or sounds, hallucinations, feelings or emotions. As exposed in the present work, such events may have volitional roots or be more or less involuntary products of the brain. The precise diagnosis will vary from case to case, and guide treatment efforts.

To the extent that the brain is considered the issue, chemical, surgical or other physiological remedies might be sought. However, these can only be stopgap measures, to the extent that malfunctions of the will are involved. That is, in such cases, medicines can only mask the problem, not solve it. Moreover, they may in the long run be damaging, or at least become an obstruction to proper treatment.

For if the problem is at root volitional, ‘psychoanalysis’[8] may be needed. That is, an effort to logically sort out errors of thought and behavior – whether by the subject himself (who may need to engage in theoretical studies), or with the help of a professional or capable friend. This may, of course, in turn call on behavioral changes, personal or interpersonal, such as the practice of meditation or the performance of kindly acts.


Drawn from Volition and Allied Causal Concepts (2004), Chapter 8 (sections 2 & 3).



[1]           But there is no doubt that at least the higher animals ‘speak’ through facial and bodily expressions, as well as uttered sounds; and we can observe them ‘reasoning’ to some extent, judging situations and selecting responses to them. The differences are differences of degree rather than essence. Also, we should not forget that certain species close to human have existed and are now extinct.

[2]           Though strictly the term vitalism is also applied to vegetables as well as animals. A more appropriate term would be spiritualism (compare to materialism and mentalism), though this is generally associated with mystical séances aimed at communicating with the spirits of the dead (also called ‘spiritism’).

[3]           For instance, in the case of genetically modified fish, the engineered specimens are bigger and more sexually active than their wild relatives. As the former inevitably escape into the natural environment, they are so bound to gradually genetically displace the latter. But being, very probably, physiologically weaker organisms, the GMO are themselves non-viable in nature in the long run.

[4]           Johnson, p. 473. Similar arguments are often used as pretexts for individual or mass murders.

[5]           The historical question deserves extensive study, of course. The Freudian model is perhaps more abstract, fragmenting the ‘psychic structure’ into ego, id and superego, or again into conscious, subconscious and unconscious, and referring to ‘energy charged elements’; but it comes to the same mechanistic portrayal of the psyche, which is aetiologically misleading and sterile.

[6]           However, excessive ‘psychologizing’ throws doubts gratuitously and feeds baseless conjectures, producing identity problems. The ensuing mental destabilization provides intellectual pretext for what are essentially (futile if not harmful) ego-building activities.

[7]           Although reviewing a person’s history, including interrelations with other people, can help clarify and modify current behavior and emotions, the causal relations are far from determining, since humans are essentially volitional beings. The patient is thus made to vainly cling to certain ideas, instead of being freed of them.

[8]           N.B. by using this term, I do not mean to endorse any particular doctrine of psychoanalysis.

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