Inductive Logic

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

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27. Knowledge of Volition, Etc.


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.    Knowledge of Effort, Influence and Freedom

Effort and influence are, clearly, derivative concepts of cognition and volition. The empirical basis of our knowledge of them is therefore the same as for cognition and volition, primarily introspection or subjective apprehension. This direct self-knowledge, which I call intuition (or apperception), concerns objects that do not per se have inner or outer phenomenal qualities – i.e. no shape, shading or color, no sound, no smell or taste, no touch qualities – although they may produce perceptible objects.

Just as we intuit our own will, so we intuit the amount of effort we have put into it. Colloquially, we say that effort is ‘felt’. ‘Physical effort’ is experienced as a sensation in the body; but ‘mental effort’, or more precisely ‘spiritual effort’, is a subtler experience, which may or not give rise to discernable phenomena. Measurement of effort is therefore, of course, not exact and absolute, but rough and comparative. It depends not only on the immediate intuition, but also on personal memory of past intuitions for purposes of calibration.

If estimate of effort is inexact with regard to oneself, it is all the more so with reference to the effort of others. We can only guess it, by analogy to one’s own experience and by observation of indirect indices, like (in the case of physical effects of it) the sweat on someone’s brow or his facial expressions or bodily postures. Thus, as for will, knowledge of effort is generally based on adductive arguments.

It is not inconceivable that one day soon biologists succeed in measuring effort more objectively and scientifically, by means of physical instruments. Quantification of effort would then become more precise and verifiable. Such practices will of course involve adductive reasoning, an initial hypothesis that such and such detectable physiological or neurological phenomena may be interpreted as proportional to the effort of will. But in the meantime, we do have a rough yardstick in our personal experience.

Influence is a more abstract concept, not experienced or measurable directly, but constructed with reference to amounts of effort involved in willful action (making it easier or harder). An object is said to influence one’s action if its appearance to oneself directly or indirectly affects or conditions the action, in contradistinction to an object affecting or conditioning action by mere existence. Note well the phenomenological differentia.

If the influence occurs only by perception of the object, it is simple, direct. If it occurs after considerable mental processing of the image of the object, it is proportionately complex, oblique. Since thought about an object perceived may have many pathways, of varying intricacy, the influence by one and the same object may be multiple, involving many theses and layers, some of which may well be conflicting. Even at the perceptual level, the various sense organs yield different aspects of the (presumably same) object. Thus, one and the same object may give rise to many, variant influences. We must keep this insight in mind, to avoid oversimplification in our understanding of influence and volition.

Another epistemological issue concerns our estimates of the relative weights of different simultaneous influences. Such estimates are based in part on generalization of personal observations (when data on conjunction and separation is available); but in large part, they are hypotheses, adhered to so long as they continue to be confirmed by our experiences of effort. Knowledge of one’s own psyche is very often as tentative as that of nature, or of other people’s or animals’ psyches. People often think that they have ‘direct insight’ into, or at least ‘deductive knowledge’ of, inner events or relations, when in fact all they have is inductive knowledge. What is important is to realize that the latter is pretty good, quite enough.

Knowledge of freedom of the will is partly introspective, but mainly adductive. Our inner sense of freedom of will provides the occasion for the theoretical search for supporting data and postulates. We may have faith in freewill as a working hypothesis, but are still called upon to develop over the long term convincing definitions of it and arguments in its favor. The formula above proposed for freedom of the will is, I think, a good start.

The doctrine of freewill is important psychologically and socially, the foundation of morality and law. The doctrine declares our responsibility for our actions, however many and strong the forces impinging upon us may seem. Thus, a criminal cannot disclaim responsibility for his crimes, arguing he was ‘driven’ against his will.

We should note the doctrine’s own influence on human action, by the power of suggestion: if one believes he can do or avoid something he is more likely to be able to do so, than if he thinks that he cannot do so no matter how much he tries. Thus, belief in freedom of the will increases one’s ‘freedom’, and disbelief in it is an added obstacle.


Drawn from Volition and Allied Causal Concepts (2004), Chapters 3:1 and 5:2.


[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).

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