The will – the capacity within us that makes important choices – gets little discussion these days. When it does, the aim is usually to deny it. Many philosophers today do not believe that the will exists.
When my grandfather began teaching college students as a newly minted philosophy professor about 100 years ago, the will commanded wide attention and strong belief. His 1911 handbook on childhood education featured an entire chapter on the development of will and character.
What happened to the will? And why?
The concept of will has eroded, most will agree, because we have learned so much. Mystifying phenomena once considered impenetrable have yielded repeatedly to clear scientific explanation.
Biologic life once seemed to require an “animating principle” to give motion and responsiveness. Now we point to mitochondrial energetics and sliding filaments in muscle, waves of electrical depolarization in neurons, and elegant self-reproduction of DNA – all as examples of physicochemical causation of life.
Warmth and light from the sun we now understand to derive from nuclear fusion. Information zips around the surface of our planet at previously unimaginable velocity, thanks to quantum events in semiconductors, lightspeed transmission in fibers, and electromagnetic wave-particles bouncing through man-made orbiting moons.
Against all this, the concept of will appears hopelessly archaic, stubbornly resisting all explanation. If something cannot be studied scientifically, if a hypothesis for it cannot be framed and subjected to testing, the modern dictum is to regard it as meaningless. The will fits this description. It remains impenetrable and therefore fades from serious interest, slipping quietly back into the shadows.
Scientific study of human behavior has not lacked effort and success. From research in psychology, sociology, and economics, we grasp the reproducible antecedents of human decision-making far better today than 100 years ago. Psychologists have explored essentially every kind of human response to stimuli, including the interplay of genetics and environment. If psychologists have left anything out, marketers and advertisers have covered it.
But the will won’t be defined merely as responsive behavior. Scientists study behavior from the outside, that is, on the basis of externally perceived human responses to stimuli. The will emerges in human consciousness internally. The will remains inseparably tied to my ownership of and my responsibility for choices that I make. To ascribe my choices to genes and environment is to abandon ownership and responsibility.
It’s not a question of whether the broad scope of human choosing can be studied scientifically. Of course it can. The question instead concerns whether some part of human choosing will always remain unscientific and inaccessible to external investigation. That part – the will – conveys and supports personhood. What I choose to do reveals who I am.
But does the will exist?
If it exists, the will must be defined by lack of explanation as described above. It must remain impenetrable. In other words,
My will has no cause.
By “no cause” I mean no scientifically discoverable cause. Now more accurately,
My will has no sufficient cause.
In claiming “no sufficient cause,” I allow that my choices in life can be influenced by recognizable physical constraints, emotions, conditioned responses, and, of course, genes. However, there always remains a part of choosing, which we name “the will,” undetermined by these and all other scientifically discoverable factors. My will has no completely determinative and sufficient cause. It is impenetrable. To this degree I claim freedom of the will.
Many brilliant thinkers, especially from the 20th century onward, will accuse me of spinning words without meaning. To say – “My will has no sufficient cause” – in their view commits the crime of abandoning scientific logic.
Perhaps this notion of the impenetrable will can be rescued by identifying something else that also lacks explanation and sufficient cause, if that something clearly exists and if it bears meaning and importance.
Can we name something else that has no sufficient cause?
Many of us would immediately answer – God. This is a good answer for a person of faith, and I might like to come back to God as Uncaused Cause at some point. I have put some free-ranging comments and links at the end of this blog.
For now, however, let’s look for an answer derived from direct experience and logic rather than faith. Let’s try to find an answer that even atheists might agree with. Can we name something else that clearly has no cause?
Consider this answer: Everything, the whole world.
How so? It seems closer to truth to say that everything has a cause. The computer on which I’m composing these words is an intricate assembly of conductors and semiconductors that depends on knowledge developed over the past 200 years or so. The galaxies twirl in space based on principles of mass, energy, gravity, and expansion. And so on.
How can one propose that everything has no cause?
“Everything” has at least 2 definitions. It can mean “each and every thing,” or it can mean “the totality of all things.” In the first sense I would agree that “each and every thing” could have a cause – except one thing. The one thing that has no cause is “the totality of all things past and present.”
Another, more familiar name for the totality of all things past and present is “the world.” In Greek, the world is “cosmos,” and the study of how the universe is structured and how it developed is called cosmology.
I propose that the whole world – present and past – is exactly a thing uncaused. In this sense “The world exists” has no explanation. Nothing sufficiently explains the cosmos.
Moreover, the notion that “The world exists” has immense meaning which is neither obscure nor remote. I directly experience a small part of the world close at hand, and this is enough to be sure that the world exists. That the world exists is a familiar, though impenetrable, certainty.
What if someone suggests a sufficient cause – any kind of cause – for the world’s existence? That’s logically impossible, I reply. Whatever is suggested to function as a sufficient cause must be something that itself exists. But if it exists, then it forms part of the whole world, defined as everything that exists. Yet it cannot be a cause of that of which it is a part. Therefore, the whole world must be uncaused. That is the logic of saying that the whole world has no cause.
Just to think that the world, which I experience moment by moment, exists without cause sparks in me a flash of awe and wonder.
Of course, some will say that the laws of physics undergird and, in effect, cause the world to exist. I’ll answer that the world I’m referring to includes the laws of physics. There is no sufficient reason to explain why the world and its underlying laws of physics exist. The argument holds even if something more basic, like evolution of the multiverse, is postulated to explain the laws of physics. That would be just a deeper layer in the frame of the world.
Again some will say that God chose the laws of physics and created the world. So God’s will caused the world to exist. But this only represents a shift in the object of wonder, because every believer has faith that God is uncaused. Then, too, consider that the world would pre-exist in the mind of eternal God. So the world again is uncaused.
Thus we have experience close at hand of something uncaused – the world.
(Another way of expressing this is to ask the question: Why does something exist rather than nothing? There is no way to answer that question. It is impenetrable.)
Something else, I believe, is equally inexplicable, uncaused, and yet close at hand, though not as apt to be recognized logically as the world’s existence. The 2nd wondrous thing is the fact that I am here to witness the world and to move in it.
Here again is no distant vision, but an experience readily available. I’m in this world which has no cause, and there is no reason at all to explain why I am here and why I move about in this world.
Moreover, two or more who acknowledge each other’s presence can experience together the wonder of being here to witness the world and to move in it.
Even when this experience is shared, it does not become public knowledge – that is, knowledge accessible to a neutral observer. It does not become scientifically demonstrable.
Why not? Isn’t this what we ordinarily call consciousness?
Consciousness can be defined medically as the immediate capability of cognitive response. Should consciousness be defined philosophically in a similar way?
Some thinkers frame their philosophical concept of consciousness as an extension of the medical concept. I won’t buy that.
I think there’s a valid distinction between consciousness viewed from the outside – that is, medically – and consciousness viewed from the inside, which we might call a philosophical view of consciousness. And I suspect that “consciousness viewed from the inside” may always fail to achieve definition, because this kind of consciousness may serve as a precondition for all definitions.
How is it possible to suggest that my presence and action in the world (or our presence and action in the world) are uncaused? My mother might protest! She worked hard to carry me in the womb and deliver me into this world. Yet she and my father raised me to study and to question everything.
When I assert that my presence and action in the world are uncaused, I’m referring neither to consciousness medically defined nor to family lineage. Instead I’m saying that there is a subjective side to experiencing and shaping the world, and this subjective side (accessible to me or to us, privately) is uncaused, impenetrable to scientific investigation.
There’s a catch to the term, “a subjective side.” Our minds immediately tend to move it around as an object. As soon as it is manipulated as an object, it loses all meaning.
A well-worn example: If a tree falls in the forest with a mighty crash, but nobody is around to hear it, is there any sound? Surely you have rehearsed several answers to this old riddle.
Let’s amp it up now: If a world exists, but is never experienced, does it really exist?
I think that a valid answer is this: Nobody knows, nobody cares, and nobody can assert that such a world exists.
So here is a second fact bluntly lacking causation and therefore equal in wonder to the uncaused world: I am here to witness the world and to move in it. Likewise, we are here to witness the world and to move in it.
This second fact cannot be recognized scientifically, because it is not a matter of public knowledge accessible to a neutral observer. But it can be a matter of plural knowledge upon which we, you and I, can agree. Whether singular or plural, it can’t be defined as objective fact, but we can talk about it. We can experience and assert it.
These 2 things clearly exist without cause: (1) the world, and (2) my/our place and path in the world.
Now to these two let’s add a 3rd, which is my will or your will or ours. This will, recognized negatively as something uncaused like the world and our path in it, has positive characteristics as well. This will is not a distant force, but touches, nudges, and moves closely in our lives. It is familiar and closely experienced. And this same will, like the world and our path in it, can elicit wonder.
So we have direct, familiar, close experience of 3 impenetrables:
The world exists.
I/we move in it.
My/our will chooses.
Charles Peirce, the foremost American philosopher and originator of pragmatism, named 3 fundamental categories in the interpretation of phenomena. The categories are feeling (“Firstness”), fact (“Secondness”), and relation (“Thirdness,” or that which mediates between feeling/sensation and fact/objectivity). Employing language undoubtedly more precise than mine, Peirce called these the “indecomposable elements of the phaneron.”
The order of Peirce’s 3 categories differs from that in my list above. Feeling or Firstness corresponds, as I see it, to “I/we witness the world and move in it.” Fact or Secondness appears in the statement, “The world exists.” Relation or Thirdness finds expression in the mediation of my/our will, responding to and acting upon the world.
The progress of consciousness in a human baby growing into childhood mirrors the 3 categories. At first, feeling and sensation comprise the self without any conception of otherness. Then ideas develop of things external to self – Mother who answers needs, and subsequently all the world which invites exploration. Eventually the child begins to comprehend responsiveness and action, as it learns: External things/people affect me, and I affect external things/people.
A quote from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason appears on a plaque in the great philosopher’s home city of Königsberg, now called Kaliningrad:
Zwei Dinge erfüllen das Gemüt mit immer neuer und zunehmender Bewunderung and Ehrfurcht, je öfter und anhaltender sich das Nachdenken damit beshäftigt: Der bestirnte Himmel über mir und das moralische Gesetz in mir.
In English translation:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
The starry heavens represent the physical world. Kant’s moral law evokes an inner stirring. “Gesetz” usually translates as “law,” but it can also mean “act.” Clearly, as a moral response arising within me, it describes my will.
Despite his count of “zwei Dinge” or “two things,” Kant’s quote actually points to a 3rd elementary impenetrable as well. Notice how the quote moves from universal references to mind (Gemüt) and thoughtful reflection (Nachdenken) over to the highly personal “starry heavens above me” (über mir) and “moral law within me” (in mir). The power of his expression derives from his personal position midway between physical and ethical space. Likewise, I find myself positioned between the physical world and the will inside me.
Three things – drei Dinge – without explanation or cause, yet closely recognized, filling us with wonder and awe. Could it be that our task and opportunity as humans is to give them meaning?
1. Many philosophers today do not believe that the will exists. See Is free will an illusion? Not by these 5 rules, which is GSOT blog #62.
2. The will remains inseparably tied to my ownership of and my responsibility for choices that I make. To ascribe my choices to genes and environment is to abandon ownership and responsibility. For further discussion of ownership and responsibility for choices, see From will to responsibility #76 and Treasure of the heart #77.
3. My will has no sufficient cause…. Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz (inventor, along with Isaac Newton, of the theory of mathematical calculus) advocated the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which asserts that everything must have a sufficient reason for being as it is, and not otherwise. Likewise, every event must have a sufficient reason for happening as it does, and not otherwise. In the end, however, we find that an adequate doctrine of the will contradicts the Principle of Sufficient Reason. In other words, the will is uncaused. A wide-ranging discussion is found in the following 4 blogs, the last of which makes the decisive point as I see it – (a) Cause or will? #22, (b) Chaos, chance, and will #23, (c) Does God bestow free will? #26, (d) Pragmatism and free will #31.
4. To this degree I claim freedom of the will. Among the GSOT blogs, this one discusses free will most extensively: Does free will exist? Summary Q & A #63. Oddly, if I believe in free will, then I must acknowledge that a person can freely make a valid choice not to believe in free will. See Free will: an exercise #44.
5. Can we name something else that clearly has no sufficient cause? The idea of looking for things besides the will that have no cause first appeared in GSOT blog #63 (see item 4 above) and was re-iterated in blog #88 Gilbert Ryle, reconnecting mind and body.
6. I might like to come back to God as Uncaused Cause…. The 20th century classical scholar, Mortimer Adler, proved the existence of God by relying on a “principle of efficient causation.” However, God as conceived by Adler is essentially vacant and would give little consolation to struggling humans. See blog #20 Does God exist?
7. The argument holds even if something more basic, like evolution of the multiverse, is postulated to explain the laws of physics. This concept is discussed in the context of the anthropic principle, which is the recognition that physical constants appear precisely tuned to produce conscious life. See blog #64 The anthropic principle.
8. Something else, I believe, is equally wondrous and uncaused and close at hand, though not as apt to be recognized logically as the world. The 2nd wondrous thing is the fact that I am here to witness the world and to move in it. This is Martin Heidigger’s dasein – “to be there.” Even the most committed naturalist/positivist, when cornered, will admit to dasein. See blog #7 Nothing there, the mind of a frog and #8 Less than all.
9. Moreover, two or more who acknowledge each other’s presence can experience together the wonder of being here to witness the world and to move in it. It’s very difficult to break free from an unconscious principle of ontologic individualism. See blog #43 Pragmatic free will for individuals and groups and #78 Owning in common for brief attempts to explain this important point.
10. Even when this experience is shared, it does not become public knowledge – that is, knowledge accessible to a neutral observer. It does not become scientifically demonstrable. Public knowledge is accessible to anyone and everyone; private knowledge belongs to individuals and also to groups that are less than all. Blog #5 Immediacy and particularity examines this idea in the context of positivism, which is the philosophy that states that only science (derived from public knowledge accessible to neutral observers) can provide meaningful answers.
11. Isn’t this what we ordinarily call consciousness? Check out the theory of Julian Jaynes, who proclaims that human beings first became conscious early in the first millennium BCE. See blog #33 Breakdown of the bicameral mind. A quite different view of consciousness is given by Paul Nunez, explored in blog #25 Does the brain create the mind?.
12. Consciousness can be defined medically as the immediate capability of cognitive response. Consciousness as a medical issue is a field of research for neuroscientists and a practical matter for end-of-life counselors and ethicists. The will, on the other hand, confronts almost all physicians and providers as they deal with patients. I think that the best understanding of how to engage the will in medical practice comes from the Swiss physician-psychiatrist-philosopher Paul Tournier (blog #50 The Meaning of Persons – Paul Tournier), who built upon the work of Martin Buber (blog #40 Ich und du).
13. I think there’s a valid distinction between consciousness viewed from the outside, that is, medically, and consciousness viewed from the inside, which we might term a philosophical view of consciousness. The latter conception of consciousness might be said to create the enigma known as “the hard problem of consciousness.” I don’t believe that the problem is about consciousness at all, but instead is about self-reference. If you want to look briefly into self-reference, see blog #32 Break these rules, and perhaps Kurt Gödel’s mathematical expression of self-reference, blog #37 Principia Mathematica and Kurt Gödel.
14. …there is a subjective side to experiencing and shaping the world, and this subjective side (accessible to me or to us, privately) is uncaused. The most profound presentation of the “subjective side” comes from Arthur Schopenhauer, briefly exhibited in blog #53 Schopenhauer. 1. Introduction. Among classical European philosophers, Schopenhauer ranks first by far in my opinion, despite his greatest detractor which was his own sour temperament.
15. If a world exists, but is never experienced, does it really exist? This question received different answers in a remarkable conversation between the scientist Albert Einstein and the Bengali poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore in 1930. I agree with Tagore. See blog #67 Connecting with the East.
16. Charles Peirce…originator of pragmatism…. A brief introduction to Peirce and pragmatism is given in blog #19 Charles Peirce’s pragmaticism. The name “pragmaticism” arose late in Peirce’s life, after he felt that his friends William James and Charles Dewey had made such a hash of “pragmatism” that he needed to rename his original conception.
17. …the starry heavens above me…. For reflections on the possibility of making a personal connection to the universe, see blog #41 Saying thou to the universe.
18. Three things…filling us with wonder and awe. Could it be that our task and opportunity as humans is to give them meaning? This might be the introduction to a new project. If that happens, I would take inspiration from Albert Camus (blog #49 Albert Camus – lucidity and decision). To suggest that it might be a God-given task, I would draw from the Edomite poet who wrote the Book of Job (blog #52 Who let the wild ass run free? – book of Job).
Featured image: Morgan Arthur Guyton, 5 days old, and his grandmother Jean Morgan Storm, family photo, CC0 public domain. Omega Centauri star cluster, by NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Immanuel Kant plaque, ID 32015195 © Gl0ck33 | Dreamstime.
 Feibleman JK. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Charles S. Peirce. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1969, orig. copyright 1946, pp. 146-169.