With this blog post, I’ll try to explain how I understand will, willpower, and the decision-making process. I’ve developed my understanding mostly through self-observation. Recently I actually completed an experiment in which I fasted for two days, and it yielded a few interesting insights into the nature of the will.
My observations probably agree with the experiences of many people, but some have arisen without a doubt from certain personal peculiarities that aren’t shared by other people. In any case, there’s an impenetrable epistemological divide between the contents of peoples’ subjective experiences. I’ll never be able to take part in the consciousness of another person (except with a Neuralink... hurry up, Elon Musk!), nor can I ever know for sure that other people even experience qualia.
So I’m sorry, dear reader, but because of this, the following observations apply primarily to my own mind. Despite that, you can always keep your own observations and experiences in mind while reading and compare them with mind, and if they sound sufficiently similar, then perhaps my analysis can be somewhat insightful for you as well.
In everyday speech, there are certain turns of phrase that place the self and the will in a false opposition against each other. For example:
I wanted to gobble down the cake, but I overcame this will.
I I wanted to gobble down the cake, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to overcome this will.
There are two principal entities in this sentence: a will (to eat) and a self that knows it shouldn’t eat the cake. These sentences also carry the implicit value judgement that it would be better to follow one’s reason than to let one be tempted by the cake. However, these sentences can be inverted so that the meaning stays the same but the roles of the self and the will are reversed:
I wanted to withstand the temptation of the cake, and I didn’t overcome this will.
I wanted to withstand the temptation of the cake, but I easily overcame this will.
Now it becomes clear that one can’t unambiguously indicate the “will” in this situation, nor can one determine whether a certain decision involves an “overcoming” or a “being overcome”. Not only does the role of the will waver, but also the role of the self, since we can recount the same events without making reference to an overcoming or an overcome self:
I wanted to gobble down the cake and I also wanted to withstand the temptation of the cake, but the second will overcame the first will.
I wanted to gobble down the cake and I also wanted to withstand the temptation of the cake, but the first will overcame the second will.
In these two sentences, the self is a passive possessor of wills rather than an agent. I find this conception much more appropriate and useful, since it allows one to view each will impersonally by disassociating them from the self, and it also eliminates (or at least redresses) the unspoken valuation of the will to eat cake as somehow “lower” or “to be overcome”. Nor does it even make sense to speak of an acting self that is separated from all wills: without any will, the self cannot bring itself to do anything, since it cannot prefer any course of action to any other.
Despite this, it would be erroneous to claim that the two wills that oppose each other in the above examples are of the exact same nature. Even if we forego the implicit moral evaluation, we have to admit that the subjective experiences of the two wills from our examples are totally different. Even if the will to resist temptation is no “better” than the alternative, it seems tiring or straining, in contrast to the relaxing and almost celebratory feeling that accompanies the giving in to a temptation. So we can’t claim that all wills are of the same nature. (Later on, we’ll discuss the differing subjective aspects of different wills.) We only want to recognize that a will stands behind every action, and that there are no special actions that come “directly from the self” rather than from some will or another.
Actually, one can perform certain will-less actions, namely “automatic” habitual or reflexive actions. However, I wouldn’t even attribute these actions to the self. The assertion that my involuntary knee-jerk is something that “I do” is almost as absurd as the assertion that a rock’s rolling down a hill is something that “I do”.
When two wills come into conflict and one overcomes the other, an action does not occur as the immediate consequence, since no action can be carried out instantaneously. Therefore, the will necessarily depends upon anticipation: the object of desire, the motivation and the reward, always stands in the future relative to the striving will. Every pleasure and pain that one enjoys or suffers in the present moment is a gift or curse from a previous self. Conversely, every current act becomes a gift or curse for a future self.
When you think about it, at first it seems like some wills take their motivation from the past instead of the future, for example an obligation or a promise. However, even in this case, the reward is in the future: the feeling of completion of fulfillment.
Even though an action cannot follow the triumph of a will instantaneously by virtue of its physical nature, such a triumph does trigger a mental rather than a physical event, namely the formation of a plan. After the contention between two wills is resolved, one decides to follow a certain path, even though one cannot carry it out immediately. Then the execution of this plan over the course of the following seconds, minutes, or hours almost automatic or a question of habit. Of course, sometimes one may interrupt this process, change one’s mind and discard the plan, but usually this does not occur. The decisive moment for the realization of a possible action is more often the moment of the formation of its plan than the moment of the act itself.
These aren’t pure speculations, but rather formalizations and generalizations that are based on observations of my own patterns of behavior. Let’s take procrastination as an example. I’ve often noticed that it’s very difficult to force myself to get started on a run or with my homework, but once I finally resolve to go running or complete this or that exercise, I almost always finish the task successfully, except for when some unexpected distraction or obstacle interrupts the execution of my intention. The difficulty lies in the initial act of deciding and not in the execution of the task. (I must recognize, however, that the rigidity of my plans could be a personal peculiarity.)
I’ve also noticed this phenomenon during my fasting experiment, specifically during the first attempt. I had to attempt the experiment twice, since I gave up early during the first try (I wanted to fast for two days, but I couldn’t even manage 24 hours). On that first afternoon, when I decided I couldn’t withstand the fasting any longer, my first move was not to snarf down something delicious, but rather to write a lengthy paragraph in my experiment write-up explaining my decision to discontinue the experiment. Despite the feeling that I couldn’t withstand the hunger any longer, twenty minutes passed after I gave up and before I actually ate something. If the hunger was so pressing that I couldn’t withstand it any longer, why did I postpone eating for twenty more minutes with my writing? Because will has less to do with action than it does with plans and anticipation.
Just one more note about the relationship between the will and time. It’s often the case that the farther in the future the expected reward or punishment for an action stands, the more “willpower” is required for it to influence the current struggle between wills. Thus, it is “harder” to opt for delayed gratification than an instant reward. However, we still haven’t explained the concept of willpower in a way that doesn’t depend upon a “deciding self” (whose existence or meaningfulness we rejected in the first section). We’ll deal with that next...
First, I want to describe what I consider the prevailing notion of willpower. However, I won’t give any argument that it is actually the “prevailing” notion. I’ve never found a source that actually lays out this conception explicitly as the truth or an adequate description. I’ve only glimpsed it indirectly through turns of phrase, fragments of conversations and connotations.
So: in this (presumably) prevailing conception, willpower is a resource or currency that one spends in order to carry out tasks that one doesn’t want to do or that require effort. A person has a certain supply of willpower that can be apportioned as one wishes, but the more one spends and the less is left over, the harder it gets to perform tasks. On the other hand, the supply is replenished when one relaxes, sleeps, or indulges in a pleasure.
This conception repeats the earlier mistake of confirming the existence of an active self separate from the wills. According to this description, the self decides what to expend willpower on. But what is this decision based on? But how can the self decide between these wills if it isn’t influenced by any will? This absurd notion supposes that the will must spend willpower in order to perform any action, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the very spending of willpower is itself an action and a decision! Now we have an infinite regress that fails to explain how any action can actually be brought to completion. (I believe this could be considered an instance of the Homunculus fallacy.)
To form a better understanding, let’s throw away the notion of an actively deciding self again and consider the decision process as a battle between wills. Every time that I am tempted to gobble down a piece of cake, there is a will in favor and a will against, and sometimes the former triumphs, and sometimes the latter. A variety of drives, emotions and rationalizations exert influence upon this contention and in favor of each will (for example, the more hungry I am, the stronger the will to eat will be). The final sum of all of these influences determines the strength of the force behind each will and the comparison of the magnitudes of their respective forces determines the winner. This description actually fits the form of the word “willpower” pretty well, since it involves a comparison of the powers of the two wills.
But when one says that a decision requires a lot of willpower, one isn’t referring to the fact that every will has a specific strength of force, but rather to the feeling of exertion or difficulty. Although every decision is just the result of a competition between wills, some have a tiring effect upon us while others have an invigorating effect. Why is this the case?
I have no idea why certain decisions induce such feelings of exertion. However, I can try to describe what types of decisions under which conditions usually trigger these feelings. The feeling of strain or difficulty usually appears following the triumph of a will that
That which we call “willpower” is not the “ability” to choose such actions, since the word “ability” implies the existence of an independent self, but rather the relative strength of the wills that trigger these feelings of strain and the frequency and margin with which they triumph or are defeated. Some factors that weaken willpower (in this sense) are
When one manages to make a “hard” decision, one becomes more exhausted, more sleepy, and more hungry (or one at least gets the munchies). Thus, we have a negative feedback loop that places a limit on the number of “hard” decisions: the more decisions of this sort one makes, the worse one’s tiredness, hunger etc. become, and the less likely it becomes that such a will will prevail the next time.
This conception jives with my experience with fasting. I mostly spent my entire day in my room not being tempted by any cakes, since there weren’t any at hand. Despite this, I could barely bring myself to do homework or read or even stand up. In other words, I lacked willpower. However, I hadn’t performed any mentally or physically exhausting tasks, that is, “spent” any willpower. The rejected conception doesn’t account for this loss of willpower without active spending, but in our new framework willpower and one’s overall state of mind affect each other mutually.
Earlier, I rejected our initial example sentences (about the cake) partially because of their implicit value judgments of the will to eat cake and the will to resist temptation. I should clarify, however, that I don’t take issue with value judgments specifically, but rather with the unspoken connotation through which the value judgment appears in the sentence. It assumes that the will to eat cake is a negative one that one should defend against it, and this could very well be true, but it’s implied indirectly rather than stated explicitly. Now that we’ve identified this instinctive evaluation, we can analyze and assess it.
In the spirit of clarity, I’ll lay out my personal moral associations regarding the will (as they were before I recently reevaluated my conception of the will). Activities that require more mental strain seemed “higher” or “more worthwhile” to me, in contrast to hedonic sensory pleasures (e.g. eating, masturbation etc). I associated virtue with self-mastery, productivity and the ability to withstand temptations. I didn’t believe that pleasure was bad, but I was (too) afraid of becoming dependent upon it. In hindsight, my former views seem rather stoic. I would have asserted that it is virtuous to be able to resist one’s will, but now (to my amusement) I’ve realized that striving for stoic self-mastery is itself a will, just as, say, the will to eat cake is.
These moral sentiments were probably influenced by the media to some extent. The admirable male protagonists of film and literature are often capable of resisting temptation, putting up with extreme pain and so on. I also had a lot of friends that procrastinated on their homework and were easily distracted, and my admiration of discipline could have arisen as an extreme reaction to this.
I would still claim that it is advantageous to be able to resist temptations and delay rewards, but not because it is “virtuous” - rather, only insofar as one can use it to increase one’s quality of life and overall happiness. The most obvious application has to do with health. I also believe that it’s better (with respect to overall happiness) to start early and finish quickly with undesirable tasks or chores: if one pushes these tasks into the future, a black storm cloud of negative anticipation hangs over the present moment and prevents one from enjoying it fully, but when one takes care of these tasks early, once can relax without a care. (However, I suspect that this strong “stormcloud” feeling is a personal peculiarity of mine, so this strategy might not be optimal for everyone when it comes to overall happiness).
Despite this, I’ve noticed that these tendencies against the wills to procratinate, indulge in pleasure and so on have negative consequences when taken to extremes. For example, the self-imposed pressure to finish tasks early sometimes leads to a lower quality of work because of my haste. Also, just like most other moral principles, this conception introduces a feeling of condescension and disapproval towards people who are less stoic. I made the mistake of valuing my “principles” for their own sake rather than evaluating them with respect to happiness and quality of life. (Am I making the same mistake now by valuing happiness and quality of life for their own sake? Maybe so...)
Enough of this! I’m fed up with moral considerations.
Now I’ll bring this post to a close with a small, admittedly rather silly puzzle. Hold your hand up before you entirely still and try to be fully aware of your “ability” to force your finger to move. Then do it: move your finger, whenever you feel like moving it. Do it randomly and arbitrarily.
These movements are, of course, triggered by wills, but do these wills have motivations? In the battle between the will to move your finger and the will to hold still, why has the former overcome the latter in one moment and not in the next moment? Is there any psychological reason for these particular movements, or are they purely purposeless actions?
Maybe this exercise is just hooey resulting from my own weirdness. But I hope it gives the reader something to puzzle over.back to home page