Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX.: THE WILL. - The Principles of Psychology
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CHAPTER IX.: THE WILL. - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology 
The Principles of Psychology (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855).
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§ 205. It must be obvious to all who have followed the argument thus far, that what we call Will, is but another aspect of that same general process whose other aspects have been delineated in the last three chapters. Not only do Memory, Reason, and Feeling, simultaneously arise as the automatic actions become complex, infrequent, and hesitating; but Will arises at the same time, and is necessitated by the same conditions. As the advance from the simple and indissolubly coherent psychical changes, to the psychical changes that are involved and dissolubly coherent, is in itself the commencement of Memory, Reason, and Feeling; so also is it in itself the commencement of Will. On passing from the compound reflex actions to those actions so highly compounded as to be imperfectly reflex—on passing from the groups of psychical changes that are organically connected, and take place with extreme rapidity, to those groups of psychical changes which are not organically connected, and take place with some deliberation, and therefore consciously; we pass to an order of mental action which is one of Memory, Reason, Feeling, or Will, according to the relation in which we consider it.
This is a conclusion of which we may be certain, even in anticipation of any special synthesis. For, as before said, all modes of consciousness can be nothing else than incidents of the correspondence between the organism and its environment; and as such, must be different sides of, or different phases of, the co-ordinated groups of changes whereby inner relations are adjusted to outer relations. Between the reception of certain impressions and the performance of certain appropriate motions, there is some inward connection. If the inward connection is perfectly organic, the action is of the reflex order, either simple or compound; and none of the phenomena of consciousness proper, exist. If the inward connection is not perfectly organic, then the psychical changes which connect the impressions and motions, are conscious ones; the entire action is a conscious action, and must exhibit all the essential elements of a conscious action: that is—must simultaneously exhibit Memory, Reason, Feeling, and Will; for there can be no conscious adjustment of an inner to an outer relation without all these being involved. But let us consider the matter more nearly.
§ 206. When, as a result of the organization of accumulating experiences, the automatic actions become so involved, so varied in kind, and severally so infrequent, as no longer to be performed with unhesitating precision—when, after the reception of one of the more complex impressions, the appropriate motor changes become nascent, but are prevented from passing into immediate action by the antagonism of certain other nascent motor changes appropriate to some nearly allied impression; there is constituted a state of consciousness which, when it finally issues in action, exhibits what we term volition. Under such conditions, there occurs a conflict between two sets of nascent motor changes; one of which ultimately prevails and passes into a set of actual motor changes. Each set of nascent motor changes arising in the course of this conflict, is a weak form of the state of consciousness which accompanies such motor changes when actually performed—is a representation of such motor changes as before executed under like circumstances—is an idea of such motor changes. We have, therefore, a conflict between certain ideal motor changes which severally tend to become real; and one of which eventually does become real: and this passing of an ideal motor change into a real one, is that which we distinguish as Will. In a voluntary act, considered in its simplest form, apart from the aggregated states of consciousness eventually constituting the greater part of the motive, we can find nothing beyond a mental representation of the act, followed by a performance of it—a rising of that nascent psychical change which constitutes at once the tendency to act and the idea of the act, into the positive psychical change which constitutes the performance of the act, in so far as it is mental. The difference between an involuntary movement of the leg and a voluntary one, is, that whereas the involuntary one takes place without any previous consciousness of the movement to be made, the voluntary one takes place only after it has been represented in consciousness: and as the representation of it is nothing else than a weak form of the psychical state accompanying the real movement, it is nothing else than a nascent excitation of all the nerves concerned, which precedes their actual excitation. Hence the difference is, that whereas, in the case of the involuntary movement, the psychical states accompanying the impression and the action, are so coherent that the one follows the other instantaneously; in the voluntary movement they are so imperfectly coherent, that the psychical state accompanying the action does not follow instantaneously, but slowly—is partially excited before it is fully excited; and so occupies consciousness for an appreciable time before it actually occurs. And thus the cessation of automatic action and the dawn of volition, are one and the same thing.
It is quite true, as incidentally admitted in the preceding paragraph, that as we advance from the earliest and simplest manifestations of Will to the later and more involved ones, the composite state of consciousness by which any act is preceded, includes much beyond the nascent motor changes; and even much beyond the various nascent sensory impressions which must be immediately realized by the act. It further includes an extensive aggregation of nascent sensory impressions such as have before been more or less remotely realized by the act; and which constitute representations of the various consequences of the act. Even when Will is but incipient, there must be some accompaniment of this kind. Along with any two conflicting sets of motor changes produced by an indistinctly cognized impression, there will become nascent the several pleasurable or painful psychical states which have in experience been respectively connected with such motor changes. These are aggregated with the various other psychical states, actual and nascent, which the impression immediately or mediately excites; and so, by increasing the group of psychical states which are severally coherent with the appropriate motor changes, add to the tendency which those motor changes have to take place. Gradually, by that ever-progressing aggregation of psychical states described in the last chapter, these nascent sensory impressions such as have been before more or less remotely realized by the act, come to form by far the greater part of the composite psychical state which precedes the act—constitute the greater part of what we call the desire to perform the act; and so, greatly obscure that original relation between impressions and motions which forms their nucleus. But the general nature of the process remains throughout fundamentally the same as at first. Certain impressions, immediately made upon the senses or afterwards mediately suggested by some other impressions, make nascent certain appropriate motor changes, and certain impressions connected with such changes; these, again, make nascent other changes, and other impressions; and so on to all degrees of remoteness: producing a complicated group of ideal actions and consequences. All of these having, directly or indirectly, some connection in experience with these motor changes, or with some antagonistic ones, tend to produce or prevent the action. An immense number of nascent psychical states are aroused, part of which unite with the original impression in exciting the action, and part of which are aggregated as exciters of some antagonist action; and when eventually, from their greater number or intensity, the first outbalance the others, it is simply that, as an accumulated stimulus, they become sufficiently strong to make the nascent motor changes pass into actual ones.
But that Will comes into existence through the increasing complexity and imperfect coherence of automatic changes, is most clearly seen in the converse fact, that when changes which were once incoherent and voluntary, are very frequently repeated in experience, they become coherent and involuntary. Just as any set of psychical changes originally displaying Memory, Reason, and Feeling, cease to be conscious, rational, and emotional, as fast as by constant repetition they become more closely organized; so do they at the same time cease to be voluntary. Memory, Reason, Feeling, and Will, simultaneously disappear in proportion as, by their habitual recurrence, any psychical changes become automatic. Thus, while the child learning to walk, wills each movement before making it; the adult, when setting out anywhere, does not think of his legs, but of some point towards which he wishes to move; and his successive steps are made with little or no more volition than his successive inspirations. Every one of those vocal imitations made by the child in acquiring its mother tongue, or the man in learning a new language, is voluntarily made; but after many years of practice, conversation is carried on without any thought of the muscular adjustments required to produce each articulation: the motions of the vocal apparatus respond automatically to the trains of ideas. Similarly with writing, and all other familiar processes: the many coordinations by which they were once executed deliberately and voluntarily, have become so coherent and rapid, that they no longer occupy any appreciable space in consciousness; but under the appropriate external or internal stimuli, they follow unthinkingly, involuntarily. Not only is this so with actions daily occurring in the lives of all, but it is so with those peculiar to persons having special habits; and every one from time to time hears of the curious results hence arising: as of the old soldier who lets fall what he is carrying on the word “attention” being shouted behind him. And the same general truth is recognized in the common remark, made of any one who has long persisted in some evil practice, that “he has lost power over himself,” “can no longer control himself:” that is to say, by constant repetition certain psychical changes have more or less passed from the voluntary into the automatic.
§ 207. Long before reaching this point, most readers will have perceived that the doctrines developed in the last two parts of this work, are quite at variance with the current tenets respecting the freedom of the Will. That every one is at liberty to do what he desires to do (supposing there are no external hindrances), all admit; though people of confused conceptions commonly suppose this to be the thing denied. But that every one is at liberty to desire or not to desire, which is the real proposition involved in the dogma of free-will, is negatived as much by the internal perception of every one as by the contents of the preceding chapters. From the universal law that, other things equal, the cohesion of psychical states is proportionate to the frequency with which they have followed one another in experience, it is an inevitable corollary, that all actions whatever must be determined by those psychical connections which experience has generated—either in the life of the individual, or in that general antecedent life whose accumulated results are organized in his constitution.
To go at length into this long-standing controversy respecting the Will, would be alike useless and out of place. I can but briefly indicate what seems to me the nature of the current illusion, as interpreted from the point of view at which we have arrived.
Considered as an internal perception, the illusion appears chiefly to consist in supposing that at each moment the ego is something more than the composite state of consciousness which then exists. A man who, after being subject to an impulse consisting of a group of psychical states positive and nascent, performs a certain action, usually asserts that he determined to perform the action, and performed it under the influence of this impulse: and by speaking of himself as having been something separate from the group of psychical states constituting the impulse, he falls into the error of supposing that it was not the impulse alone which determined the action. But the entire group of psychical states which constituted the antecedent of the action, also constituted himself at that moment—constituted his psychical self, that is, as distinguished from his physical self. It is alike true that he determined the action and that the impulse determined it; seeing that during its existence the impulse constituted his then state of consciousness, that is, himself. Either the ego which is supposed to determine or will the action, is some state of consciousness, simple or composite, or it is not. If it is not some state of consciousness, it is something of which we are unconscious—something, therefore, that is unknown to us—something, therefore, of whose existence we neither have nor can have any evidence—something, therefore, which it is absurd to suppose existing. If the ego is some state of consciousness, then, as it is ever present, it can be at each moment nothing else than the state of consciousness present at that moment. And thus it follows inevitably, that when any impression received from without, makes nascent certain appropriate motor changes and various of the impressions that must accompany and follow them; and when, under the stimulus of this composite psychical state, the nascent motor changes pass in actual motor changes; this composite psychical state which forms the stimulus to the action, is at the same time the ego which is said to will the action. Thus it is natural enough that the subject of such psychical changes should say that he wills the action; seeing that, psychically considered, he is at that moment nothing more than the composite state of consciousness by which the action is excited. But to say that the performance of the action is, therefore, the result of his free-will, is to say that he determines the cohesions of psychical states by which the action is aroused; and as these psychical states constitute himself at that moment, this is to say that these psychical states determine their own cohesions: which is absurd. Their cohesions have been wholly determined by experiences—the greater part of them, constituting what we call his natural character, by the experiences of antecedent organisms; and the rest by his own experiences. The changes which at each moment take place in his consciousness, and, among others, those which he is said to will, are wholly determined by this infinitude of previous experiences; so far, at least, as they are not produced by immediate impressions on the senses.
This subjective illusion, in which the notion of free-will commonly originates, is strengthened by a corresponding objective illusion. The actions of other individuals, lacking as they do that constancy, that uniformity, habitually seen in phenomena known to obey fixed laws, appear to be lawless—appear to be under no necessity of following any particular order; and are so supposed to be determined by the unknown independent something which we call the Will. But, as I need hardly say, this seeming indeterminateness in the mental succession, is an illusion consequent upon the extreme complication of the forces in action. The composition of causes is so intricate, and from moment to moment so varied, that the effects are not calculable. Nevertheless, these effects are really as conformable to law as the simplest reflex actions. The irregularity and apparent freedom is a necessary result of the complexity; and equally arises in the inorganic world under parallel conditions. To amplify an illustration before used:—A body in space, subject to the attraction of a single other body, will move in a direction that can be accurately predicted. If subject to the attraction of two bodies, its course will be but approximately calculable. If subject to the attraction of three bodies, its course can be calculated with still less precision. And if it is surrounded by bodies of all sizes, in all directions, at all distances, its motion will be apparently independent of the influence of any of them; it will move in some indefinable varying line that appears to be self-determined; it will seem to be free. And in the same way, just in proportion as the cohesions of each psychical state to others, become great in number and various in degree, the psychical changes will become incalculable and apparently subject to no law.
To reduce the general question to its simplest form:—Psychical changes either conform to law or they do not. If they do not conform to law, this work, in common with all works on the subject, is sheer nonsense: no science of Psychology is possible. If they do conform to law, there cannot be any such thing as free-will.
§ 208. Respecting this matter I will only further say, that free-will, did it exist, would be entirely at variance with that beneficent necessity displayed in the progressive evolution of the correspondence between the organism and its environment. That gradual advance in the moulding of inner relations to outer relations, which has been delineated in the foregoing pages—that ever-extending adaptation of the cohesions of psychical states to the connections between the answering phenomena, which we have seen to result from the accumulation of experiences, would be arrested, did there exist anything which otherwise determined their cohesions. As it is, we see that the correspondence between the internal changes and the external coexistences and sequences, must become more and more complete. The continuous adjustment of the vital activities to the activities in the environment, must become more accurate and exhaustive. The life must become higher and the happiness greater—must do so because the inner relations are determined by the outer relations. But were the inner relations to any extent determined by some other agency, the harmony at any moment subsisting, and the advance to a higher harmony, would alike be interrupted to a proportionate extent: there would be an arrest of that grand progression which is now bearing Humanity onwards to perfection.