The Nature of Knowledge


Instinct in animals may be pictured as a complex program lying between conscious perception and overt behavior. Perception is like the input to the program, behavior is the output of the program. How an animal will behave in response to what it is conscious of (both externally and its own internal states) is provided entirely by the program. The program is capable of modifying itself in relationship to conscious experiences it stores in memory, but can only modify itself within the limits determined by the program.

It is this program that human beings do not have. Instead of a program (instinct), humans have volition, which is both the ability and necessity to consciously choose their behavior. Except for some simple reflexes and autonomic responses, all human behavior must be consciously chosen.

The ability to choose makes two things both necessary and possible; they are the ability and necessity to gain knowledge (intellect) and the ability and necessity to think (rationality), particularly to judge. Choice is not possible without knowledge; to choose, what choices are possible and what the consequences of possible choices are must both be known. To choose, there must be some criteria for preferring one choice and its consequences over other possible choices (even as simple a one as to do or not do something).

Implications of the Volitional Nature

It is the nature of an organism that determines how the organism must live, what its behavior must be, to live successfully. The animal's instinct provides an automatic pattern of behavior to ensure this success.

Human beings do not have an automatic pattern of behavior. They are not instinctive creatures, but volitional. As volitional creatures they must discover and learn, what they must eat, how to acquire it, how to provide themselves shelter and protection from the elements as well as other threats. But, just as it is the nature of other animals that determines how they must live, it is the nature of man that determines how he must live. Just as the other creatures are provided with the exact faculties and abilities to do what their nature requires, men are provided with the exact faculties required by their nature.

The requirement of human nature is knowledge, and man is provided intellect for acquiring it; he is also required to judge, and he is provided rationality to think and make choices; and finally, he is required to control his behavior by conscious choice, and he is provided volition by which he chooses both what he thinks and what he does. Note that thinking and acquiring knowledge also require a man to choose to do those things.

[NOTE: The three aspects of human consciousness: volition, intellect, and rationality, comprise the human mind. See the chapter, "Mind."]

The Nature of Volition

Volition does not mean, "free will." It does not mean one can choose to do just anything. No one can choose to do anything that is physically, biologically, psychologically, or logically impossible. Volition does not determine what a person can or cannot choose. Volition means that anything a human being does he must consciously choose to do.

It is reality itself that determines the limits of what an individual can choose and that reality includes the nature of all that exists. Within the scope of what is really possible, a human being may choose anything.

When I say that everything a human being does must be consciously chosen, I mean what an individual does as a human being. Reflexes, the behavior of the autonomic nervous system, and strictly biological functions are not exclusive to human beings. All behavior that requires knowledge, which for human beings means almost everything they do, from eating to writing a computer program, must be consciously chosen. Conversely, no human being is compelled to choose anything. Whatever a human being chooses to do they could choose not to do, and whatever a human being chooses not to do they could choose to do.

Volition, the ability and necessity to consciously choose all one does is obvious to anyone who honestly examines their own conscious behavior. The simplest test is to simply sit down and determine not to choose to do anything. That itself, of course, is a choice, but once made, if one makes no other choices, they will do nothing, and if they stick to it, they will die. I doubt that it would be possible for anyone to maintain such an experiment, but to stop it, they will have to choose to do something else.

The most important attribute of volition is not that it makes choice possible, but that it makes choice necessary. To live, a human being must act, and to act, a human being must choose to act. Consciously choosing is how a human lives.

Volitional Responsibility

Since everything a human being does is chosen, it means each individual is responsible for everything they do. Nothing makes anyone behave the way they do—not their heredity (genetics), not their environment, not their feelings, not their desires, not their peers, not their psychology, and certainly not their physiology. It is true that some things, like an individual's knowledge and experience, can limit the kind of choices available to them. Such limitations do not determine what anyone actually chooses, however, it only decreases the range of possible choices.

Every individual is provided with all they need to live successfully and happily and to be all they can be as a human being. It means, an individual's every shortcoming and failure is the result of their own choices and actions. It means, if one is not happy, it is their own fault. This is true because everyone's life is the sum of all the choices they have made and the actions their choices have determined. It is not the only reason, but is one of the reasons so many people seem to be terrified of the one attribute that makes them truly human, their volitional nature, because it also makes them responsible for their own success or failure and for who and what they are.

It is not necessary to understand all the possible reasons volition is despised or why so many philosophers have labored to repudiate it, but their influence has been very great and it is good to understand what is wrong with the most common of their sophistic arguments.

Denials of Volition

The broadest repudiation of volition (mistakenly referred to as "free will") is the concept of determinism. The essential argument is, if everything is determined then there cannot be "free will." To make this argument in terms of volition it would have to go something like this: "Every event is determined and therefore could not be other than what it is which excludes volition because any supposed choice, being determined, could not have been anything other than what it is. Real choice means the chooser could have chosen something other than what was chosen."

The concept of determinism is a good and important one, but it is not well understood. Everything is determined. Nothing happens without a reason. Unfortunately, determinism is usually explained in terms of a poorly defined concept of cause. The wrong way of viewing cause is: "every event is caused by a preceding event and the same causing event will always produce the same resulting event." In the entire history of the world there have probably never been two identical events, and events actually do not cause events. Events are only the behavior of entities and every event is determined by the nature of the acting entities, and it is the nature of the entities that determines the events.

If determinism must be expressed in terms of cause, than cause must be described in terms of the entities that determine the action, such as: "it is the nature of the entities that act that cause their behavior." At the physical level, the principle is: "the same entities in the same context (relationship to all other entities) will always behave in the same way." This still does not help us understand exactly what determinism is, however.

If we are to have any knowledge about anything, reality must be determined. It would be impossible to know anything about a world where just anything could happen with no reason or relationship to anything else. It is only if the behavior of all things is determined that knowledge of reality is possible. But determined does not mean, "caused," it means behaving in way that can be described in terms of principles which are absolute and inviolable. At the physical level, those principles are the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, for example. Those laws do not cause the physical to behave as it does, they describe how it does behave. It is the nature of the physical the principles describe and it is the nature of physical things that determines how they behave.

In the same way, it is the nature of living things that determines how they behave. Unlike nonliving things, it is not possible to observe the characteristic (life) that differentiates living organism from mere physical entities, and therefore impossible to predict exactly how any organism will act since it is the life of the organism, and its specific nature, that determines the behavior of an organism.

The behavior of physical entities is predictable because that behavior is determined by principles which describe the nature of that which can be observed. The behavior of organisms is determined, but it is determined by principles, part of which describe what cannot be observed (life), and therefore cannot be predicted.

The behavior of all living organisms is unpredictable, and more unpredictable the more sophisticated an organism is. The most unpredictable of all organisms are human beings, because they are volitional. Human behavior is determined by conscious choice, and since consciousness is not a physical attribute, it is not determined by physical laws or even by what determines other animal behavior (instinct), both of which it transcends.

[NOTE: Physical determinism is necessary if volition is to be possible. Volition is dependent on making informed choices. If the consequences of actions cannot be known, than no real choice is possible, because there would be no way of preferring one choice to another, since the results of a choice could not be known. If the physical world is not ordered in terms of discoverable principles, then volition, reason, and knowledge would not be possible. Since all organisms are also physical entities, the physical aspects of even living things is determined by physical principles. It is only living behavior which is unpredictable.]

[NOTE: The non-physical nature of life, consciousness, and the human mind is fully explained in the chapters, "Life," "Consciousness," and, "Mind." The true nature of cause is explained in the, "Cause, Induction, and Math," chapter.]

Except for determinism, all other denials of volition are actually contradictions. Most of these views are mixed, claiming that individuals can choose what they do, but making contrary assertions that something else determines what individuals choose, such as a sinful nature (religion), irresistible impulses, inborn desires, chemical imbalances, or heredity (psychology), or even external things, such as environmental or social influences, or economic pressures (politics and sociology).

Any or all of such things can influence what a person knows, thinks, or feels, but none of them determine any particular choice anyone makes. If anything made a person behave in some way, that behavior would not be chosen behavior at all. Such an individual would not be responsible for behavior beyond their conscious control, but such an individual would also, at least to the extent their behavior was not chosen, not be human. We call such beings insane, which is exactly what not being in conscious control of one's own behavior is. Those who argue that human beings do not have volition or that volition is limited or determined in some way are arguing that human beings are all insane.

Volition and Knowledge

Human behavior includes thinking and all other mental processes. If human thought, which includes the process of learning, is not volitional, then it is determined by something else, like the laws of physics.

If the human mind is determined then what we call knowledge is nothing more than a physical condition with no more meaning than a rock sitting on the ground—it's not knowledge, it's just a predetermined state. If the human mind is not volitional then what we call thinking is nothing more than a physical process with no more sense then the course of a river determined by the landscape—it's not thinking, it's just a meaningless event.

If human conscious behavior is not volitional, then neither knowledge or reason are possible. If human beings truly have knowledge and can reason (without which there is no knowledge), then they must be volitional beings. It cannot be both ways. If you know anything and can think, than you are a volitional being. If you are not a volitional being, you know nothing and cannot think.