Note: 'Act' here = 'A thing done'.

Imagine two acts:

  1. The act of deciding to drink.

  2. The act of drinking.

Suppose the decision to drink (Act 1) is involuntary.

Is there any mechanism by which drinking (Act 2) can retain volition?

My understanding is that the term volition entails decision; that a voluntary act cannot occur in the absence of a decision to perform it. Haggard & Lau (2013) seem to support this idea and discuss volition as a top-down and/or bottom-up process which might be random (and therefore, actually involuntary) or inhibitory (a kind of 'free-won't'). They state:

Volition refers to the capacity of humans, and other animals, to initiate actions based on internal decision and motivation

I imagine an involuntary force leading me to make the decision to drink. Then I look at my cup and try to imagine drinking voluntarily, but I can't.

The answer to this problem has significant ramifications for an argument posted here, but it is inappropriate to attach this question to the initial post, as it would constitute a distinct second question, confuse the answer stream, and miss out on the potential consideration of many users who have already visited the original post over the past year and are unlikely to encounter any addition to it. The premise at stake is:

P1: In order for an act to be voluntary, a person must decide to perform it.

(The challenge is that the decision to act might be involuntary yet the act itself might somehow retain volition and that the burden of proof is upon me to show that it can't. Hence this question).

I have no training in formal logic, so any answers which include a layman's explanation would be greatly appreciated.

  • 1
    I think you are equivocating between different meanings of the world "voluntarily". Doing something voluntarily means that you do it consciously and without compulsion. In that sense, there is no problem. The problem appears when you hypothesize some mechanical chain of events that led to the action and also redefine the term to mean something like "no mechanical chain of events led to the action". Jul 22, 2022 at 6:21
  • @DavidGudeman. Can you try to re-explain your final sentence, perhaps with reference to P1? Jul 22, 2022 at 7:14

4 Answers 4


The two acts are:

  1. The act of deciding whether to drink tea.

  2. Choosing to drink tea. (Or choosing not to drink it.)

You have turned up as a guest, and your host has asked "Would you like some tea?" You have no polite or practical option but to answer "yes, please" or "no, thank you". Making the decision is involuntary. But choosing to have some tea (or choosing not to) is up to you. You are free to make either choice - the situation doesn't force you to say "yes". So choosing to drink tea, the outcome of the decision, is voluntary.

In your previous query you are trying to create an infinite regress on "... decide to decide to decide to drink tea" by using the premises that (1) a voluntary act must be the outcome of a decision, and (2) each decision is a [voluntary] act.

I'm disputing premise (2) - I would be willing to accept that each decision is an act, but you haven't shown that it must also be voluntary.

So for the tea drinking to be voluntary, we must "decide to drink tea". OK. That's fits with our scenario of the polite guest. The first step of the induction goes through. You have had to go through a process of thinking about it. If you had said "yes" by automatic reflex, that wouldn't be a true choice. There has to be some deliberation when making a free decision.

But now we come to the second step of the induction. Do we have to "decide to decide to drink tea"? Well, if "decide to drink tea" was a voluntary act, then we must. However, in our scenario of the polite guest, this was not voluntary! We were forced to make a decision by our host!

So the inductive step fails, and we don't get an infinite regress. An involuntary decision can lead to a voluntary outcome.

The problem is equivocation on what "involuntary decision" means. We can interpret it to mean that the act of deciding whether or not to drink tea was involuntary (our host required us to answer "yes" or "no"), or we can interpret it to mean the choice was forced (our host required us to answer "yes") which I'd argue, and I think you'd agree, is not really a decision.

That's not to say that we can't have voluntary decisions in this way. The host might call you up earlier in the day and ask "When you visit later this evening, will you be wanting a cup of tea?", and you reply "Hmm. I'm not sure." and your host replies "No problem. You can decide later." Or you can say "Yes, I'd like tea when I arrive." In the latter case you "decide to decide to drink tea", the first decision is involuntary, the second decision is voluntary, and drinking tea is voluntary. Because the first decision was prompted by our host, the chain of decisions cannot in this case be forced back any further.

  • How do you justify "choosing to have some tea (or choosing not to) is up to you."? Also, if you accept P1 and part 1 of P2, you must accept P2. And, contrary to your claim, I don't assert that a decision "must also be voluntary". I assert the opposite, that a voluntary decision requires an infinite regress. There's far more in you answer to comment on, but this isn't the place for it. If you want more detail, please go to this chat. Jul 22, 2022 at 15:23

One way to frame the issue would be to look for connections and differences between the following imperatives:

  1. Do x.
  2. Decide (or choose) to do x.
  3. Intend to do x.
  4. Decide to intend to do x.
  5. Intend to decide to do x.

I think of the difference between (1) and (2) as involving a hidden disjunct: if we say, "Choose x," we implicitly refer to some other option, something ~x, so that the imperative "should" read, "Choose between x and ~x," or, "Choose to do x or ~x." Now, to say that the choice is involuntary, or deterministically caused, or whatever, is not to say that the resolution of the choice is determined strictly, but only that the setting of the choice problem itself is.

Note also the following peculiar "commands":

  1. Possibly do x.
  2. Necessarily do x.
  3. Decide to possibly do x or ~x.
  4. Possibly decide to do x or ~x.
  5. Decide to necessarily do x or ~x.
  6. Necessarily decide to do x or ~x.

With respect to (7), to me the idea of commanding someone to do something that will be necessarily done, is "absurd," or at any rate for other reasons I think that imperative syntax is unintelligible if we suppose that imperatives necessitate compliance therewith. When I tell someone to do something, I don't have a sense that my telling them what to do would force them to comply with my directive, and I wonder why I would feel angry with someone if they didn't comply, yet their lack of compliance was owing to some independent cause that did compel their noncompliance. (Though see also the issue of reactive attitudes and moral responsibility.) —With respect to (10) and (11), either command seems perhaps trivial, at least if we assume that the law of the excluded middle applies to actions/choices. (And then though Zermelo was at pains to claim that the axiom of choice "has nothing to do with" action theory as such, yet by virtue of the connections we have discovered between the LEM and Zermelo's special rule, ironically it has turned out that there might be some bearing on the practical question, from the theoretical side of things as such.) But so if the presence of a decision problem is necessitated, it could be in these terms, and yet just for that reason, it is not clear (to me, at the time of this writing) that said prior necessity (and hence involuntary conditionality) is inconsistent with the resolution of the internal disjunction itself being contingent, as far as its outcome goes.

Finally, consider:

  1. Pick a number between 0 and ℵ0.
  2. Randomly pick a number from 0 to absolute infinity (anti-zero, or V).
  3. Randomly decide between 0 and 1.
  4. Pick a real number at random.
  5. Intend to randomly pick a number from surreal -ω to ωωω.
  6. Decide to intend to randomly pick such a number.
  7. Randomly intend to randomly decide to pick any number from the range of (13).

And so on and on... (I mention these "options" only to highlight the ambient question of randomness and free will, modulo decision problems being caused even if their solutions are not. I have an intuition that, "Randomly decide to do x," and, "Decide to randomly do x," are both wrongheaded, yet there is a subtle difference between them, so their wrongness is not identical (but see (19) below).)

Addendum. Three other peculiar imperatives:

  1. Spontaneously do (or decide to do) x. (This might be what someone means to say when they "wrongly" say, "Randomly do (or decide to do) x." It might be equivalent to, "Do x for no reason at all," or perhaps, "Do x just for the sake of doing x.")
  2. Do something you would only be able to do if you had incompatibilist free will/when given the choice between x and ~x, do that which you could only do (or decide to do) if you had incompatibilist free will.
  3. Pair doing x or ~x with the outcome of tossing a quantum coin (a coin that somehow lands on heads or tails due to quantum fluctuations). Intend to do x if the coin comes up heads, ~x if it comes up tails.

An edit come quite lately... Let's say the following sequence represents a possible implementation of (retrograde) iterated decision operations:

  1. ORelim(A OR B) = the act.
  1. (A OR B) = The fact that I will have done A or I will have done B.
  1. ((A OR B) OR NOT(A OR B))
  1. (((A OR B) OR NOT(A OR B)) OR NOT((A OR B) OR NOT(A OR B)))
  1. &c. ... (I think the increase = 2 times 2 times 2 times ... such that, even if countably many times, we end up with uncountably/Continuum-many disjuncts)

If we had to decide-to-decide forever and ever as such, we would, I think, have to interject a moment of ORelim at every stage. I'm not saying that's possible or impossible; for now, anyway, it just sounds like a logically interesting description (or: a description of a logically interesting structure, or whatever along that line).

  • Okay. So, is there a relatively succinct way of answering 'Is there any mechanism by which drinking (Act 2) can retain volition?'. Can you describe - via example - how this might occur? If you've done so, I apologise, but some of what you wrote was too complex for me to relate back to the question. Are you saying there is a flaw with P1? Ie: Is it possible for an act to be voluntary in the absence of a decision to perform it? Jul 22, 2022 at 7:20
  • 1
    I must confess I have not provided an absolute proof of these descriptions, and I am flying in the face of Kant's prohibition on attempts to describe transcendental freedom within the domain of spacetime functionality, but perhaps he was not so faithful to his commandment, either (see e.g. his distinction between Wille and Willkür). Jul 22, 2022 at 11:05
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    @Futilitarian, imagine a chain of event-facts A, B, C, ... and write this as A → B → C → ,,, → Y → (Z or ~Z) → Z. Now though A might be framed by "A or ~A" in terms of the LEM, here we say that when event-facts have disjoint causes/effects, the disjunction is not always merely "logical," but "real" or "substantial" (in terms of how Kant, for example, differentiated logical and real predicates). This might be a way to describe a decision being caused strictly (as an event-fact) while "indeterminately" leading to an effect. Jul 23, 2022 at 14:22
  • 1
    Since you said you don't have formal training in formal logic, perhaps studying Nietzsche's will-to-power is ideal for you to further understand the relation between volition/will and intellectual decision. N's will-to-power is subtly different than previous philosophers' seemingly natural and innocuous will-to-will, will-to-live, will-to-pleasure first principles, etc, and it's the critical step-stone to possibly further understand the sources of all realities including volition in an intellectual manner... Jul 23, 2022 at 21:18
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    @KristianBerry indeed will-to-power is so primordial and powerful that it must be guided by reason for most common matters arised at the novel level. But reasons alone cannot explain fundamental matters such as Kripkenstein rule-following paradox. Another example is we certainly can share and agree with many exact intersubjective terms/propositions though we never consciously experience the same phenomenon as there're no two exactly same leaves in the world and our sense organs either, actually we often will to agree as power could be found here, if not found we could will otherwise... Jul 24, 2022 at 17:37

From MW's 'voluntary':

1 : proceeding from the will or from one's own choice or consent a voluntary action voluntary cooperation 2 : unconstrained by interference : self-determining a voluntary participant 3 law a : done by design or intention : intentional was convicted of voluntary manslaughter b : acting or done of one's own free will without valuable consideration or legal obligation a voluntary conveyance 4 : of, relating to, subject to, or regulated by the will voluntary muscle movements voluntary behavior 5 : having power of free choice a voluntary agent 6 : provided or supported by voluntary action a voluntary institution/organization

Note some definitions have the word choice or decision, and some do not? Thus, some might say yes, one can do voluntary acts without making decision in so far as there may occur no indecision at all at a conscious level. Let's say you wake up and the room is on fire. Do you ponder remaining behind and burning to death, or do you instantly and without forethought leap to your feet and voluntarily run from the room to save your life? It's not entirely clear, and the ensuing conversation might go along like this:

I chose to run out of the room!
Oh, so you made a conscious choice?
No, but at some level I must have chosen it because I did it.
Then, maybe it's an affirmation of hard determinism, that we have no will.
No, I have will, and I must have used it unconsciously.
Can you prove that?
No, but it makes sense, right?

There's a different criterion raised by William James in regards to voluntary action entirely.

The concept of voluntary action was discussed by William James in his influential book The Principles of Psychology (1890). James states that for an act to be classified as a voluntary, it must be foreseen, as opposed to involuntary action which occurs without foresight.

The notion of free will is a complicated topic, and the question of will, velleity, intention, the self and decisions, and causality are complicated. After all, if you can choose freely to voluntarily act, you might noy be able to choose to choose freely, and other such complications arise; not to mention, what exactly is a choice.


Voluntary physical actions require a decision. Involuntary physical actions require a stimulus.

However, making a decision is not a physical action. The concept of volition cannot be applied to decision-making. Decisions are neither voluntary nor involuntary.

  • 1
    "Decisions are neither voluntary nor involuntary," is a very interesting take on the issue, but so do you think you could flesh this statement out a little more? I am willing to upvote your answer if you do so. This will only push it to 0 for now, as someone else has downvoted it, but still... Jul 23, 2022 at 11:54
  • Wouldn't the law of the excluded middle prevent something from being neither voluntary or involuntary? Sure it has to be one or the other... Jul 23, 2022 at 11:59
  • Decisions are not actions. Only actions are voluntary (=decided) or involuntary (=physically caused). There are no "involuntary" forces that could force you to make a certain decision. That would not be your decision anyway. No, decisions must be made alone by the agent himself. Decisions cannot be caused, forced or otherwise externally determined. Jul 23, 2022 at 12:41
  • Or, decisions as you conceive of them don't exist.
    – armand
    Jul 24, 2022 at 0:51
  • @armand I am talking about regular decisions we all make all the time. What are you talking about? Jul 24, 2022 at 3:32

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