What is will? It is related to intentionality and becomes that which allows us to act in a voluntary way. There are etymological roots to be found in the Sanskrit vrnoti – chooses, prefers – or the Greek elpis – hope. If we think of the power of will, or willpower, we can associate it with another Greek term thymos, which is alike to spiritedness and was used by the Greeks to describe the way the gods inspire us into action. In the Homeric world of the Iliad it was the gods that moved men to action through the agent of thymos.
So, is will just an agent in the mind that we can turn on and off at will? The pun here was unintentional, but interesting none the less. In order to turn off the power of will that is driving us we need to exert another more powerful will. So will has different faces. It is not desire exactly, but rather that which drives or tames our desires. It does not decide actions – our reason does that – but it does power them. It powers our choices and preferences, it is the intentionality that can make our hopes and dreams a reality.
Traditionally, the problem of will has been anchored in where it actually comes from, which is its relation to free will. Is it, like thymos, inspired or influenced by some outside, divine force, or is it just an agent of the mind that could be associated with obstinate, determined attitudes? Of course the answer depends on your beliefs or what you’re willing to accept – which means the question of what will is, is also a question of will itself.
Will in fact is all pervasive – I’m writing about will because I have the will to do so. To tackle it then we need to firstly anchor and analyse it from just one of its facets. In order to do this, let’s define will as that which drives our desires. However, once we have done this, rather than simplifying the question what we do is reveal the complexity of the problem – who can actually say what drives our desires? If there is a force behind our desires it comes from all over the place. Most of it comes from the exterior: the propaganda machines of advertising and ideologies; the norms and collective desires of society; the family; as well as necessities for survival or well-being. Much of this may seem to be a product of our own free will because will itself feels like an interior drive. But it feels that way because the exterior has punched its own will into us via our superego or by stimulating the pleasure centre of the nucleus accumbens.
If this is the case, what hope do we have of possessing free will? Could it be that free will really is a mere fantasy?
Most of us would reject this idea. Free will is a precious idea for the individual, if not a necessary complement. Can one be an individual without free will? We certainly do not want to surrender so quickly. So, let’s analyse the situation more deeply …
How can free will be lacking in a species which seems to be so absolutely wilful?
The child asks if she can play her favourite game and you tell the child that she has been playing the same game all week and that today she will learn a new game. The child protests – she doesn’t want to learn a new game, she wants to play her favourite one. If you remain strong willed yourself and insist, you will be able to make the child learn the new game. When the child plays the new game she enjoys it. The next day you ask the child what she wants to do and she replies: “play the new game”. Which you do. And you continue doing it until you teach the child another new game.
What can we deduce from this? That we have an innate will to repeat that which we have learned to enjoy? How long does it take us to become consciously bored with our favourites?
The capitalist, market-will is geared toward the increase of the boredom-factor whilst at the same time reducing or concentrating options into simple packages. The current trend is toward a market of updates and complements for the product. It is an obsession with improving the product the consumer may already have and love. Of course, to make this politics of constant modification profitable, it has to be implemented without provoking a rejection from those who loved the original product when they are presented with the modified version. In other words, the company has to be sure that the new games it offers are better than the previous versions of it.
The result is, at times, a very aggressive invasion into the consumers’ lives from the competing companies, desperate for our allegiance to their own platform. They plague our lives, not only with a barrage of image-based and aural advertising, but make direct incursions into our lives through personal contact via the telephone, or through decades-old technique of knocking on our doors.
The advertising war becomes a way of enticing us away from our favourite game, to make their game our new favourite. So, where is our will there?
We only have two options if we remain within the system: the will to submit, or the will to resist. The only other viable step would be to try and step out of the system itself …
But what does this tell us about will itself?
(WE WILL ANSWER THAT QUESTION IN A SECOND INSTALMENT)