The Willpower Puzzle

One of my early classes in university was a course on neuroscience.  I thought the course was brilliant, I found the teacher funny and the assignments intellectually stimulating.  There was one point in the course though that gave me a moment’s pause.  I think it was the last day, and the professor was talking about what he wanted us to take away with us.  One of the points that he made was an example about drug addiction.  He said something along the lines of ‘I want you to realize that people who are addicted aren’t weak willed, that addiction is a powerful chemical compulsion.’  I remember saying to a friend later, “but what else could we mean by weak will, except for this very kind of biological inclination?”

Here’s the puzzle then – do people have different degrees of willpower?  Initially I think most people would be inclined to say yes – it is trivially true that different people can ‘resist’ or ‘endure’ better then others.  What I wonder though is whether we can truly say that one individual who exhibits more ‘willpower’ can truly be said to be having the same phenomenal experience as someone who exhibits less ‘willpower’.  Lets take the example of someone running.  Willpower cannot be quantified by the speed or the distance that the person is capable of running, because I think it is fair to say that the amount of willpower required is inversely related to fitness.  That is to say, a fit man needs less willpower to run a particular speed or distance then an unfit person.  If we left it at this though then I won’t have undermined the idea of variable willpower, I’ll have just pointed out that its difficult to quantify (no great observation).

All feats of will have a unifying feature – a contest of an agents agency against worldly compulsions.  A runner wants to run but his body wants to stop.  A drug addict wants to go clean but craves the drug.  I want to be clear here that I do not think that an agents agency needs to be in opposition to the compulsions of the world.  A runner may feel tired and decide to stop so as to not harm himself, for example.  The other side of the coin is that our agency and our conscious mind are not the same thing – I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we’ve been resisting something, and then we start thinking its actually a good idea, and then after giving in we regret our decision.  Worldly compulsions can co-opt our conscious experience.

What I’m curious about is the phenomenal variation of our breaking points.  When the Olympic runner cannot continue, does he have a similar feelingas the amateur?  When a child screams over a minor scrape, is their phenomenal experience exaggerated by their lack of experience with injury?  Is ‘willpower’ actually variable between individuals, or are we instead pointing out a difference in phenomenal experience?  To take this idea further, when I’m running I sometimes keep myself going by calculating what percentage of my run I’ve completed.  In doing so I’m trying to distract myself from the phenomenal experience of exhaustion.  That I run longer then is not me displaying greater ‘resistance’ to the phenomenal experience, but is instead a demonstration of my ability to ‘manipulate’ that experience.

I have left out of this examination another aspect of willpower.  I have only talked about ‘short-term’ willpower, but I would say that the ability to methodically and consistently manage the world’s affect on oneself is as important a concept, if not more so.  Another day, another post.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

via Blogger


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