§ 5. The Forming of a Decision. — We have yet to examine how the state of decision supervenes on that of deliberation. At this point the vexed question of freewill, as it is called, arises. According to the libertarians, the decision, at least in some cases, involves the intervention of a new factor, not present in the previous process of deliberation, and not traceable to the constitution of the individual as determined by heredity and past experience. The opponents of the libertarians say that the decision is the natural outcome of conditions operating in the process of deliberation itself. There is according to them no new factor which abruptly emerges like a Jackinthebox in the moment of deciding.
Now it must be admitted that the transition from the state of indecision to that of decision is often obscure, and that it frequently appears to be unaccountably abrupt. This makes it difficult or impossible to give a definite disproof of the libertarian hypothesis on psychological grounds. But certainly the onus probandi rests with those who maintain the intervention of a new factor which is not a development or outcome of previous conditions. If we cannot definitely disprove the presence of such a factor, we can at least say that the facts are far from compelling us to assume its existence.
Deliberation may be regarded as a state of unstable equilibrium. The mind oscillates between alternatives. First one cognitive tendency becomes relatively dominant, and then another. The play of motives passes through all kinds of vicissitudes, as the alternative courses of action and their consequences are more fully apprehended in relation to the Self. As the process advances, equilibrium tends to be restored. New developments of cognitive tendency cease to take place;
deliberation comes to a standstill because it has done its work. In this relatively stationary condition, it may be that one of the alternatives, with the motives for it, has a decided and persistent predominance in consciousness, so that the mind no longer tends to revert to the others. At this point the mind is made up, and the result is formulated in the judgment, "I will do this rather than that."
But there are other cases which present more difficulty. It may happen that deliberation comes to a standstill without any one alternative acquiring a definite predominance. The mind tends first to one and then to the other without result. No new developments occur which tend to give a superiority to either, and the result is hopeless suspense. It would seem that under these conditions no voluntary decision ought to supervene, or if it does supervene, it must be due to the intervention of a new factor and is not merely the outcome of the deliberative process. Now as a matter of fact we find that under such conditions voluntary decisions frequently do come into existence. They may even be of widereaching importance like Caesar's determination to cross the Rubicon. But probably in all such instances one or both of two traceable and recognisable conditions of a psychological kind are operative. These are (1) aversion to the continuance of painful suspense, and (2) the necessity for action of some kind. "It may be that though we are at a loss to decide between two courses of action, we are none the less fully determined not to remain inactive. Inaction may be obviously worse than either of the alternative lines of conduct. We may then choose one of them much in the same way as we take a cigar out of a box, when it is no matter which we select."* In view of the necessity for action, a comparatively slight predominance of the motives for one alternative may be sufficient to determine decision, though it would have been ineffective under other conditions. Or again, being pressed to decide, either by aversion to the state of irresolution, or by the necessity for doing something, we may simply adopt the course which seems to be uppermost in our minds at the moment, although we have no confidence that it would remain uppermost if we continued to deliberate. Or we may mentally consent to allow the decision to be determined by some irrelevant circumstance such as the fall of a penny. We determine that if heads turn up we shall do A, and that if tails turn up we shall do B. Curiously enough, the reverse frequently happens. If heads turn up we do B, and if tails turn up we do A. This is due in part to an aversion to having one's conduct determined in such an arbitrary and irrelevant way. But it often happens that immediately after the appeal to chance has been made, and has issued in favour of one alternative, the motives for the other alternative are mentally set in contrast, not with the opposing motives present in preceding deliberation, but with the trivial result of the appeal to chance. They thus acquire a momentary predominance which determines voluntary decision.
* Op. cit., p. 364.
Sometimes volition takes place before the process of deliberation has fully worked itself out. In this way, acts come to be decided on which would have been suppressed if they had been more fully considered. Here again, the necessity for acting in some way, and impatience of the state of indecision, are operative factors. But the reason often lies in the intensity of some impulse of the present Self which derives its strength, not from its relation to the total system of conduct, but from the circumstances of the moment.
In the vicissitudes through which the process of deliberation passes, it will often happen that this isolated impulse through its momentary intensity will acquire such a predominance as to arrest the full development of other motives, which, if they had come into play, would have given rise to a different decision. The decision which thus takes place after imperfect deliberation is generally called impulsive. It is not supposed to be voluntary in the same degree as that which takes place after fuller deliberation. The agent often commits the act knowing that he will live to repent it. Most cases of yielding to temptation are cases of deliberation arrested and cut short by the transient strength of a present impulse. It is in such instances that the agent is most keenly aware in retrospect that he might have acted otherwise than he actually did. He feels that the act does not fully represent his true self. If he had fully developed all the motives which were inoperative owing to imperfect deliberation, the momentary impulse might have been suppressed instead of realised.