Human Consciousness: the Mind—Volition, Reason, Intellect

Philosophers frequently refer to the human mind, but what is meant by the mind is seldom made explicit, and when it is made explicit, it is confused, or simply wrong. My purpose here is to make explicit exactly what the mind is, and ultimately to make the important distinction between the mind and what is frequently and mistakenly included in that concept, the feelings and emotions.

Characteristics of Mind

Perception is the only kind of consciousness that any creature has. Human consciousness is distinguished from the consciousness of all other creatures by three characteristics: volition, reason, and intellect. These characteristics are interdependent capabilities.

Volition is the ability to consciously choose. All choice requires knowledge and the ability to answer questions and make judgments, that is, reasoning.

Reason is the ability to think, that is to answer questions and make judgments. Reason requires volition and knowledge; volition, because a judgment is a choice; and knowledge, in order to form and answer questions.

Intellect is the ability to gain and store knowledge which is not possible without reason and volition; reason, to determine what is true (and therefore genuine knowledge), and volition to make the kind of choice which is judgment.

These three, however, are not three different things, but three aspects of the same phenomena we call the human mind. Every thought we have is a volitional act, a conscious choice, and is the manipulation of knowledge. Not everything that goes on in our consciousness is thinking, however. Much of our consciousness is occupied with feelings, and imagination, and even "day dreams" which might or might not include thinking. Often the word mind is used to include these other aspects of our consciousness, but as philosophers we should not include them, because those kinds of things apparently occupy the consciousnesses of other creatures as well. Strictly speaking, what distinguishes human consciousness from all other creatures is the unique mental function of thinking which is volitional, rational, and intellectual--that is, choosing to reason about what is known.

Now, I want to expand a little on each of these three aspects of the mind, while emphasizing these are not independent attributes, and each requires and determines the others.


I sometimes refer to the human mind as "volitional consciousness," because the essential attribute of human consciousness that distinguishes it from all other animal consciousness is volition, and is the one that makes the other attributes possible and necessary.

Volition, for human beings, is not only possible, but necessary. A human being cannot do anything, that can be chosen, without consciously choosing it. Of course, this does not include the involuntary actions such as reflexes or normal biological functions which are not chosen. Without choosing, a human being cannot do anything we consider human action from thinking, to eating a meal, to inventing an airplane.

Some human action can be habitualized, of course, and it seems that we do such things as walking, driving a car, or typing without thinking, but such actions are also under our volitional control and can be altered or stopped at any time by choice, and the original learning of such habituated behavior had to be chosen.

Of the three aspects of the human mind, volition is the fundamental attribute, and exists as a faculty from the beginning of consciousness. All knowledge has to be acquired and the ability to reason, which is really the volitional use of knowledge, must be developed.


The ability to reason is called "rationality," and since choices are made by means of reason, the human mind is also sometime referred to as "rational/volitional" consciousness.

A choice assumes knowledge—at a minimum, knowledge of what there is to choose and knowledge of which choices are preferable, which also means knowing what the consequences of choices will be. Determining which choice is preferable requires a judgment, an answer to certain questions, such as, "what is possible here?" "what will happen if I choose this," and "which of these results is the best?" The process requires both the forming of the questions and determining the answers to the questions in relation to that kind of knowledge we call our values. The answer to such questions is called a "judgment," because it makes a judgment about what is preferable in terms of our values and the consequences of the chosen action or inaction.

Choices cannot be made without a process of reason, but there is no guarantee that one's reasoning will be correct. What is guaranteed is that a failure to reason correctly will certainly result in disastrous choices. If one allows desires, whim, or feelings, or any other kind of irrationality, to determine choices, the consequences of such choices are certain to be undesirable and harmful.

The formalization of the principles of correct reason is called logic. Unfortunately, there is a great deal that goes by the name logic today which has nothing to do with correct reasoning, and is frequently inimical to it. (Logical positivism, for example.)


The word "knowledge" is used loosely to refer to many things which are not included in the meaning of the word in the philosophical sense, that is, intellectual knowledge. Intellectual knowledge requires language and is acquired and retained by means of words, which are abstract symbols for concepts or ideas.

The nature of knowledge and how it is acquired is the subject of the philosophical field of epistemology.

What Mind Is Not

Feelings, which includes our emotions and desires, are not aspects of the mind. Our conscious identification of them are aspects of the mind, that is knowledge, because those identifications are concepts, but what we are conscious of as feelings are physical states.

All feelings and desires are physiological; that is, what is being "felt" are physiological states of the body. Many things can cause feelings including one's state of fatigue, infections and reactions to them, drugs, and hormones, for example, which all have physiological causes. Others are reactions to the content of consciousness, like fear (on seeing something frightening) or anger (on experiencing an injustice). Only those feelings that arise from the intellectual content of consciousness, that is, the mind, may properly be called emotions. Only those feelings which are the result of our thoughts, our knowledge, our principles and values are truly human emotions.

While animals seem to exhibit some emotions that seem akin to human emotions, like affection and fear, whatever animals actually feel, it is not quite the same as the human emotions which are evoked by their intellectual awareness. A dog might display affection for its master, but only a human can feel affection for someone by merely thinking about them, even when they are not present. A cat might be frightened by a loud noise, but only a human being will feel fear about something that has not yet happened, like a pending visit to the dentist. Most emotions are uniquely human, depending entirely on the mind, or intellect, for their existence. Only human beings have feelings we describe as guilt or shame, pride, sadness or grief, humor, hate, and love. All of these are evoked by what we value, what we believe to be true, and what we think.

What thoughts or knowledge are associated with specific emotions is not always clear and must be learned, and is itself a kind of knowledge--knowledge of the relationships between our feelings and our thinking. We are familiar with many of those relationships.

If we do something we believe is wrong to do, the accompanying feeling is called guilt or shame. When we have accomplished something we believe is good and deserves to be recognized as such, the accompanying feeling we call pride. Learning of someones death, especially a loved one, will be accompanied by the feelings we call sadness or grief. When made conscious of something we regard as outrageous or ironic, frequently the accompanying feeling is humor. When thinking about something we regard as evil, or dangerous, or loathsome, the accompanying feeling is called hate. When we think about someone we value highly, someone important to us in every way, someone for whom we would willingly do anything to please, the accompanying feeling is called love.

[In the case of love, it is the valuing of another that is the love, the feeling is not the love, it only accompanies it. When illness or any other physiological problem limits feelings, even of love, we do not love any less because we do not "feel" as loving.]

For some emotions, the fact that the feelings are physiological reactions is quite apparent, such as blushing when conscious of shame; smiling or laughing in reaction to something we regard as humorous; or tears and crying when thinking about what is sad. Many, perhaps most, of our emotions are much more subtle, however, with little or no externally observable reaction. For all these, for example, we know the feeling that accompanies the thought of them, and usually mean by them, both the thought and the feelings: hope, discouragement, anticipation, worry and anxiety, nostalgia, inspiration, enthusiasm (verses just excitement), seriousness or gravity, silliness or lightness, moral rectitude or self-esteem, frustration, victory, disappointment, self-assurance (competence, self-sufficiency), insecurity, and poise.

Not everything we think will be accompanied by any discernible feeling, though there is probably some physiological reaction, however slight, to every thought we have. Notice, however, that when there is a feeling, there must first be the thought the feeling is a reaction to. We do not feel grief until after we learn the loved one as passed away. We do not feel anxiety unless we are actually worrying about something. Also notice, that a change in what think will change our feelings. We might be enjoying the pleasure of serious contemplation when a thought of something quite silly completely changes our feeling.

The more subtle feelings can be deceptive, because they just seem to be there, inchoate and vague. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking our feelings as just being in consciousness, or even a part of consciousness, rather than something we are conscious of.

In our every day language we frequently refer to what we feel, such as, "I feel this is a very grave situation," but what we mean is "I think this is a very grave situation," because a feeling of gravity or seriousness accompanies such thoughts; unfortunately, this is not always the case, and people will express what they feel about something, believing it is their feeling that is informing their belief, such as, "I just feel I ought to do that," having no idea why they have the feeling. This is very dangerous.

Let me end this section by summarizing: The human mind consists of the three interdependent aspects of the human consciousness we call volition, rationality, and intellect. The emotions are our consciousness of the physiological reactions of our bodies to the intellectual content of our consciousness, that is, our minds. Though our feelings are determined by the mind, and we are conscious of them, they are not part of the mind, and are non-cognitive; that is, they provide no information about anything beyond the feelings themselves. Decisions or choices influenced by feelings, which are not fully determined by reason, are irrational, and almost certain to be wrong.