Thesaurus searches for volition

I can’t remember how I got to this point. I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to do some proper work, but instead I’m looking at thesaurus entries for terms commonly used in the study of volition; specifically, I’m looking at ‘voluntary’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘intentional’, and ‘willed’. Because the meaning of those terms always seemed pretty obvious to me, and I’ve read and used them for a few years now, I never looked any of them up in a dictionary; although I don’t know how I got here, I’m glad I did, for it offers a handy reminder to always ensure one understands the terms one uses, when reading or writing.

Most synonyms for each term are indeed pretty obvious: For ‘willed’ they include terms such as ‘conscious’, ‘deliberate’, ‘intended’, ‘intentional’, and ‘voluntary’. The same applies to ‘intentional’ and ‘voluntary’, where most of the synonyms circle around this notion of an intended choice that was made without restrictions, with full awareness of what one was doing and what the consequences would be. There is something unexpected though when we look at synonyms for ‘spontaneous’: they’re practically the opposite of those mentioned for voluntary, intended, and willed. Synonyms for ‘spontaneous’ include ‘instinctive’, ‘involuntary’, ‘automatic’, ‘knee-jerk’. Merriam-Webster only lists one antonym for spontaneous (‘nonmechanical’[1]), but a look at the near antonyms[2] is rather interesting, because it includes all those other words I also just looked up: ‘conscious’, ‘deliberate’, ‘intended’, ‘intentional’, ‘volitional’, ‘voluntary’, and ‘willed’. It’s the same for near antonyms for the other three terms: ‘intentional’, ‘willed’, and ‘voluntary’ all include ‘spontaneous’ as a near antonym[3].

Why does this matter though? Well, it mainly sparked my interest because of a recent review by Schurger et al. (2015). Here’s the opening sentence: ‘Fifty years ago, Kornhuber and Deecke first reported their discovery of the (…) readiness potential (…), a slow build-up of scalp electrical potential preceding the onset of subjectively spontaneous voluntary movements’. In other words, they use a term, spontaneous voluntary movements, which, according to the standard definitions of the Merriam-Webster thesaurus, is almost an oxymoron.

My initial draft of this essay now included a lot of stuff that became irrelevant by my next action: I asked Aaron (Schurger) if he was aware of this seeming contradiction. My initial enthusiasm for potentially having found something very interesting was diminished quickly though when Aaron said that he used the term ‘spontaneous’ more in the sense of something being without any direct external stimulation[4], which, to be fair, is a valid definition of ‘spontaneous’, albeit not the primary one.

Even though this little exercise did not reveal anything too dramatic, it is still a useful reminder to myself to ensure that I always check what certain words that I use actually mean. It might seem like a pretty obvious and simple, almost naïve mistake to make, but if I made that mistake, there will be others who make the same mistake. Given that this whole problem only existed because I found it too boring to look into a dictionary, we can conclude that reading a dictionary is dull, but not reading a dictionary is daft.


References:, searched in November 2016

Kornhuber, H. H., & Deecke, L. (1965). Hirnpotentialänderungen bei Willkürbewegungen und passiven Bewegungen des Menschen: Bereitschaftspotential und reafferente Potentiale. Pflüger's Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie des Menschen und der Tiere, 284(1), 1-17.

Schurger, A., Mylopoulos, M., & Rosenthal, D. (2016). Neural antecedents of spontaneous voluntary movement: a new perspective. Trends in Cognitive Science, 20 (2), 77-79.


[1] Which isn’t a word according to Word

[2] I’m not too sure how exactly they define these categories, but it should be something along the lines of ‘almost the opposite of the term, but not the polar opposite’. It’s kind of ironic that a dictionary/thesaurus would not provide proper definitions for their terms, but there we are. Of course, you can look within the dictionary for definitions of ‘near’ and ‘antonym’, but not for the conjunction of the two. So the best I can do is look at those two separate words and combine them.

[3] Seriously though, why does a dictionary not have definitions of its own terms? Of course, there is still the philosophical problem of definitions per se, but I won’t get into that here because 1) I like to think of myself as an interesting person, and 2) the dictionary/thesaurus itself exists, so the creators clearly seem to value the idea of defining words. So why don’t they define precisely what a ‘near antonym’ is? It’s not like there isn’t enough space on the Internet, or they didn’t want to make their website too bulky; there are plenty of simple ways they could have incorporated this into the website. This all just seems really inconsistent. Coming to think of it, it’s this inconsistency that really gets on my nerves; it’s like they failed at their only job, the one responsibility they were given in life.

[4] Also referred to as an ‘internally-triggered action’

How to be spoluntary

Stimulating desires