Last night I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine who has recently begun exploring Objectivism. During that discussion he brought up a point that I had been on somewhat shaky ground with myself. It was on free will and he asked me why one would choose to focus for the very first time. He had already assented to the idea that the most fundamental choice was whether or not to focus which as a corollary means the choice to focus on something, but his question pertained to why anyone makes that choice for the very first time as it cannot have happened by accident. His thinking on the issue was that if that first choice to focus was built into human beings in some way then that implied at least some sort of an innate idea.
However, I knew instantly that his view was mistaken as human beings are not born with any innate ideas that force anything upon us. I knew that you could show that simply through an argument using reductio ad absurdum to show the implausibility of innate ideas. Armed with this knowledge, I knew that there must be some error in his interpretation of free will and what the cause of the choice to focus was. But, I did not know offhand what his error was and this issue troubled me. It trouble me because there are no uncaused effects which means that the first time any person chooses to focus must have been caused by something and if innate ideas are out then what must that cause be? I had never come across anything in the Objectivist literature that I had read that dealt with this particular issue, so I believed it was a question worth considering.
After considering his query, I came up with an answer that I thought was worth sharing that I am going to state briefly here. I would be interested in knowing if anyone has seen or heard an analogous argument before as well as if they can see anything that might be missing from my answer.
On the First Choice to Focus:
Human beings are born with a handful of instincts. These instincts allow infants to survive before they mentally develop to the extent that they have free will and therefore the ability to focus. As we know, adults do not have instincts and must use their minds to determine how to act in order to survive. The capacity of free will and the ability to choose allow for men to choose either life promoting or life destroying actions. This implies that at some point the infant must rise from an essentially purely instinctual level to a human level possessing free will.
I believe that this what I have stated so far is straight forward and relatively obvious. However, the interesting question is what motivates an infant to choose to focus? Why do they not choose to stay unfocused? What existential fact forces infants to choose to focus? The answer is the fundamental alternative that is only available to life, the alternative of life or death. As an infants instincts fade if they do not focus and learn to eat on their own, they will perish. The reason that every infant must learn to focus is that if they do not they will experience pain (the bodies natural warning against death) and then perish. Which ultimately means that the motivation to focus for an infant is directly built in and rewarded on a biological level.
In order to survive the infant must focus and must learn to eat. This is directly rewarded with a pleasurable sensation, a life affirming sensation. This all falls directly in line with what Ayn Rand had said about how every choice any person makes leads them directly toward their own pain and death or happiness and life. In the case of an infant the only difference is this fact is even more exaggerated than in adulthood. Few adults would be capable of unfocusing their mind to the point that they could forget to eat and starve to death. An infant at a certain point must learn to eat of their own free will and I would say that chronologically this is where the first instance of focus must come into play.
To sum up, people need to focus to live and this becomes true the moment the a person rises from the instinctual level of a newborn to one of a being possessing free will. A person who chooses not to focus is ultimately marching toward their own destruction and for an infant, that gains the first vestiges of free will, this fact is only intensified and made more immediate. This shows that from the first moment that any human being can choose to focus that their very life depends on the fact that they do. This means that the motivation to focus is the same throughout the entirety of a person's life and that motivation is the desire to live.
Note: I realize that it is potentially possible that this has more to do with developmental psychology than philosophy, but I believe that I may have said something that hasn't been said before and was worth sharing. Please comment!