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The choice to focus

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I hate to keep dragging up this topic, but the past threads I have read have not been satisfactory. I have an idea of Rand's alternative notion of causality - rather than thinking of it as actions like billiard balls bouncing, I should think of it in terms of the nature of the objects. So the primary choice to focus is on man's list of capabilities - ie, it's in his nature.

But I would like to understand it more than that. Certainly, some functions in the brain trigger the choice to focus. And by explaining it in this way, I am not falling into determinism.

What are some possible explanations for causing one to choose to focus when they had previously been unfocused? Hunger, thirst, or threat of immediate danger would seem like good examples for causing one to focus, no?

Let's say we monitor someone's brain in so much detail that we can see them making the choice to focus in the alignment of ten specific neurons. Well, what caused them to align? We can trace the signals back further and maybe see that it came from low blood sugar, or a loud noise, or sharp pain signals on the skin. Would these then be answers to the question, "what caused the choice to focus?"

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I hate to keep dragging up this topic, but the past threads I have read have not been satisfactory. I have an idea of Rand's alternative notion of causality - rather than thinking of it as actions like billiard balls bouncing, I should think of it in terms of the nature of the objects. So the primary choice to focus is on man's list of capabilities - ie, it's in his nature.

What are some possible explanations for causing one to choose to focus when they had previously been unfocused?

Causality is the nature of the entity, not, like you said, the Humean billiard ball view. Focus is a primary choice. So in this case, it is a start of a causal chain.

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Causality is the nature of the entity, not, like you said, the Humean billiard ball view. Focus is a primary choice. So in this case, it is a start of a causal chain.

So assuming that we trace the initiation of the primary choice to focus to ten specific neurons aligning, we can't then go on to ask what triggered the alignment of those neurons? It seems like it could certainly be the case that signals from hunger, pain, or noise could do it.

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Causality is the nature of the entity, not, like you said, the Humean billiard ball view. Focus is a primary choice. So in this case, it is a start of a causal chain.

The choice to focus has to be started by something, doesn't it? I don't mean a something else not human, but neurons are what allow people to make choices and thus part of the nature of humans. So *why* is there even a choice to focus? How is this first choice initiated?

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The choice to focus has to be started by something, doesn't it? I don't mean a something else not human, but neurons are what allow people to make choices and thus part of the nature of humans. So *why* is there even a choice to focus? How is this first choice initiated?

Agreed. There must be an answer to this question, and just because there is an answer, it doesn't mean free will is somehow invalidated. If, as I have suggested, hunger, pain, or loud noise can trigger it, it's simply in the nature of a human to want to live, and that includes needing food and avoiding danger.

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Let's say we monitor someone's brain in so much detail that we can see them making the choice to focus in the alignment of ten specific neurons. Well, what caused them to align? We can trace the signals back further and maybe see that it came from low blood sugar, or a loud noise, or sharp pain signals on the skin. Would these then be answers to the question, "what caused the choice to focus?"

It is not going to be just ten neurons or a hundred. Given the fan-out of neurons in the brain is typically 10,000, every neuron in the brain and its degree of excitation or non-excitation is involved in enabling or not preventing a particular neuron's firing after tracing out a few layers of interactions.

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The choice to focus has to be started by something, doesn't it? I don't mean a something else not human, but neurons are what allow people to make choices and thus part of the nature of humans. So *why* is there even a choice to focus? How is this first choice initiated?

It is started by thinking. Whether to think or evade thought is man's choice.

edit: I just checked the Lexicon and saw that Rand stated: "Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness." There's a difference in the Objectivist (Rand) definition of thinking and the act of your mind making connections and having general conceptions.

So (maybe because I'm not up to speed on the other threads here), I'm not really sure if the question here is; "What makes man choose to focus?" or "What makes man choose to really focus in that state of full awareness?" I was assuming the former.

Edited by freestyle
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Maybe, in the intial stages of a humans life, they do not make explicit attempts to focus by choice but rather by nature (by the brain). Perhaps after time passes with the development of the childs consciousness and his daily interactions, his consciousness is no longer retained to a perceptual level and is taken to a conceptual level, and this is what is what initiates his use of choice. It is the ability of introspection that seems to be responsable for choice. But this is not something that is active, at least in the same terms, in the intial part of a humans life. Maybe free will is a later development in life.

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This whole set of answers so far has been wide of the point on two issues.

First, remember the primacy of existence. Especially to begin with it is the world that one is aware of and the focus involved is focusing on reality, not just the eyes, or the percepions, but the mind. "What is that thing I see?" Even in a grown person with a good education, ultimately the question is "What is that thing I see?" Do you focus on that or not. Without reference to reality the question of focusing is back to Descartes, i.e., nonsense.

Second, what does it mean to choose to focus? This isn't a big sit down and ponder question. To begin with it means to become active and exert energy, mental energy. To focus means to engage your mind. It is not a decision in the sense of deciding what career to pursue, it is the choice to think or be passive. The meaning of "think" is not to use logic but to attempt to identify what is before us in reality, and determine what it means to us. That leads to logic and concepts, etc.

At the beginning of a person's life it is the perceptional reality that is the stimulus that prompts the choice. A blob pops up on front of our eyes, we focus our eyes, we focus our minds or maybe not. Sometimes we are successful, sometimes not, sometimes reality bites. How we react to the results helps set up the next time the situation occurs for us to focus.

The starting point is the primacy of reality and our need to understand reality, to react to reality, to adapt reality. Reality does not cause us to engage our mind, it is what our mind is connected to. Understanding reality and acting within it is what the mind is for. We may engage our mind or not, that is the choice we have.

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This whole set of answers so far has been wide of the point on two issues.

First, remember the primacy of existence. Especially to begin with it is the world that one is aware of and the focus involved is focusing on reality, not just the eyes, or the percepions, but the mind. "What is that thing I see?" Even in a grown person with a good education, ultimately the question is "What is that thing I see?" Do you focus on that or not. Without reference to reality the question of focusing is back to Descartes, i.e., nonsense.

Would it not be true that before one focuses, one cannot think? How can a choice to focus be made without thinking? That's where I'm stuck, it certainly needs to be initiated by something that is not volitional, and it can't just be reality simply put since animals perceive reality too. I suppose it is just that humans have a far more evolved brain and initial processing of reality will ultimately lead to the first choice, i.e. whether or not to focus?

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Would it not be true that before one focuses, one cannot think? How can a choice to focus be made without thinking? That's where I'm stuck, it certainly needs to be initiated by something that is not volitional, and it can't just be reality simply put since animals perceive reality too. I suppose it is just that humans have a far more evolved brain and initial processing of reality will ultimately lead to the first choice, i.e. whether or not to focus?

Your question is answered directly in an "Intellectual Ammunition Department" article in The Objectivist Newsletter, April, 1964:

To understand the process of focussing, one must understand the conept of "level of awareness." This concept refers to the degree of active cognitive integration in which a mind is engaged....Thus there are degrees of consciousness; the alternative is not simply absolute unconsciousness or optimal consciousness.

To focus is to move from a lower level of consciousness to a higher level - to move from mental passivity to purposeful mental activity - to initiate a process of directed cognitive integration.

To use the full power of your mind you must move it to start working, you have to move it to think. Consider thinking to be a use of energy and that to use it your mind must be started, it must focus. Only the mind can focus itself. Nothing else can do it. In the January issue of that year is the first article on volution. Go read both articles. In fact, go read the Newsletter from start to finsh. You will find it interesting and enjoyable.

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I find this very interesting, and as given out in my recent posts, personally necessary. First question, why is this thread on Epistemology and not in Psychology, and then how are both disciplines intertwined and defined from each other?

Ever hear of "psycho-epistemology"? It is a concept well worth exploring. I think it was introduced in the Newsletter.

I wonder. How many people have read The Objectivist Newsletter or The Objectivist? I suppose that many have just read what was republished in the books. If so, you are missing some real jewels and you have not actually read all of AR's works.. Also, you are missing many ideas that were broached as the philosophy was explained and expanded. There are also many phamletts that she wrote that were not republished, e.g., Textbook on Amerianism. Has Faith and Force been republished? If not, find it.

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  • 2 weeks later...
The choice to focus has to be started by something, doesn't it?

Yes, it is self-initiated.

I don't mean a something else not human, but neurons are what allow people to make choices and thus part of the nature of humans. So *why* is there even a choice to focus? How is this first choice initiated?

It is self-initiated. There is no "why."

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So assuming that we trace the initiation of the primary choice to focus to ten specific neurons aligning, we can't then go on to ask what triggered the alignment of those neurons? It seems like it could certainly be the case that signals from hunger, pain, or noise could do it.

You don't "trace" the initiation of a self-caused choice.

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  • 3 weeks later...
Certainly, some functions in the brain trigger the choice to focus. And by explaining it in this way, I am not falling into determinism.

I don't understand why you are so certain about that. Couldn't the choice originate in the non-physical, in the mind?

Because choosing to focus is not going from "no mind" to "mind," it is going from "less focussed mind" to "more focussed mind." In fact it would seem to me the first place to look is the mind.

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I don't understand why you are so certain about that. Couldn't the choice originate in the non-physical, in the mind?

What is non-physical about the mind? The fact that higher concepts don't refer to physical existents in reality does not render the mind non-real, any more than the existence of files on an operating system renders the computer non-real.

The files exist as a higher concept, and the physical evidence for their existence is the motion of the hard drive and switching of bits in the memory. Likewise, there should be some physical evidence of the choice to focus in the brain, and we should be able to follow that evidence to observe the interactions that preceded them. We might eventually conclude, "the choice to focus is caused by stimulation of the senses, such as a sudden loud sound or bright light, or by internal triggers for the feeling of hunger or thirst."

If you claim that the choice to focus involves no interactions in the brain (or body), then it does not occur.

Edited by brian0918
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What do you mean by "non-physical".

By non-physical I mean entities that don't possess the attributes of weight or spatial extension, but nevertheless exist, such as ideas.

What is non-physical about the mind? The fact that higher concepts don't refer to physical existents in reality does not render the mind non-real, any more than the existence of files on an operating system renders the computer non-real.

What is the weight of "love" - what is the spatial extension of "justice" - in that sense the mind is non-physical.

The files exist as a higher concept, and the physical evidence for their existence is the motion of the hard drive and switching of bits in the memory. Likewise, there should be some physical evidence of the choice to focus in the brain, and we should be able to follow that evidence to observe the interactions that preceded them. We might eventually conclude, "the choice to focus is caused by stimulation of the senses, such as a sudden loud sound or bright light, or by internal triggers for the feeling of hunger or thirst."

If you claim that the choice to focus involves no interactions in the brain (or body), then it does not occur.

Why does there have to be a physical thing that precedes every non-physical? If we (humans) are a combination of both the physical (brain/body) and non-physical (ideas) why can't some things originate in the physical side and some in the non-physical? Even granted that the non-physical depends on the physical for it's continued existence, it doesn't follow that everything has to start on the physical side.

Maybe some things, such as hunger, start on the physical side and are noticed after the fact by the non-physical mind, and some things, such as the choice to focus, originate in the non-physical mind and are followed shortly after by action in the physical brain.

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Even ideas have physical analogs in some form.

That may be true scientifically (I don't know), but philosophically, just because an entity does not have certain attributes (such as weight or spatial extension), it does not follow automatically it needs an analog object elsewhere in the universe.

I wonder - when forming a concept we attach a word to it, which is a perceptual concrete - a sound. Could the word be a proxy to allow a brain that evolved from perceptual beginnings to deal with abstract ideas. With the ideas themselves non-physical, so the analog is there, but it's not some neuron graph representing the idea in it's entirety, but just a simple proxy (though maybe still a neuron graph).

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That may be true scientifically (I don't know), but philosophically, just because an entity does not have certain attributes (such as weight or spatial extension), it does not follow automatically it needs an analog object elsewhere in the universe.

Of course it does. Ideas only exist in brains. Even when written on paper or on a computer, those scribblings can only be deciphered by a brain and turned into ideas in that brain. Identify a non-physical concept or existent, and I will show you how it connects to reality. A non-physical existent that is not a higher concept built on the pre-existence of a physical existent is a contradiction.

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The choice to focus or to remain out of focus is a fundamental choice made possible by the fact that you are human. If you are looking for the cause of that, you are the cause; the choice to focus is a self-caused act of training your mind onto something. I don't think we need to get into the relationship between mind and brain in this thread. The mind is what you are aware of when you introspect, and you know there are times when you are not conscious --i.e. when you are sleeping -- to when you are in full focus -- i.e. when you are considering a philosophical question requiring the full use of your mind. The choice to focus is done by you, you are the entity that brings that action into fruition -- you are the entity that trains you mind onto something that you are puzzling through. It's really that simple. All the other views of it are assuming the billiard ball type of causation, such as hunger or danger makes you focus your mind. I don't think that is the case -- you focus your mind, and no outside awareness can lead to that focus without you engaging your own mind.

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That may be true scientifically (I don't know), but philosophically, just because an entity does not have certain attributes (such as weight or spatial extension), it does not follow automatically it needs an analog object elsewhere in the universe.

I wonder - when forming a concept we attach a word to it, which is a perceptual concrete - a sound. Could the word be a proxy to allow a brain that evolved from perceptual beginnings to deal with abstract ideas. With the ideas themselves non-physical, so the analog is there, but it's not some neuron graph representing the idea in it's entirety, but just a simple proxy (though maybe still a neuron graph).

As a scientific phenomenon, it would be more accurate to describe ideas as existents than entities, precisely because of the difficulty in locating them physically and specifying their attributes. We don't know what ideas are yet, but assigning entity status to them is an a priori commitment to a particular theory. As an existent it is permissible for an idea to be a relation or an action, an activity of the brain and brain cells.

Epistemologically ideas and concepts are or should be distinguishable by their referents and definitions, they can be regarded as units and so as entities in an extended, very abstract sense.

Not every idea is a concept, words may have originated as proper nouns, the names of things and other people. Being able to recall the name in the absence of the referent is itself an act of abstraction. The invention of the word was important, an understatement of the case.

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