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Volition in Animals

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I'm always amazed that Conrad seems to take an instant liking to some dogs at the dog park, and an instant dislike to others. However, this story of instant love between an oragutan and a dog takes the cake:

Unlike my friend Kelly, I don't think that the video suggests that the orangutan exercises volition. Volition (or free will) is not merely the power to choose between alternatives based on values. It requires reason; it's the power to focus one's rational mind or not, simply as a matter of will. That's not evident in this video... yet nor can the behavior be explained by vacuous appeals to "instinct." Instead, the orangutan exhibits highly complex behavior, probably largely based on associational learning and imagination. He doesn't seem to have concepts though, and that means no reason and no volition.

I propose that his actions should be described as "voluntary" but not "chosen." As per Aristotle's usage, some action is voluntary if (1) the agent has the power to do or not do the action and (2) he knows what he's doing at the moment of action. To act by choice requires more: it requires acting based on rational deliberation, meaning the exercise of volition.

Aristotle thought that some beasts act voluntarily at least sometimes, and I agree with that. More neurologically advanced animals seem to have the power to act voluntarily on a perceptual level: they can do or not do some action, in part based on their power to direct their own perceptual-level attention. So a dog can voluntarily prevent itself from chasing the cat by directing its attention elsewhere. And animals have the power to know what they're doing, in a perceptual way, as opposed to when they're acting on some kind of mistake. So that dog knows whether he's chasing the cat or playing with his toy. Hence, the dog does act voluntarily but not by volitional choice.

In short, we need to be careful about what we mean by "volition" when attributing that to animals. Also, we must keep in mind that denying volition to animals is not equivalent to claiming that they're deterministic robots. Some more subtlety is needed, I think. And that can be found in Aristotle -- particularly Book 3, Chapters 1-5 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

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Cross-posted from Metablog

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It seems to me that such an important distinction should not be made by means of two words having the same Latin root (voluntary vs. volitional).

I was thinking the same thing. There definitely needs to be more research done in this area. Simply agreeing to use two different words doesn't answer anything.

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Volition (free will) is not merely the power to choose between alternatives based on values. It requires reason; it's the power to focus one's rational mind or not, simply as a matter of will.

Volition does not require reason. Reason requires volition.

Volition is not the power to focus one's "rational mind." One can not be rational until and unless one's mind has already been focused.

The choice to focus one's mind is the primary choice, prior to any reasoning.

If you want proof you are gong to need to honestly introspect.

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Alright, let's clarify exactly what you're disagreeing with. What is volition?

dianahsieh states,

"Volition (or free will) is not merely the power to choose between alternatives based on values. It requires reason; it's the power to focus one's rational mind or not, simply as a matter of will."

She obviously has some knowledge of O'ism and chooses to bring in the idea of "focusing one's mind," in relation to volition.

But then she artificially narrows the concept by stating volition requires reason, especially in the phrase:

"[volition] is the power to focus one's rational mind or not, simply as a matter of will."

According to everything I know of volition including my first hand introspection, and my review of O'ist literature including Harry Binswanger's course on "Freewill," the concept of volition cannot validly be delimited this way.

My position agrees with L. Peikoff's statement in OPAR page 56:

"Volition subsumes different kinds of choices. The primary choice, according to Objectivism, the one that makes conceptual activity possible, is the choice to focus one's consciousness" (OPAR, 56).

Note the sentence, "The primary choice, according to Objectivism, the one that makes conceptual activity possible, is the choice to focus one's consciousness"

In O'ist term "focus" (focusing one's mind) is a "volitional" act. Peikoff defines focus as:

"'Focus' (in the conceptual realm) names a quality of purposeful alertness in a man's mental state. 'Focus' is the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality" (OPAR, 56).

After a certain degree of mental focus is achieved, one can then engage more sophisticated forms of mental regulation, including simple to complex reasoning.

Peikoff clarifies the relationship between the volitional act of focusing and thinking:

"Focus is not the same as thinking; it need not involve problem-solving or the drawing of new conclusions. Focus is the readiness to think and as such the precondition of thinking" (OPAR, 58).

Focusing is a volitional act, and it is not thinking, it is non-conceptual, i.e., it is pre-conceptual; pre-rational, i.e., it is a necessary condition of engaging in conceptualization (the essence of thinking/rationality).

If volitional is artificially delimited to "the power to focus one's rational mind or not, simply as a matter of will," we implicitly undercut the O'ist basis for the axiomatic concept of volition.

* * *

There is no reason why a given animal cannot possess a primitive form of volition. If a given non-human animal did possess a form of volition this would have no negative implications for man or society. Possessing volition is not a sufficient condition for rights or any other negatively man-impacting implication. Man still maintains his particular identity as a rational being, regardless of what attributes some other species possesses.

Edited by phibetakappa
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PBK, my question was much simpler. I understand why Diane's statement isn't correct; what I wanted to know -- if you have an answer to the question -- is, what is "volition"? I know it is not focus, reason, rationality: I don't want to know what it isn't. Can you define it, in the sense "make clear what the concept refers to"? If not, fine. However, I am concerned over this statement:

There is no reason why a given animal cannot possess a primitive form of volition
I cannot imagine what a 'primitive form of volition' could be. Man has free will; animals do not. What possible middle ground is there?
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What evidence would be accepted to show animals have volition? Tool creation, language use, a lack of tail, fur and scales?
I have no idea, until it's clarified what, precisely, 'volition' refers to. Language also requires a conceptual faculty, so use of language is too strong a condition. I don't see why tool creation (were it ever attested with animals) would be evidence of volition.
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I don't see why tool creation (were it ever attested with animals) would be evidence of volition.

It is attested with animals regularly, notably with the great apes but arguably with some birds as well. Of course then we started to argue among the class what really constitutes a tool (if you throw out the hammer and anvil chimps use to open nuts you pretty much have to throw out the Oldowan tool industry of early Homo as well). You are correct that tool use and volition are separate lines of discussion, however. The nitpicky biologist must be coming out in me today since I'm cramming five or six papers into my head today. Incidentally, they're on ape language, so they might interest you.

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Note that the claim / question was about tool creation. (Later you speak of tool use). So what are the details of ape tool creation, where an animal manufactures an object out of something, for some purpose.

Usually it consists of taking a branch or stem and stripping off the leaves and/or shaping it (perhaps chewing on the end to create a brush) and then using it, generally to acquire food. In more experimental lab settings chimps and other apes have had to either construct or deconstruct a particular object in order to render it appropriate for getting food from whatever orifice the experimenters have constructed.

There was an interesting report about a gorilla in the wild who pulled up a small tree and used it as a depth probe, then a bridge to cross a mucky area (laying it down and walking on it), but our class could not decide whether that counts as tool use. Where is the line between tool use and tool creation? What constitutes a tool? We discovered during our discussion that under a broad enough definition of tool use even nest-building behavior could count, which is of course widespread, but that sort of behavior is not what we normally consider "tool use".

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To clarify my post: Volition requires the capacity to reason. It requires "reason" in the sense of the faculty, not in the sense of being engaged in the act of reasoning. That's the standard Objectivist view: reason and volition are co-extensive.

My apologies for any confusion.

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As an example of tool use (not necessarily tool creation, since these animals were taught to use the tool) - here is the recent news story about capuchin monkeys being taught to use money as a placeholder for value, which they subsequently began using to buy food, toys, sex, etc. Some saved up their money, some tried to steal money from others, and others even fashioned counterfeit currency in an attempt to trade.

Edited by brian0918
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Wait, I read the thing on the monkeys and coins before. It says they didn't save their coins up and I don't think I recall it saying they tried to counterfeit coins so much as something else was similar enough at least once it was mistaken for one of the coins and they tried to trade it in like it was one. All it says is they started to eat a cucumber slice and then tried to trade it, it doesn't say they ate a whole in the middle specifically. And they never traded for toys, just a couple kinds of food and maybe one time, though not encouraged by the researcher, sex which the monkey hooker then took their coin right away to try to trade it in for more food.

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To clarify my post: Volition requires the capacity to reason. It requires "reason" in the sense of the faculty, not in the sense of being engaged in the act of reasoning.
Okay, so are you saying that the concept "volition" is logically dependent on the fact of a being having the capacity to reason (regardless of its exercise)? If a being has no capacity to reason, then it has no volition. Would you say that if a being has a capacity to reason, then it has volition? A propos which:
That's the standard Objectivist view: reason and volition are co-extensive.
What, specifically, did Rand say that in your opinion clarifies this co-extensiveness?
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Okay, so are you saying that the concept "volition" is logically dependent on the fact of a being having the capacity to reason (regardless of its exercise)? If a being has no capacity to reason, then it has no volition. Would you say that if a being has a capacity to reason, then it has volition? A propos which:What, specifically, did Rand say that in your opinion clarifies this co-extensiveness?

I don't recall whether it's been explicitly discussed in precisely those terms anywhere, but that relationship between reason and volition is required by the Objectivist conception of volition as the power to think or not. Peikoff discusses it in those terms in OPAR:

"The actions of consciousness required on the sensory-perceptual level are automatic. On the conceptual level, however, they are not automatic. This is the key to the locus of volition. Man's basic freedom of choice, according to Objectivism, is: to exercise his distinctively human cognitive machinery or not; i.e., to set his conceptual faculty in motion or not. In Ayn Rand's summarizing formula, the choice is: 'to think or not to think.'"

And further discussion can be found in Nathaniel Branden's many essays on volition published in _The Objectivist Newsletter_ and _The Objectivist_.

The two basic points are:

(1) Volition is the activation of conceptual consciousness, i.e. of reason. So volition requires reason. (That should be obvious, I hope.)

(2) Any process of reasoning (including concept formation and logical inference) requires the exercise of choice in the content and intensity of thought, as well as the choice to think. So reason requires volition. (That's a more subtle point, but see Peikoff's discussion of the role of volition in objectivity in OPAR.)

Hence, volition and reason are co-extensive: they are merely two aspects of the same phenomena.

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PBK, my question was much simpler. I understand why Diane's statement isn't correct; what I wanted to know -- if you have an answer to the question -- is, what is "volition"? I know it is not focus, reason, rationality: I don't want to know what it isn't. Can you define it, in the sense "make clear what the concept refers to"? If not, fine.

I do understand your point about the potential trouble of stating what is not subsumed under a given concept, i.e., the potential problems with negative definitions.

But, focus in this case is an instance of volition i.e., focus according to O'ism is subsumed under the concept volition. So, "focus" is not an example of stating what volition is not, but it is an example of what volition is. My point being that we cannot exclude focus as an instance of volition, which needs to be consider as part of the entire context of what volition is.

I will work on "defining" volition. Given volition is an axiomatic concept it will be difficult. Likely we are going to be left with a sort of ostensive definition. Off the cuff I'd say,

The ability of animals to choose how to direct their actions

However, I am concerned over this statement:I cannot imagine what a 'primitive form of volition' could be.

I meant "primitive" in the sense of a form of volition that does not involve the sort of complex mental regulation that humans do on the conceptual level. We bring our minds into focus, then we choose to think, then the process of thinking is essentially a process of asking and answering questions. This process of asking and answering questions is volitionally regulated. We can choose how to manage our minds, (except for the psycho-epistemological aspects of thinking.)

Now, to my knowledge there are no conceptual animals except human beings. So, obviously no animal is going to be engaged in the complexity of asking and answering questions, because they can't form questions without concepts. (Also, given that values are certain kinds of concepts, animals will have no meta-ethical behavioral regulation guiding their actions, in the sense of not having conceptual goal-direction guiding their actions.)

Here is what Ayn Rand has "hesitantly" to say about a primitive form of volition with regard to preconceptual infants.

Prof. A: Abstraction is a volitional act. Is that right?

AR: Oh yes.

Prof. D: Then how do I go about abstracting the very first time? How do I know what to do,

volitionally? Unless I first had the idea of abstraction, how could I proceed to will to

abstract?

AR: No, you do something else volitionally. That is, you abstract volitionally, but you don't

will it directly the first time. Do you know what you will? You will to observe. You use your

senses, you look around, and your will is to grasp, to understand. And you observe similarities.

Now, you don't know yet that this is the process of abstraction, and a great many people never

grasp consciously that that's what the process is. But you are engaged in it once you begin to

observe similarities.

And although I hesitate to talk about volition on the preconceptual level—because the subject

isn't aware of it in those terms—even a preconceptual infant has the power to look around or not

look, to listen or not listen. He has a certain minimal, primitive form of volition over the

function of his senses.

But volition in the full sense of a conscious choice, and a choice which

he can observe by introspection, begins when he forms concepts— at the stage where he has a

sufficient conceptual vocabulary to begin to form sentences and draw conclusions, when he can

say consciously, in effect, "This table is larger than that one"—that he has to do volitionally.

If he doesn't want to, he can skip that necessity, and you can observe empirically that too many

people do, on too wide a scale" (ITOE, 150).

You stated,

Man has free will; animals do not. What possible middle ground is there?

I could understand being so adamant to claim animals don't have concepts. But there is plenty of first hand, observable information to support the existence of some form of volition in some animals.

Man is a certain kind of animal, and I know of no evidence that precludes other animals from having the ability to choose their actions, on a non-conceptual level.

Children from conception to birth, from infancy to adolescence; developmentally progress basically through all the stages that most non-human animals take. That is their development takes them from being a piece of protoplasm to embryo etc, etc. etc. For a brief period after they are born, like any higher animal, they experience only the perceptual level of consciousness. Behaviorally, they act and engage their environment like any chimp or intelligent dog would.

I've observed this first hand with both my infant son and my dog.

If you observe closely you can watch an infant progress from a writhing, non-volitional animal (degree by degree) to something obviously volitionally directing its perceptual senses; then later to something of a hybrid state of consciousness, flirting with conception. The child remains for months like this, before it ever shows any sign of even implicitly knowing its first word, and then its first concept.

In this sense we observe the child behaving exactly as Ayn Rand describes here:

And although I hesitate to talk about volition on the preconceptual level—because the subject isn't aware of it in those terms—even a preconceptual infant has the power to look around or not look, to listen or not listen. He has a certain minimal, primitive form of volition over the function of his senses" (ITEO, 150).

It is in this sense that an animal could have volition. And in my opinion, it is in this sense that some animals such as "intelligent" dogs do have volition.

In the case of my dog, and the dozens I've observed, the dog not only "has the power to look around or not look, to listen or not listen," there are definite indications of other "selections". (Note: I use scare quotes here because I am aware of the danger of anthropomorphizing, and I am aware of the dangers of trying to apply concepts meant to describe human behavior such as "choice," or "selection" to describe animals.)

Obviously, as we know dogs are non-conceptual so the dog is not conceptualizing its environment, it is not engaged in measurement-omission, and thus does not discover "similarities" and differences as described in ITOE.

As one example of what can be observed in the case of my dog. My dog has a "vocabulary" of probably a dozen words such as sit, stay, roll over etc. Also, I have words and phrases for 1) "do you want to go outside" and "do you want food." I have tested and the dog keys in on the phrase "do you want...", she will sit and intently focus until I give her the 2 alternatives, either "go outside," or "food."

When she hears "food" and she has to urinate, she will get quiet settle down, and wait, until I give her the next alternative. When she hears "go outside," she gets very excited, and barks and jumps.

But, if I don't move, and ignore her response, then ask again, "do you want..." and pause; she will settle down, and her gaze intensifies as she waits for the alternative again. Then when I say, "food" she can be observed to quiet down even more, and wait, for the next alternative.

Her behavior varies dependent on if she is hungry or if she needs to urinate. As she is conditioned to come to me for either option, she does every time and waits to be given the alternatives. And as I like to test her abilities, I often ignore her response, and feed her the alternatives until she provides unambiguous responses to my questions.

I submit this and other examples like it from other pet owners demonstrate a form of volition on the perceptual level.

I do not think these behaviors can be explained via operant conditioning, but I will expect to hear some people try.

Edited by phibetakappa
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(1) Volition is the activation of conceptual consciousness, i.e. of reason. So volition requires reason. (That should be obvious, I hope.)

This is false. Volition does not require reason. Reason requires volition. You need to reread OPAR and listen to Harry Binswanger's lecture on Freewill, I've provided the sections above. But for example in OPAR page 56:

Volition subsumes different kinds of choices. The primary choice, according to Objectivism, the one that makes conceptual activity possible, is the choice to focus one's consciousness.(OPAR, 56)

Followed by:

"Focus is not the same as thinking; it need not involve problem-solving or the drawing of new conclusions. Focus is the readiness to think and as such the precondition of thinking. Again a visual analogy may be helpful. Just as one must first focus his eyes, and then, if he chooses, he can turn his gaze to a cognitive task, such as observing methodically the items on a table nearby; so he must first focus his mind, and then, if he chooses, he can direct that focus to the performance of a conceptual-level task."(58)

The effort to bring one's mind into focus is chosen, i.e., it is volitional.

Reason can not get off the ground until the mind is volitionally brought into focus. This is a pre-rational condition needed to think.

Peikoff later states,

"The choice to focus, I have said, is man's primary choice. "Primary" here means: presupposed by all other choices and itself irreducible.

Until a man is in focus, his mental machinery is unable to function in the human sense—to think, judge, or evaluate. The choice to "throw the switch" is thus the root choice, on which all the others depend.

Nor can a primary choice be explained by anything more fundamental. By its nature, it is a first cause within a consciousness, not an effect produced by antecedent factors. It is not a product of parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, heredity or environment (see chapter 6). Nor can one explain the choice to focus by reference to a person's own mental contents, such as his ideas. The choice to activate the conceptual level of awareness must precede any ideas; until a person is conscious in the human sense, his mind cannot reach new conclusions or even apply previous ones to a current situation. There can be no intellectual factor which makes a man decide to become aware or which even partly explains such a decision: to grasp such a factor, he must already be aware."(OPAR, 59)

You can check this yourself via introspection. I recommend in the morning when you first wake up.

Edited by phibetakappa
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What evidence would be accepted to show animals have volition? Tool creation, language use, a lack of tail, fur and scales?

I think play behavior in adult dogs, primates and some birds demonstrates some perceptual level volition. Also, see the example I provided about my dog.

Further, we can observe perceptual level volition in infants, which I think supports the claim that some animals can have a form of volition. (see my post).

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This is false. Volition does not require reason. Reason requires volition. You need to reread OPAR and listen to Harry Binswanger's lecture on Freewill, I've provided the sections above.

You are confusing processes of reasoning with the faculty of reason -- a point that I already clarified in this thread. Any process of reason requires the exercise of volition. But what volition operates on -- what it pertains to -- what it's a function of -- is the faculty of reason. Thus the existence of volition requires the existence of the faculty of reason. There's no volition on the perceptual or sensational levels of consciousness.

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Note that the claim / question was about tool creation. (Later you speak of tool use). So what are the details of ape tool creation, where an animal manufactures an object out of something, for some purpose.

I'm not exactly sure whether the following video is "tool" usage or tool creation, but it is fascinating. It shows a crow that has adapted to the urban environment by utilizing the traffic lights, and cars to break nuts for food.

Crow That Uses Cars as Nut Cracker

The whole process does have some traditional aspects that can be explained by standard operant conditioning, but I think other aspects of it could be explained via a perceptual level volition.

It could be subsumed under the description Ayn Rand gives in ITOE I previously provided:

"And although I hesitate to talk about volition on the preconceptual level—because the subject isn't aware of it in those terms—even a preconceptual infant has the power to look around or not look, to listen or not listen. He has a certain minimal, primitive form of volition over the function of his senses" (ITOE,150).

It is not an infant, but the bird does seem to show an ability to choose its actions, selecting from alternatives.

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You are confusing processes of reasoning with the faculty of reason

I have not confused anything. I'm not sure why it is even relevant in this context to try to bring in a distinction between the process of reasoning and when we speak of the "faculty" or "capacity" to reason.

The process of reasoning is obviously regulated via volition, the choices we make in terms of what questions we ask and answer and the other aspects of it.

The faculty of reason is a certain potentiality human being possess to reason, for which they can utilize or not.

Here is what Ayn Rand has to say both about the "faculty" of reason, and the preconditions that faculty depends on. Yes, the conditions the "faculty" of reason itself depends on (not the other way around as you are stating):

"Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses. It is a faculty that man has to exercise by choice. Thinking is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of-focusing one's consciousness is volitional.

Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality-or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

When man unfocuses his mind, he may be said to be conscious in a subhuman sense of the word, since he experiences sensations and perceptions. But in the sense of the word applicable to man—in the sense of a consciousness which is aware of reality and able to deal with it, a consciousness able to direct the actions and provide for the survival of a human being—an unfocused mind is not conscious."(Virtue of Selfishness, 22)

Do you think this statement is claiming as you state, "Thus the existence of volition requires the existence of the faculty of reason."

On the contrary I believe it displaces your statement all together. Firsthand observation via introspection also supports the opposite. The faculty of reason, depends on an aspect of volition, not the other way around.

But what volition operates on -- what it pertains to -- what it's a function of -- is the faculty of reason. Thus the existence of volition requires the existence of the faculty of reason. There's no volition on the perceptual or sensational levels of consciousness.

The existence of volition does not require the existence of the faculty of reason.

Why would it? What exactly do you mean by the "faculty of reason?"

There is nothing about the nature of volition which precludes it from operating on the perceptual level.

Edited by phibetakappa
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