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Volition of Animals

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james_h
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One of the things I do not understand about Rand's writings is how she could claim that animals have no volition. Clearly they do not possess a conceptual conciousness like man's - the differences between their actions and ours are just too profound. And they would have to make use of symbols in a sophisticated manner like us which they clearly do not.

But why identify volition exclusively with the use of abstractions? After all I can often observe myself going for periods of time without conciously thinking about what I am doing, yet my actions still seem 'chosen'. For instance if I am jogging or washing dishes, I am volitionally choosing my actions even though I am not conciously thinking about them.

But why could they not possibly make choices between various concrete possibilities, both available to them in a given instant? For instance if a dog has a bowl of water in front of him as well as a bowl of food, how do you know he does not 'choose' to eat, drink or do neither?

I am not claiming to know that animals do have volition - I just don't see how you can rule it out.

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One of the things I do not understand about Rand's writings is how she could claim that animals have no volition. Clearly they do not possess a conceptual conciousness like man's - the differences between their actions and ours are just too profound. And they would have to make use of symbols in a sophisticated manner like us which they clearly do not.

But why identify volition exclusively with the use of abstractions? After all I can often observe myself going for periods of time without conciously thinking about what I am doing, yet my actions still seem 'chosen'. For instance if I am jogging or washing dishes, I am volitionally choosing my actions even though I am not conciously thinking about them.

But why could they not possibly make choices between various concrete possibilities, both available to them in a given instant? For instance if a dog has a bowl of water in front of him as well as a bowl of food, how do you know he does not 'choose' to eat, drink or do neither?

I am not claiming to know that animals do have volition - I just don't see how you can rule it out.

Well the fact is in order to make any choice you must have a standard of value to evaluate the possible choices, otherwise you would just be making random arbitrary choices. Animals cannot have a standard of value because they lack rationality.

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Well the fact is in order to make any choice you must have a standard of value to evaluate the possible choices, otherwise you would just be making random arbitrary choices.  Animals cannot have a standard of value because they lack rationality.

Well, to be precise, an animal does have a standard of value -- its life. The difference between man and other animals is that man controls the operation of his own consciousness and he thereby gets to choose the particular values which either enhance or detract from serving the standard of his life. Animals function solely, and automatically, on the sensory-perceptual level, and along with using their pleasure-pain mechanism their actions are biologically determined to serve the standard of their life. Every physical mechanism in the animal's biological structure suits this purpose. The difference is that if the animal's automatic mechanisms cannot adequately deal with what it finds in the external world, the animal dies. But as long as the animal is alive, all of its biological and conscious mechanisms serve the purpose of sustaining the animal's life.

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Well, to be precise, an animal does have a standard of value -- its life. The difference between man and other animals is that man controls the operation of his own consciousness and he thereby gets to choose the particular values which either enhance or detract from serving the standard of his life. Animals function solely, and automatically, on the sensory-perceptual level, and along with using their pleasure-pain mechanism their actions are biologically determined to serve the standard of their life. Every physical mechanism in the animal's biological structure suits this purpose. The difference is that if the animal's automatic mechanisms cannot adequately deal with what it finds in the external world, the animal dies. But as long as the animal is alive, all of its biological and conscious mechanisms serve the purpose of sustaining the animal's life.

Why can't some form of volition be posessed by animals which only function on the sensory-perceptual level?

For instance how do you rule out that an animal could perceptually imagine the outcomes of 2 fairly simple courses of action and then choose one of them? It could just directly see images in its head resembling what the outcomes might be.

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Would you give us some references please so that we know which writing(s) you are referring to?

In "For the New Intellectual" she makes some remarks which indicate that this is her view.

She describes certain human mentalities as "a consciousness held down to the perceptual method of functioning, an awareness that does not choose to extend beyond the automatic, the immediate, the given, the involuntary, which means: an animal's epistemology or as close to it as a human consciousness can come."

In the next paragraph: "Man's consciousness shares with animals the first two stages of its development: sensations and perceptions; but it is the third state, conceptions that make him man."

Later in the same paragraph she says "the preconceptual level is nonvolitional; volition begins with the first syllogism".

So if the preconceptual level is nonvolitional, and conceptions are unique to man, it would follow that animals have no volition.

This is the only reference directly to her writing I can find right now.

But I've seen other objectivists express this view also, that animals have no volition.

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Why can't some form of volition be posessed by animals which only function on the sensory-perceptual level?

For instance how do you rule out that an animal could perceptually imagine the outcomes of 2 fairly simple courses of action and then choose one of them? It could just directly see images in its head resembling what the outcomes might be.

Are these trick questions? :dough:

Seriously, though, what do you mean by "perception," "volition," "imagine," and "choose," and how do you suppose the brain creates images "resembling what the outcomes might be?"

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Well, to be precise, an animal does have a standard of value -- its life. The difference between man and other animals is that man controls the operation of his own consciousness and he thereby gets to choose the particular values which either enhance or detract from serving the standard of his life. Animals function solely, and automatically, on the sensory-perceptual level, and along with using their pleasure-pain mechanism their actions are biologically determined to serve the standard of their life. Every physical mechanism in the animal's biological structure suits this purpose. The difference is that if the animal's automatic mechanisms cannot adequately deal with what it finds in the external world, the animal dies. But as long as the animal is alive, all of its biological and conscious mechanisms serve the purpose of sustaining the animal's life.

But in the animal's case the standard of value is enforced only by the instincts it has evolved, so what an animal does is not it's own decision but a preprogramed response. It does not realize what life is, it does not understand how to stay alive, it is only given certain impulses based on stimuli it recieves passing through a primitive brain designed by evolution. An animal's mind seems to be not very different than that of computer AI. I'd have to say nethier of these have volition.

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But in the animal's case the standard of value is enforced only by the instincts it has evolved ...

Er, except for not using the bad "I" word, "instincts," that is essentially what I said.

An animal's mind seems to be not very different than that of computer AI.

The fact of life is a crucial and fundamental difference.

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I don't completely understand, Speicher. How is it that we can know for certain that animals function solely on 'automatic mechanisms'. I mean, my dog has done some pretty interesting things when she wants to do something. For instance, she likes sleeping on the coach, a rule she knows about. So the instant I leave she jumps on the coach, and when she hears me come back she jumps back off. Perhaps there are better examples that could be presented.

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It's not that some animals simply cannot have volition. Humans are animals after all, so obviously some animals can have volition. A more proper statement is that animals other than man don't have volition. How do we know that? That's been a scientific consensus for at least 2,000 years, and have been verified by (truly) countless experiments. Humans have experimented with every kind of animal for thousands of years, and the best we got to a volitional animal is a dog, which isn't saying much since we contributed to its evolution.

It's really easy to figure out that no animals other than man have volition. Why don't birds continually choose to invent better and better nests? They've existed for millions of years longer than man, and at one point them and us had approximately similar places of living. But now we live in cement houses with in-door plumbing, and they still weave their 'houses' from straws and release their excretions on unsuspecting pedestrians below.

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I don't completely understand, Speicher.  How is it that we can know for certain that animals function solely on 'automatic mechanisms'.  I mean, my dog has done some pretty interesting things when she wants to do something.  For instance, she likes sleeping on the coach, a rule she knows about.  So the instant I leave she jumps on the coach, and when she hears me come back she jumps back off.  Perhaps there are better examples that could be presented.

Yes, there are much better examples, but when analyzed by competent scientists the results always confirm and integrate with what is actually known about biological entities. (Notice I said "competent" scientists.)

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It's not that some animals simply cannot have volition. Humans are animals after all, so obviously some animals can have volition. A more proper statement is that animals other than man don't have volition. How do we know that? That's been a scientific consensus for at least 2,000 years, and have been verified by (truly) countless experiments. Humans have experimented with every kind of animal for thousands of years, and the best we got to a volitional animal is a dog, which isn't saying much since we contributed to its evolution.

It's really easy to figure out that no animals other than man have volition. Why don't birds continually choose to invent better and better nests? They've existed for millions of years longer than man, and at one point them and us had approximately similar places of living. But now we live in cement houses with in-door plumbing, and they still weave their 'houses' from straws and release their excretions on unsuspecting pedestrians below.

I think the better question is why do humans and a few other critters seem to be able to change their behavior in light of instinct? Humans, Great Apes, Dolphins, African Grey Parrot, and a couple other species seem to be able with various degrees change behavior not just to stimulus but to personal 'preferences.' In a way, I think the position of 'volition' in a given entity has to do with personality development. Humans have the seemingly strongest sense of personality/self of all the animals I cite. To unlock the mechanism that allows us to be this way will be a major step forward in a deeper understanding of why we and not the apes are building cities and so forth. :)

-- Bridget

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I think the better question is why do humans and a few other critters seem to be able to change their behavior in light of instinct? Humans, Great Apes, Dolphins, African Grey Parrot, and a couple other species seem to be able with various degrees change behavior not just to stimulus but to personal 'preferences.'

What do you mean by "instinct"? A definition please, if you are not using the term the way Objectivists use it.

With that idea defined, what do you mean by "change their behavior in light of instinct"?

Are you saying that some nonhuman animals can change their own instincts? Or are you saying something else?

Perhaps a particular, verifiable example would make the issue clearer. Could you identify one?

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Are there any writings on these issues that you could recommend?  I don't have an opinion either way.  I suppose I'm just skeptical of either side because I don't know a whole lot about it.

If you mean aside from the Objectivist literature, then other than the numerous journals, almost any basic book on physiological psychology will do.

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Are these trick questions?  :D

Seriously, though, what do you mean by "perception," "volition," "imagine," and "choose," and how do you suppose the brain creates images "resembling what the outcomes might be?"

By 'perception' I mean just looking at something with the senses. But I would include certain introspective actions in this category (so some other 'senses' besides eyes, nose, etc. are used to introspect). For instance if I am remembering some concrete experience (like what my desk looks like) or imagining something in my head, the thing I am observing in my head is immediately given to me, just like looking at things in external reality in my immediate vicinity.

By 'imagine' I mean the usual meaning. There are some pictures appearing in the mind, for instance.

I guess I would say a thing has 'volition' if more than one course of action is possible from it under a given set of circumstances. External circumstances and past things not completely forcing it into one course of action. And a 'choice' must occur when it takes one of the possible actions.

Note that regarding images appearing in the mind we have some volitional control over them, but in other ways they are somewhat automatic (my mind seems like this anyway).

I don't know anything about the physiology of the brain. But it does seem like concepts are not required for the brain to create images resembling what the outcomes would be. Because dogs and other higher animals can clearly anticipate the future consequences of their actions, at least a relatively short distance into the future, for a relatively simple course of action. Perhaps this is done by way of some visualization of what the outcome would be. Maybe animals minds are capable of generating images of possible outcomes (since my mind's visualization functions seem to some degree automatic) and then the animal might choose its actions based on this. I don't know.

And even if they are not capable of forming concepts like we are they can recognize some perceptual similarities/differences between things, like us.

I realize I'm speculating and maybe the reason Rand thought this is because of some knowledge of physiology/biology that she had that I lack. I would definitely be interested in hearing about experiments which claim to show animals have no volition. I don't know what an experimental demonstration that an animal has no volition would consist of. I don't know what an experimental demonstration that it does have volition would consist of either.

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It's not that some animals simply cannot have volition. Humans are animals after all, so obviously some animals can have volition. A more proper statement is that animals other than man don't have volition. How do we know that? That's been a scientific consensus for at least 2,000 years, and have been verified by (truly) countless experiments. Humans have experimented with every kind of animal for thousands of years, and the best we got to a volitional animal is a dog, which isn't saying much since we contributed to its evolution.

It's really easy to figure out that no animals other than man have volition. Why don't birds continually choose to invent better and better nests? They've existed for millions of years longer than man, and at one point them and us had approximately similar places of living. But now we live in cement houses with in-door plumbing, and they still weave their 'houses' from straws and release their excretions on unsuspecting pedestrians below.

I think this clearly shows that they do not function on the conceptual level like we do. So if you agree that 'preconceptual is nonvolitional' then they are non volitional. But it's not clear to me why you think 'preconceptual is nonvolitional'.

Could you tell me specifically what scientists/experiments you are referring to? I have never heard of any scientific study of volition. I would be very interested in reading about it.

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Would any beginner biology course in college cover this topic?  I'll be taking general biology next semester.

Developmental biology will be more concerned with growth and development, at the same time providing a basic physiological understanding. What you want is more of what I indicated, physiological psychology, which focuses on the biological base of animal behavior. If you do a search on amazon.com for "Physiological Psychology" you will probably find a hundred books with that title.

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I don't know anything about the physiology of the brain. But it does seem like concepts are not required for the brain to create images resembling what the outcomes would be. Because dogs and other higher animals can clearly anticipate the future consequences of their actions, at least a relatively short distance into the future, for a relatively simple course of action. Perhaps this is done by way of some visualization of what the outcome would be. Maybe animals minds are capable of generating images of possible outcomes (since my mind's visualization functions seem to some degree automatic) and then the animal might choose its actions based on this. I don't know.

You are making the very common mistake of anthropomorphizing animal behavior. You first need to study the sensory-perceptual level and learn about the regulatory systems in a biological entity that function automatically and deterministically. An animal's awareness of the external world is just a survival mechanism that acts as input for regulatory control of motor activities, and it functions just as automatically and deterministically as any other regulatory system within its body. The animal is guided by a pleasure-pain mechanism which along with its sensory-perceptual apparatus provides an automatic means to regulate behavior in service of the animal's life.

You can study your own conscious processes introspectively, but you must be careful about projecting these processes onto animals. The conceptual level of man is different in kind from anything else that exists in the animal kingdom, so if you want to understand animal behavior you have to study it scientifically, and the place to start is in understanding sensory-perceptual mechanisms and automatic regulatory systems.

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if you want to understand animal behavior you have to study it scientifically, and the place to start is in understanding sensory-perceptual mechanisms and automatic regulatory systems.

Or you can always do it like people have done for millenia, by looking at the way animals live and asking why their way of life is so much worse than man.

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Developmental biology will be more concerned with growth and development, at the same time providing a basic physiological understanding. What you want is more of what I indicated, physiological psychology, which focuses on the biological base of animal behavior. If you do a search on amazon.com for "Physiological Psychology" you will probably find a hundred books with that title.

Will do, and thanks for the advice. :P

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