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I was chatting with someone who brought up the topic of instincts. I know objectivism denies instinctual knowledge, but the conversation left me with some questions.


Is suckling and "rooting around" for the breast an instinct, and if not, how to babies know to do it? I read on another thread that suckling is not an instinct, but the person posting did not say what it is.

Do babies "instinctually" shove things into their mouths to find out whether or not it is food? How do you explain this behavior? What about feeding yourself? 


Then the conversation was about whether it was possible to live at the "instinctual level" (whatever that means) without using reason. (???)

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Nursing is not entirely instinctual. I assume some of the motions are reflexive from birth, but to nurse an infant must first recognize what a nipple is and what to do with it.

And when they don't learn it quickly enough, their parents learn the meaning of terror.

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I don't get the resistance to "instincts" that I see among some Objectivists.


"Instinctual" actions exist among a great number of animals, and they coincide with the ability to reason about surroundings. Animals don't act "automatically" - they respond to their surroundings in a thoughtful manner, and can often take surprisingly creative actions, or surprisingly downright incorrect actions. They don't have reason as we do, but that's not really relevant here - a certain level of instinctual action is clearly beneficial on an evolutionary level, so why on Earth wouldn't humans have it?


Instincts are fairly simply defined in conventional terms: "an innate, fixed pattern of behavior in response to stimuli." I would consider omitting the "fixed" part of the definition, simply because most animals that "instinctually" do things will also not do those things in response to certain stimuli or even in response to emotional state [i've read about bears, for example, starving themselves in captivity when they aren't provided with conditions that are conducive to a positive emotional state. Some birds will pick out their own feathers in response to high emotional distress, which is a very harmful action].


Biologically, I have often heard the distinction that instincts are the inclination to carry out certain actions - meaning, they are not things that absolutely will happen, but things that an animal will tend to do due to natural urges.


Humans too do things instinctually: the most obvious instincts are the ones we share with almost all animals, including the urges to eat and procreate. These are things that we feel natural urges to do, even if we can, like most other animals with instincts, decide to not carry out those actions. When you think about it, there are a lot of behavioural patterns that we see in human beings which are simply natural inclinations, or instincts. 


I've heard of Objectivists being resistant to the notion of human instincts before, but I think that it's really not that devastating of a concept. Possessing a natural inclination to certain behaviors does not negate reason. There would simply have been no evolutionary reason to get rid of natural instincts in human beings, and in many cases, such instincts, such as our "fight or flight" response to danger, are quite beneficial.

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I don't think any Objectivist (educated) does not accept "instinct" as a component of living things mental content, forces, urges, or motivations.  Experiment has shown enough evidence of these which can be called "instinct" 


What is a clear position of Objectivism, is that instinct does not constitute "knowledge". 


Although day to day speak may imply "he just knows how to do X" with "X comes natural to him" with "X is instinctual" ...

then again there are "he doesn't know he does it, he just does it" and "do it 'til you forget what you are doing and that you are doing it".


All of these kinds of things are to be distinguished from "knowledge" which is conceptual, integrated, rational.



If I recall, intuitions, feelings, physical urges (thirst, hunger), and the like also do not constitute knowledge.


I may be wired by evolution such that I am afraid of falling through a plate glass floor of the CN tower.  That does not constitute knowledge, whether the floor actually turned out to be insufficient and my fear was warranted or whether the floor was completely impregnable to anything remotely my size and hence the fear completely unwarranted.  Fear can be a factor from which one may deduce knowledge - e.g. creatures have survived by avoiding death by falling sufficiently enough to create an instinctive fear.


I digress... instinct is not knowledge

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“A man is equipped with a certain kind of physical mechanism and certain needs, but without any knowledge of how to fulfill them. For instance, man needs food. He experiences hunger. But, unless he learns first to identify this hunger, then to know that he needs food and how to obtain it, he will starve. The need, the hunger, will not tell him how to satisfy it. Man is born with certain physical and psychological needs, but he can neither discover them nor satisfy them without the use of his mind. Man has to discover what is right or wrong for him as a rational being. His so-called urges will not tell him what to do.” Ayn Rand


This has always bothered me. I agree with the general thrust of it, but people know that hunger = need of food long before the development of reason, and the same is true of some of our other needs as well. What reason does is help us find the best ways to satisfy our hungers (first by defining what the proper purpose of food and the rest are) and putting them in an appropriate hierarchy.

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The degree of reason required to distinguish between trying to nibble on a rock to satiate one's hunger, or chew on leaves, discover berries, or observe what happens after consuming poisonous mushrooms is all that is required to begin. Few things will kill you partaking of a small enough quantity to discover if it is most likely safe to consume, or if it leaves you feeling nauseous where you decide to leave it alone.


Given the adult/child structure of mankind, the parents recognize when the child is hungry long before the child learns to recognize the hunger pangs as hunger pangs.

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Biologically, I have often heard the distinction that instincts are the inclination to carry out certain actions - meaning, they are not things that absolutely will happen, but things that an animal will tend to do due to natural urges.


This is why I'm skeptical of instinct as a concept, applied to both humans and animals. If we describe tendencies, that's a matter of statistics or a method of computation that results in a tendency towards a specific response. For animal learning, instinct isn't even an important concept, because many animals will figure out or compute an answer to reach a goal. You can say there are innate mechanisms available at birth to gather information to make decisions. Of course, reasoning is one way to make a decision, meaning humans have a better ability to make life-furthering decisions. To me, instinct seems to imply that a response can't be helped, or implying that a creature's mental state is irrelevant to action - all that matters is an urge without representation. But that's a remnant of a once-common belief that animals have virtually no mental life.

Edited by Eiuol
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  • 4 weeks later...

The problem with "instincts" are the way they're applied.  It's a perfectly valid concept with regard to a human being's digestive and circulatory actions, etc.


How would 'instinctual action' differ from 'reflex action'?

It wouldn't.


The problem is that many people take it so far as to ascribe "social," "linguistic" and "moral" instincts to mankind, which is not only a self-evident absurdity (a child's first words are not a reflex action); it's dangerous.  The reasoning behind such application is that instincts offer a convenient explanation, which neither requires nor permits any further examination.

An alcoholic, for example, may invoke his "hereditary vulnerability" if asked about his behavior; an "addictive personality" would be slightly more accurate.  It's a band-aid explanation which allows its user to excuse almost anything by exempting it from his conscious control.


The danger is that others may take his word for it and act accordingly (see the "nanny state").



That said, it's completely valid for some referents; I'd only take great care in its proper application.

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Does the concept instinct apply to intense biological motivations for example, can one say that the intense biological attraction towards a potential mate/companion during adolescence (lots of hormones) is "instictual"?  ... or shall we say it is merely hormonal?    


Is there a better way to characterize it?



I once heard Salmon have no conscious memory whatever, that they live in a stream of immediate percepts which are totally fogotten as if they were never there when the salmon is no longer preceiving them.  This raises the question, if they are not taught, what is the cause in reality for salmon returning to thier place of birth to spawn? (I'm no biologist)

Edited by StrictlyLogical
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Birds build nests. Sea turtles, upon hatching, tread toward the ocean. Salmon return to their birthplace. These, and many other things I attribute to "instinct" or "automatic knowledge." The attraction toward a potential mate/companion is more conceptually driven in human beings than say the activity observed in, say, the mallard duck population.

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Does the concept instinct apply to intense biological motivations . . . ?

Yes, within the proper context.  Human beings automatically know that pain should be avoided and pleasure should be pursued, with the exception of those who have deliberately trained themselves to feel otherwise.

So for example, when an infant's hunger prompts it to cry, the emotional response itself could be considered instinctual (which is precisely why I consider certain values axiomatic).  The act of crying itself would not be.


for example, can one say that the intense biological attraction towards a potential mate/companion during adolescence (lots of hormones) is "instictual"?

No.  Sexual attraction may seem axiomatic but it is not.

Think of the reflex to kick, when your kneecap gets tapped.  That's an instinct.  So is your attitude towards hunger and thirst.  Whatever is instinctive is on the sensory level of awareness.


Now notice that sexual attraction depends on the perceptual identification of someone (as opposed to a tree or a table, etc.), and that not just any human being will suffice.  Observe that the traits which any given person finds desirable are different from what any other person may value, and compare such differences to the moral standards behind each one. . .

Sexual preferences are absolutely meant to determine the 'fitness' of one's mates, in the fullest sense of the term.


Is there a better way to characterize it?

Yes; an accumulative choice.  Any person's sexuality is dictated by countless, implicit judgments and evaluations, concerning what people should be like (look like, think like, etc.); you choose your own desires over many years' worth of thoughts and feelings and your internal reactions to them.


I honestly do not know what role hormones play in this process, but I do know that hormones do not dictate our emotions; they are our emotions (in the same way that synapses are our thoughts).

And I also know that the development of the sexual capacity, for most people, coincides with the burning need to form some coherent view of life.

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