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Free Will and the Choice to Focus

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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!

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" 'cognition is not an advancement over instinct.' ------- Almost everyone would disagree." Doesn't matter, I'm saying it based on a lot of specialized knowledge. I can't easily go over vast swaths o

Imagine it's late at night and you are sitting in a comfortable, chair reading a book, sipping tea and then...... BOOM.....the door bell rings!

 

Your Reticular Formation and Autonomic Nervous System make you levitate from your chair and prepare for "fight-or-flight".

 

What also happens is that the attentive, neo cortical part of the brain begins focusing on the new signal from your environment, making a rational assessment about how to behave purposefully.

 

Sustaining focus does take effort because there is typically so much happening in your environment that is competing for attention.  Much of this switching between inputs is done automatically and "pre-consciously". or "pre-attentively".   

Edited by New Buddha
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That there needs to be some built in mechanism that people will virtually always choose to focus on some level doesn't imply that there is an innate concept or idea, not in the sense of being born with knowledge. Sometimes innate is used differently by people than just possessing knowledge at birth. Some people mean a mechanism of thought that don't need to learn how to do beforehand. To use the choice to focus, a baby doesn't learn how to make that choice. If a baby did, you'd wonder how a they could learn how without focusing at all. Take a look at this thread: http://forum.objectivismonline.com/index.php?showtopic=28611#entry336222

When you say instinct, it's closer to that sense of innate (I prefer to say innate capacities than just innate). The problem with instinct as you used it as that you're suggesting babies start with instincts and those instincts "fall away" to reveal a developed free will. That's pretty different than a choice to focus where free will exists from the start. How did the baby learn to choose to focus? Learning means a deliberate process of gaining understanding by paying attention to the world (animals do it to), and you're talking about a baby being able to learn before gaining any experiences at all.

If you make it into something like innate capacities, then that makes more sense - free will exists from the start, and babies are already more advanced than any other animals. All that is needed for the capacities is time to develop similarly to how a baby's teeth develop, and to gain content to process and/or make volitional choices.

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Free will is the ability to do what is possible given the circumstances, which for an infant is fairly limited to potentials.  The choice to focus (to think or not to) responds to curiosity about something that has captured ones attention; to shift from mere observation to contemplation.
 
Infant observation of (.Y.) initiates sucking reflex.
 
Adult observation of (.Y.) initiates free will.
 
The transition from instinct to choice is a natural development.  I think it's fair to say humans are innately curious (active from birth) about their environment, and that free will is a potential (innate, but dormant) that one becomes aware of following the awareness of oneself as an individual, e.g., I am, therefore I think.  So to answer the question of what is the first cause of free will, I'd have to say curiosity...
 
... or (.Y.) 's.
 
Welcome to this forum :devil:

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I don't have any clear science or philosophy answers to this very interesting thread, but as I read the ideas of others, a few ideas occurred that might be of use.

 

1. What is instinct?  I've always considered it to be a genetically programmed response to a precept in a non-human, conscious organism.  Its function is an evolutionary step above the simple chemical reactions in invertebrates and plants, but instinct is a more complex formulation in conscious animals.

 

2. Just as instinct in most animals with consciousness is a more advanced evolutionary system than the simple chemical reactions of lower animals and plants, human reason (and all that implies) is a more advanced evolutionary substitute for instinct.  In humans, evolution tested volition and choice over chemical reaction and complex genetic chemistry as a random survival mechanism.  This biological shift changed the entire paradigm of living organisms from deterministic materialism in chemistry and physics, to volition and reason. 

 

Based on the above descriptions - I wonder if what you observe in human infants is the same as instinct.  Could it not be a combination of the genetically determined materialistic function of the body and the simple cognitive curiosity of a new mind's recognition of happiness (a filing stomach) as possible in a most elementary sense of cause and effect?  That is, rather than instinct - lips such naturally -  and the sense data from doing it to a breast or bottle establishes a primitive happy feeling.

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I don't have any clear science or philosophy answers to this very interesting thread, but as I read the ideas of others, a few ideas occurred that might be of use.

Philosophically speaking, an instinct is questionable. I don't think there is any philosophical foundation to say cognition is an advancement of instinct. An instinct, as a pre-programmed response, implies lack of control. There is nothing THERE to be either "programmed" or manipulated. There is reason to say most animals, even insects, make computations below the level of concept, but not doing it by "pre-programmed" decisions.

Your so-called biological shift might seem sensible, but it requires a non-material means. That is, you said it doesn't require even complex chemistry. What foundation to volition could exist if you're saying instinct gives way to a completely unrelated and "chemical-less" volition? Such a shift violates any sense of causality. I'm not saying volition is merely chemical reactions, but they're necessary.

Based on both responses to 1 and 2, infant cognition which requires volition, doesn't use instinct. There's a lot more going on inside. Instinct requires some inborn content, and inborn content is incompatible with any notion of volition. Perhaps it can exist, but saying "inborn content is needed for non-inborn content" is contradictory. You're pre-supposing content for the part without content!

I get what you're saying, but I think you added more problems to the OP's idea than solved.

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Eiuol - read my post again.  You are confusing basic, but unrelated premises, with the biological conclusions.  The change in the "material means" is the evolution in the complex neurology of vertebrates. Did you read my post?

 

"there's lot's more going on inside." -----Inside of what?

"an instinct, as a pre-programmed response, implies lack of control." -----Yes it does.

 

"a chemical-less volition."  ------- Did I say that?

"cognition is not an advancement over instinct." ------- Almost everyone would disagree.

 

How many arbitrary assertions can you make without premises to support them? 

 

Are you really investigating Objectivist ideas, or are you looking for an argument? 

 

Eiuol - I just don't understand the motivation and research of ideas behind you're post and point.

Edited by jacassidy2
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I think maybe Eiuol responded as he did because my post was not clear.  So back to the basis of the OP which asked about free will as relates to the cognitive choice to focus.

 

Well, come on.  The choice to focus is the most fundamental form of the idea of free will.  Free will is based on the choice to focus, the idea that the human form of advanced cognition is volitional.  That human focus choice is not strictly sense based.  You can experience sense data randomly, or you can choose to perceive, that is, to coordinate that sense data into percepts.  So focus, in the context of this argument, functions at a perceptual level and then, of course, at a conceptual level.

 

I think I got it here - please contradict me if I got it wrong.

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I think maybe Eiuol responded as he did because my post was not clear. 

You did come at it from instinct, justifying it from an evolutionary perspective . When Rand cited instinct in her outline of morality in Galt's Speech, she immediately delineated the context that an instinct is an automatic form of knowledge, precisely that which man does not possess. She introduced and used it from an epistemological standpoint.

 

The reference to a baby's suckling, can be identified as a reflex action, which would be similar to the tap on the knee that generates an involuntary muscular contraction without having to go into instinct. Instinct can often be problematic because it is taken to mean many things and even miss-used to identify actions such an automated responses developed by many hours of repetitious practice.

 

As to focus, it has to be exercised at the perceptual level to gain entry into the conceptual level.

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" 'cognition is not an advancement over instinct.' ------- Almost everyone would disagree."
Doesn't matter, I'm saying it based on a lot of specialized knowledge. I can't easily go over vast swaths of research over a scientific question. Besides, philosophically, your answer depends on innate -content- leading to the development of the means to have content for volitional choices. But yes, cognition is more advanced, but they are totally separate. To be clearer, I'm saying cognition doesn't develop out of instinct.

" 'an instinct, as a pre-programmed response, implies lack of control.' -----Yes it does."
Exactly, we agree on what the concept refers to.

" "a chemical-less volition."  ------- Did I say that? "
Usually, when someone says one process -over- another, in your usage, they mean one -or- the other, not a combination.

"Are you really investigating Objectivist ideas, or are you looking for an argument? "
What you posted is speculation, which I wanted to correct. It wasn't a sound argument for your idea, it doesn't hold up. I'm saying it relies on the idea of innate content.

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You did come at it from instinct, justifying it from an evolutionary perspective . When Rand cited instinct in her outline of morality in Galt's Speech, she immediately delineated the context that an instinct is an automatic form of knowledge, precisely that which man does not possess. She introduced and used it from an epistemological standpoint.

 

The reference to a baby's suckling, can be identified as a reflex action, which would be similar to the tap on the knee that generates an involuntary muscular contraction without having to go into instinct. Instinct can often be problematic because it is taken to mean many things and even miss-used to identify actions such an automated responses developed by many hours of repetitious practice.

 

As to focus, it has to be exercised at the perceptual level to gain entry into the conceptual level.

 

Instinct is biological programming in the form of if/then responses.  It's not too much of a stretch to say that non-volitional creatures are limited to operating like simple computers.  Infants begin with this kind of basic programming and then begin to write their own code.  The transition from instinctive suckling responses towards volitional responses can be observed in infants initially eating dirt and marbles and then learning (ultimately choosing) not to.

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Instinct is biological programming in the form of if/then responses.

Not really, that's just a simplistic analogy. "Biological programming" would make sense for things like DNA, but not for behavior. There is nothing to be programmed, animals of all types don't operate like computers in terms of behavior. Organisms operate on a level beyond if/then responses, except arguably single-celled organisms. The fact is, the vast majority of animals operate like very advanced computers and make choices. They learn new behaviors, respond to changes, can be tricked, etc. Bees are like that. So, be careful of speculation, as it doesn't really add up.

 

There is not a transition from instinct to not-instinct. If instinct does exist, it isn't connected to volition at all. The OP is asking how the choice to focus comes about. I answered, essentially, that it's there from the start. With regard to non-human animals, the difference is they lack the ability to form concepts. It's not that one has instincts, and one "sheds" instincts.

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The analogy is as simple as necessary to make the point that volitional awareness arises from instinctual behavior.  Neither Man nor his fellow creatures shed instinctive behavior.  To borrow from dream_weaver's example, even volitional creatures still jerk a leg when the appropriate knee is tapped.  Instinct as such is simply a programmed (unalterable) response to a given stimuli; programmed because the code is biological in origin and the result of an evolutionary process.

 

I think some confusion with the term instinct comes from linking it to the phrase "a form of knowledge".  Instinct isn't knowledge any more than a simple computer is knowledgeable.

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The analogy is as simple as necessary to make the point that volitional awareness arises from instinctual behavior. 

Can you clarify what you mean by "volitional awareness arises from instinctual behavior"? Because you seem to be saying that instinct is a foundation for volition. I'm saying that if instinct is valid at all, it's incompatible with anything about volitional awareness. And our philosophical principles about the choice to focus and volition means any proposed theory using instinct violates those principles. If we want to answer what the choice to focus comes from, instinct doesn't help, as the whole issue is how innate content totally undermines a choice to focus on anyway. At least on a level of philosophy, you need some basis of no content at all that allows for content to be formed volitionally, e.g. form concepts.

 

I don't mean to sound dismissive when I mentioned specialized knowledge, my answers for scientific speculation are based on a fair amount of high-end academic stuff about cognitive development or the mind.

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instinctual behavior is very limited in scope; if X happens, do Y.  Non-volitional creatures don't question what X is, nor do they consider whether or not to do YX happens, Y is performed.  Animals have instinct, humans are animals...

 

Volitional awareness arises from the routine of instinctual behavior, and likely arrives in the form of an aha moment when an infant discovers itself as an actor.  The routine of instinct is disrupted by choosing not to do Y, perhaps accidentally at first and then intentionally.  I did this, but didn't have to.

 

For example, babies make noise all the time, messes too.  But there's a noticable difference in the manner of a baby struggling, body tensing to make a intentional noise and then producing one for their parent.  You can see it register in their eyes: I did this!

 

So it is appropriate to acknowledge instinct as a default mode of behavior all animals act on, and volition as a capacity to identify X and alternate Ys.  But I don't think it's appropriate to call instinct a form of knowledge.  Instinct is more a form of routine that knowledgeable individuals are capable of deviating from.

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instinctual behavior is very limited in scope; if X happens, do Y.  Non-volitional creatures don't question what X is, nor do they consider whether or not to do YX happens, Y is performed.  Animals have instinct, humans are animals...

No, you are speculating, and this isn't really right. Or rather, what's an example of a non-volitional creature? I still don't know what you mean by arises, do you mean the choice to focus comes OUT OF instinct? Or do you mean, the capacity to be volitional at all evolved over a period of time? I'm saying there is no philosophical principle to justify the first. The second is fine, as long as you recognize even ants operate on a complex level of decision making that takes consciousness. There is a vague sense of "consideration" to the extent their little ant brains figure out what to do - "if X, do Y" is too simple, as even human behavior can be reduced to that.

 

Your observations of babies are fine for making claims about self-awareness, and maybe forming concepts, but it has little to do with the big question: the choice to focus! Instinct isn't a proper part of the answer. Try not to conflate volitional and conceptual, though, a lot of your usage of "volitional" is actually "conceptual". The OP asked about volition, not really concepts.

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OK, lets agree on definitions (provided by Merriam-Webster) and go from there...

--

Instinct: a way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is not learned : a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way: something you know without learning it or thinking about it: a natural ability

--

We can agree (or should be able to) that free will and the choice to focus aren't instinctive.  By definition, instinct is, "a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way".  What is being described is a pattern of routine in the form of X happens and Y is performed.  It is what I consider to be the default setting of all animal behavior and covers pretty much everything from sleep patterns to migration in the form of biological programming.

 

The issue I have with this common definition is the use of the word know in the phrase, "something you know without learning it or thinking about it; it  leads to the acceptance of instinct as a form of knowledge.  How can you know something without learning it or thinking about it?  I would replace the word know with the word do, i.e., "something you do without learning it or thinking about it.  Likewise, I would strike the word thinking in the phrase, "a way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is not learned."  Obviously if you do something without thinking about it, thinking cannot be a way of behaving in the context of behaving instinctively.

--

Volition: an act of making a choice or decision; also: a choice or decision made: the power of choosing or determining: will

--

This responds directly to the OP, and when it begins (arises) is the focus of this thread.  From the OP: "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."

 

My position is that instinctive behaviors are essentially routine behaviors that are appropriate qua animal (Man included).  Volitional behavior attributed to Man (and arguably a subset of other animals), is related to, but apart from instinctive behavior in the form of an additional ability to choose alternate courses of action from, "a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way".  It follows then that volitional behavior acting on natural tendancies makes instinct a relevant part of this discussion.

 

What say you?

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The OP introduced "instinct" via a magazine reference to reflex actions as instinctual (and only in the title) rather than: the involuntary functioning or movement of any organ or body part in response to a particular stimulus. The function or action occurs immediately, without the involvement of the will or consciousness.1

 

1. Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.

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Your reference from the Lex is contradictory for similar reasons to those I take issue with by the common definition provided in my previous post.  But OK, from the Lex: "... An 'instinct' is an unerring and automatic form of knowledge. A desire is not an instinct..."  And yet a desire, "or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way" is precisely what the common definition uses to describe instinct.  Also, please explain how any form of knowledge occurs without learning or thinking?

Edited by Devil's Advocate
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As Eiuol pointed out earlier, [p]hilosophically speaking, an instinct is questionable. Miss Rand placed it inside of scare quotes.

 

To the degree that you hold that values are the fuel that power your emotional capacity, understanding that relationship underscores the need to submit emotional reactions to rational scrutiny to discover the ideas that are resonating with what you perceived, if you so choose to turn your focus to such matters.

Edited by dream_weaver
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With respect to Eiuol's statement, it is misleading.  Instinct isn't questionable; that much has been proven and accepted.  So much so that it's referred to even in Objectivist "scare quotes".  What is questionable is whether instinct is a form of knowledge, and to the degree one accepts that assertion, one is then compelled to reconcile how knowledge is obtained without learning or thinking.  You might say instinct is equivalent to self evidence, but even then it would be subject to consideration, AKA thinking.

 

So unless you're willing to defend instinct as inherent knowledge you're left with instinct as a knee jerk; usefull but limited.  Is that picking nits?  As is, the prevailing argument appears to be that volition is a better form of knowledge than instinct, presuming you accept that instinct is another form of knowledge to begin with;  I don't.

 

Setting aside my objection, how does dismissing instinct from this discussion help to evaulate volition?  Aren't the "emotional reactions" you refer to instinctive?  Does volition remain relavent without submitting what we are inclined to do instinctively to rational thought and then choosing to perform a particular (instinctive) action or avoid it altogether??

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Here are a couple of threads that discuss instinct at length, and the last one a blog entry looking at a specific comparison along a specific activity.

Do humans have instincts? What is instinct?
Question about instinct and intuition?
Instinct vs. Reason

 

I'd be willing to bet that the portions of the video clip on the blog represent the film maker's conception of the lemur's perceptual experience — possibly drawing on a personal experience to project into the clip.

This would be a form of anthropomorphism, similar to referring to a bird's nature to build a nest, or a beaver's nature to build a dam, using the term knowledge.

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"Step into my parlor", said the spider to the fly.

 

I would agree that instinct isn't "a form of conceptual knowledge." I don't care for the term instinct. I think the term knowledge is equivocated on in a similar fashion to the blurred distinction between prescriptive and descriptive law. (A point I don't recall running into in the portions of the referenced threads indicted.)

 

P1. There are laws of nature.

P2. Where there are laws, there must be a lawgiver.

C: Guess who!

 

The descriptive laws are discovered by man.

The prescriptive laws are prescribed by man.

One is a description in terms of observation of natural phenomenon.

The other is an edict based on something quite different.

 

An elephant returning to the ancestral burial grounds or a crow dropping pebbles into a graduated cylinder to raise a morsel of food are certainly interesting examples. but I have to continue to ask, in what form is the "knowledge"? Is this a similar case of using a form of perceptual knowledge as contrasted against conceptual knowledge?

 

It is true that Miss Rand does use the term knowledge in conjunction with animals in delimited senses.

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:blush: but it's such a lovely parlor...  Never mind, we needn't go there.

 

We should be suspicious of any form of "knowledge" (quoted) that doesn't require learning or thinking about.  Perceptual knowledge still requires mental evaluation of what is being sensed, meaning thought is involved.  Instinctive knowledge is a contradiction in terms.  Only when perceptual information acts to trigger a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way can the resulting behavior be said to be instinctive, i.e., a natural  reaction.  X happens, Y is performed.

 

Volition is an evolutionary add-on not all animals possess that allows them to act on alternate Y's.

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