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Free Will and the Choice to Focus

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"A being of volitional consciousness has no automatic course of behavior. He needs a code of values to guide his actions." ~ ARL, Free Will
 
Having no automatic course of behavior doesn't preclude having a default (instinctive) course of behavior.  Man qua animal retains a natural desire or tendency that makes him want to act in a particular way.  The ability to choose doesn't replace that desire.  It does however, allow him to choose an alternate course of behavior.  If he doesn't choose an alternate course,  if he chooses not to focus, he simply remains on autopilot following routine behavior; and that behavior is instinct.  Not choosing ≠ not acting.
 
That's why I'm being such a butt with Eiuol and dream_weaver about dismissing the relavence of instinct to volition, because instinct remains a valid volitional option, e.g., to sleep when you're tired, to eat when you're hungry, to avoid pain and enjoy pleasure.  That's not to say volitional beings don't improve such default actions by choosing to schedule time to rest, or improving their diet, or thinking beyond the immediate effects of pain and pleasure.
 
The reluctance to admit reflex action (suckling) and instinctive action (migration)  are essentially the same is a minor issue that overlooks the fact that the words reflex and instinctive are synonyms.  Trying to draw distinctions between the two for the purpose of elevating the latter to "form of knowledge" is more problematic than accepting that neither word implies thoughtful action.
 
Establishing a code of values to guide his actions begins with becoming aware of oneself as an individual capable of independant actions, which occurs somewhere between infancy and becoming a todler.  The actions of a being of volitional consciousness are impotent without that knowledge, and instinct represents no form of that knowledge other than sometimes choosing to do what comes naturally.

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Having no automatic course of behavior doesn't preclude having a default (instinctive) course of behavior.  Man qua animal retains a natural desire or tendency that makes him want to act in a particular way.  

 

Rand refers to instinct as an automatic form of knowledge of what to do, NOT as a desire. (link)

 

The way I would formulate this is that non human animals desire a result and automatically know how to implement the cause (that's instinct).

Humans desire a result and DO NOT automatically know how to implement the cause so they need to learn how to implement the cause.  

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

What I've been trying to convey is that essentially ALL animals possess a way to act with alternatives. Volition should not and cannot be conflated with conceptual thought. "If X then Y" is more like a paramecium responding to light. How does a bee find a hive? It actually figures out with the position of the sun, as well as some habitual patterns. Is it volitional in the way people consider their options with concepts? Not at all, but it's still a lot more than an "instinct' of responses. There is some sort of thought - bees aren't machines as Descartes believed of all non-humans.

 

You seem to be saying that humans have a choice to focus because they think conceptually, or that a choice to focus materializes out of instincts. I'm saying your reply is wrong, since the workings of instinct are flat out radical behaviorism (i.e. a collection of responses to routines of stimuli without any mental intervention) or innate -content-. Now, you could argue that instinct is valid, but the whole point I want to make is that a choice to focus isn't dependent on instinct. In fact, a choice to focus isn't knowledge, it's just the minimum sense of volitional. It overcomplicates to say "oh, infants overcome or grow beyond instinct". There's nothing to outgrow - their conceptual faculty exists already. All that happens is babies get smarter and their brain a bit better. Or rather, it is perfectly sensible to say "choosing to focus is self-contained". Instinct is a non-starter for explaining the foundation of choices before even one concept. I doubt you'd say "the choice to focus is an instinct".

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...

Rand refers to instinct as an automatic form of knowledge of what to do, NOT as a desire. (link)

 

The way I would formulate this is that non human animals desire a result and automatically know how to implement the cause (that's instinct).

Humans desire a result and DO NOT automatically know how to implement the cause so they need to learn how to implement the cause.  

 

Instinctive knowledge remains a contradiction in terms that requires providing separate definitions for the same word, e.g., there's (human) knowledge and then there's (animal) knowledge.  Creating such a demarcation only confuses the issue by implying that humans are so far removed from animals that they require a separate vocabulary to compare behaviors.

 

I like your formulation, although I would state it as:  Non-human animals desire a result and automatically do what is necessary to implement the cause (that's instinct).  Humans desire a result and choose what is necessary to implement the cause (that's volition).

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Instinctive knowledge remains a contradiction in terms that requires providing separate definitions for the same word.

 

If true that means Rand used the wrong term in this case so what's the term we should prefer for what amounts to automatically knowing/doing what is necessary?

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Instinctive knowledge remains a contradiction in terms that requires providing separate definitions for the same word.

 

If true that means Rand used the wrong term in this case so what's the term we should prefer for what amounts to automatically knowing/doing what is necessary?

 

Instinctive knowledge action

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... I doubt you'd say "the choice to focus is an instinct".

 

You're correct; I'm not saying that volition is instinctive.  I'm saying that instinct is relevant to volitional choices to accept, alter or reject a natural desire or tendency to act in a particular way.  The choice to focus doesn't materialize out of instinct; instinct only provides a default option, one of many to choose from, or a go-to if one chooses not to focus.  Similar to the choice to focus being the minimum sense of volitional, X happens, perform Y is the minimal sense of instinct.  The point is, one isn't choosing according to alternate forms of knowledge; one is choosing knowledge to accept, alter or reject a natural desire or tendency to act in a particularly unknowledgeable way.

 

I hope this clarifies my position.

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A default option would be a default choice. Only machines have a "default" and that's just a non-mental response. An instinct is not a reflex - instinct would refer to innate content and/or behaviorism (not necessarily radical behaviorism). The point here is instinct is too problematic to be useful, unless you only mean "non-conceptual", but that's not what you've been saying. I think I said all I could for now, I'm primarily objecting to speculation of science while violating a philosophical principle (induction problems more specifically).

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Thank you for your patience, Eiuol.  Since I've been arguing all along that instinct isn't a form of knowledge, I thought you understood I meant non-conceptual.

 

The problem I'm wrestling with is, if all mental activity is either focused/cognitive or unfocused/non-cognitive, how do we avoid not identifying the resulting actions as volitional or instinctive?  Substituting the word non-volitional for instinctive doesn't help much if the activity remains un-deliberate.  Apparently animals survive by instinct as a form of knowledge, but man qua animal got shortchanged.

 

Since man's only hope for survival is thru actions generated by a focused/cognitive mind, you'd think free will would be a handicap.  Perhaps there's some other non-instinctive, unfocused safety net at work?

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But what you've been saying seems to be non-conceptual implies non-volitional, and any developmental stage before holding concepts is non-volitional and instinctual. If you -only- mean non-conceptual, fine, but it's not like saying "a dog goes to the water bowl out of instinct and can't do otherwise". A dog is able to act against that, and it isn't a specialized claim. Mentioning instinct in that way makes instinct volitional still, so we'd still ask where the choice to focus comes from. In other words, all actions from animals are going to take a degree of focus. Despite dogs operating on a perceptual level, being conscious takes focus, and some form of knowledge and deliberate action. So even the most charitable interpretation of your words doesn't quite answer the OP.

Focus is not an on-off switch. Rather, there are degrees of focus. I should look through ITOE, as I recall Rand explaining focus as a feature of consciousness, not man per se.

How do you identify volitional or instinctive action? You don't - they aren't mutually exclusive. I don't know a philosophical basis to say volition is exclusive to conceptual consciousness, or that non-conceptual thought doesn't ever require choice.

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"Focus near Consciousness" does not return anything along those lines, but a search on consciousness in ITOE brings up these selections.

 

ITOE2, pg. 27
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
Abstraction from Abstractions

[T]the concept "animal" does not consist merely of "consciousness and locomotion," but subsumes all the characteristics of all the animal species, with "consciousness and locomotion" serving as the distinguishing characteristic. (We shall discuss this further when we discuss definitions.)
 

ITOE2, pg. 57
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
6. Axiomatic Concepts

Axiomatic concepts identify explicitly what is merely implicit in the consciousness of an infant or of an animal. (Implicit knowledge is passively held material which, to be grasped, requires a special focus and process of conscious-ness—a process which an infant learns to perform eventually, but which an animal's consciousness is unable to perform. )

ITOE2, pg. 62

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
7. The Cognitive Role of Concepts


The Crow Story - One, two, three many.

ITOE2, pg. 255-256

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
Appendix—Axiomatic Concepts

If you brought a dog or a cat into this room, it would be aware of everything that we see here. It would also see the room, the objects, and the people. What it would never be able to grasp is, "I am conscious of this room," although that fact is inherent in its perception. The difference between its consciousness and a human consciousness is that looking at that room we are able to say, "It takes an act of consciousness to be aware of all this, and it's I, my consciousness, that's performing that act." That is, I am aware of this room, and I can project closing my eyes and my awareness stops—at least visually. Or I can project fainting or sleeping and not being aware at all. But an animal cannot do that. If he falls asleep, then that's one state; when he awakens, it's another. But he wouldn't be capable of identifying conceptually material which is present there in his consciousness: that it is he who is aware and at other times he is not aware.

The whole difference between a human type of consciousness and an animal is exactly this. The ability to be self-conscious and to identify the fact of one's own consciousness, one's "I." And then to apply introspection to the processes of one's own consciousness and check them.
 

The crow story illustrates a rudimentary sense of volition quite well. Many came. Many left. Only then did the crows return to the clearing. "This fact" Miss Rand said "is the best demonstration of the cognitive role of concepts."

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In order to express free will there has to be a will to express, correct?   Some fundamental sense of self awareness.  What is the meaning of volition without it?  The availability of choice without an actor who understands the role they play is meaningless in terms of free will and volition;  it is simply the action of a pinball rebounding from one event to another.

 

Clearly self awareness is the catalyst of volition,  and the degree to which an animal can differentiate its life from others determines the scope of its volition.  A vague sense of self without ambition seems the upper limit of "intelligent" animal behavior, and perhaps the breakthrough point of human infant to adult behavior.

Edited by Devil's Advocate
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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.

Yes, but there's a simpler way to frame it.

If I say that "drinking water is necessary for life", while that's true, it also seems to imply that living things drink because they're consciously aware that their life depends on it, which isn't true. On the contrary; when I drink water, it's simply because I feel thirsty. Now, one could say that the biological mechanisms that cause me to feel "thirsty" are instincts, and that would also be true; they certainly are involuntary responses that are hardwired into me. However, they're also "sensations", which is the more useful identification (since everything Rand discovered about "sensations" then becomes applicable).

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Clearly self awareness is the catalyst of volition,  and the degree to which an animal can differentiate its life from others determines the scope of its volition. 

But how can you be self-aware without choosing to focus first?

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The last quote dream_weaver gave answers your counter-question. If you're saying awareness of oneself as a self precedes the choice to focus, you're saying that it's possible to be self-aware without focusing at all, or that the choice to focus is not the basis of volition. At best, they're simultaneous, which can make sense, but at the cost of ignoring that many creatures that aren't self-aware are volitional. Either that, or all creatures are self-aware to the degree they are able to focus. I was assuming you meant self-aware as in identifying that there is an "I" making choices, though.

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It needn't be simutaneous if routine actions lead to awareness of who the actor is, and I think this is the case.  As I mentioned earlier, I believe there's an aha moment when animal routine (instinct) transitions to awareness of the self as an actor (innate volition, as yet dormant).  Instinct remains as a routine pattern of unfocused activity, but the emerging actor can now alter that pattern.

 

Animals probably can't get beyond some dim awareness of themselves causing things to happen (hey, this thing moved because I bumped into it), but volition depends on it.  Without torturing the vocabulary to create separate definitions (animal vs human) for the same word as "a form of", it remains necessary for  an "I" to precede action expressed as willpower.

 

...

The whole difference between a human type of consciousness and an animal is exactly this. The ability to be self-conscious and to identify the fact of one's own consciousness, one's "I." And then to apply introspection to the processes of one's own consciousness and check them.
 

The crow story illustrates a rudimentary sense of volition quite well. Many came. Many left. Only then did the crows return to the clearing. "This fact" Miss Rand said "is the best demonstration of the cognitive role of concepts."

 

  The crow story illustrates a dim awareness of self that leads to "a rudimentary sense of volition", without which the crows would remain animated by default choices to whatever happens to them, i.e., responding instinctively.

Edited by Devil's Advocate
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  The crow story illustrates a dim awareness of self that leads to "a rudimentary sense of volition", without which the crows would remain animated by default choices to whatever happens to them, i.e., responding instinctively.

Fancy brainwork there, but it goes back to what I said originally. Instinct (and we can leave aside for a moment that you are still equivocating conceptual awareness and volition) can't really tell us at all how volition came about. Remember, the crow thing is a thought experiment to illustrate unit economy. You can't use that to illustrate making "default" choices unless you also want to say unit economy is a "default". It's way too broad, we can't de-cognition unit economy for crows as instinct, then say somehow humans do the same exact thing, except with real mental effort.

 

I'd say the choice to focus (therefore, volition, too) is inherent to anything with mental states.

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  The crow story illustrates a dim awareness of self that leads to "a rudimentary sense of volition", without which the crows would remain animated by default choices to whatever happens to them, i.e., responding instinctively.

You are still projecting the human grasp of choice and volition as it relates to human beings, onto other forms of consciousness, while sweeping aside a huge swatch of difference that manifests itself in the realm of the evidence. Agriculture, hunting and trapping, building homes, clothing, tools, etc., taking all of these into consideration, have to be set aside, or involve taking a narrowly specific instance in isolation in order to accomplish your comparison. Yes, birds build nests, beavers their dams, lions stalk their prey, the green heron uses bait to lure fish, and so on. Aside from man, animals continue to react to their environment. They forage for food. They forage for material to build their nests and dams. Man, in contrast, could be arguably said to still be engaged in an act of foraging, but only to the extent that he can only use existence in process of reshaping existence. What does the nature of man add to the mix that separates him from all the other species. What is the essential distinguishing characteristic.

 

To an extent, I think it is valid to say the cat is focused on the bird while it stalks it. I think its questionable to conclude that this act of focus is identical with the one that permits man to transcend into the conceptual realm. Even if it were to be discovered to be the same, it would still differ in the benefits provided by the capacity to do so.

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... Aside from man, animals continue to react to their environment. They forage for food. They forage for material to build their nests and dams. Man, in contrast, could be arguably said to still be engaged in an act of foraging, but only to the extent that he can only use existence in process of reshaping existence. What does the nature of man add to the mix that separates him from all the other species. What is the essential distinguishing characteristic.

...

 

Ambition

 

...

 

To an extent, I think it is valid to say the cat is focused on the bird while it stalks it. I think its questionable to conclude that this act of focus is identical with the one that permits man to transcend into the conceptual realm. Even if it were to be discovered to be the same, it would still differ in the benefits provided by the capacity to do so.

 

Yes, the cat is limited to a dim awareness of self and what it could do.

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...

 

I'd say the choice to focus (therefore, volition, too) is inherent to anything with mental states.

 

Can you form any use of volition that doesn't follow an awareness of self?  Focus as such would only mean greater distraction from the routine, i.e., a surprised reaction, but still not the level of action one expects as an exertion of will.

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Can you form any use of volition that doesn't follow an awareness of self?  Focus as such would only mean greater distraction from the routine, i.e., a surprised reaction, but still not the level of action one expects as an exertion of will.

Can you experience anyone other human being's awareness of self?  Other than a human being's perspective on what an awareness of self is — which is based on what one's own perspective of self is — what access is there to the rest of the animal kingdoms?

 

From a perspective of an exertion of will, you may also argue that a mountain lion, a bear, or a lion is exerting it's will when it kills a human being. You need to still distinguish this from a human being's exertion of will in performing the same act. Under our current form of government, one act of will is followed by forming a posse to hunt down the animal and kill it. The other is followed by forming a posse to hunt down the animal and bring it to trial.

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A study of the history of philosophy quickly shows that an acceptance of the primacy of consciousness, as opposed to the primacy of existence, leads to arbitrary assertions in epistemology, ethics, and politics.  This trend has some value for people who decide that the purpose of philosophy is the process of debate regarding any old set of premises, rather than exploration of ideas in existence, knowledge acquisition, ethics, and politics with a clear goal of improving human lives. 

 

Some who have been drawn to Objectivism at its political and ethical fringes, still seem to accept the primacy of consciousness unintentionally while enjoying debates about nothing in particular.

 

Is this a valid observation or am I just being a pain in the ass?

Edited by jacassidy2
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Here's the problem with "instinct".

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

Defined that way (which is exactly how most people use it), "instinct" covers every single non-volitional mental thing that there is.

Whatever isn't chosen must, by definition, be instinctual. So, as DreamWeaver pointed out, if I don't know why I have some mental *thing* (belief, desire, whatever) then it must be instinctual and I don't have to analyze it any further. Look at the self-contradictory hypothesis of a 'gay gene'; that's where it comes from.

Therefore, while there may be some things that truly are preprogrammed into our minds, we have to be very careful about what we identify them as - hence the "scare quotes" (please pardon the scare quotes :P ).

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Some who have been drawn to Objectivism at its political and ethical fringes, still seem to accept the primacy of consciousness unintentionally while enjoying debates about nothing in particular.

Is this a valid observation or am I just being a pain in the ass?

No; that's true. I think that a lot of us struggle to keep track of the most fundamental ideas in Objectivism far more and for a much longer time than any casual observer might expect (I know I have). For the most part it doesn't seem like the people in question fail deliberately, or even know that they're failing; some of this stuff is just so radical that it defies any quick or easy mastery.

That's something this forum can alleviate significantly, though; we can help to correct each other's mistakes. :thumbsup:

Edited by Harrison Danneskjold
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