Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Freedom of Human Action

Human action has several forms. Involuntary actions exist, such as reflexes and subconscious prompts like the involuntary recall of a memory. In the realm of voluntary action, we’ve established that the primary choices are focus and non-focus (as either drift or evasion). The choice to be completely out of focus prevents a person from carrying out a wealth of other actions that were otherwise possible to them. A mind fully out of focus can merely react passively to whatever stimuli reaches their consciousness. However, the choice to focus opens up endless possibilities, possibilities which can be explored only if the person chooses a goal and directs his mind and body towards its attainment.

I’ll elaborate a bit on the idea that untold amounts of actions, both mental and physical, become available once a person chooses to focus. Mentally, a person can choose what one wants to think about, whether it’s about the next day’s weather forecast, which math problem will be solved first, or what workouts will be included on a weekly fitness schedule. We can think and make decisions regarding our personal lives, social lives, family ties, and careers; in short, we can decide what we want to cognitively deal with. Physically, we control our bodies’ muscles and thus can decide where we want to go and what we want to do, whether it’s going to the movies, cooking a steak dinner, or investing in a promising company. Our control of our respective minds and muscles allows us to tie our thoughts to our bodily actions in order to perform a wide diversity of complicated actions, sometimes only lasting a few seconds (e.g. carrying food to throw it out in a nearby trashcan), sometimes spanning the course of years (e.g. training to compete as an Olympian) or even the majority of one’s life (e.g. a life-long career or raising a family).

I’ll start with the relationship between causality and the primary choices which I discussed in the previous essay. Following that, I’ll show how cause-and-effect operates with our choice to think and what causes can affect our thoughts. After that, the causality involved in human actions will be discussed. The conclusion will focus on this principle as another intuitive induction, and with a word of caution about “living” an unfocused life.

Volition’s Basic Causal Relations

The primary choices are irreducible. A choice at that level is simply that: if one chooses to focus, then there’s no higher explanation other than the fact that one chose focus as against drift (or evasion). The higher level choices are not irreducible, choices which include our thoughts, concrete decisions, and our voluntary bodily movements. We can ask the reason for other people’s higher-level choices as well as our own. We can properly ask why a person choose to think a certain way, or even chose to think at all in a given situation. We can inquire as to how a person’s thought processes led to his current decisions. The cause usually involves multiple factors, including the person’s knowledge about a given subject, one’s interests, values, relevant new evidence acquired (or old evidence which comes to the forefront), and whatever thinking methods were/are available to one.

Causality operates within consciousness in a manner quite different from that of matter. With matter, a specific cause necessarily leads a very certain effect. To “be caused is to be necessitated,” for matter. (Peikoff, p. 67) Matter does not possess a faculty of choice, and so there are no alternatives possible to any of its forms. At the level of primary choices, a version of this view of causality holds in a way. Namely, a volitional consciousness must choose between focus and non-focus: so long as he’s awake with a functioning brain (with other background conditions appropriately set), there’s no escape from the fact that he must select how his mind operates. (ibid., p. 71) Even the choice to not operate it, to drift, is still a choice. Volition implies that a person must make a choice among alternatives, but what specific choice is made is left up to the individual himself. The choice to focus could have been the choice to drift, or to evade; no factor or influence can ultimately determine what the choice will be besides ourselves using our own minds. So for a volitional consciousness, to be caused is not to be necessitated for a given, specific choice. (ibid., p. 67)

The Causality of Thought

Once a person chooses to focus, the amount of higher level choices open to that person are limitless. Say that a person wants to learn about a certain cooking recipe. She thinks of potential information sources: her parents, an associate who happens to be a culinary arts student, store-bought cookbooks, and the internet. Her knowledge can be used to decide how she will learn the recipe, but it doesn’t automatically make her decide; she has to use her will to reach a decision, or she can choose to give up the effort, think about a different recipe, or even think about an entirely different topic. What this means is that there is a reason for a higher level choice like this one, but it’s not the only reason possible in that context. The person selected that choice among the alternatives herself, without nature or biology forcing a choice upon her.

The factors of prior knowledge, evidence, and cognitive skills can all impact the kind of thought processes a person can take. Prior knowledge, such as possessed by the hypothetical person mentioned earlier, can factor into any thought process, if the person makes the effort to apply that knowledge to her present problem. The same goes for any available evidence towards a conclusion, as well as for whatever cognitive skills are at the individual’s disposal. If an employer is considering whether to give an employee a raise or not, then he can choose to assess the employee’s past performances as well as his current work efficiency. The choice to consider the raise doesn’t automatically apply the evidence to his present context: he has to find the evidence and use it by his own effort. If a logic student is attempting to answer a difficult argument, he can try to put the argument into a bare, logical form and break it down until he can discover a hitherto unforeseen flaw. Or he can think of an analogy that strikes at the heart of the argument’s reasoning. He could even try to remember a few notable counter-examples to the argument from his prior research. These cognitive skills (logic & reasoning/long-term memory) can be used to confront the argument if the person decides to stay focused and utilizes them or stay focused and allows his subconscious an opportunity to present these options to him as the need arises.

A person’s values and interests can also affect their thought processes, but these factors also hinge on their admittance by the individual. A student’s interest in getting a high GPA can certainly impact her decision to work on a major class project, but it won’t affect her thoughts unless she refuses to evade the facts of the situation, facing them head-on. Another person’s valued teeth won’t automatically make that person brush and floss properly at optimal times: she has to figure out the methods and best times to clean them on her own (or choose to ask for that information), and then choose to stick to those methods and schedule by her own effort. All of these factors and others can also impact the details and course of one’s thought processes, but any and all of them depend on the person’s choice to make use of them, whether consciously willing them or following one’s subconscious promptings.

No thinking process or course of thought is ever coerced out of a person by reality; no thought or chain of thoughts is ever hardwired to occur, even with the same information and with the same question in mind. Different people may start with the same information, but can have vastly different thoughts and thus arrive at correspondingly different conclusions; their mind’s contents are completely left up to them. (ibid., p. 66) Some chains of thought will be more conducive to cognitive success (e.g. strictly logical forms of thought, requisite knowledge of the subject matter), but reality or our DNA/biological makeup will not automatically fill our minds with the proper methods of thinking or with more productive thoughts. We have to improve our thinking by our own choice through discovery, education (that we must choose to pay attention to), research, communication and experience.

The choice in any given thought process is to sustain the connection between one’s mind and reality, or to choose not to. Peikoff remarks that this means,
to concentrate on a question, on everything he knows to be relevant to it, and to keep this content clear and operative by a continuous, conscientious directing of his full attention—or to let some or all of the data lapse into fog, to let past knowledge fade, new evidence blur, methodological standards relax, and then drift to groundless conclusions at the mercy of random material fed by his subconscious. (ibid., p. 68)
It is possible to be in a relative state of focus, and yet fail to think clearly due to an unwillingness (or refusal) to direct one’s mind to the relevant facts and other factors which could affect his cognition. The choice to focus does not make one into a deterministic thinking machine thereafter. The choice to think clearly and rationally requires a different mental effort than the choice to focus (or even the choice to think dimly), but it is still a choice and requires effort just as the primary choice to focus requires it. Every day, our lives are impacted by the choice to focus and think clearly, or by the choice to unfocus and consequently to think foggily and dimly.

Causality as Applied to Human Action

Human actions are both freely chosen and caused by the person’s will to act; they occur due to a reason(s) that the person herself supplies. Physical human action is not unaffected by one’s ideas and reasons in the slightest. In fact, the reason for a person’s action is generally found within the contents of his mind: his thoughts, beliefs, and value-judgments. The ideas and values of a person lead to one’s chosen goals and decisions, which explains the reasons for one’s actions, and is instructive in regards to what actions should be performed in order to accomplish one’s goals. For instance, a professional sprinter who values his physical progression and the chance to win at an upcoming competition will (all other things being equal) choose to train hard, properly rest, stick to a healthy diet, and follow his coach’s advice. The sprinter uses his knowledge and his other values to reach his more sought-after values. And just as the choice to focus does not make one automatically think, the past choices to think and develop one’s values does not thereafter automatically make a person continue to follow this course.

That is the key to the relation of causality and human physical action. The choice confronting every person who chooses to act is the choice to act in accordance with one’s values, or to not do so. (ibid., p. 69)

Broadly considered, the choice to “act in accordance with your values” is a multifaceted endeavor. One aspect of this principle is the need to develop and focus on a long-range plan or course of action, and afterwards to work towards that goal over a period of time, despite any hindrances or diversions that may develop along the way. Another important aspect is that a person must develop a hierarchy of values, a scale which prioritizes various goals by their relative importance, and which guides a person through both their long-term projects on through their day-to-day activities. This includes recognizing the fact that some values are essential, demanding, or more fundamental; whereas other values are non-vital, deferrable (i.e., less-time-sensitive), or subsidiary/ancillary. Lastly, “acting in accordance with one’s values” means that the actions one takes to accomplish a goal must be chosen meticulously, utilizing the sum of one’s knowledge. (ibid.) A person’s conscientiously chosen actions are the actions that one can rationally expect to achieve the desired result or goal effectively and efficiently.

To rationally live, to live a focused life, a person must learn about her goals, develop thoughts that correspond to reality, develop values, take the actions (or series of actions) that can achieve these values, construct a hierarchy of values, and think and act long-range. Armed with this knowledge, a person can tie together one’s daily actions with the full context of all of one’s values, and thus determine not only which activity to pursue, but also how much time and effort should be expended towards a given goal. These complicated, interrelated actions are all a part of “acting in accordance with one’s values,” “[y]et all this is precisely what is not automatic,” Peikoff reminds us. (ibid.)

The opposite end of the spectrum of a person’s actions in sync with their values are the people whose actions go against their chosen values. An accountant can deliberately avoid preparing his company’s monthly financial records because he doesn’t feel up to the task, failing to perform one of his job requirements (an evasion). A team of construction workers ignore relevant light-post safety and clearance information and install one in the path of a house’s driveway, failing to do their job even adequately (an evasion). A parent who has been lethargic throughout the day inadvertently reneges on his promise to set up a birthday party for his child (a case of mental drift becoming physical inaction). In one way or another, these actions amount to forms of non-focus. People can choose to evade the responsibility of making progress towards their values. They can also choose to drop focus, disregard their values, and drift through both humdrum moments and epochal events of their lives without purpose, leaving themselves at the mercy of whatever chance stimuli strikes them.

Our choice in matters of thought is to use our conceptual faculties, the cognitive resources and skills we’ve developed to gain information about a fact of reality or solve a conceptual problem, or to not do so. Performing such cognitions over time allows our subconscious to automatize and integrate our thoughts and estimates into the ideas and values that will form our views of reality and of ourselves. Our choice in matters of action is to use the ideas and skills we’ve developed and the values and interests we’ve accepted, and to use these conceptual tools to inform, direct, and regulate our actions.

(Acting in accordance with our ideas and values over time allows our subconscious to integrate our thoughts, values and actions into an estimate of reality’s allowance of rationally-gained success; it also leads to a self-estimate, a self-conscious view of how rational and in touch with reality one’s own thoughts and actions are and have been.)

All of this means that “human action” is not two separate sides, the mental side as against the physical side. To perform consciously willed and maintained physical actions that are geared towards a desired goal, a person has to first think and form the ideas and values that will give the context for that specific goal. And then afterwards one has to follow up on the decided goal, using one’s ideas and values to guide one’s actions towards accomplishing it across time. (ibid., p. 70) Human actions cannot happen without pre-conceived ideas and value-judgments that substantiate and give meaning to the actions. Focused, rational actions presupposes focused, rational thought and attentively chosen values.

Intuitive Induction of Thought and Action’s Freedom

The same observations and conclusions reached to understand basic free will (i.e. focus versus nonfocus) are used to understand this principle, which is simply an extended elaboration of what free will means above its basic level.

The difference here is that the choice operating in the realms of thought and of action are more complex and are added to the choice confronted in the primary sense. A person seeking to reach this principle would have to develop a wealth of thoughts and accumulate tons of information and evaluations over a long period of time. This person would also have to perform a wide variety of actions so that the person has an abundance of actions and decisions to analyze and dissect. Having already gained the crucial knowledge that free will is essentially how rational or irrational we decide to live our lives, one can apply this insight to the higher-level mental and physical activities of one’s life.

In regard to thought, one would need to critique one’s thoughts and also the thoughts of others that one infers from their actions, and ask: are the thoughts indicating a connection to reality in some form, or a break from it? “Am I judging this person fairly, based on evidence and rational inferences from the evidence, or am judging her harshly based on nothing but caprice?” An employee misses a mandatory nighttime business meeting: was it for an understandable, rational reason (e.g. family emergency), or due to unabashed idleness indicating a mindset of “drift,” or due to a flagrant evasion of the meeting in order to travel to a rock music concert performance? It is thoughts of this order that allows one to realize that our thoughts can be rational or irrational, they can have a basis in reality or be completely made up and fueled by our feelings instead of facts.

As for physical action, one would need to consider one’s own actions and those of others, and ask: do the actions correspond to the professed, accepted values held by those involved, or do they reveal a betrayal of them? If I value cooking, do I actually learn about how to prepare and cook new dishes, buy ingredients according to recipes, experiment with seasoning blends? If my friend likes the field of engineering, does she research pioneers in the field and their discoveries, learn the requisite mathematics to solve engineering problems, actually do some designs by hand or aided with computers? Once one knows that ideas and values are how we guide our actions rationally, the irrationality of acting against one’s knowledge and values will become an easily understood principle.

The principle could be reached by integrating these insights. Free will fully considered is the choice to activate one’s rational faculty or not, and then to decide if we will use our mind and body rationally (i.e. in sync with our grasp of reality and of our values), or not.


The freedom of our wills is the freedom to regulate our minds, and through it our bodies. Our primary freedom is the choice to focus and activate our rational faculty, or drift and court irrationality by failing to gain any kind of awareness, or evade and act irrationally with reckless abandon. The freedom of thought is the choice to direct our thoughts rationally by connecting them to facts, and thereafter developing conscientiously-formed ideas and values, or to choose to come upon ideas and conclusions based on poorly understood information and groundless speculation. The freedom of action is the choice to rationally guide our actions and ensure that they cohere with our chosen values, or to irrationally act against our own beliefs and desires due to lethargy or unfettered whim, for no good reason.

Cognitive efficacy, the ability and self-confidence to think critically, clearly, and at opportune times, is a skill that has to be practiced, maintained and honed throughout one’s life. What we choose to think about, and whether the thoughts are rational or irrational (focused or unfocused) in large part determines which ideas we’ll hold, originate, and understand (or fail to understand), and what values we’ll pursue (or betray in action). Going through life without much mental focus and thought will lead to ideas and standards accepted haphazardly and without clarity, to opinions formed sloppily and without conviction, and to values pursued half-heartedly and without ambition or passion. The result are people living as near-zombies, filled with vague, chaotic thoughts, meandering through their days without consciously knowing what they are doing or why. The life of evasions and passivity, both mental and physical, is a hollowed shell of what it means to live a “human life.”


Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Meridian, 1993 (1991). PDF version.

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