Sunday, August 27, 2017

Objectivist Volition Versus Alternative Theories

The previous essays in this series presented the Objectivist concept of free will, and demonstrated how it operates in the mental and physical realms. In this essay, the Objectivist view of volition will be compared with some past theories of free will. Three broad views of volition will occupy the first half of this paper: free will as the choice of actions, as the choice of motives, and finally, as the choice of ideas. Afterwards, a response will be given to each of these views, pointing out certain missing information or other flaws. The essay’s conclusion will discuss how the Objectivist theory of free will is a more holistic version of human choice than these past theories have offered.

Free Will as Choice of Actions

Philosophers in both antiquity and in modern times argued that free will centered around one’s choice of actions. Ancient Stoics, such as Chrysippus, and the more recent Existentialists were major supporters of this view.

Chrysippus (c. 280—207 B.C.E.) was the third head of the Stoic school, and a major developer of its philosophy. His view of the universe is deterministic: Fate governs all, and is set by Providence/God, and thus with “spirit,” with the divine. Even still, he held that people are responsible agents because a part of one’s actions is determined by oneself internally, instead of being preordained by the distant past. More specifically, he believed that one can choose to assent to or not assent to an action. Though, in the grand scheme of things, he felt that God’s foreknowledge ultimately made humanity fated as well (“Chrysippus,” Information Philosopher, passim).

(This strongly represents a Compatibilist philosophy, which is the view that both free will/volition and determinism are compatible. It is not hard to see from his combination of free choice with fate that he’s most likely the first Compatibilist in the history of philosophy.)

Though the Existentialists (e.g. Sartre, Camus) differed in the details of their philosophies, they certainly shared some similarities when it comes to the position of free will. (Exceptions like Nietzsche aside, who denied free will.) The Existentialists held a position quite opposite from the Stoic Chrysippus: for them, there was no divine or absolute/intrinsic meaning in the world. One is free to act as one pleases, and one must find one’s own meaning through one’s actions. People exist, but what each individual essentially is and what each person will do with their lives is directly up to them through their choice of actions. For Sartre, one’s actions create one’s values, not the other way around: there is no ready-made set of values to follow, and so each person makes their own natures by acting, taking a stand, doing things and determining their values thereby (“existence precedes and commands essence”) (“Existentialism: An Introduction,” passim).

Nigel Warburton, Philosophy Now magazine writer, notes the following about Sartre’s version of Existentialism:

The basic given of the human predicament is that one are forced to choose what one will become, to define oneself by one’s choice of action: all that is given is that one are, not what one are. Whilst a penknife’s essence is pre-defined (it isn’t really a penknife if it hasn’t got a blade and won’t cut); human beings have no essence to begin with:

‘… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself’ (p.28).

So for the penknife essence comes before existence; whereas for human beings the reverse is true. . . (A Student’s Guide, para 7.)

For philosophers like these, human actions are irreducible primaries, “first causes” of consciousness.

Free Will as Choice of Motives

St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274), wrote in the Summa Theologiæ of a complicated relationship between the intellect, the appetite (faculty of motives and desires), and their relation to the will.

In one passage concerning free will, Aquinas described this relationship:

There are two types of knowledge, sense and intellectual, and there are accordingly two sorts of appetites. Sensory knowledge (understanding of particular facts) leads to sense appetite, the desire of animals and people towards concrete, particular goods. Intellectual knowledge brings about intellectual appetite, which are people’s desires for more abstract, universal goods (which Aquinas thought would culminate in an involuntary movement towards the ultimate good, God, in a vision after death) (Magee, para 4–6). More broadly, the intellect “understands” some things in the form of simply accepting them, such as first principles/axioms, while individuals “reason” that some knowledge or conclusion has some sort of logical connection to some other premise or principle already assented to. In a similar manner, people’s appetites “will” a simple desire, such as a desire for a specific end (believed to be desired for itself), and “choose” something because it can be used to gain something else, which puts these objects in a “means-end” relationship (Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Question 83, Article 4).

A philosopher, Eleonore Stump (1947– ), once presented a simplified version of his theory concerning the intellect and the will:

1.      Intellect - apprehends a situation and determines that a particular end is appropriate (good) for the given circumstances.
Will - approves a simple volition for that end (or can reject, change the subject, etc.)

2.      Intellect - determines that the end can be achieved, is within the power of the agent.
Will - Intention: to achieve the end through some means

3.      Intellect - Counsel: determines various means to achieve the end.
Will - accepts these means (or can ask for more means)

4.      Intellect - determines the best means for the given circumstances.
Will - Electio (choice): selects the means the intellect proposes as best.

5.      Intellect - Command: says "Do the best means!"
Will - Use: exercises control over the body or mind as needed. (“Aquinas,” Information Philosopher, para 6)

Aquinas himself says, “The proper act of free-will is choice: for we say that we have a free-will because we can take one thing while refusing another; and this is to choose” (Question 83, Article 3). He also remarks,

Judgment, as it were, concludes and terminates counsel. Now counsel is terminated, first, by the judgment of reason; secondly, by the acceptation of the appetite: whence [Aristotle] (Ethic. iii, 3) says that, ‘having formed a judgment by counsel, we desire in accordance with that counsel.’ And in this sense choice itself is a judgment from which free-will takes its name. (Ibid.)

Philosophers like Aquinas viewed free will as fundamentally about choosing which motives or desires will play a part in determining one’s chosen actions. (Even though in Aquinas’ case, God is always the “First Cause” of everything (Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Question 83, Article 1, Reply to Objection 3).)

Free Will as Choice of Ideas

William James (1842–1910) was another philosopher with a very intricate theory of free will, and argues that volition ultimately controls any individual’s conceptual abilities, actions, and even a person’s feelings.

From my research, William James held that volition is fundamentally about the maintenance and control of cognitive attention. “The essential achievement of the will, in short, when it is most 'voluntary,' is to ATTEND to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind. . . . Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will” (James, 1891, 561-562, emphasis in original).

Granting one’s cognitive attention towards an idea without relinquishing it is the main task of a volitional being:

“Everywhere then the function of the [volitional] effort is the same: to keep affirming and adopting a thought which, if left to itself, would slip away.” (Ibid., p. 565, note 66. Bracketed word added.)


To sum it all up in a word, the terminus of the psychological process in volition, the point to which the will is directly applied, is always an idea. There are at all times some ideas from which one shy away like frightened horses the moment one get a glimpse of their forbidding profile upon the threshold of one’s thought. The only resistance which one’s will can possibly experience is the resistance which such an idea offers to being attended to at all. To attend to it is the volitional act, and the only inward volitional act which we ever perform. (p. 567)

It should be noted that William James includes “express consent” as a sometimes necessary, secondary element:

The effort to attend is therefore only a part of what the word 'will' covers; it covers also the effort to consent to something to which one’s attention is not quite complete. Often, when an object has gained one’s attention exclusively, and its motor results are just on the point of setting in, it seems as if the sense of their imminent irrevocability were enough of itself to start up the inhibitory ideas and to make us pause. Then we need a new stroke of effort to break down the sudden hesitation which seizes upon us, and to preserve. So that although attention is the first and fundamental thing in volition, express consent to the reality of what is attended to is often an additional and quite distinct phenomenon involved. (Ibid., p. 568)

For James, what ideas people hold and what beliefs they use to guide their lives are directly chosen by them.

Next, one'll consider what Objectivism would have to say about these theories.

Responses to the Three Alternative Theories

The Objectivist view of volition has fresh perspectives that inform the three previous theories mentioned. To draw these insights out, an investigation into what’s problematic about these view is required.

Concerning Choice of Actions as the Primary Form of Free Will

Objectivism defends the view that human beings are free to choose their courses of actions and behaviors, but disagrees with the position that individuals directly control their actions. One’s actions are shaped and influenced by one’s knowledge, beliefs, values, desires, and the decision to act on these mental resources (Binswanger 1991). Whether one’s actions happen impulsively or after long drawn-out deliberations, it’s still the case that a mental operation(s) of some sort occurred at some point before the action, giving the action its purpose and greater context. It is sometimes the case that a person does not know what motivates or explains his or her actions due to insufficient introspection or the impulsiveness of the act itself leaving little room for reflection, but it’s never the case that human action is severed from operative mental actions.

Generally, the Objectivist view is that “[m]an has the ability to reflect upon and evaluate his own decision-making processes, and thus to control the processes that control his actions” (Binswanger, p. 333, 2014). People observably don’t drive, play with their siblings, or pick up a book to read aimlessly or randomly; these actions, and others which can be more complex (or more simple), cannot be carried out without some prior knowledge and some value-judgments being decided beforehand.

More importantly, it would be a nominal freedom to only control one’s actions, and not one’s mental contents and mental actions. This view of volition as merely choice of action denies one’s wondrous control of one’s mental life, the ability to regulate the rationality of one’s thoughts and decisions, and the ability to choose the ideas and values that will motivate one’s future courses of actions. It’s a hampered form of free will: free in action supposedly, but not free regarding one’s rational processes and the formation of one’s guiding beliefs and values, and unable (supposedly) to change or improve them. To put the point more bluntly: if the mind controls the body, then it’s nonsensical to speak of freely choosing actions when one’s mind is itself not free.

Rather, human actions are free because human minds are free, the mind volitionally controls and regulates behaviors and courses of action. Nathaniel Branden (1930–2014; pre-Break with Rand) notes the following about the Objectivist view of volition:

In the Objectivist theory of volition, a man is responsible for his actions, not because his actions are directly subject to his free will, but because they proceed from his values and premises, which in turn proceed from his thinking or non-thinking. His actions are free because they are under the control of a faculty that is free—i.e., that functions volitionally. (1964)

Concerning Choice of Motives

This level of choice is a more fundamental aspect of volition than that of choosing actions, but freely choosing between motives or desires is still not a direct or primary choice, according to Objectivism. Motives and desires do not come instantly prepared for people to directly choose amongst them.

One’s motives and desires are determined by one’s previously formed beliefs and values, and one’s prior and current decision-making processes and deliberations (Binswanger, p. 321, 2014). Motives for action and desires are automatic responses to value-estimates one has made, which are in turn caused by the conscious or subconscious premises and values that one has accepted (Branden, 1962; Branden, 1964). Like human physical actions, one’s motives and desires aren’t chosen without background knowledge, beliefs, and value-judgments conditioning them. Whether the given emotion is a longing for something, a fear, a feeling of anger, or a feeling of wonder, these all depend on subconscious evaluations that one has made of various things as being in some way beneficial or detrimental to oneself (Binswanger, 1991).

The granting of freedom to motives/desires without control over what one can believe or value is also a hollow sort of freedom. It is by addressing and revising one’s prior thinking and value-judgments (or non-thinking/failure to evaluate) that one can change one’s motives, desires, and emotions. If this were not the case, then one’s desires and emotions would have no connection to one’s knowledge and values, and one would choose amongst one’s desires without reason or explanation. This would mean that acts of decision-making and deliberation would be pointless, since one’s thoughts and values would not influence them. St. John of Damascus (c. 675 or 676–4 December 749), considered a father of the Eastern Orthodox Church, once observed something insightful about deliberation:

But to prove that the fairest and most precious of man's endowments [the power of deliberation] is quite superfluous would be the height of absurdity. If then man deliberates, he deliberates with a view to action. For all deliberation is with a view to and on account of action. (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chapter XXV)

Each person has control of their respective faculty of reasoning and ultimately controls their evaluations of things, and thus each person has the power to deliberate and choose how they will respond to their respective desires and emotions.

Concerning Choice of Ideas/Value-judgments

On the issue of fundamentals, this level is close to the true, deepest essence of volition, but directly choosing ideas or values is not the crux of the issue. What one comes to believe and to value depends upon the kind and scope of one’s thoughts (Binswanger 1991, p. 8). The rationality (or irrationality) and the logic (or illogic) of one’s thoughts will shape what ideas one will hold, and what values one will adopt or create. This means that it is impossible to logically demonstrate a given conclusion, and simultaneously not assent to it. As Dr. Binswanger once put it: “To understand that X is the case is to believe X” (ibid.). It also means that it’s impossible to prove that a good is beneficial to a person with respect to his goals, interests, and tastes, and for the person rationally to regard that good as a disvalue (or as a non-value).

Obviously, people can disbelieve things in complete disregard of available evidence that they’re privy to, or fail to appreciate something they know of that should be valuable to them. But this is due to people evading the thinking and conclusions that they’ve reached, making their knowledge unreal to them. The evasion then acts as an intervening agent between their prior thinking, and the conclusion and/or value-judgment they reach that contradicts that thinking. The converse of what Binswanger said is also true: it is psychologically impossible to concurrently understand that X holds true and to still reject X (ibid., note 5).

Objectivist Volition as an Integrated View of Choice

The preceding suggested a general chain of choices that shift from more fundamental to the most derivative. It suggested that the choice of ideas and values is more fundamental than the choice of motives and desires, which is in turn more fundamental than the choice of actions. There seems to be an assumption of these prior theories that Objectivism addresses squarely and challenges directly: that one can fully (or perhaps mostly) engage one’s conceptual abilities as one’s default mental state, that the use of the conceptual level of consciousness is a given, just as perception is.

Objectivism holds that the access to the cognitive abilities of the conceptual level is not given. The use and maintenance of one’s conceptual level of consciousness is directly under one’s control, and that this is accomplished by raising or lowering one’s degree of mental focus.

Focus means many things. It means to take charge of one’s own mind, to set the mind to the goal of full cognition. It means to have a mind resolutely directed towards the awareness of reality, to “engage in cognitive self-regulation” (ibid., p. 12). It also means being introspective, aware of and monitoring one’s mental contents and physical actions. Obviously, a key point in Objectivism is that focus, the essence of free will, is also the prime form of rationality. (These descriptions are by no means exhaustive.) Drift, a form of non-focus, is the failure to regulate one’s consciousness, to fail to introspect when necessary, to not expend energy to be conceptually aware of reality, to fail to be rational. Evasion, the other form of non-focus, is the deliberate subversion of one’s conceptual awareness, to purposefully make an item of reality seem unreal to oneself, to blank out certain facts because they seem to be too scary or upsetting to face head-on.

The Objectivist view is that the issue of focus or non-focus affects each of the previous levels of choice mentioned in the alternative theories. One must focus to reach rational thoughts and beliefs, and to form objectively beneficial values. Focus is necessary to deliberate and evaluate things properly to automatize the beliefs and values needed to form rational motives and desires. And focus is required to ensure that one’s properly formed motives and desires are translated into rational courses of actions. By the same token, non-focus will tend to result in the belief in irrational ideas, in disvalues that factually harm oneself, in detrimental motives and absurd desires, and in preposterous or crazed actions. (The word “tend” was chosen because instances of drifting may simply become the failure to think, the failure to evaluate, the failure to form proper motives for action, and physical inaction, not some of the more obviously self-destructive things that were just mentioned.)

All three theories emphasize what one is doing with one’s mind: deciding between different ideas and values, or between different motives and desires, or between different courses of behavior and action. But the proper emphasis should be on how one’s mind is being used: rationally or irrationally, focused or evasively, mentally alert or passively. Human physical actions are preceded by one’s motives and desires; these motives are preceded by deliberations and evaluations automatized from one’s beliefs and values; and these very beliefs and values are the result of the kind and of the extent of one’s thinking, the rationality and the span of such thoughts. The Objectivist view stands as a correction of and an advance over these past theories, while offering a more holistic, integrated view of volition than these theories ever offered.

Conclusion: Focus as Precursor to Ideas/Values and as Ultimate Motive

From the above, it should be clear that Objectivism holds that the engagement of the rational faculty, the choice of focus or non-focus, is the causal primary, the direct act of free will that was discussed throughout this essay. As Peikoff clarifies, “‘Primary’ here means: presupposed by all other choices and itself irreducible” (1991, p. 62).

This means that choices at this level are first causes within one’s consciousnesses, and cannot be causally explained by any other factor besides one making the choice to focus (or not) oneself. Ideas cannot induce one to focus because one needs to already be in focus to grasp new ideas, or to apply old ideas to a present concern (ibid., para 5). Values also cannot be appreciated and used as guides for action without an already active conceptual level awareness of them, i.e., without focus (ibid.).

Lastly, there can’t be some other desire or motive to explain why one would choose to focus other than to be cognitively aware of reality (Binswanger, 1991, p. 18). Any other human action, physical or mental, can be split up into the action and the motive for that action. A woman could walk (action) to get some exercise in for the day (motive). A student thinks (action) to solve a difficult geology problem (motive). The action of focusing is cognitively regulating one’s consciousness. The motive: to cognitively regulate one’s consciousness. Focusing is the action of rising to the conceptual level of consciousness, or sustaining that level of awareness. The motive: to rise to (or sustain awareness at) the conceptual level. Being aware of reality is another way of describing the action of focus. The motive: to be aware of reality. Focus then is the unconditional acceptance of reality, an action which subordinates all other motives and desires to whatever facts one must confront (ibid., pp. 17–19). This is the way in which focus stands as the ultimate motive for a human consciousness: the desire to use one’s rational faculty to deal with the facts of reality.


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