The Objectivist idea of free will within man is that man's free will comes from his ability to choose to focus or not focus. When he focus, he can then discover truth about reality, create/adjust his concepts, assign values to them, and thereby feel and act differently.
We know that an animal has more than just a temporary understanding of reality. Its ability to recognize the primary care taker vs. a random stranger in the street is evidence that it has memory and the ability to associate values to certain memories. It's not just a pain/pleasure sensing machine. One would assume that the construction of these memories and the association of value to them require the animal to have the ability to focus.
The question, with respect to free will, becomes: Do the animal have the ability to choose whether they want to focus or not?
A relatively easy way to gather some data on whether animals have different range of focus can be done by taking all the cats from the same litter, then attempt to give them the same training/conditioning. Then observe whether there are variations in how long it takes for them to become train and the effectiveness of their responses to that which they were trained for.
To clarify - The position that Objectivists take isn't that animals are deterministic. Rather the words rational, freewill, focus, etc. are attached to concepts that identify concretes that are unique to man. Animals have something else that, once identified, should be given new words because the concretes and concepts are different than that of man. Is this correct?
In Objectivism, the issue of free will arises in connection with (a) man's power to think, which clearly goes far beyond any form of cognition found in other animals; and (b) man's power of conscious choice about thinking (and its precondition: focusing). This is what the term "free will" refers to in man. To apply that term to other animals, one would first have to show that other animals can think, as man does. Many of the higher non-human animals certainly do perform actions at various times that would be impossible for man to perform without human thinking, but animals also often have far keener sensory-perceptual faculties than man, especially hearing and smell (and probably taste, too). Some animals also have far keener eyesight. Some have sonar faculties (which might be regarded as a special form of "hearing" and/or touch, although the sonar receptors seem significantly different from ordinary ears). Considering the sensory-perceptual differences, I don't think we can conclude merely from various remarkable forms of action in non-human animals that they must be doing it by means of human-like thinking.
In particular, it is well known that animal behavior can often be "conditioned" through rewards and punishments. I suspect that is probably what's actually going on with the cat described in the question. If I wanted to train the cat to eat from a dish, I would leave the food in the dish and walk away. If the cat gets hungry enough and isn't ever fed by hand, it will eventually eat the food that it finds in the dish.
A further refinement of this procedure might be to leave the food in the dish for one hour. If the cat doesn't eat it, put it away and wait 30 minutes. If the cat still expresses a desire to be fed, bring the dish and food back and set it down on the floor for the cat (and walk away). Keep repeating this sequence as many times as it takes for the cat to "get the message."
It's ok to stick around, too, if the cat is willing to eat from the dish -- as long as the cat keeps eating (from the dish). That could be a further "reward" for eating from the dish, since cats and other common house pets tend to crave attention from their human hosts.
Given a cat's sense of smell, I also wonder if the cat in the question would be as interested in eating from the mom's hand if the mom were wearing sturdy leather gloves rather than feeding the cat bare-handed, if that is how she has been doing it. If so, smelling the mom's hand and wrist (without gloves) as the mom sets the food dish down on the floor could be a type of "reward," too.
Update: Meaning of "Focus"
The original version of the question described a cat belonging to the questioner's mom, and how the cat "insists" on being fed by hand. That description has been dropped from the edited version, and new material has been added. Two keys points in the new material are the following:
We know that an animal has more than just a temporary understanding of reality. Its ability to recognize the primary care taker [giver] vs. a random stranger in the street is evidence that it has memory and the ability to associate values to certain memories.
Correct. Memory (and automatic evaluation) pertain to percepts as well as concepts. Animals certainly can remember and react to what they've perceived, even though they do not have any concepts nor any ability to form them nor to focus a conceptual faculty.
One would assume that the construction of these memories and the association of value to them require the animal to have the ability to focus.
No. That's how man does it. In Objectivism, the concept of "focus" pertains specifically to man's conceptual faculty. The concept "focus" is formed by looking at man, at the conceptual nature of his consciousness and the fact that he can choose to "engage" or "disengage" his conceptual faculty.
On the perceptual level, memory and evaluation are entirely automatic (but capable of being "conditioned" by experience), including responses to differing stimuli and different degrees and results of animal "learning" from its experiences, shaped in countless ways by its nature, all without benefit of any concepts nor any ability to "focus" a conceptual faculty. Evaluation can often be automatic in man, too, through the action of man's subconscious and man's emotions.
Refer to the following references for additional insights on the Objectivist view of free will:
Nowhere in Objectivism that I know of is there the slightest hint that "focus" can refer to anything other than the human capacity for thinking (conceptual functioning), or that conceptual focusing or conceptual functioning of any kind could apply to non-human animals. Animals don't have concepts. Man is the "rational animal." Man's rational faculty is his essential distinguishing characteristic, differentiating him fundamentally from all other animals.
I would be the last to claim, however, that animals are just "dumb stupid robots," especially higher animals that make good companions for man, like dogs and cats, as well as other animals that have proven very interesting to man for scientific study or as work animals, such as chimps and other primates, porpoises, rodents, ravens, eagles and other birds of all kinds, and so on. Animals can often do a great many remarkable things, feats that would be impossible for man even to approximate without concepts (possibly aided by technology made possible by concepts). In non-human animals, it's all entirely perceptual-level and automatic, conditioned by environment and/or genetic makeup.
We can discuss attempts by man to teach "sign language" to animals like chimps and porpoises if there is interest. It's not much different from animal training of all kinds by man. Consider, for example, the simple process of "breaking" a horse so that a saddle can be placed on him and humans can then ride him, or teaching a horse to accept a halter and pull a wagon on human command. There are all sorts of ways that man interacts with animals, "conditioning" the animals in innumerable ways. (I've found that I can often "teach" pesky rats to feed on a trap that kills them if I manage the trap and the bait intelligently. The rodents are often extremely cautious at first, until they get the "idea" that everything is "ok" and the bait on the trap is safe to eat. They're not at all cautious about where they leave their pellet "droppings" and urine puddles, however.) For the animals, the "training" is all automatic, but decidedly not "robotic." They certainly do exhibit an awareness and even cunning for their environment that no man-made machine so far has been able to duplicate (though man keeps trying). Defenders of human free will should never underestimate the power of the perceptual level of consciousness for those animals that are constituted to survive that way.
Further Update: Concretes as Units
A comment asks for clarification of "unit" and "concept" in relation to whether or not animals can form concepts. The Objectivist view is expressed succinctly by Ayn Rand as follows (see "Unit" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon):
The ability to regard entities as units is man’s distinctive method of cognition, which other living species are unable to follow.I have understood this to mean units of a type or kind. For man, the "type or kind" is an abstraction that allows for a range of possible "measurements" of the essential characteristics that define the abstraction. It may be the case that no two concretes regarded by man as units of the same abstraction exactly match each other in every detail, but they nevertheless meet the parameters and measurement ranges defining the class.
Many animals seem to come very close to doing this also, but it seems limited to perceptual similarities rather than reaching the abstraction of a "type or kind" that man can form. Higher non-human animals seem to know the difference between another animal of the same kind as themselves and an animal of a very different type, such as dog-meets-dog versus dog-meets-cat. How, exactly, do animals do that? They do it purely perceptually, mostly through sight (including observed behavioral cues), smell, and sounds (such as barking, hissing, growling, chirping, etc.). Remember, also, that Objectivism recognizes similarity between concretes as grasped perceptually (even in man). Any animal, including man, can see that two concretes are similar to each other, or very dissimilar, and can perceive that there are degrees of similarity. It's what man does with perceived similarities that differentiate man's conceptual capacity from the perceptual level of cognition. Non-human animals can only perceive the similarities and differences (without isolating them mentally as distinct characteristics), remember what was perceived, and perceive similarities and differences between new concretes and remembered concretes. That's enough for species recognition when needed, but man goes far beyond that level when man forms concepts.
I suggest that further questions about the concept-formation process in man warrant separate discussion threads. I submit, also, that it is exceedingly difficult for man to imagine what a purely perceptual level of cognition is really like, since man goes so far beyond that level so naturally, and needs to do so in order to live. One possible demonstration of mostly perceptual functioning that has occurred to me is intense athletic activity of any kind, where it is crucial to act quickly by reflex as much as humanly possible, and put higher level thoughts out of one's mind while doing so, except insofar as man also needs to remember his overall goals and strategies (from time to time if not constantly) in all his actions. The best athletes need to be able to "just do it" without thinking about it at every step, other than keeping the high-level "game plan" in mind as needed, and always remaining alert for opportunities to act decisively in pursuit of whatever the goal of the activity might be. Animals are more likely just to react to whatever they perceive, while man, through concepts, can often anticipate what might come next and plan for it much farther in advance.
Update: A Priori Absolutes
I would like to emphasize an issue that has arisen in the comments. Objectivism offers a great many identifications of facts of reality, such as rationality as man's essential distinguishing characteristic; animals as cognitively limited to the perceptual level; the nature of man's concepts and how they are formed; the immutable cause-effect relationship between living and valuing; metaphysical axioms and corollaries such as "existence exists," "conscious is conscious," "A is A", "contradictions cannot exist," "attempting to make a contradiction exist leads only to destruction," and so on. Objectivism's identifications may often seem to be expressed as dogmatic a priori absolutes, like the fundamental "commandments" of religions. In Objectivism, however, all such statements, even fundamental metaphysical axioms, are to be understood as identifications of objective facts of reality, based on evidence and conceptual generalization from it. If Objectivism's identifications sound like dogmatic absolutes, it's only because reality itself presents man with absolutes, i.e., with stark black and white facts which man either cannot change at all, or may be able to reshape for his own purposes if he conforms to reality's rules of cause and effect.
In contrast, I've always been struck by Leonard Peikoff's description of the pragmatic view of reality as "mushy" and "malleable" by collective will. In his first book, The Ominous Parallels, Chapter 6, "Kant Versus America," Dr. Peikoff noted (p. 129 in the hardcover edition):
Aristotle, and the Englightenment shaped by his philosophy, had held that reality exists prior to and independent of human thought -- and that human thought precedes human action.... Pragmatism represents a total reversal of this progression. For the pragmatist, the order is: man acts; he invents forms of thought to satisfy the needs of his action; reality adapts itself accordingly (except when, inexplicably, it resists).I find the part about "inexplicably resists" particularly fascinating -- and deeply unsettling for pragmatists, who may try to blame it on "recalcitrant absolutists" obstructing "the will of the people." But it isn't Objectivism that presents man with absolutes; it's reality.
Regarding animal cognition, if anyone has evidence that animals can form concepts, let's take a closer look at that evidence. I mentioned a possible example myself in my earlier update. So far, however, what I've usually found is that the researchers know next to nothing about how man forms concepts and even what a concept is. They conduct their work and publish their findings as if Ayn Rand's theory of concepts doesn't exist or has no relevance. Indeed, they often seek to learn more about human intelligence by studying animals, prior to studying man in any depth. What they find is a number of striking similarities between animal cognition and what man does when man functions primarily on the perceptual level. There really should be no controversy about the fact that man has a perceptual level of cognition, too, which is essential for his higher level conceptual functioning, but is more highly specialized in many animals (especially through keener sensory faculties) than it is in man. It should likewise be uncontroversial that a study of human concept-formation needs to begin with the study of man, and that man's integrations of percepts into concepts and ever more abstract identifications goes far beyond anything remotely observed in non-human animals.
A new update to the question seems to address the above concerns, and asks:
The position that Objectivists take isn't that animals are deterministic.... Animals have something else that, once identified, should be given new words because the concretes and concepts are different than that of man. Is this correct?The evidence that I am aware of can be accounted for by the same kinds of perceptual processes found in man, though with major differences in sensory faculties (mostly in degree, but sometimes in kind, as well, such as sonar and apparent ability of some migrating birds to sense the Earth's magnetic field). Also, the perceptual level of cognition, whether in man or in animals, is identified by Objectivism as operating automatically. If that is what the question means by "deterministic," then perception is, indeed, a deterministic process. Objectivism does not, however, claim that animals are born "tabula rasa." That description is applied only to man, and primarily on the conceptual level. Objectivism recognizes that animals may possess "automatic knowledge" (on the perceptual level), and Objectivism emphasizes that man has no such automatic knowledge.
As a further elaboration, my own understanding of what higher animals can do can be summed up as follows. Similarity between concretes is grasped perceptually, both in man and in other animals. What animals and man can do, entirely perceptually, is to recognize and remember a number of concretes that are all very similar to each other, and to recognize a new concrete as being very similar to the others. That's it for non-human animals. They can't go beyond that, the way man does, except insofar as they are genetically predetermined (and/or environmentally conditioned) to react in various ways to what they perceive.
Update: Perceptual Association, Perceptual Generalization, Automatic Choice
In the comments, Eric concisely summarizes his position as follows:
You are right, anthony, that my claims might be formulated too strongly. I agree that the gulf between man and other animals is huge. My point is merely that claims [by whom?] that animals cannot exercise any form of conceptual faculty and cannot exercise choice no matter what are overreaching. There is evidence raising the possibility these claims [by whom?] are wrong--I do not claim the evidence gives rise to certainty, or even probability--just possibility (to use Rand's informal certainty-scale).The leap into "simply cannot do" and "no matter what" is a leap into intrinsicism, which Objectivism strongly rejects and refutes. It's not clear whom Eric is attributing such intrinsicism to, but in case anyone needs additional elaboration regarding Objectivism's view of intrinsicism, there is a whole section titled, "Intrinsicism and Subjectivism as the Two Forms of Rejecting Objectivity," in OPAR, Chapter 4, "Objectivity." The issue of intrinsicism versus subjectivism is also discussed concisely by Ayn Rand in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE), Chapter 8, where she writes, in part [pp. 78-79 in the hardcover Expanded Second Edition]:
Man is neither infallible nor omniscient.... He needs a method of cognition.... Two questions are involved in his every conclusion, conviction, decision, choice or claim: What do I know? -- and: How do I know it?According to Eric's comment, he is only trying to refute intrinsicism in regard to animal congnition, while leaving open the possibility (perhaps even probability) that everything animals do, including the ones in the references cited by Eric, is being done entirely through perceptual-level cognition operating entirely automatically (though not necessarily "robotically"). In addition to checking Eric's references, I've also now gone back and rechecked my own original source of information about an Objectivist view of animal cognition. The most direct discussion dates back to a single recorded lecture by Edwin Locke in 1989 titled, "The Truth about Animal Cognition." The key points that I learned from that lecture are the ideas of "perceptual association" and "perceptual generalization." Perceptual association, as I understand it, is simply a process of an animal associating two perceptual concretes together, whether because of genetic predisposition or environmental conditioning (stimulus-response-reward). The associated percepts may be either concretes immediately present in perception, or percepts that an animal encountered in the past and still remembers. Note that perception includes memory. Ayn Rand offers the following description of what perception refers to in ITOE, Chap. 1 (p. 5):
A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.Again, note that perception includes "retention" (memory) and operates automatically, according to this description. In relation to the issue of intrinsicism, it is also important to stress that formulations of this kind by Ayn Rand are to be regarded as integrations of evidence, not a priori or dogmatic absolutes. Ayn Rand believed the evidence to be conclusive, and her description merely reflects that understanding.
"Perceptual generalization," as discussed in Edwin Locke's lecture, refers to the ability of animals (still on the perceptual level of cognition) to "assimilate" (automatically, through repetition) a number of perceptually similar concretes, gradually fusing them into a kind of perceptual "archetype" which the animal can retain and use for comparison to new concretes whenever the animal encounters them. The animal's response to a new concrete is affected by how perceptually similar it is to the assimilated archetype. Animals (and man) can do this entirely by automatic perception and retention, without needing to consciously isolate and identify the specific characteristics involved in perceived similarities. Where man excels is in his ability to integrate a percpetual generalization and perceptual associations into a concept, and he needs to do so in order to survive. Man cannot survive by perception alone, unlike non-human animals. To my knowledge, it is true that the nature and power of perceptual generalization has not been well recognized or understood by researchers so far. (Edwin Locke's lecture was originally offered through Second Renaissance Books, now merged into the Ayn Rand Bookstore, as far as I know. As of today, I haven't been able to find Dr. Locke's lecture anywhere so far, although some Google searching turned up at least two websites where the recording apparently used to be offered but is now out of stock and/or "unavailable.")
It might also be asked: ok, so what about choice? Don't animals make choices? How is that possible if they are operating on the perceptual level and perception is automatic? First, it must be noted that Objectivism does not say that all of man's choices are directly volitional. In fact, there is really only one choice that is open to man's direct free will: the choice to focus. All the rest of man's choices are classified as higher level choices that depend on the choice to focus or not. Furthermore, it is entirely possible for man to go right on functioning and making "choices" (badly, self-destructively) in a state of total mental drift (non-focus), as Ayn Rand observes in TOE (VOS Chap. 1, p. 22 in the Signet paperback edition):
Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality -- or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.That, in essence, is what "acting on whim" means. It means unfocusing one's mind and letting oneself drift on one's emotions and other "urges" or promptings from one's subconscious, i.e., the previously automatized material retained in one's automatizing mechanism. In effect, man is functioning on the perceptual level when he does that. Animals function perceptually all the time, because they've never had the ability to form and automatize any concepts. (Animals also have keener sensory faculties, which makes their perceptual capacity far more powerful than man's as their tool for meeting their own survival needs, and also, in many cases, "instincts," inbuilt predispositions that man lacks.)
"Choosing" simply means selecting from one or more alternatives available under the circumstances. Animals and man alike do it easily, with or without concepts or human volition.
The foregoing view of "choice" in animals is largely my own interpretation. Certain extemporaneous remarks by Leonard Peikoff in three different podcasts in 2008 (#16, #37 and #38) seem to offer a somewhat different view of volition versus choice. The issue of choice and the possibility of "automatic choices" seems open to question even among leading Objectivist intellectuals.
As for the specific references cited by Eric, I found the Wikipedia article to be very informative as an overview of the whole field of animal cognition. The case of a monkey issuing a danger call to make others run away in the absence of an actual danger seems explainable by perceptual association rather than any kind of higher level thinking. The monkey had learned to associate that auditory sequence with others running away. He had some food that he strongly wanted to eat, but knew (perceptually) what would happen to him if he ate it while others were present. At some point, he happened to use the "snake danger" call to make others run away, and it allowed him to eat his food in peace. So he remembered that perceptual association and repeated it again when needed. There may even have been a real snake present when the monkey used that call for the first time. I don't claim to have definitive proof that this is what the monkey was doing cognitively, but it fits, and (in my view) has to be regarded as a real possibility (if not a strong probability).
Similarly, the case of audible sounds being used in different ways in different contexts seems more like what humans do with letters of the alphabet in forming words. The letter 'a' is used in probably hundreds of thousands of different words, including words on every page of a human dictionary. It can even be used as a standalone word by itself. The meaning of the word is not derived from the standalone meaning of "a", but the actual sound sequences listed in the article didn't seem to correlate very closely, either. It seems more likely that the animals simply remember sequences of sounds for different situations, rather than forming anything like "sentences" according to rules of grammar. To the extent that any associational patterns may exist between individual sounds and general categories of sequence meanings, it may be just a convenient perceptual device to aid the animal in remembering the sequences. The number of sequences that the animals seem to remember and use (in a natural state, without any training by man) seems very limited.
I tried reading the study by Zentall et al (2008), but it was pure torture for me, reminiscent of trying to read Immanual Kent -- abstract, poorly defined terminology thrown around freely, not readily recognizable as to what is actually being done to the animals and what the animals are actually doing in response. I also found some very clear conclusions succinctly stated, such as the following in Sec. 1.3:
The research reviewed in this section strongly suggests that nonhuman animals very ably master perceptual or basic level concepts[*]. Such mastery appears to rely on the familiar behavioral principles of discrimination and primary stimulus generalization. The roots of conceptualization thus appear to lie deep in the perceived similarity of external stimuli. Differential similarity influences the responses of nonhuman animals in much the same way as it influences the speaking of humans. Although it may not always be the case that humans and nonhuman animals categorize stimuli in the same way (see Roberts & Mazmanian, 1988; Yoshikubo, 1985; Fujita, 1987), based on the results presented here, one can conclude that both conceptual[*] behavior and its underlying cognitive processes are generally similar in humans and nonhuman animals.If the references to concepts indicated by '*' above were changed to "perceptual generalization" instead of "concept," the conclusion would appear to be entirely consistent with Edwin Locke's descriptions in his 1989 lecture. The authors of the study use the term "concept" entirely too loosely, as Edwin Locke pointed out in his talk.