Choice and Focus By Leonid Fainberg
The concept of focus represents central part of Objectivist philosophy of mind. Focus means the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality. Focus is also defined as primary choice on which all other choices depend.
This is the summary of my position:
a. The concept of primary choice is invalid since it leads to infinite regress . b. Focus is not a choice; it is prerequisite of any choice.
c. Focus is inherent, inalienable property of human consciousness and qua focus doesn’t require prerequisite.
d. Volition is ability to set or reset goals by choice according to man's priorities.
e. Focus has properties: intensity and selectivity which are goal-driven.
Humbug has been making an apparently valiant effort recently to understand the Objectivist concept of "focus" more fully, posting many questions of the form: "If I observe that I am mentally doing 'X' in response to mental content 'Y', is that an instance of focus or not?" It has occurred to me, therefore, that a checklist of criteria for judging a state of focus might be helpful.
One of the ways to evaluate oneself in general is to go down a checklist and rate oneself against each item in the list, then sum up in some way the overall trend of all the individual ratings. Here is a checklist that may help an interested self-observer to evaluate his degree of mental focus. Many of the items in this checklist are repititious or redundant, but repetitions and redundancies can often be very helpful in what is basically an inductive exercise. This checklist is adapted from OPAR, Chap. 2, with specific page references as indicated:
OPAR also explains that focusing is only the primary choice underlying all further choices. Man makes higher level choices, too, such as deciding when to think and what to think about, as well as what to value and when to act to pursue a value; but the higher level choices all depend on the choice to focus or not. Man may still make some higher-level choices without focus, but man, when out of focus, can only "drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting [such as by subconsciously formed habit] 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." (Quoted from the topic of "Focus" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)
If a person is in a state of full or partial focus, it may occur to him to ask: what is the relation between choosing to focus and choosing to live? Do I choose to focus, i.e., to remain in focus, because I am choosing to live, or do I choose to live because I have already chosen to focus? The answer depends on your perspective. If you are not in focus, the fact remains that existence exists, you exist (if you're not dead yet), you're conscious (at least on a sensory-perceptual level), you're alive; like all living entities, you face the alternative of life or death and must act in specific ways in order to remain alive; and, as a human being, you will need to use your capacity of reason, your conceptual faculty, in order to know where you are, what you need to do to continue living, and how to do it.
But you won't know all this if you're not in focus. You will be drifting along mentally, and your ignorance will not necessarily be blissful. As your life deteriorates due to lack of life-sustaining action on your part, you will probably experience ever increasing levels of pain and suffering, which you cannot ignore in your consciousness. You will probably feel driven to look for ways to alleviate your pain and suffering, although this isn't necessarily guaranteed or automatic. You may discover that you can focus your mind and that when you do that, you begin to understand many things and see many connections that were just a vague, foggy blur before. Armed with such new awareness, you may consciously decide that you ought to remain in focus and strive to achieve full focus, because you want to sustain and strengthen your life. (To "strengthen" one's life means to increase one's capacity to perform life-sustaining actions in the future.) In that sense, it can be said that you choose to focus because you want to live.
Observe, however, that you have to focus first, before you can know anything on the conceptual level. You need concepts in order to live, and you need to focus in order to form and use concepts. So in that sense, the choice to focus comes first (psychologically, i.e., in consciousness), and you become aware of the possibility of choosing to live after you have already chosen to focus.
Note, also, that choosing to focus does not guarantee that you will choose to live. You may not like what you see when you focus, and promptly decide to go out of focus as quickly as possible. In that case, your level of pain and suffering will continue to increase over time; your mental state will become increasingly unbearable, and you may even begin to entertain thoughts of suicide or drugs as an escape from it all. (Thoughts of suicide require at least a rudimentary level of focus.) Or you may simply lash out randomly and haphazardly, on impulse, waiting for others to either kill you or feed you, or trying to kill them before they kill you.
Man cannot deliberate whether to focus or not if he is completely out of focus. One can only focus (or not), as a primary mental action. But once one does start to focus and understand existence and consciousness on a conceptual level, one can deliberate many things, including whether or not to remain in focus and raise one's level of awareness, and whether to seek to sustain and strengthen one's life, and whether or not there is any connection between focusing and living.
It's totally wrong, beginning with this sentence: "To choose volitionally to be in focus, one has first to recognize his condition-to be aware that he’s not in focus."
That's simply false.
Coming into focus is not, essentially, a choice consciously made. If you are questioning whether you are in focus, you are already in focus.
The experience is more like "Hmm. That was an effort. I was in a daze, and I just came into focus just now."
While you are in a daze, there is none of this: "Hmm. I'm in a daze, I think I'll exert the effort to be in focus."
answered Jun 28 '12 at 10:00
John Paquette ♦