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As I understand it, the objectivist position on volition is that (1) man does have free will, and(but?) (2) the choice to focus is the basic volitional choice. My question is this: is the choise to focus the only volitional choice?

That is, once we have chosen to focus, are there other choices we can make that are also volitional, or are all of our other "choices" (or what appear to us to be choices) really determined by the previous choice to focus?

I have heard objectivists that I respect make arguments that sound to me like they are endorsing the latter view. For example, I have heard it argued that "it is impossible for [so and so] to chose at this moment to [do such and such]." Sure, the argument continues, they may, through a series of choices to not focus get to the point where their character is such that they could chose to do such and such, but that choice is not open to them now--indeed the only choice open to them is to focus or not.

As another example, take this quote from an answer* to another question in this forum:

Objectivism identifies only one aspect of human consciousness as directly volitional: the choice to focus one's conceptual faculty or not. All other conscious choices that man makes are, according to Objectivism, "higher-level" choices that depend on the choice to focus or not.

The notion seems to be that we go through life making millions of descrete choices to focus or not, and that "somehow" these choices to focus deterministically fill in the rest--they determine our other "choices" (which aren't really choices), create our chracter, and (ultimately) make us who we are. The problem is that this does not accord with our experiences in reality: We validate volition by introspecting and noticing the fact that we can chose to do things volitionally. However, much of this introspective evidence is evidence of us making choices other than the choice to focus. We notice, for example, that we can choose to raise our arm or lower it as we please--if such choices are not really volitional, then how do they serve as evidence of volition? Our experiences give us ample evidence to support the conclusion that we can make choices about descrete actions in every day life that are "higher-level" (i.e. not the choice to focus). We chose to go to work, to flirt with our co-worker, to overeat at lunch, to use the blue pen instead of the red one, etc. These seem like genuine choices to me, not just deterministic responses to some single binary decision made at some point in the past.

Note that I am not arguing that the choice to focus is not fundamental, or that other choices do not depend on the choice to focus. Obviously we wouldn't be able to make other choices without first choosing to be in focus. But does that mean that our other choices are not volitional?

*(note that the answer that I quoted above might be open to the interpretation that "higher level" choices are still volitional in some form (just not "directly"), rather than the interpretation I have attributed to it--I have merely characterized the answer as I understood it, in conjunction with other objectivist answers I have heard. If I have misunderstood the answer, I hope the answerer will clarify what he/she meant.)

[as a secondary "devil's advocate" type question: if focusing determines all other actions, then why is there so much diversity of action? Why don't all people who chose to focus make the same "choices"? How does post-choice-to-focus-determinism account for matters of taste or optional values?]

asked Nov 01 '11 at 14:47

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Nov 01 '11 at 14:56

My gut reaction: the choice to focus is the fundamental choice - the choice from which any other choice must proceed. A choice is an act of volition; volition is a faculty of a conceptual consciousness. When one drifts, one is in the mental state of the "lower" animals: one is acted upon and reacts automatically; when one focuses, one is in the mental state where his conceptual faculty becomes a factor: he becomes able to act and react volitionally rather than automatically. TL;DR: all choices are genuine choices, but proceed from the required context of the fundamental choice to focus.

(Nov 02 '11 at 11:21) Justice Justice's gravatar image

To be honest, I'm not quite sure how you arrive at this idea. The choice to focus or not is not the only one - it is just the first one in the hierarchy. Just because you choose between blue and green does not mean it is somehow determined once you pick blue what shade of blue you will pick - rather the shade (and any further choice) is a whole new application of free will, i.e. focus or not. So I guess EVERY choice boils down to focus-or-not.

As for "it is impossible for x to act in this-and-that way", I take it to mean given their current premises they cannot arrive at a different choice.

(Nov 02 '11 at 15:20) FCH FCH's gravatar image

The question seems to express some uncertainty about the precise relation between focusing and higher level choices, perhaps regarding focusing as akin to flipping a switch. You walk into a room, flip on the light switch, and then go on to whatever other activities you want to do in the room, with the benefit of the light but without having to think about the switch again. The lights simply stay on by themselves, and you remain free to make further volitional choices with the aid of the light, but without having to do anything further about the light switch.

Objectivism seems to endorse the switch analogy in some form, but Objectivist literature also describes in detail what "focusing" refers to. Objectiivism holds that all of man's choices "depend on" the choice to focus. What is the nature of that dependency? Does it mean one "throws a switch" once, and then doesn't need to worry about it any further? Does one "throw the switch" once in one's life, or perhaps once each day (usually shortly after waking up from sleeping), etc.? Objectivism identifies focusing as a continuous cognitive effort, an effort that one must continually exert in order to remain in focus and then perform further (or corollary) actions such as looking at reality and thinking about it. In fact, focusing is inseparable from looking at reality and thinking about it.

The "light switch" analogy is thus a little misleading if taken too literally. Focusing is more like a momentary or pushbutton switch. To keep the lights on, one must keep pressing the switch. It doesn't stay on without cognitive effort.

This, in turn, means that all of man's choices are volitional. Focusing is directly volitional; higher level choices are also volitional in that they involve on-going focusing (or absence of it). One can suspend one's focus and one's thinking at any time simply by relaxing the mental effort and letting one's mind drift haphazardly (not purposefully directed). One can suspend or alter higher level choices at any time simply by going out of focus. If one truly believes that something is the right thing to do, one will be hard-pressed not to do it unless one suspends one's belief. If one is "conflicted" about it, then one's decision to act or not will depend on how one resolves the conflict.

All of man's choices are caused in the sense of depending on whether or not man is in focus; but man's choices are never "determined" by factors beyond his psychological control. When man truly chooses something (i.e., it's not forced on him against his will), he does so either in focus (which may be full focus or partial focus) or not, and the nature of what he decides to do is crucially dependent on the degree to which he chose while in focus.

In OPAR (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand), Leonard Peikoff provides extensive discussion of volition, focusing, and higher level choices in Chapter 2, "Sense Perception and Volition." The caused-determined distinction is discussed directly on pp. 64-65.

The OPAR discussion goes on to deal with numerous other issues related to focusing, such as how one "decides" to focus in the first place, if it is necessarily an unmotivated, undeliberated choice. If focusing is essential for thinking, which is essential for man's survival, what assures that man will focus his mind when he is just waking up from a long interval of sleeping? How or why would he simply "do it" without being prompted in any way? Or is there a prompt, which man is free to follow or ignore? For now, I will leave these further questions about focusing for separate discussion if needed. Those who are interested can find the main Objectivist discussion in OPAR, although it may not answer all of one's questions as definitively as one might want, since Dr. Peikoff had to limit OPAR's many discussions to a small enough volume for general readers to pursue. A broad overview of free will can also be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topics of "Focus," "Free Will," and "Thought/Thinking."

(Regarding "diversity of action" among "people who choose to focus," remember that cognition is an active process involving each observer's specific context of knowledge and circumstances, his vantage point in observing reality, his thinking methods and abilities, etc. Merely focusing one's mind does not predetermine the outcome of a process of observing reality and thinking about it, nor guarantee that one will never commit unintended errors in cognition. Man's cognitive faculty is fallible as well as volitional and contextually oriented.)


The discussion in the comments is becoming a back-and-forth dialog, and my thoughts on the latest comments are extensive enough so that an update to my original answer is probably more appropriate than simply continuing in dialog mode.

The questioner states: "I first make (and maintain) the choice to focus C. I then choose A." This description skips a number of key steps in the process and seems to treat focusing as separate and distinct from the total process. Before one reaches the final choice (and presumably action) of 'A', one needs to look at reality, think about it, identify its relation to oneself, recognize whether or not some kind of action might be needed, if so, why, and what alternative courses of action might be possible, the probable consequences of each, the relative value of each possible outcome to one's life, the respective costs or difficulties of various actions, etc. Focusing is very closely intertwined in one's cognitive processes at every step, always with the ever-present option to drop focus and act (or not) in a state of cognitive drift.

To make the very close connection between focusing and thinking even more clear, the following excerpt from "Focus" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon may be helpful:

In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one's consciousness is volitional. 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 simulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make. [From TOE in VOS, Chap. 1]

. . .

"Focus" designates a quality of one's mental state, a quality of active alertness. "Focus" means the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality. It's the state of a mind committed to seeing, to grasping, to understanding, to knowing. [From Leonard Peikoff's 1976 Objectivism lecture series, which later led to OPAR]

Reaching 'A' as one's final decision in action is not an automatic consequence of focusing. Processes of thought and evaluation are needed to make a high level choice such as 'A', and those processes do not operate automatically. They begin with focus and build on it, with the ever-present option to drop focus at any time if one so chooses.

Regarding someone else's choice under the same circumstances ('X'), another person won't necessarily reach the same conclusion because his context of previous knowledge and values is likely to be different, as I already explained in an earlier comment,

An earlier comment by the questioner mentioned "volitional in the normal sense (in a sense other than depending on other volitional choices to focus)." What is meant by "normal sense" here? How does it differ from the Objectivist sense, if it does? What I am attempting to summarize is the Objectivist sense. If the question is, "Is a higher level choice volitional or not, yes or no," I would have to say "yes and no"; it's not such a rigidly black-and-white, either-or, all-or-nothing issue. There are a great many antecedent factors that enter into higher level choices, including the fully volitional choice to maintain a state of focus or not. (Objectivism, e.g., OPAR, denies that any such antecedent factors are involved in focusing itself, other than man's completely free action of simply doing it or not.)

answered Nov 02 '11 at 15:40

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Nov 03 '11 at 23:42

Thank you for your answer. Would you mind elaborating on what you meant when you said

"Focusing is directly volitional; higher level choices are also volitional in that they involve on-going focusing (or absence of it)."

Do you mean that higher level choices are volitional only in a delimited sense, i.e. only in the sense that they are made while in a state of focus? This is the root of my question, which your answer, although helpful, leaves some wiggle room on. Are higher level choices volitional in the normal sense (in a sense other than depending on other volitional choices to focus)?

(Nov 02 '11 at 16:51) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

The whole answer actually explains what is meant by "volition" as that term is used in Objectivism.

If the confusion is over whether man still has psychological freedom to make choices even if he chooses to go out of focus, he certainly does. But in an unfocused cognitive state, man's choices will be haphazard, confused, often conflicting, probably prompted strongly by emotions and the influence of others, and very damaging to his efficacy for survival. He will be trying to survive on the level of nonhuman animals, operating by sense-perception without benefit of an integrated conceptual framework. Even in these cases, it is still true that the choice to focus is the fundamental and primary choice; it is the choice that most pervasively influences the nature and form of all of man's other choices. Further elaboration can be found in OPAR.

A nonhuman animal, too, makes choices even though its consciousness is regarded as operating deterministically. Animals have highly developed sensory-perceptual capacities and automatic value systems that man lacks, but they have far more limited range of action than man achieves through his rational faculty and the tools he can thereby create.

(Nov 03 '11 at 15:40) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Actually, I am not asking about actions in an unfocused state. I am asking about higher level choices made in a focused state. I understand your answer to say that such higher level choices are volitional. However, it sounded to me like you consider this volition to be somehow second-class: you contrast it with the "directly" volitional, you qualify that it is volitional "in that they involve on-going focusing" (implying that it is volitional in a limited sense, i.e., not fully volitional).

(Nov 03 '11 at 19:31) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Faced with circumstances X, I have options A or B. I first make (and maintain) the choice to focus C. I then choose A. Was the choice A volitional? Or was the choice A the automatic result of the choice C (i.e., faced with circumstances X and options A/B, must a person in focus always chose A)? If, given C, either A or B could be chosen, then I consider the choice A/B to be volitional. If choosing C in the given context determines A or B, then A/B is not volitional, except in a derivative sense (i.e. it might be considered volitional "in that [it is made in a state of] on-going focus").

(Nov 03 '11 at 19:44) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image
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Asked: Nov 01 '11 at 14:47

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Last updated: Nov 03 '11 at 23:42