The scope of free will

I was debating the issue of anarchy and was directed to this article (pdf) by Prof. Moshe Kroy which highlights some fundamental differences between Rand’s philosophy and Rothbard’s including the scope of free will.

According to Rand’s theory of human freedom, man’s only fundamental freedom, the sole domain in which he is capable of being a “first cause”, the only realm where he can exercise absolutely unpre-determined choice, is his own consciousness. Man’s basic choice is between identifying the facts of reality through an act of consciousness, and evading the knowledge of these facts. This freedom does not extend to man’s decisions and actions: Your decisions and actions are the necessary product of your values and premises, Rand claims.

Rothbard’s theory of man, however, assumes another dimension of freedom in man: the freedom to make decisions, to originate action. For Rothbard values, and their hierarchy, are not the product of perception alone, though, clearly, his writing implies that awareness of the facts is highly relevant to your choice of values.

In Rand’s words (also look at the related concept of focus)

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.

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 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.

Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.”
(Emphasis mine)

I am not quoting Rothbard because I have not read his works. Aristotle The Geek has directed me to this article by Rothbard but the focus of that article is more on refuting determinism than the scope of free will.

How does one decide which theory is correct? The existence of a choice to focus or not (ranging from no focus to full focus) is immediately available to introspection. When I am solving a difficult problem, I am consciously choosing to be fully focused. When I try to go to sleep, I consciously suspend my focus. But does free will extend beyond that? Am I free to choose the object of my focus or the subject of my thoughts? Am I free to choose the outcome of my thoughts? I don’t think so.

Firstly, there are occasions when I get distracted. This is an indication – though not a proof – that I lack control over the object of my focus. There are occasions when I want to stop thinking about something but cannot. This is an indication – again not a proof – that I lack control over the subject of my thoughts. There exist such things as mental habits and character. These concepts would surely be meaningless if I were free to choose the outcome of my thoughts.

Secondly (and less importantly), one can apply Occam’s razor. The freedom of choice to focus is necessary to explain human behavior. It is also sufficient. Why assume a greater freedom without evidence – especially when free will sits uncomfortably with known physical theories? And until we discover physical theories that can explain free will, I don’t think this issue can be proved either way.

On these grounds, I agree with Rand’s position.

How is this relevant to anarchy? I will deal with that in a separate post.

5 Responses

  1. Nearly a decade after Ayn Rand died, Harry Binswanger published “Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation” in a psychology journal, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (1991). It is available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore as a 25-page brochure.

    My summary (watch out!) was this: Free will refers to the fact that (1) one can choose to go into awareness or not, and (2) when in awareness can choose the level (intensity), the object, and the method one uses.

    This is not, of course, an “Objectivist” paper, since it was published long after Ayn Rand’s death, but about half of the references in the bibliography are Ayn Rand’s writings.

    Even if one disagrees with some of his points, it is a valuable essay because as always he writes clearly. He, like Rand, is truly a philosopher, someone who writes about things that ordinary people can be concerned about and wrestle with if their interests lead them there.

  2. Burgess,
    Thanks for the reference.
    Having the ability of choosing the object of focus is understandable although I am not inclined to agree – I think such a choice would involve the ability to ignore sensory input which I don’t think we have.
    But method? Assuming that method refers to reason vs faith, isn’t reason the only method by which the mind can function? Is faith a method or is it merely evasion? I strongly believ it is only evasion.

  3. If I am sitting at my desk and thinking, I first choose what to think about. That is the object of my attention. Shall I think about revising my master grocery list to try to cut my costs? Or shall I think about my next long-term project? That is choosing an object. I can also choose a perceptual object: looking at the keyboard or at the trees outside my window.

    Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 35-36 and 305-306, discusses “concepts of method.” Reason is a faculty, not a method. Reason employs methods. Reason can use sense-perception, integration, differentiation, reduction, induction, deduction, philosophical detection, and so forth in any combination as a chosen method in solving a particular problem.

    Ayn Rand, at ITOE, pp. 20-21, 29, 78-79, and 150-152, discusses volition.

  4. Thanks for the clarification. I remain sceptical about such an extended scope for free will but I will revisit the topic after I have read ITOE.

  5. The thought crossed my mind… I could light up a cigarette over on the coffee table and start the curtains on fire hanging on the window. I’m tired of the whole darn thing.

    I quite smoking a number of years ago and there happens to be a pack on my coffee table… I’m also too lazy to microwave some food and the last thing I want to do is floss my teeth.

    I know longer believe much in the power of meditation and I have a 4 year supply of incense.

    My life is lead much by impulse. I must refrain from burning the house down and the dentist said my teeth will fall out.

    Yes, I can decide whether I want 1000 island or creamy garlic. I need to create the situation whereas someone will feed me. (I’m actually gaining weight at the moment) Altruism does lead to pragmatism.

    I’m middle of the road with the politics. I stay honest, open minded and willing to change. Free will is dangerous.

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