Rebirth of Reason


Scope of Volition
by Merlin Jetton

Ayn Rand described free will or volition in Galt’s speech. She wrote, “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 character.”

She gave no support for the assertion, nor is it supportable.  It is too narrow, contradictory, and the choice to think does not control or determine what or how one subsequently thinks.

Years later in The Romantic Manifesto she wrote: “The faculty of volition operates in regard to the two fundamental aspects of life: consciousness and existence, i.e. his psychological action and his existential action, i.e., the formation of his own character and the course of action he pursues in the physical world.” The scope of volition is much wider here, and more true.

I think volition is reducible to the power to choose and that the choice to think or not is an important part of volition, but there is much more. ‘The choice to think or not’ captures none of the following: (a) perceptual attention, (b) what to think about, or attention in thought, (c) how to think, and (c) choices implemented by bodily actions. They overlap somewhat and can occur simultaneously. However, there is enough of a distinction to regard them as different aspects of volition.

Attention is the control of access to conscious awareness. Choosing what to think about can be regarded as attention, and most of what I will say about attention applies to that, too, but my main topic here is perceptual attention. It can be volitional or automatic. We can choose voluntarily to start or stop reading a book. Attention can be captured involuntarily, for example, by a loud and unexpected sound, somebody saying our name, or a sudden sharp pain.

Our attention is guided by goals, whether voluntarily or not. In the case of attention being captured involuntarily, no conscious decision is made, and there is some subconscious mechanism that determines what is important enough to command our conscious awareness.

Voluntary attention is sensitive to goals, but is not entirely controlled by them. After all, goals can be changed. This is an aspect of volition. We have some amount of freedom from being controlled by automatic goals.

Attention is also sensitive to emotions, which are in turn related to values and goals. Attention is not entirely controlled by emotion, but the stronger the emotion, the more likely it captures our attention.

Part of attention is choosing what to observe. In order to know reality, we need to do a lot of observing, which is better done with an attitude of absorbing, letting reality dictate one thoughts. When Rand referred to thinking, it seems she meant reflection and analysis. However, they can come later. We first need to observe in order to have the input needed for analysis and reflection.

What To Think About
There is a wide range of choices here. At work one can choose what goals to pursue, how best to pursue them, or give in to distraction by something not pertaining to work, such as a vacation or family matters. One can think about or not think about philosophical topics. A person allocates how much time to spend thinking about work, family, finances and politics.
How To Think
There are choices about how to think, too. What sort of evidence and how much is needed to reach a conclusion or to generalize? How much effort is put into tying one’s ideas to reality? How much effort is put into being logical and integrating one’s ideas?

Bodily Actions
It is clear that we make choices about places to go, actions to take and how we perform them. Speaking and writing require bodily action. We probably make as many or more choices in this aspect than either of the other two. Yet Rand said so little about the physical aspect of volition.

A mental choice would be quite useless without the ability to implement it with bodily action. Bodily action is also used to control perceptual attention. For example, we control the direction we look and what we focus on by moving our eyes (and head).
Rand’s writing also gives the strong impression that the volition she describes is that of a normal adult. However, let us consider the choice ‘to think or not’ for (normal) children. Does a young child choose to think before it thinks? I think not. We are born to think. A child perceives a multitude of novel and fascinating things, and thinking about them comes natural. Such things capture the child’s attention.

It also seems that self-consciousness is required to even consider the question, Shall I think or not? Children do not become self-conscious until well past two years old. Even when older the choice to think or not is often more like ‘do I think about X or something else?’ rather than ‘do I think about X or not at all?’ It seems to take a person much older to consider the latter and one who has judged that thinking is too often futile or too hard.

Volition is not a constant over a lifetime. It develops.


Is the onset of thinking by a child arbitrary? According to Peikoff, it must be, and for adults, too.

“By its nature, it is a first cause within a consciousness, not an effect produced by antecedent factors. It is not a product of parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, heredity or environment. . . . The choice to activate the conceptual level of awareness must precede any ideas.  . . .  In short, it is invalid to ask: why did a man choose to focus? There is no such ‘why’.” (Peikoff, OPAR, 59-60).

Did Peikoff get this from Ayn Rand? Possibly, but it strikes me as another case of his striking out on his own. He succeeds in classifying the choice to think as totally arbitrary.  He claims anatomy and genetic makeup are totally irrelevant. The question he asked is perfectly valid and has an answer. There may be no cause, in a very limited sense, but there are motives and goals. The motive or goal may be as simple as eating to relieve hunger.


A lion focuses upon a particular gnu in a herd when it pursues its prey. It likely doesn’t choose to focus. Rather its focus is motivated by its hunger. The lion does seem to choose which gnu among many to pursue. It seems to be perceptual focus rather than some rudimentary kind of conceptual focus. However, other sorts of animal behavior, such as a chimp using a stick to reach some bananas or a twig to get termites, are more sophisticated and suggest a fuzzy line between choice at the perceptual attention and choice at the conceptual level. This raises another point. Taking evolution to be true, conceptual choice may be an outgrowth of perceptual choice. It strikes me as incredulous that human beings have this incredible power to choose, but no other species has any sort of ability to choose. Even ignoring evolution, brains and nervous systems are too similar to invoke such a sharp dichotomy.
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