Ascent To Volitional Consciousness
(Originally appeared in Objectivity, Volume 1, Number 2)
by John Enright
I would like to begin with a basic sketch of my argument,
so that its structure stands out clearly. I will then return
and review my steps, attempting to place each one in its proper
context of intellectual controversy.
I. Basic Argument
An animal -- a dog, a cat, even a fly -- has a kind of
This awareness guides the animal's action.
A fly uses its sense of smell to find food. A fly uses its
sense of sight to avoid my swats.
An animal -- a bird, a fish, even an earthworm -- is
equipped to travel under its own power, under its own
A moving animal selects among possible courses -- it
navigates -- and its awareness is its navigator.
A nightcrawler, as it burrows through the earth, constantly
determines which way to go next.
An animal's actions are limited by its range of awareness.
A dog's actions with regard to doorknobs are severely
limited by the fact that a dog cannot figure out how the darn
things work. After all, a large dog is physically capable of
clamping its teeth on the doorknob and giving it a turn and a
pull. But such a course of action never occurs to a dog --even
after it has watched humans pull the same stunt over and over
again. The dog will push the door, bark at the door, scratch
at the door, and maybe try to dig under the door. But it will
not solve the riddle of the doorknob.
Higher animals often pause to contemplate the possibilities
placed before them. A cheetah lurks in the bush and studies
the herd of antelope on the plain. It identifies which of its
potential prey aren't moving very well -- which ones are sick,
lame, or very young. It picks just one, and then it attacks.
As humans, we routinely contemplate possibilities beyond
any other animal's awareness. We do it with concepts -- a
fancy mental trick which involves giving names to abstractions
and imagining them as things. A trick, with big consequences,
that no other species can follow.
As humans, we are self-aware.
An ape may be sufficiently self-aware to know, when it
looks in the mirror, that it is looking at its own image.
It can be aware of itself as a body. But as humans we are
aware of our own awareness, aware of ourselves as minds.
Again, we do it with concepts, fixing the whirling patterns of
our mental processes with names and definitions.
As humans, we are aware of our own habits. All animals
form habits. Habits are formed, after all, simply by selecting
some sort of action repeatedly, over time. But no other animal
is capable of understanding this process or its implications.
A dog may form habits analogous to human cowardice, but it
will never be aware of the process by which it happened. It
may still be aware, when it encounters an enemy, that fighting
is one of its options. Indeed, if it has nowhere to run, it
may still choose to fight, and this may in turn be the
beginning of a new habit. But a dog will never grasp the
As humans, we are capable of grasping our own intellectual
habits, capable of grasping their crucial importance to our
well-being, and capable of changing them.
A dog, in its way, has something akin to human intellectual
habits. A dog can be habitually alert, or habitually oblivious
to its surroundings. A dog can be trained, to some extent, to
either attitude -- trained by presenting it with situations in
which one or the other attitude is rewarded. If the dog acts
as the trainer wishes, the dog will change its habits in the
direction the trainer desires. In so doing, the dog will be
shaping its own habitual level of mental alertness. But the
dog will never be aware of doing so.
Does this mean that dogs have free will?
Well, I think they have something. Their awareness detects
alternatives and selects actions. An awareness that couldn't
do this, that was just along for the ride as an observant
passenger, would be an awareness without survival value.
Compared to our own wide-ranging and reflective powers of
choice, a dog's power to choose is profoundly constrained. So
the term "free choice" does not seem to fit. But a dog's
choices do seem freer than those available to a flat-worm.
It is not so much that other animals are un-free. Rather,
we have far more freedom than any other animal could dream of.
Human beings face many choices. Among these, is the choice
of whether or not to think -- whether or not to apply and
cultivate one's cognitive capabilities.
Is this choice different than other choices?
In some ways yes. It is a more important choice than most
others, and it is a choice that expands or curtails our own
future range of choices.
Choosing whether to think is important because thinking is
the key to human survival. This puts it on a par, long-term,
with choosing whether to stay alive.
Choosing whether to think expands or curtails our future
range of choices by expanding or curtailing our awareness of
available alternatives. The man of practiced intelligence sees
possibilities that are not apparent to the man of stagnant
We have arrived, please note, at a theory of man as a being
of volitional consciousness, with some simplifying explanations
The power of volition is derived from the power of
concepts. As concepts expand man's range of awareness they
expand his range of choice. As concepts of consciousness allow
a man to reflect on the workings of his own soul, he gains new
control over that soul.
The primacy of the choice to think is derived from its
peculiar impact on man's awareness of alternatives. Expanded
awareness means expanded power of choice and expanded chance of
These explanations account for qualitative differences in
somewhat quantitative terms. Nonetheless, I do not mean to
belittle these differences. Mortimer Adler was wrong to
hold that human freedom and dignity must depend on a difference
that is inexplicable in terms of degree. (Adler, 3-18) As
Stephen Boydstun recently put it in these pages, "Quantity
makes all the difference in the world." (Boydstun, 21)
II. Reviewing The Steps
Let us go back over the steps now, exploring the arguments,
and evidence, along the way.
Step 1 : Animals have a kind of awareness, which guides
their actions, particularly their locomotion.
I use the term awareness here, in my opening statement,
in preference to the term consciousness. In ordinary usage,
the two terms are nearly synonymous, with various subtle
differences (Dennett 114-131) but in academic usage
consciousness seems to carry more connotation of self-
consciousness, which is precisely what I do not wish to
attribute to animals.
Among philosophers, this has been a matter of dispute since
Descartes. The Cartesian case against animal awareness depends
on the premise that true awareness requires a capacity to
reflect upon its own contents. This case can plausibly be made
by asking whether a cat is ever conscious of seeing a ball.
The Cartesians answer that there is some sense in which it
sees, but no sense in which it is conscious of seeing, and
hence that it is not properly conscious. (Radner and Radner,
Writing to Plempius for Fromondus (3 October 1637),
Descartes criticizes the latter for supposing "that I think
that animals see just as we do, i.e. feeling or thinking
that they see." It should be evident from the Discourse
"that my view is that animals do not see as we do when we
are aware that we see, but only as we do when our mind is
elsewhere. In such a case the images of external objects
are depicted on our retinas, and perhaps the impressions
they leave in the optic nerves cause our limbs to make
various movements, although we are quite unaware of them.
In such a case we too move just like automata..."
(Radner and Radner, 64, quoting Descartes, 1970, 36)
Descartes defines "thought" in the Principles and in the
Second Replies to the Meditations. In both places the
definition is followed by a list of the sorts of
operations that count as thinking. Here is the passage from
the first part of the Principles: "By the term thought I
understand all those things which, we being conscious,
occur in us, insofar as the consciousness of them is in us.
So not only understanding, willing and imagining, but also
sensing, are the same here as thinking".... He puts it
thus in the Second Replies: "Thought is a word that covers
everything that exists in us in such a way that we are
immediately conscious of it. Thus all the operations of
will, intellect, imagination, and the senses are thoughts"
(Radner and Radner, 22, quoting Descartes 1978, 179 and
Descartes 1955, 222)
Awareness, for Descartes, is thus very much an all-or-
nothing phenomena. Either one is aware in a fully human, fully
focused way, or one is simply an automaton -- a machine. This
seems to follow from his metaphysical program, which posits
mind as a distinct substance, the typical activity of which is
the contemplation of its own ideas. If animals do not have the
capacity to contemplate innate ideas, then they are not
possessed by mind. But if they are not possessed by mind, then
they must be regarded as purely mechanical beings.
In philosophy, the discussion has focused on whether
animals are conscious in the way humans are. In psychology, on
the other hand, there has been a tendency to assume that animal
capacities are very much like ours, but to question whether
there really was such a thing as consciousness, or whether it
played any significant role in behavior.
One early turning point in this debate arose from the study
of rats in mazes. E.C. Tolman, who classified himself as a
behaviorist, proposed in 1932 that rats possess "cognitive
maps" that enable them to find their way about experimental
mazes as well as they do. Clark Hull, a stricter behaviorist,
proposed a competing theory of "habit family hierarchies."
Over the years, as more experiments were done, the "cognitive
maps" theory emerged as much the simpler explanation. (Walker,
79-81) One physical substrate of the map has been located in
the brain: the firing pattern of hippocampal neurons faithfully
record, topographically, the animal's position in its
environment (O'Keefe and Nadel, 1978).
Still, it is not an accepted idea that an animal's
awareness guides its actions. Indeed, in the world of academic
psychology, it is not readily granted that human awareness
guides human action. According to Walker, "Shallice (1972) has
provided one of the few theories which identify consciousness
with a distinct behaviour-controlling function in addition to
functions related to speech: the selection of actions."
It is accepted that sensory input and cognitive mapping
guide an animal's action. What is at issue is whether sensory
input and cognitive mapping deserve to be described as forms of
consciousness. In an odd twist of contemporary semantics,
"Cognitive psychology has rehabilitated mind but not
consciousness." (Radner and Radner, 9) Jackendoff, for example
maintains "the Hypothesis of the Nonefficacy of Consciousness"
(Jackendoff, 25). Klatzky, on the other hand, approvingly
cites James' view "that consciousness was 'efficacious' by
virtue of its being a 'selecting agency.'" (Klatzky, 138)
My own usage follows the Aristotelian tradition, which
seems less confusing. "...Aristotle's notion of consciousness
covers all the higher animals, that is, all the animals
possessing the full contingent of five senses, phantasia, and
memory." (Modrak, 151) (Phantasia is typically translated as
Emphasis on locomotion, as a major feature of animal
nature, also goes back to Aristotle.
Hence we must consider that in On The Soul II (413b 10) he
established four levels of living things. The first are
those which have merely the nutritive part of the soul by
which they live, such as, e.g., plants. Others, beside
this, also have sensation, but without progressive motion,
as is true of the imperfect animals, e.g., shellfish.
Still others possess progressive locomotion, as do the
perfect animals, e.g., the horse and the cow. Yet others
have intellect also, e.g., men. (Aquinas 1972, 228,
Commentary on Sensation, I, lect. 1)
This emphasis persists in contemporary thinking:
Trees and shrubs are nonmotile and many rely on seed
dispersal for their continued successful existence.
Animals disperse by their own locomotion, be it walking,
swimming, or flying. But this power of movement does more
than provide a mechanism of dispersal: it also provides
them with numerous other advantages. They can forage,
chase prey, run away from predators; they can move away
from the sun when it is too hot, and move into it when they
are chilled. (Bonner, 68)
From a modern perspective, it is worth noting that
immobility is not simply an imperfection. The sessile animals
evolved from mobile ancestors, demonstrating that there are
some circumstances in which a plant-like existence of passive
feeding affords greater odds of survival than the energetic
activity of locomotion. (Bonner, 68-71).
The use of the navigator metaphor for awareness is not
meant to suggest the sort of physical independence that exists
between a ship and its navigator. It is meant here to indicate
a tight relationship between awareness and action, not a loose
relationship between mind and body. Its ancestry on the mind-
body problem goes back at least to "the notorious pilot passage
(De An. 413a8-9)" (Modrak, 42; citing Aristotle, 556)
Navigation, one of the most basic functions of awareness,
is not a one-time choice between two simple alternatives. It
is an ongoing process of route-selection confronting a three-
dimensional world. Paradigms of choice that focus narrowly on
single forks in the road, risk losing touch with the sheer
variety of alternatives that typically confront an animal.
Step 2 : An animal's actions are limited by its range of
In a sense, this is simply the negative side of Bacon's
dictum that "knowledge is power." Lack of knowledge is also
lack of power. The notion of "range of awareness" is taken
here from Rand (Rand 1990, 63, 31-37).
This point isn't usually put quite this way, especially as
it concerns animals.
More typically, it is simply observed that animals "act
stupid." Thorndike, one of the founders of experimental animal
psychology, strongly favored this view:
Thorndike's PhD thesis was published in 1898, under the
title of Animal Intelligence ... Although he adopted the
conventional title for his thesis, he pointed out that
previous authors had paid much more attention to animal
intelligence than to animal stupidity. Thorndike's tone
throughout is that of a man who is going to remedy this
omission. (Walker, 61)
The example of dogs and doorknobs was taken from a cartoon
with the following caption: "Knowing how it could change the
lives of canines everywhere, the dog scientists struggled
diligently to understand the Doorknob Principle." (Larson)
Step 3 : Higher animals contemplate possibilities.
I take the cheetah example from repeated viewings of
wildlife shows on television.
In written accounts, the emphasis is often on cognition
rather than selection. For example: "Predators also monitor
the behavior of potential prey. Hyenas are especially alert
for slight differences in an individual's locomotion or other
behavior that may indicate that it is vulnerable and can be
captured more easily." (Griffin, 82)
The connection between cognition and selection is most
likely to be noted in an evolutionary context:
The evolving cortex expressed another important trend, a
greater and greater stress on inhibition, on the art of not
doing things. This is implicit in the multiplicity of
alternatives confronting advanced species. Choosing a
course of action demands the ruling out of many
possibilities. (Pfeiffer, 40)
In portraying animals as contemplating possibilities, I
pass over a number of controversies:
It seems a safe enough assumption that this process of
deliberation has no point unless the situation confronting
the deliberator is in some sense "open" - that is, unless
there are genuine alternative possibilities. What, then,
are we to make of this notion of 'genuine possibilities?'
Philosophers can be bothered on two scores when confronted
with this notion. Some believe that there are no
contingencies in nature because everything that happens has
a necessitating cause. Others believe that everything
which exists is a concrete actuality, and that the notion
of a "possibility" is an abstract idea which should be
eliminated." (Morgenbesser and Walsh, 2-3)
Of course, possibility cannot be merely an abstract idea if
it is true that possibilities are contemplated by animals that
lack the capacity for grasping abstract ideas. The study of
animal cognition is a corrective for some philosophical errors.
(Bartley 1987b, 7-45) Darwin went so far as to say that "He
who understands a baboon would do more toward metaphysics than
Locke." (quoted at Bartley 1987b, 7)
Some philosophers have denied that animals can make
judgments about what did happen in the past (Bennett, 116), or
about what might happen in the future (Heil, 205-210). The
sense in which they do make such judgments can be brought out
by borrowing from Leibniz: "For instance, if we show dogs a
stick, they remember the pain it has caused them and whine and
run." (Leibniz, quoted by Copleston, 315) There is a strong
sense in which such dogs are judging both that they have been
hit in the past, and that they might be hit in the very near
future. Of course, we should not exaggerate here, but the dog
seems to be capable of a little more than "here now stick
(ouch!)," which is the sort of representation suggested by Rand
of animal mentality (Rand 1990, 57). It's mentality would be
more accurately captured by "Here now stick. Hit before, ouch!
Maybe hit again!" I include the maybe, which is a kind of
modal expression, to indicate the animal's ability to react
differently according to what the behaviorists termed different
frequencies of reinforcement. A dog, for instance, reacts
differently to the man with the stick depending upon whether
the man always hits him or only occasionally hits him with the
stick. In the latter case, the dog may simply become more
wary, but not immediately flee the scene.
The issue of necessitating causes, and how they coexist
with genuine alternatives, is a very broad one. In recent
years, the case for the existence of genuine alternatives has
been reviewed at some length by Antony Flew, who concludes that
"the thesis of universal physical determinism could not even be
understood by anyone who had not, in their own experience of
agency, had reason to know that it is false." (Flew & Vesey,
Step 4 : Concepts - abstractions reified by symbols -- open
a vast set of possibilities for humans.
In drawing this line, on these terms, we are very close to
the views of John Locke:
The "perfect distinction" between man and beast in Locke's
theory lies in the faculty of abstraction, which is tied to
the use of words to represent ideas... In order to prevent
the growth of an endless list of names for all particular
ideas, the mind extracts general features from specific
ideas, which serve to identify mental representations of
things independently of real existence. The mind then
gives general names to these general features -- 'and thus
universals, whether ideas or terms, are made.' (Walker, 23-
24; citing Locke, 206-208)
Ayn Rand's account of concept-formation runs along similar
lines, but lays more stress on the quantitative power of
extending a naturally limited range of awareness:
Since consciousness is a specific faculty, it has a
specific nature or identity and, therefore, its range is
limited: it cannot perceive everything at once... The
essence, therefore, of man's incomparable cognitive power
is the ability to reduce a vast amount of information to a
minimal number of units --which is the task performed by
his conceptual faculty... A concept substitutes one symbol
(one word) for the enormity of the perceptual aggregate of
the concretes it subsumes. (Rand 1990, 63-64)
Walker focuses on the human brain's ability to make such a
substitution, and sees it as an extension of the animal brain's
general ability to internally map the world:
We can say then that the human and non-human species may in
the first place perceive and remember, without the
assistance of language, in a roughly similar way. In
addition we humans may perceive, remember and reproduce
words, instead of things. It is important that words can
serve as labels for things, but perhaps even more important
that words become alternatives to things, so that we
perceive and remember relationships between words, as if
the words were themselves things. According to this view
the human brain is able to accommodate mental organisation
in the form of relationships between and within perceptual
schemata. Language can be internalised in the human brain
because the vertebrate brain in general and the mammalian
brain in particular serves to construct internal
representations as a means of adapting to external
realities. (Walker, 381)
Step 5 : Humans are far more self-aware than any other
Here is what our closest relatives can do:
Gallup (1977) has conducted ingenious experiments in which
chimpanzees are first given an opportunity to familiarize
themselves with mirrors and then, when they are under deep
anesthesia, their foreheads or ear lobes are marked with a
conspicuous spot of rouge or similar material. Chimpanzees
lacking experience with mirrors pay no attention to such
marks, but those that are accustomed to looking at
themselves in mirrors reach directly for the new spot.
This seems clear evidence that they recognize the mirror
image as representing their own bodies. Efforts to induce
monkeys and even gibbons to use mirrors in this way have so
far failed consistently, and Gallup concludes that only the
great apes share with us the capacity for self-awareness.
Of course, the great apes share other distinctive mental
abilities with us, including very notably the ability to use
tools (van Lawick-Goodall 283-286), the ability to devise
constructive solutions to physical problems (Kohler 99-172),
and the ability to communicate using abstract symbols to stand
for categories (Premack and Premack 15-34). These abilities
are small compared to our own. The "tools" used by chimps in
the wild, discussed by van Lawick-Goodall, consist of such
things as sticks, stones, and leaves. The "constructive
solutions" which chimps discovered in Kohler's classic
experiments, consisted of such breakthroughs as boxes piled up
to reach bananas. The "abstract symbols standing for
categories" which the Premacks taught to their chimps consisted
of using a blue plastic triangle to stand for "apple." These
are vast accomplishments compared to what the rest of the
animal kingdom can do.
So far, however, no chimpanzee has succeeded in using one
tool to make another. Even with tuition one chimpanzee,
the subject of exhaustive tests, was not able to use a
stone hand ax to break a piece of wood into splinters
suitable for obtaining food from a narrow pipe. She could
do this when the material was suitable for her to break off
pieces with her teeth but, although she was shown how to
use the hand ax on tougher wood many times, she never even
attempted to make use of it when trying to solve the
problem. (van Lawick-Goodall, 245)
This particular inability corresponds with their inability
to grasp what Rand describes as "abstractions from
abstractions." The correspondence seems particularly direct if
we view abstractions as a kind of mental tool.
Lest the ability to use a blue triangle as a symbol for
apple seem unimpressive, consider the plight of the parrot,
whose purely vocal abilities are probably superior to our own:
Not even the cleverest "talking" birds which, as we have
seen, are certainly capable of connecting their sound-
expressions with particular occurrences, learn to make
practical use of their powers, to achieve purposefully
even the simplest object. Professor Koehler, who can
boast of the greatest successes in the science of
training animals, and who succeeded in teaching pigeons
to count up to six, tried to teach the above-mentioned,
talented grey parrot "Geier" to say "food" when he was
hungry and "water" when he was dry. This attempt did not
succeed, nor, so far, has it been achieved by anybody
else. In itself, the failure is remarkable." Lorenz,
Human language is of another order completely, and plays
a vital role in human self-understanding:
...human descriptive language differs from all animal
language in being also argumentative, and that is human
argumentative language which makes criticism possible, and
with it science.
There is a world of difference between holding a
belief, or expecting something, and using human language to
say so. The difference is that only if spoken out, and
thus objectivized, does a belief become criticizable.
Before it is formulated in language, I may be one with my
belief: the belief is part of my acting, part of my
behavior. If formulated, it may be criticized and found to
erroneous; in which case I may be able to discard it.
Once one has acquired descriptive language, one becomes not
only a subject but also an object for oneself: an object
about which one can reflect, which one may criticize and
change. (Bartley, 437a)
The question has been raised whether self-awareness, in the
human sense, depends on concepts or vice-versa. Perhaps the
relationship should be viewed as reciprocal. On the one hand,
any sophisticated self-understanding requires the use of
conceptual categories. On the other hand, the use of concepts
is a use of "mental entities," and our ability to focus on them
in the first place is itself a kind of inward attending.
When we describe our own mental processes, we typically
do so in terms suggesting a kind of "inner space":
Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called
the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or
lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of
behavior in the physical world....
Consider the language we use to describe conscious
processes. The most prominent group of words used to
describe mental events are visual. We 'see' solutions to
problems, the best of which may be 'brilliant', and the
person 'brighter' and 'clear-headed'... These words are
all metaphors and the mind-space to which they apply is a
metaphor of actual space. In it we can 'approach' a
problem, perhaps from some 'viewpoint', and 'grapple' with
its difficulties, or seize together and 'com-prehend' parts
of a problem, and so on, using metaphors of behavior to
invent things to do in this metaphored mind-space. (Jaynes,
Thus, we take our ability to map the world, and map
ourselves in linguistic terms of an inner world.
Recently, cognitive psychologists have focused on the fact
that self-understanding is always framed in terms of some
theory of human psychology, and that such understanding it is
not immune to error. (Churchland, 73-81)
The point of all this, for our purposes, is as follows. At
life's opening. the mind/brain finds itself as confusing
and unintelligible as it finds the external world... It
must set about to learn the structure and activities of its
inner states no less than it must set about to learn the
structure and activities of the external world. With time,
it does learn about itself, but through a process of
conceptual development and learned discrimination that
parallels exactly the process by which it apprehends the
world outside of it. (Churchland, 80)
Ayn Rand offered the opinion that introspection was
actually more susceptible to error than awareness of the
If men identified introspectively their inner states one
tenth as correctly as they identify objective reality, we
would be a race of ideal giants. (Rand 1990 227)
This view of introspection as inductive and error-prone
stands in sharp contrast to an older view:
The view that the mind knows itself first, in a unique way,
and far better than it can ever know the external world,
has dominated Western thought for over three centuries.
This kind of "primacy of consciousness" is the starting
point of Descartes, who treated self-awareness as the necessary
base for all awareness. This pointed the way to his conclusion
that animals lack all awareness.
Ayn Rand, on the other hand, was ready to grant animals a
form of consciousness that did not involve concepts or self-
The whole difference between a human type of
consciousness and an animal is exactly this. The
ability to be self-conscious and to identify the fact
of one's own consciousness, one's "I." And then to
apply introspection to the processes of one's own
consciousness and check them. (Rand 1990 255-256)
The simplest way to begin an answer is to point out
that animals, who do perceive reality or existence,
have absolutely no concept of their own consciousness.
The enormous distinction between man and animals here
is self-consciousness. An animal does not have the
capacity to isolate critically the fact that there is
something and he is conscious of it. (Rand 1990 246)
Step 6 : Our understanding of our own habits allows us to
control them, and hence control the development of our own
Harry G. Frankfurt, in an influential essay, presented a
strongly parallel line of argument:
Human beings are not alone in having desires and motives,
or in making choices. They share these things with the
members of certain other species, some of whom even appear
to engage in deliberation and to make decisions based upon
prior thought. It seems to be peculiarly characteristic of
humans, however, that... they are capable of wanting to be
different, in their preferences and purposes, from what
they are.... No animal other than man, however, appears to
have the capacity for reflective self-evaluation that is
manifested in the formation of second-order desires.
Now freedom of action is (roughly, at least) the freedom to
do what one wants to do. Analogously, then, the statement
that a person enjoys freedom of the will means (also
roughly) that he is free to will what he wants to will, or
to have the will he wants. (Frankfurt, 90)
My own stress on cognition and habit, as opposed to desire,
is meant to focus on the particular means of implementing
desired changes in character.
In my discussion of dog training I follow Aristotle's
analysis of bravery and cowardice: "...by doing acts that we
do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear
or confidence, we become brave or cowardly." (Aristotle 1941,
953, N.Eth. III 1103b 15-20)
My discussion also follows Koehler's method of guard dog
training (Koehler, Section 1, 95-123). Koehler, a successful
and influential trainer, went so far as to declare:
Remember this -- the decision to 'do right' that most
helps a dog's character is the decision that he makes
himself. (Koehler, Section 2, 73)
The closest thing I know of to training a dog to be in
something resembling an "unfocused" mental state was that
done by Seligman, wherein dogs were first conditioned to feel
"helpless," after which they exhibited markedly reduced
learning ability. (Seligman, 21-44)
My remark that habits are formed simply by selecting an
action repeatedly deserves some qualification: "...repeated
acts cause a habit to grow. --If, however, the act falls
proportionately short of the intensity of the habit, such an
act does not dispose to an increase of that habit, but rather
to its lessening." (Aquinas 1945, 399, Sum.Th. Q52 A3)
Even the behaviorists, who generally denied the importance
of mind and volition, were in the somewhat paradoxical position
of urging the study of habit as a means to master behavior and
achieve new goals. B.F. Skinner himself concluded Beyond
Freedom And Dignity with these words:
...a new theory may change what can be done with its
subject matter. A scientific view of man offers
exciting possibilities. We have not yet seen what man
can make of man. (Skinner, 206)
Step 7 : The choice to think is more important than most
The classical tradition on free will would never have
framed this issue in this way, because classical philosophy did
not normally regard unfocused, undisciplined mental processes
as non-thinking, but as inferior thinking. The classical
tradition (particularly Aristotle and Aquinas) spoke of
developing intellectual virtues - or vices.
However, modern usage favors this formulation, as shown by
Hannah Arendt's well-known observations concerning the man who
oversaw the Nazi's mass-murder operations:
There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or
of specific evil motives, and the only notable
characteristic one could detect in his past behavior as
well as his behavior during the trial and throughout the
pre-trial police examination was something entirely
negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.
Peter Bertocci argued for the pre-eminence of the choice to
When I am conscious of alternatives, I am free at least to
think about them. Since I do not have to go on thinking
about them, and since I frequently do not want to continue
thinking about them, the first act of will is the willing
to think or not think about any alternatives. (Bertocci,
Of course, nobody was more emphatic on this subject than
Ayn Rand: "...that which you call 'free will' is your mind's
freedom to think or not... the choice that controls all the
choices you make and determines your life and character." (Rand
1957, 1017; see also Branden, 34-59)
III. Closing Summary
Animals choose among the alternatives they know. So do we.
We just know more.
For thus did our primate ancestors evolve, to eat the fruit
of the tree of knowledge. And now we are as gods,
understanding our own souls, knowing good and evil.
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