from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

The Crucial Faculty Of Choice

The necessary aspect of our ability to conceptualize is free will, or volition. To identify and integrate, we select from a plethora of perceptions and conceptions. From our experiences, we choose to isolate. As we develop during childhood, we become better at this task. Eventually, much of everyday functioning becomes automatized (such as walking or reading). Nonetheless, at almost any point, we can choose an alternative path of thought or behavior; we can direct our focus to something else (either in mind or surroundings). Consequently, we are not bound by yesterday’s functioning.

Our conceptual, volitional awareness grants us a powerful ability. On any topic open to inspection, we can decide to increase or decrease our level of awareness; we can expand our attentiveness or shrink our world down to the everyday. Or, we can remain content with our present level of awareness.

Evolution has provided us with the biological adaptiveness needed to reproduce and survive as a species. Yet, we are advanced beyond any conceivable notion of being “programmed” for success. We have a choice of what to think about and what to do, what to concentrate on and what to disregard.

As we form and relate various concepts, as well as take actions, we quickly learn that these processes are susceptible to mistakes. The very concept mistake indicates that a better way was not foreseen or was not included in the decision-making process. Thus, we can choose to alter the course of our life—even to our disadvantage.

So, our range of awareness enables us to do more than take spontaneous, conditioned, or simply learned actions. We have the responsibility to consider the repercussions of and possible alternatives to behaviors as well as ideas. In this way, other animals just act, while human beings decide upon a course of action (or type of thought).

This necessarily means that we are not guided by innate knowledge or skills; human beings do not possess instincts. We must choose to acquire and utilize particular abilities—which takes concerted effort.82

Unlike the beaver, we possess no intrinsic ability to build a dam. Unlike the salmon, we cannot navigate to a particular birthplace hundreds of miles upstream based on an internal drive. Actually, to say something possesses an instinct explains little. It is merely a convenient, superficial account of an organism’s behavior; it does not tell us what is really inducing the behavior.10

Even though some of our actions may appear instinctual, we make choices based on knowledge. Of course, infants and even small children have elementary drives or built-in responses—such as to be aware and conscious of one’s environment, to smile at caregivers in physical proximity, or to seek pleasurable and life-sustaining activities. (Later, we may develop keen intuition based on our experiences as well.) However, as we mature to fully volitional beings, the decision to pursue values arises. This is key to understanding human behavior as well as motivation.76

The ability to shift awareness to whatever or wherever appropriate by choice follows from having the ability to reason. To focus and integrate is a basic property of a conceptual organism.76 Additionally, choice cannot be reduced to any other principle, because to do so would be contradictory: one would have to choose to deny one’s capacity to choose. So, in the epistemological sense, free will is its own cause and does not need to be proven.7

Since free will is a phenomenon of the human brain, no mind/body dichotomy can exist. Volition has certain biological and physiological causes and concomitants. However, because choices are different than particular brain processes, the two phenomena cannot be equated.

Our perceptions are basically automatic. They are the given. They have been finely tuned by natural selection to correspond to and recognize objects and events. In certain circumstances, though, they may prove inadequate, or evidence illusions. Conceptually we can reflect on our perceptions. We can recognize their amazing intricacy and efficacy, as well as their various flaws and shortcomings.

Yet many philosophers throughout history have entertained the idea that our perceptual mechanism is somehow flawed in principle—that it represents reality in a tainted fashion, instead of “as it really is.” Perhaps this notion’s formal origin is with Plato (another version was forwarded later by Immanuel Kant). Plato wrote about Ideas or Forms, which he described as being perfect concepts or absolute truths of things (i.e., the real nature of things). Although they are part of reality, supposedly they are not fully attainable because our perceptions get in the way. Plato contended that we usually see only metaphorical shadows or appearances of Ideas or Forms—which are provided by our allegedly untrustworthy senses.

In order to formulate concepts such as “tainted,” “distorted,” or “reality as it really is,” however, one must rely on the senses to reach a correct conclusion. In order to discover that one has not been experiencing reality properly, one has to first experience it properly. Hence, only specific aspects of reality can yield distorted perceptions or illusions. The whole of reality cannot be an aberration, since an aberration is a deviation from normal reality.

In fact, if it were otherwise, one could not prove anything—for proof presupposes truth, and truth must invariably begin with what one perceives in reality. We necessarily rely on the truths (i.e., facts) of reality during the process of logic by which we differentiate the correct from the incorrect. If our perceptions were actually flawed in principle, we could never accomplish this epistemological task. So, nothing we contended would have any meaning.

Clearly, the sort of creature proposed by many philosophers and psychologists throughout the ages—a hypothetical creature whose very senses cannot be trusted—would never have been allowed to exist by natural selection. Our senses, in concert with our rational faculty, allow us—by virtue of being well adapted to perceiving reality—the capacity to doubt and question in the first place, and therefore arrive at the truth.

Incidentally, only a conceptual organism is able to doubt its method of perception—and further think that it drew a correct conclusion. Only a person can claim to correctly perceive an allegedly flawed perceptual mechanism and go on to devise the idea of unreliable senses. Doubting one’s senses goes hand in hand with repudiating one’s method of functioning, which results in repudiating reality. This was a practice during a long period of history known as the Dark Ages. Ironically, many who doubted their perceptions of reality adamantly claimed to know of another reality—one that could not be perceived. They claimed to know of a reality that was ineffable and beyond the senses (heaven or hell). How they “knew” this was always beyond inquiry.

Another troublesome perspective with regard to epistemology concerns the traditionally debated theories of “rationalism” and “empiricism.” The former holds that knowledge and truth are derived from the thinking mind, from higher reasoning. The latter holds that knowledge and truth are derived from experiences and observations via the senses. These two views plainly create a split between two very natural and interconnected aspects of consciousness—its dealings with thoughts and its dealings with external reality. To devise a more arbitrary dichotomy with regard to the functions of a volitional mind would be difficult.

In truth, we all choose to look at reality, to observe and understand our experiences, and we utilize concepts to make sense of them. We all choose to think about our own (or some one else’s) ideas, and we need input from our experiences and our observations (or at least someone else’s) to validate them. These ought to be integrated processes. Only when the definition of reason is muddled or insufficient do we see debates over which process is preferable; concepts then are treated as floating abstractions cut off from their referents in reality and concretes are not integrated fully into principles.

Yet another doctrine found in philosophy and psychology university departments today is known as “constructivism.” This takes issue with the idea that we perceive, know, and act in response to an objective reality. Rather, we construct our own personal views of the world, and our subjective perceptions of things (instead of things as they really are) influence our psychology and behavior. Here we see an oddly unilateral stance. Constructivism tends to deny the other critical aspect of our experiences—the objective one.

Even though we can have perceptions of a subjective reality, we need to acknowledge the objective reality that is distinct from consciousness. Subjectivity would have no meaning if objectivity were a fantasy. While we will take up this issue again, no reason exists to lend credence to a theory that divides individuals and their experiences into countless separate little worlds, each of their own design. We must account for the objective material from which perceptions are organized (and to which people respond in their own personal ways).

Ideas that disregard our capacities of reason and volition must rely on these very same capacities. Thus, such ideas are self-defeating. They indulge in what Rand called “the fallacy of stolen concept”: To question the human ability to think or choose (or to perceive), one must utilize these very abilities; so, one denies the basic conceptual roots, or preconditions, involved in one’s attempted refutation of them (concept-stealing).81 The stolen concept fallacy resides noticeably in the psychological theory of determinism, the doctrine stating that humans have no fundamental capacity of choice.

Determinism mostly originates from the classical scientific observation that we live in a so-called mechanistic universe. To many, this means that everything has been set out on a predestined course from the “beginning” to the “end” of time (including our choices), like a bunch of billiard balls that collide on a table, their trajectories set after impact. Thus, everything is “determined.”

The term mechanistic implies that every effect has an antecedent cause—or more accurately, antecedent causes. This much is certainly true. Such a term, however, is not a sufficient description for all the entities and events of nature. We must also account for the causal properties inherent in the identity of various entities. Entities in existence have properties and, hence, do things that affect each other—and that affect themselves. Our task is to discover these relationships and conceptualize the nature of them by means of hypotheses, principles, theories, laws, and so forth.

Scientists have noted that particularly complex sequences of events contain numerous causal factors, and that they happen everywhere in countless ways. For example, cloud formations or avalanches cannot be accurately calculated beforehand even with the best knowledge and most refined methods of measurement of the initial conditions. The inevitably small errors in (or impossibilities of) measurement and various uncertainties of knowledge multiply into larger ones when a complex sequence of events and interaction of factors are set in motion.36

In actuality, many of the events in nature are of such a complexity that long-term, precise prediction of their future outcomes becomes unworkable. So many interconnected and interacting factors (i.e., multiple causal agents) are involved that calculating accurate end results can be quite difficult.

The more data and information we acquire about phenomena, the better we can understand and thus predict them (at least for the short term). Primarily over the last three centuries (starting, say, with Sir Isaac Newton), science has discovered many of nature’s principles and laws. The identity of all sorts of things can be ascertained based on their causal properties. By finding out what something is and what it does, we can deal with it effectively. (We will discuss identity and causality specifically in a later section.)

In regard to volition, we have the following facts: the attribute of free will is an intrinsic aspect of a reasoning mind; a reasoning mind is an attribute of a specific organ known as the brain; the brain functions by means of cellular actions involving biochemical and bioelectrical processes; these actions stem from certain combinations of molecular elements; and, these elements behave according to the laws of physics. Finally, this neural system interacts with and responds to its environment, both internal and external.

From this set of facts, determinism draws the erroneous conclusion that free will must be reduced to the laws of physics. That is, we do not really make choices; we only conform to the laws of physics. Clearly at this point the metaphor of a mechanistic universe begins to fall apart. Reducing characteristics of mind to characteristics of atoms confuses rather than clarifies. (Incidentally, quantum theory, not Newtonian physics, applies at the subatomic level. And, while not acausal, it is not seen as adhering to a strictly mechanistic model.)

Attempts to reduce complex phenomena to more basic levels of explanation tend to deny the meaning and significance of the currently perceivable level. For instance, the behavior of living creatures in general is best explained by biology. An organism’s physiology and characteristic ways of functioning in its environment are more informative than the various molecules of which it is composed. Clearly, tissues, organs, organ systems, and the complete organisms themselves all take on attributes and properties—and therefore functions and behaviors—quite different from their more basic internal parts. Emergent properties with new causal factors must be taken into account.

Scientist Paul Davies noted “...that each new level of organization and complexity in nature demands its own laws and principles.”21(p.191) On the issue of physical matter in relation to the phenomenon of consciousness, he stated:

A major problem is to understand how these mental events are consistent with the laws and principles of the physical universe that produces them.

The reductionist is here presented with a severe difficulty. If neural processes are nothing but the motions of atoms and electrons slavishly obeying the laws of physics, then mental events must be denied any distinctive reality altogether, for the reductionist draws no fundamental distinction between the physics of atoms and electrons in the brain and the physics of atoms and electrons elsewhere. This certainly solves the problem of the consistency between the mental and physical world.

However, one problem is solved only to create another. If mental events are denied reality, reducing humans to mere automata, then the very reasoning processes whereby the reductionist’s position is expounded are also denied reality. The argument therefore collapses amid its own self-reference.21(p.189)

Let us just suppose that scientists could (and they probably will) decipher the exact brain processes involved in—or correlated with—any isolated choice. Next, let us suppose that neuroscientists will then discover the biochemical and molecular (or atomic) reasons for this occurrence. Though research on brain functioning is still a far cry from this scenario, holistic principles of organization must be taken into account for thorough understanding. As Davies noted:

The mystery of life, then, lies not so much in the nature of the forces that act on the individual molecules that make up an organism, but in how the whole assemblage operates collectively in a coherent and cooperative fashion. Biology will never be reconciled with physics until it is recognized that each new level in the hierarchical organization of matter brings into existence new qualities that are simply irrelevant at the atomistic level.21(p.101)

One could say that the whole of free will is more than the sum of the brain’s parts. The molecules that compose brain cells surely allow human consciousness to arise; they cause its existence. But unless the brain is damaged or impaired in some significant way, they cannot impede free will or “determine” one’s choices. This is because free will is the resultant attribute of these combinations of molecules (or more holistically, combinations of cells and neural circuits of the brain).

Despite all the great scientific discoveries about the brain and mind that are in store for us, volition has its own unique model of explanation. Even if we knew all the brain factors in a particular choice, prediction of free will is hampered by lack of knowledge of the mental factors. Any physiological explanations (in cellular or molecular terms) of a volitional organism’s conscious decisions could only be real-time correlates of those particular decisions.

Conscious decisions reveal a model of consciousness as an irreducible primary.81 While inspection of the brain through the lens of physics or chemistry gives us one model of explanation, the lens of psychology gives us quite another. Mental factors (cognition and evaluation) and choices are the domain of psychology. As stated earlier, free will in the epistemological sense is its own cause.

If we were to reduce free will to something that does not involve the basic exercise of choice, then the very concepts “chosen” and “determined” would have no meaning. They would not be formulated through the mental—volitional—process of abstract selection. This would imply that humans are incapable of conceptualization, which would mean that this present exposition as well as all human activity is inherently meaningless (which would include this statement). Obviously, certain concepts are being stolen here.

Determinism contends that no one makes choices; choices are an illusion. Ideas are espoused solely because people are determined or fated to espouse them. Well then, are people then determined to either accept or reject them? If so, then people are incapable of being persuaded, because they are incapable of deciding to learn anything. What is one’s goal or motivation in espousing a theory if some people are destined to be persuaded and others are not? Actually, there can be no goals or motivations or intentions here, because everything is determined one way or another.

Persuasion involves an appeal to free will. In order to assert a theory of determinism that negates free will, one has to select (choose) among an assortment of theories. This is the whole idea of a theory; if one is destined to advocate (or be persuaded by) a theory without any choice in the matter, its meaning is nullified. The reason why there are notions of being “determined,” “destined,” and “fated” is that there is behavior to contrast them with—that is, volitional behavior. Choosing is the opposite of being determined.

The main consequence (intentional or not) of such a contradictory theory is this: Minimization of the idea of human consciousness as an essentially conceptual faculty. Determinism can also be used to rationalize behavior that would otherwise be considered deficient or irresponsible—“because we have no choice in the matter.” Ultimately, the price we pay for volition is the freedom to use concepts and capabilities that are denied in order to perpetuate misleading notions.

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