Choice and focus

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Submitted by Anonymous Guest on Mon, 2007-10-29 05:52

The concept of focus represents central part of Objectivist philosophy of mind. Focus means the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality. Focus is also defined as primary choice on which all other choices depend.

In the book on Objectivism Dr.Peikoff wrote: “The choice to focus is man’s primary choice. Until a man is in focus his mental machinery is unable to think, judge or evaluate. The choice to throw the switch is thus the root choice on which all the other choices depend” (1)

This proposition represents some logical contradiction. Presumably a man who has to make this primary choice is not in focus-otherwise he wouldn’t need to make such a choice. To choose volitionally to be in focus, one has first to recognize his condition-to be aware that he’s not in focus. Then one has to understand that this condition is undesirable and he would be better off if he’s in focus. This is value-judgment. Then he has to be willing to change this condition and to decide to be in focus. This is the decision-making process. Then he makes a volitional mental effort and thus becomes in focus. All those actions require a very high level of awareness. The obvious question is how the person, who’s out of focus and hasn’t made his primary choice yet, would be able to perform such a formidable feat. It would be as the drunk in the middle of an alcohol induced mental fog would suddenly decide not to drink anymore. To make a volitional decision to be in focus a man has to be in full focus already. Therefore this act cannot be primary volitional choice.

This proposition also contradicts the collection of empirical data about human mental development.
It’s well known fact that the most acute mental focus we have as infants and toddlers. In just few years we acquire and process enormous amounts of knowledge. By age 3-4 most children learn to speak fluently meaning they’re able to form concepts. However it would be bizarre to claim that infants and toddlers make the conscious volitional primary choice to be in focus.
I propose to resolve this contradiction by suggesting that focus is not a volitional choice but a property of consciousness like red colour is the property of tomatoes. To be aware is to be aware of some thing. Without focus there cannot be any consciousness. Volitionally man can only unfocus himself, “to throw of the switch” so to speak, but even that he cannot do completely without the help of drugs or alcohol. Otherwise how such an “unfocused” person is able to go about his daily life? Even simple activities like shopping, driving a car and holding the most simplistic job require abilities to make choice and value-judgment.

Focus is inherent in the consciousness and we only can volitionally change its degree (to be more in focus or less).If it's so then how can we call this condition primary choice? To make any choice (including to be in focus) one already has to have some degree of focus and that sounds like circular argument.

Infants who unable to speak and function on perceptual level cannot make any volitional choices. However they are observable in very high focus from practically day one of their life. During first 2 years of life a child absorbs and process more information then during the rest of his life. For example an infant can learn numerous languages without difficulty-a task which is very difficult in adult life. Infants obviously conscious beings but I don't believe they can make volitional (even implicit) choice to be in focus. Only when they become older they able volitionally to alter the level of their focus

I think that volitional choice is always teleological one-one want to achieve certain goal. When such a choice is made then level of focus will adjust itself to the requirement of the needed action. This adjustment not necessary has to be volitional. What I mean that if one makes volitional choice to be in focus he has to have already quite high level of awareness.

The focus itself has two properties: Intensity and selectivity. Observe animal behavior: for them (especially for hunted animals) to be in focus is a question of survival and not of choice. The level of animal focus intensity is high but selectivity is low-they aware of every thing all the time. The animal with higher level of awareness has better choice to survive and transfer this trait to it offspring. Evolutionally it may be the way to reach the level of human consciousness. Adult humans cannot be focused on every thing all the time. Their focus thus becomes selective. Our sub consciousness may adjust the intensity level of the focus needed to obtain some particular goal. Obviously the level of the focus needed to get ice-cream is different from the one needed to write philosophical treatise. In other words intensity of the focus is determined by the chosen purpose. The choice of the purpose is the primary choice. Volitionally man can only unfocus himself and also not for a long time if he wants to live.

Volition is a faculty of consciousness which enable as to make choices. Animals and small children don’t really make any choices-they however may pursue certain goals on preconceptual level. ”The preconceptual level of consciousness is non-volitional; “Volition begins with the first syllogism” (2) The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. “Existentially the choice to focus or not is the choice to be consciousness or not” (3)

Therefore the act of focusing is volitional act and cannot be done on preconceptual unconscious pre-focus implicit level. That why I claim that focus cannot be primary choice since choice requires conceptual focused level of consciousness as its follows from the above quoted statements. My proposal is that focus is an attribute of any consciousness and its intensity and selectivity is a function of the goal or purpose needed to be achieved. Goal-driven behavior is not necessarily conceptual but the choice to focus qua choice has to be.
Animals don't make any choices but they do face life and death alternatives. Their actions are goal-driven when survival is the primary goal. The difference between goal and purpose is that purpose is consciously chosen goal. Infants who act on preconceptual level also don't make any choices. They have desires which are driven by pleasure-pain mechanism. Their behavior is also goal-driven: to avoid pain and to obtain pleasure.

As we have established, both animals and infants have the ability to focus without choice. What than the mechanism of focus of preconceptual mind? In my opinion it is a goal itself; the implicit desire to achieve something activates focusing. In adult humans unfocused mind is also functioning on preconceptual level. Unfocused mind is unconscious mind in human conceptual sense. Such a mind doesn't possess volition. Therefore prefocused non-volitional mind unable to make any choices, let alone any primary choice.

It's no such a thing as implicit choice since choice presupposes reasoning. Only desire or goal setting can be implicit. One may feel implicit desire for ice-cream but when one has to choice which ice-cream to buy one has to employ his conceptual faculty.

In conclusion: I’ve shown that unfocused mind acts on preconceptual level and doesn't possess the faculty of volition. Volition and choice are attributes of conceptual mind. Therefore in logic unfocused mind cannot make the choice to be in focus

This is definition of choice from Brainy Dictionary:" Choice-Act of choosing; the voluntary act of selecting or separating from two or more things that which is preferred; the determination of the mind in preferring one thing to another; election. “Choice’s characterization of action is that it's a volitional action.” Aside from involuntary responses, such as bodily reflexes, all human actions, mental and physical, are chosen by man. As Leonard Peikoff once observed, the man who is completely out of focus has abdicated his power to choice. Choice to focus is not reflex and qua choice it has to be volitional action. To say that this choice is prerequisite to all other choices is like to say that volitional action is prerequisite of volitional action which is infinite regress.

Choice has to be volitional. This is metaphysical base of free will and freedom. Non-volitional choice is contradiction in terms .Precisely because one cannot choose without choosing something, focus cannot be primary choice. The concept of primary choice belongs to the category of concepts known as primary or first cause-like primary mover, intelligent design, Big Bang, God etc…First cause allegedly causes everything of its kind or everything at all. However this concept has intrinsic contradiction. If primary cause is the cause of everything, then it has to be the cause of itself and that leads to infinite regress. If primary choice is the cause of all other choices then what will be the cause of primary choice? Evidently it has to be another primary choice and so on ad infinitum. Since infinite regress is logical fallacy, the concept of primary choice cannot be valid.

I claim that focus cannot be primary choice, prerequisite of all other choices-for the obvious reason I've described above

This is the summary of my position:

a. The concept of primary choice is invalid since it leads to infinite regress
b. Focus is not a choice; it is prerequisite of any choice.

c. Focus is inherent, inalienable property of human consciousness and qua focus doesn’t require prerequisite.

d. Volition is ability to set or reset goals by choice according to man's priorities.

e. Focus has properties: intensity and selectivity which are goal-driven.


1. Leonard Peikoff “Objectivism: The philosophy of Ayn Rand” 1991, pg 59

2. Ayn Rand “For the New Intellectual”, 9; pb14.

3. Ayn Rand” The Objectivist ethics, Virtue of selfishness”, 13pb21.

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