The Nature of Knowledge


Dr. Binswanger's View of Volition

Dr. Binswanger does attempt to defend the volitional nature, but his inclusion of concepts having nothing to do with that nature, and his explanation of volition itself is both confused and mistaken.

"Free Will" [Page 321]

It is unfortunate that Binswanger has chosen to use the term, "free will," which is a loaded concept from religion. It is not "free will' which humans have. The unique aspect of human consciousness is not free will, but volition, which means everything a human being does as a human being, from what one thinks to one's overt actions must be consciously chosen.

"Man's free will consists in his sovereign control over how he uses his own mind." [Page 322]

What Binswanger says about volition is true enough, but his way of expressing it is awkward. I do not think his description of one having "sovereign control" over their own mind actually means anything. If one can and must consciously choose everything they do from thinking to writing a book, then they do. Describing that as "his having sovereign control over how he uses his mind," separates "himself" from his "mind" and makes the mind something "he" controls. But an individual's mind is, "himself," and it is the volitional aspect of his mind that both necessitates and makes possible his conscious choice. We might colloquially tell someone, "use your mind," but what we mean is, "think." When we make a choice, we do not do that by controlling the mind, making a choice is a mental act.

Binswanger does a fair job refuting "determinism" (page 323), especially in pointing out that "the normative" (valuation) would be impossible without volition, as would logic and knowledge.

"Focus" [Page 324]

Binswanger provides two Rand quotes on pages 324 and 325. The first quote is about the choice to focus or not:

"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." [The Virtue of Selfishness, page 22.]

Binswanger uses the second quote to illustrate what "evasion" is:

"...the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one's consciousness, the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment." [Atlas Shrugged, page 1017]

Personally, I've always regarded the Objectivist emphasis on the idea of mental focus as unhelpful. It is used metaphorically, of course, to illustrate what can only be called, "mental clarity." Binswanger says literally it is, "clear, conceptually, in the case of mental focus."

From this perspective, Binswanger provides this explanation;

"The essence of focus is purposefulness. To focus is to set and enforce a goal--the goal of gaining a clear, integrated understanding of the world, and of oneself." [Page 325]

I think that is about as clear an explanation of what Dr. Binswanger means by focus as will be found. It does not exactly fit Rand's description of "unfocusing" one's mind, however. It is difficult to be certain, because her description is full of metaphors: blanking out, suspension of consciousness, blind, refusal to see, inner fog.

Here is an extremely abbreviated description of what I call "clear thinking:"

One must always be ruthlessly objective in all their thinking (that is, truth must always be the objective, that which describes some aspect of reality correctly, based on nothing but verifiable evidence), must never allow any contradictions to remain in one's beliefs or thinking, must never evade any knowledge one has and must never pretend to knowledge one does not have, must know the exact precise meaning of every word (concept) one uses in thinking, must never allow any feeling, desire, emotion, or sentiment to influence one's reasoning, must never allow any assumption (premise) which one is not certain is true (can answer the question, how do I know this?) to be used in one's thinking, and must learn all one can about as much as one possibly can (because knowledge is all one has to think with or think about). I'm not sure "focused" thinking is the best metaphor for correct thinking, perhaps some word like "radical" or "militant" or "rigorous" to contrast with "wishy-washy" or "undisciplined" or "lazy."

[NOTE: The use of the word "must" in the above is not meant to be a dictate or command, it means, "if one wants to think correctly one must do these things." No one has to think correctly. Most do not and suffer the consequences.]

I really do not think anyone can "unfocus" the consciousness in the way the Objectivist's metaphors used to describe the condition suggest. The use of drugs or alcohol can produce those kinds of unfocused or foggy consciousness, but nothing like that is possible to a fully awake and sober individual, no matter how confused their thinking or how much they have evaded the truth or swallowed wholesale lies like those of religion, academia, or politics. I think the Objectivists have confused clarity of consciousness with clarity of mind, which is a serious mistake. One may be, and unless physically impaired, certainly is perfectly and clearly conscious yet have an intellect full of lies, and be totally confused in their thinking.

[NOTE: Some off this ambiguity is probably the result of Objectivism's constant confusion between direct perceptual consciousness and one's concepts and thinking, i.e. the mind.]

"Psychologically, the choice 'to think or not' is the choice 'to focus or not.' Existentially, the choice 'to focus or not' is the choice 'to be conscious or not.' Metaphysically, the choice 'to be conscious or not' is the choice of life or death.'" [Pages 328-329]

This is rhetoric, not very well done, since he almost never follows balanced construction—The last should be "the choice 'to be conscious or not' is the choice 'to live or not.'" It's also not true.

One cannot cease choosing and thinking. One cannot simply choose to not be conscious. One can knock themselves out or go to sleep but so long as one is consciously awake, consciousness and the processes of thinking and choosing never cease, and one has no choice about it.

Correct thinking that leads to correct and true conclusions, requires ruthlessly objective reason (see above), but the very worst thinking is done consciously, and it is sometime ruthlessly clear thinking, especially those rationalizations by which individuals convince themselves (and others) that the most evil of acts are moral necessities. They cannot be let off with the explanation that their consciousness was foggy. Some of the worst ideas have been pursued and promoted with incredible conscious clarity.

"As I have stressed throughout this book, consciousness is a biological faculty whose function is to guide action." [Page 331]

Consciousness doesn't guide anything. It is awareness, and nothing else. Consciousness doesn't do anything. (It is true human beings consciously choose, but it is not consciousness itself that does the choosing. The choosing is done consciously, but it is the individual doing the choosing.) [See the sections, "Everything Biology," and, "Survival and Purpose," in the, "Animal Life," chapter. ]

"Consciousness is biological equipment. Awareness evolved for it survival function--to guide the actions of conscious organisms. Directly or indirectly, the motive for knowing anything is to use it in action." [Page 332]

First of all, consciousness is not biological at all as already addressed in the, "Animal Life," chapter. To say, "awareness evolved for it's survival function—to guide the actions of conscious organisms," makes evolution teleological. What does nature care whether something survives or not? Only human beings have values; why should nature prefer the survival of organisms? It doesn't prefer the survival of organisms, in any case, only the survival of species. Shouldn't Binswanger say that "awareness evolved for the sake of the success of species?" Evolution obviously doesn't give a rap about individual organisms. Consciousness without instinct in all creatures except human beings would not preserve the life of anything. Consciousness does not guide the actions of anything, only instinct does in all creatures except human beings, and only the mind does in human beings. It is true, the mind is a conscious attribute in human beings, but it is not the consciousness that is the guide, but the intellect and reason that volitional consciousness makes possible. [See the, "The Nature of Instinct," section in the, "Animal Life," chapter and the "Mind" chapter.]

"Next, by observation and induction, we discover that the material world is governed by mechanical causation. Matter as such is inert; it cannot set itself in motion. As scientific knowledge progresses, we learn that even the self-generated actions of living organisms, in their physical (non-conscious) aspects, are essentially like those of inanimate objects--i.e., are deterministic. The difference is that living organisms possess an internal store of physical energy, and their structure enables them to route that energy to power different types of action." [Page 349]

All of an organism's physical, chemical, and electrical characteristics are deterministic. It is an organisms living behavior which is not deterministic, and living behavior includes more than just consciousness related behavior. All of the strictly biological processes and functions are behavior that the merely physical is incapable of, because those processes and functions are aspects of the self-sustaining nature of the organism. Organisms do possess an internal store of energy and that energy is available for those living actions requiring energy, but that action is not fundamental; it is only one of many almost infinitely complex actions of a living organism that are dependent on the attribute life.

Binswanger wants desperately to be able to explain everything in terms of the physical. The desire is understandable. Human understanding of the physical is the field in which the most intellectual progress has been made. That is because the physical is the easiest to understand of all aspects of reality. Life, consciousness, and the human mind are much more difficult. The desire to be able to explain them all in the same terms the physical is explained is understandable, but a desire is not a good reason to do anything.

Life cannot be explained in purely physical terms. [See the chapter, "Life."]

"...When a man chooses to use that faculty [mind] to pursue conceptual understanding, the action is not causeless—his choice is the cause. The same applies when he lets himself drift passively or chooses actively to evade. ... ...the specific outcome of the choice—the fact that a given man chooses to focus rather than not—can be explained only in the sense that one focuses for a reason: in order to be fully aware. But this reason is not a necessitating factor. It is only a potential reason; the actualization of that potential takes an act of will. At root, the actualization of that potential—i.e., setting the goal of full awareness—is what the exercise of free will consists of." [Page 349]

Everything an individual does he consciously chooses to do. The fact that human beings must consciously choose everything they think or do is one of the things they have no choice about. This is why the expression, "free will," a term originating in religion, is not a good word in philosophy. It is not "free will" a human being exercises, it is volition, the ability and necessity to choose which does not mean free to choose anything. A human being cannot choose to defy the nature of reality and get away with it; a human being cannot choose to defy the requirements of one's own nature, physically, biologically, or psychologically, and get away with it; a human being cannot choose to not be conscious; a human being cannot choose to not have the emotional reactions he does to the content of his consciousness; a human being cannot choose to be more than he has achieved or developed by his own effort; a human being cannot make choices that require knowledge he has not acquired or thinking ability he has not developed; a human being cannot choose not to choose everything he thinks and does. Beyond that, a human being can (and must) choose to think whatever he thinks and do whatever he does that he is capable of thinking and doing; but no more. That is hardly, "free will."

Unfortunately, Binswanger's explanation of volition, which he unfortunately calls "free will" is all over the map and not very helpful at all. I'm delighted he recognizes the fact of volition, and that he at least attempts to defend it, but sorry he apparently does not have a clear understanding of its nature.

"Volition as Axiomatic" [Page 355]

This, at least, is not a bad premise. Volition is axiomatic if by axiomatic is meant one must assume human beings are volitional to say anything about knowledge or ethics.