Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Critique of the Objectivist Theory of Free Will

The idea that human beings are imbued with free will has considerable support among Objectivists, but as far as I know Ayn Rand never wrote any essays on this subject. The brief comments that she made on free will in a few articles and lectures are inadequate for elucidating the fundamental nature of “free will” which she had in mind.

Leonard Peikoff has explained the Objectivist theory of free will in chapter 2, “Sense Perception and Volition,” of his book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR). Like Rand, he uses the word “volition” for free will. He argues that volition subsumes different kinds of choices and the most primary choice is the choice to focus one’s consciousness.

On page 58, he writes:

“To ‘focus’ one’s mind means to raise one’s degree of awareness. In essence, it consists of shaking off mental lethargy and deciding to use one’s intelligence. The state of being ‘in focus’—in full focus—means the decision to use one’s intelligence fully.”

On page 60, he writes:

“[It] is invalid to ask: why did a man choose to focus? There is no such ‘why.’ There is only the fact that a man chose: he chose the effort of consciousness, or he chose non-effort and unconsciousness. In this regard, every man at every waking moment is a prime mover.”

According to Peikoff, there is no reason for a man to focus. He claims that—“there is no such ‘why.’” But then why does a man choose to focus? He does not provide an answer to this and related questions. Therefore the conclusion can be drawn that in Peikoff’s theory of free will the choice to focus is delinked from man’s identity.

In his article, “Where There’s a Will, There’s a “Why”: A Critique of the Objectivist Theory of Volition,” Roger Bissell shows that the Objectivist model of volition is not compatible with the premises of Objectivism. He identifies four important premises which are violated by Objectivist claims on free will.

The article is of only 31 page long but it covers lot of territory—from Aristotle’s four causes, to critiquing the Objectivist view of free will, and finally to making a case for “soft determinism” or “compatibilism.” Here I can only provide a brief picture of the article’s key arguments to encourage potential readers to read Bissell’s article.

Bissell points out that when Peikoff says, “There is no such ‘why,’” he can only mean that one is focusing without any reason. He says that, according to Peikoff, “one’s choice to focus is free-floating; no aspect of the identity of oneself or of the world anchors and explains this choice. It has no cause and no explanation, except the brute, miraculous fact that one chose to focus, rather than not to focus. And it is miraculous, anti-identity, because nothing explains it.”

Peikoff’s position on free will is a form of “agency—indeterminism,” which holds that free actions are uncaused. This is certainly incorrect. If we believe that there is no “why” in a man’s choice to focus (as Peikoff says in OPAR, page 60), then it means that the man choses to do something—and he could have chosen some other course of action—without any apparent reason. This will lead to the absurd conclusion that free will actions are capricious and therefore uncaused, and that humans are not agents but acausal beings.

Bissell explains the problems in Objectivist position as follows:

“Orthodox Objectivism characterizes free will as an uncaused choice to think or not think. This is not a motivated choice, but instead a choice that is not made for any reason. A person chooses to think simply because he decides to, because he wills it, period.”

After identifying the flaws in the Objectivist view of free will, Bissell presents a much better compatibilist theory of free will which is consistent with the core metaphysical premises of Objectivism. The arguments that he offers for proving that free will is compatible with determinism are quite convincing.

Any suggestion of a connection between “determinism” and “free will” will be odious to most Objectivists because they are fervent believers in the idea that ethics is impossible unless there is radical free will. But Bissell rejects the view that unless people have full freedom to chose, they can’t be ethical. He says, “if there is not some personal “value” actually determining one’s choice in a given context, then one’s choice is arbitrary and thus devoid of moral worth.”

Bissell makes a convincing case for integration of what he calls “value-determinism” and “conditional free will.” He ends his article by urging the readers that it is past time to recognize the Objectivist model of volition “for the illogical, quasi-religious dogma that it is and to purge it from the philosophy of Objectivism.”


Where There’s a Will, There’s a “Why”: A Critique of the Objectivist Theory of Volition 
By Roger Bissell
The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2015

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