07 June 2006

On volition in animals.

By the way, since you mentioned the topic of non-volitional conscious causation, I wanted to mention something I thought of while following the thread on HBL.

It is important to understand that the fundamental choice exercised by humans is as Ayn Rand said, “to think or not to think” or “to focus or not to focus.” It is not merely “to perceive or not to perceive.” The benefits of volition are not simply to increase the amount of information available or to focus on one set of things instead of another - apart from a reason to do so. Unguided and beyond a certain point, these do not provide a net benefit on average. The real pay-off for volition is that one may direct one’s focus.

In other words, the faculty of perception has an obvious survival value to a conscious animal. In any given situation, some perception is better than no perception. But how would it help an animal to have a faculty that would permit him choose to get (or not to get) more information than it currently has? That is, apart from conceptual guidance, how would volitional control of its perceptual faculty contribute to an animal’s survival?

Of course, we humans choose to “perceive more” when (for instance) we try to collect more relevant information in order to make a difficult decision. But an animal has no way to decide what is relevant; that requires a conceptual understanding. Information that is independent of relevance is, on average, useless. Sometimes it could be good, sometimes bad, and most often neutral. An animal has no way to decide if it needs more information here or there or at all.

Furthermore, even if animals had volitional control of their perceptual faculty (which I do not concede), how on earth would we know? How could we determine this by observing their behavior? Even if a particular animal seemed to direct its attention in different and random ways under identical conditions – which strikes me as exceedingly difficult to determine – I see no reason to attribute the different responses to volition.

In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think I can even determine that other humans have volition simply by observing them. To be absolutely certain of volition, I must first rely on introspection to identify it in myself; then, I recognize that it is part of my nature as a conceptual being and thus other humans must have it too.