Ayn Rand – “Free Will.”

Ayn Rand, "Free Will"

"That
which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that
which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the
only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the
choices you make and determines your life and your character.

To
think is an act of choice. The key to what you so recklessly call
“human nature,” the open secret you live with, yet dread to name, is
the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness. Reason does
not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the
connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your
stomach, lungs or heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not.
In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade
that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the
fact that reason is your means of survival—so that for you, who are a
human being, the question “to be or not to be” is the question “to
think or not to think.” “A being of volitional consciousness has no
automatic course of behavior. He needs a code of values to guide his
actions.

Man’s
consciousness shares with animals the first two stages of its
development: sensations and perceptions; but it is the third state,
conceptions, that makes him man. Sensations are integrated into
perceptions automatically, by the brain of a man or of an animal. But
to integrate perceptions into conceptions by a process of abstraction,
is a feat that man alone has the power to perform—and he has to perform
it by choice. The process of abstraction, and of concept-formation is a
process of reason, of thought; it is not automatic nor instinctive nor
involuntary nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and
to bear responsibility for its results. The pre-conceptual level of
consciousness is nonvolitional; volition begins with the first
syllogism. Man has the choice to think or to evade—to maintain a state
of full awareness or to drift from moment to moment, in a
semi-conscious daze, at the mercy of whatever associational whims the
unfocused mechanism of his consciousness produces.

Reason
is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by
man’s senses. It is a faculty that man has to exercise by choice.
Thinking is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his
life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. 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.

When
man unfocuses his mind, he may be said to be conscious in a subhuman
sense of the word, since he experiences sensations and perceptions. But
in the sense of the word applicable to man—in the sense of a
consciousness which is aware of reality and able to deal with it, a
consciousness able to direct the actions and provide for the survival
of a human being—an unfocused mind is not conscious.

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 . . . . A process of thought is not
automatic nor “instinctive” nor involuntary—nor infallible. Man has to
initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results.
He has to discover how to tell what is true or false and how to correct
his own errors; he has to discover how to validate his concepts, his
conclusions, his knowledge; he has to discover the rules of thought,
the laws of logic, to direct his thinking. Nature gives him no
automatic guarantee of the efficacy of his mental effort.

Nothing
is given to man on earth except a potential and the material on which
to actualize it. The potential is a superlative machine: his
consciousness; but it is a machine without a spark plug, a machine of
which his own will has to be the spark plug, the self-starter and the
driver; he has to discover how to use it and he has to keep it in
constant action. The material is the whole of the universe, with no
limits set to the knowledge he can acquire and to the enjoyment of life
he can achieve. But everything he needs or desires has to be learned,
discovered and produced by him—by his own choice, by his own effort, by
his own mind . . . .

That
which [man’s] survival requires is set by his nature and is not open to
his choice. What is open to his choice is only whether he will discover
it or not, whether he will choose the right goals and values or not. He
is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He
is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble
blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he
refuses to see. Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of
survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.” Man
is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the
penalty of unconsciousness: destruction. Man is the only living species
that has the power to act as his own destroyer—and that is the way he
has acted through most of his history."

– Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,”

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