A Journal for Western Man


Phylogenesis of Consciousness and Free Will:

A Teleological Approach

The Case Against the Mind-Body Dichotomy and Determinism

Leonid Fainberg

Issue CXIII - July 13, 2007


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Statement of Policy



“I know what I want, and that something which knows how to want -- isn't that life itself?" 

~ Ayn Rand,  We The Living

Contemporary philosophy of mind is still living under the deep shadow of the Cartesian and the non-Cartesian mind-body dichotomies.  This is the text book description of this fallacy: "According to some, minds are spiritual entities that temporarily reside in bodies, entering at birth and departing on death; others reject the concept of mind, claiming that minds are just brains." (Join Heil, 2004).

And here is artistic description of the same premises: "They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. They have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to supernatural realm, but his body is an evil prison..."(Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957).

In his attempts to resolve this contradiction, Descartes had to reinvent God, and Kant had to divorce the mind from reality altogether.

These attempts brought up more contradictions which contemporary post-Kantian philosophers are trying to resolve by means of the reductive fallacy (man is collection of chemicals, and the mind is an electro-chemical process) or, as functionalists do, by claiming that human mind is just a complicated computer. Others are searching for the source of consciousness in the modern equivalents of Noumenal World, like the indefinable realm of quantum mechanics or the unknowable world of holomotion and Tao.

In the proposed article, I'll defend the notion that the mind-body dichotomy should be rejected and replaced by the concept of a unique, indivisible mind-body entity (MBE), which represents the essential property of the life itself. I'll also argue that the concept of determinism is not applicable to consciousness; but on the other hand, consciousness is not causeless.

To define consciousness, one has to define existence. Existence as Aristotle observed is every thing which exists. However, to be is to be something, that is—to possess identity. Consciousness is the faculty which is able to identify entities. Existence is identity; consciousness is identification (Ayn Rand 1968). Existence of unanimated matter is unconditional; only living organisms face the constant alternative: to survive or to perish. Their existence depends on constant goal-orientated interaction with their environment when the goal is organism’s survival, its benefit, its enhancement, and the furthering of its life. In order to survive, these organisms need to have a tool which enables them to perform this kind of interaction. Consciousness is such a tool. Therefore, consciousness is a primary teleological concept.

Aristotle observed that locomotion is an essential property of life. Though not all living organisms able to change their spatial position, in a much wider sense life is represented by motion—that is, constant interaction with its environment. Contrary to unanimated matter which can be only acted upon, organisms are able to initiate responses to environmental stimuli.

Let me elaborate. If I cut dead wood, it would not respond; the cut will stay as it is. However, if I’ll cut living tree, the plant will develop a complicated response in order to heal the cut. If I’ll hit the key on the piano keyboard, the instrument will respond by producing sound. If I’ll hit an animal (which I’ll never do), the animal also will respond with a sound (a cry). The difference is that for the animal this sound is meaningful—its goal is to chase away the attacker or to summon help; for the piano, the sound which it produces has no meaning whatsoever. For living organism this initiated responsiveness has teleological nature, that is goal orientated and the goal is organism's survival, benefit and welfare.  Life is a self-sustained and self-generated process. (Ayn Rand 1964).

The Self-Initiated Response (SIR) is an essential feature of any living organism. It exists already on the level of viruses which are able to resist antiviral drugs. Cancer cells respond to chemotherapy treatment by actively pumping out anticancer drugs from their bodies, etc.  It is important to emphasize here that SIR by definition is indeterminate but not causeless. Determinism is a concept which designates a chain of antecedent interactions between two or more entities. Biological action, however, is primary self-initiated and therefore indeterminate. For example, if one shoots an animal and the animal dies, then one may say that the bullet killed this animal. However, if the animal was only wounded and consequently recovered, it would be absurd to claim that the cause of the healing process is the bullet which only can cause damage. Healing is a self-initiated teleological process. A deterministic process is contradictory to SIR. The cause of this teleological response is not any antecedent factor but essential property of living tissue. In other words, each and any organism is an end in itself, its own "primary mover".

One may ask: in such a case, what is the cause of this process? If the alleged cause is restoration of health, then it’s clear that at the moment of the process’s initiation, this cause doesn’t exist. The answer is: the cause is the goal which is projected into the future—that is—the anticipated result of that particular SIR. Every living organism has a built-in evolutionarily-based mechanism of goal-setting which causes its action. Man is the only exception; his goal-projecting mechanism is not built-in but volitional. (See below.) Any living organism can set its goals and act toward their achievement. Phylogenetically, this intrinsic teleological SIR exists on four different levels: pre-sensorial, sensorial, perceptual, and conceptual. Only SIR on the perceptual and conceptual levels can be defined as consciousness. On pre-sensorial and sensorial levels, organisms cannot identify entities.

The pre-sensorial level of SIR is a mode of action when the whole organism is responding to environmental challenges without the help of any specific sensory organs or receptors. An amoeba, for example, will escape light which is harmful to it, but light doesn’t cause the amoeba’s movement, rather anticipated harm. A plant will turn its leaves to the sun, but sunlight is not the cause of this action, but rather the anticipated benefit to the plant.

Since SIR is a basic mechanism of survival, the evolutionary process is aimed to improve this mechanism to make it more sophisticated and effective.  In multi-cellular animals, certain cells become sensory cells which evolve to form a central neural system and eventually the brain which enables integration of sensory data to percepts and concepts.

Basic biological Law postulates that ontogenesis repeats phylogenies. During his antenatal development, the human child is functioning initially on a pre-sensorial and latter on a sensorial level. After birth, he automatically develops a perceptual level (an acquired skill), which is the base of conceptual consciousness. Observe that children with impaired perception have difficulty to develop a conceptual faculty. A child without any perception will not be able to develop any consciousness—the fact which somehow escaped the attention of skeptical philosophers, who invalidate perception. The sensory-perceptional consciousness is given to us, but the conceptual is not. A child is learning to grasp concepts and to speak by active volitional process. Therefore, Man’s consciousness is not innate but self-created.

The human brain integrates percepts into concepts creating a unique Mind-Brain Entity (MBE). The description of the concept-formation process is beyond the scope of this article. However it’s important to mention that, contrary to pre-sensorial, sensorial and perceptual levels, the action of the SIR mechanism on a conceptual level is not automatic but volitional.

Volition or Free Will is directly observable by introspection and doesn’t require validation, since all validations are based on it. Free Will is not caused by any anteceded event but represents an inherent property of SIR on a conceptual level and is thus not deterministic. In other words, Free Will is a part of MBE identity. Its function is to set or reset volitionally projected goals according to Man’s priorities beyond immediate range of action. Since Man chooses his priorities according to his code of values, Free Will represents the bridge to morality. Man may decide to hold his life qua Man—that is, a rational being—as his standard of value and to set his goals accordingly or choose different standards and become self-destructive, since the SIR which in Man’s case is represented by MBE can only properly act toward self-benefit exactly as on any other level of Life.

In summary:

The human mind is the tool which enables SIR function on a conceptual level and is therefore inseparable from the living organism. ”The mind without body is a ghost, the body without mind is a corpse—both are symbols of death” (Ayn Rand, 1968). The mind-body dichotomy contradicts very essence of the mind’s purpose and function and is thus invalid. The analogy of MBE with a computer also doesn’t hold water—a computer is unanimated matter; it doesn’t face the life-death alternative and therefore doesn’t have any projected goals of self-preservation and self-benefit.

For the same reason, it’s useless to look for the base of MBE function on a molecular, atomic, or sub-particle level, since it is functioning only on a biological level, and its function pertains to a certain living organism—a human being. The human mind, however, doesn’t have SIR built-in rigid mechanisms which are substituted by the volitional process of concept-formation, and therefore MBE function is necessarily volitional. This substitution represent huge evolutionary advantage. It also gives to him the ability to make choices—Man becomes a moral being. Volition is a self-evident, unique property of an MBE, doesn’t have any antecedent cause, and is not deterministic by its very nature. An MBE like any other entity has identity, and volition is its identity. Mind without volition is a contradiction in terms. Mind or reason is a basic tool of human survival; it integrates perceptual data into concepts by means of non-contradictory identification (Logic), enables us to projects our goals far in time and space, and to achieve them by adjusting the environment to Man’s needs. It is something which “knows how to want,” and therefore it is the essence of human life itself.

Contemporary philosophers teach us that existence is a narrative, Man is a social construction, Mind is impotent, contradictions exist in unity, words are just labels, wishes are fishes, the best way to keep one’s cake is to eat it, and the best way to know reality is to empty one’s mind by means of repetition of some meaningless sound and to wait for revelations from supernatural realm. Their unintelligible sounds are spreading across Western Civilization, like ULA-ULA screams of Martian invaders from the famous Wells novel, The War of Worlds; they extinguish the last lights of the Renaissance and bring up plain medieval fundamentalism. Can this trend be reversed? Yes, if we recognize that Man’s mind is inseparable from his body, that Man is a volitional being which like any other living organism holds his own life as standard of value and that his mind’s only function is to enable him to live his life qua Man, that is—as a rational being—the only way he can exist.   

Leonid Fainberg is a contributor to The Rational Argumentator.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here..

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.