To Think is To Be

Leonid Fainberg
Issue CLXX - August 14, 2008
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“Cogito-ergo sum”—this famous credo of Descartes is metaphysically wrong, but has profound meaning by establishing the very essence which human existence requires:  thinking.

In my response to Neil K. Goodell’s paper “To Think or Not:  A Structural Resolution to the Mind-Body and Free Will-Determinism Problem” (2007), I will examine the nature of the human mind as a biological phenomenon, its particular mode of causation as the basis of Free Will, and the incompatibility of force’s initiation not only with activity of mind but with any biological process.  I’ll defend the notion of mind-body unity and explain why the cognitive action of the mind can affect the biological processes of the body while it has no effect whatsoever on inanimate matter and only negative effects on another sentient being.

Goodell says:

Rand recognized that there is an absolute partition between the physical body and consciousness, which she partially codified with the NIPF [non-initiation of physical force] principle; if this partition were not absolute, that would leave open an avenue by which a mind could be forced directly, and/or that mind could merely ‘will’ changes to the body, including the brain and nervous system . . . ” (2) 

This statement is unwarranted. In fact, Rand’s position on the mind-body dichotomy is the exact opposite.  Early entries in the Journals of Ayn Rand contain unambiguous assertions of the metaphysical unity of mind and body. In a 1947 entry, she writes:

And, to go to the roots of the whole vicious error, blast the separation of man into “body” and “soul,” the opposition of “matter” and “spirit.” Man is an indivisible entity, possessing both elements—but not to be split into them, since they can be considered separately only for purposes of discussion, not in actual fact. In actual fact, man is an indivisible, integrated entity… (Rand 1997, 551)

It is quite obvious that Goodell cannot reconcile the idea of mind-body unity with the axiom of the primacy of existence. He says:

Which brings me to my question: If consciousness is a faculty that arises from a particular configuration of matter that also possesses the further property of being alive, and (as Rand implicitly recognized) consciousness can have no effect on matter, doesn’t this require as a logical necessity that consciousness cannot have any effect on the matter from which it itself arises (i.e., the capacity to change the form the matter is in presently, to be different so that consciousness will be changed)?  (2007, 2)

 “Existence exists,” states Rand (1957, 1015).  “To exist is to be something . . .” (1016).  Consciousness is a faculty of awareness of existence, which is a property of the living organism.  “Existence is identity, Consciousness is Identification” (1016). The simple fact of awareness cannot alter existence. If existence depended on consciousness, that would mean the primacy of consciousness over existence, which is a contradiction in terms; consciousness cannot be primarily conscious of itself.

And as Nathaniel Branden ([1969] 1979, 9) writes:

To Aristotle, consciousness is a natural fact of reality, the characteristic attribute of certain entities. In this issue, his approach is far more “empirical” than that of most “empiricists.” His example should serve as a lead to those who desire to pursue a genuinely scientific study of conscious living organisms.

Any reply to Goodell requires that we first define life, its causation, and demonstrate that consciousness is a derivate of the very essence of life.  By essence of life I don’t mean entelecheia, vital force, animating spirit, or any other mystical ideas. The essence of life is what distinguishes living entities from inanimate matter. In other words, I attempt to develop the philosophy of life—an area which has been grossly neglected by philosophers since Aristotle’s times [neglected by everyone for 2300+ years?]. Without it, philosophy of mind doesn’t have an ontological basis, since mind is a property of life.

Ayn Rand (1964, 16) described life as a process of self-sustaining, self-generated action, and that is true.  However, this is not the whole truth. Such actions also take place within non-living entities – for example, thermonuclear reactions in the stars which go on for billions of years, processes of radioactive decay, etc…  Observe that astronomers often use biological terminology when they talk about stars. They speak about the evolution of stars, the birth and death of stars; they even speak about a star’s eggs, a star’s cradle and nursery. Is this analogy warranted? I don’t think so—stars have an internal source of energy and don’t have to act toward self-preservation.

The science of biology has demonstrated that any living organism exists by separating itself from its environment. It creates membranes for this purpose and actively maintains its own internal milieu. This process is happening against the gradient of entropy and requires energy. Stephen Boydstun (1994, 122) brings ample evidence of how the very attempt of a living cell to maintain its separateness and physical integrity creates an electrical resting potential on the surface of cellular membranes. This is the biological basis of self-initiated responses, the nervous system, the brain and the mind. Since this process is self-initiated, an organism has to actively seek energy sources and to develop mechanisms of preservation of its internal structures. In other words, its actions are not only self-initiated but essentially goal-oriented.

The ultimate goal is survival and flourishing, but this goal is not secured. An organism may exist now and may die minutes later. It acts to prevent undesirable results and to achieve desirable results in the future [well, to avoid results contrary to its goals and to achieve results consistent with them; “desire” suggests a feeling of wanting something, which not all organisms may experience].  The meaning of this is that organism’s cause of actions doesn’t exist in the moment of initiation of the action. A living organism, therefore, has to have the ability to project its goals into the future. On the presensory level of development, the mechanism of projection is encoded in DNA; on the sensory level it is simple reflexes; on the perceptual level it is instincts and conditioning; and on the conceptual level mind and volition.    The essence of life is the ability of an organism to generate self-initiated action according to the goals which that organism projects into the future. In multicellural organisms each type of cell has a specific function. Neurons contribute to the organism’s survival by processing data and so they also act for the goal of self-preservation. As any other living entity they are goal-oriented, when the goal is the organism’s, and consequently, their own survival.

Life’s definition as a self-sustained and self-regulated process has an important corollary:  it is an agent-caused process.  By definition, life cannot have an antecedent cause. The main attribute of life is its conditionality; only living organisms face the choice to live or to die and must act toward certain goals which perpetuate life, its bettering and furthering.          

Consciousness is a self-initiated goal-oriented response (SIGOR) of the living entity on perceptual and conceptual levels. This notion effectively eliminates all theories of mind-body dichotomy and also those of reductionism. According to Popper and Eccles, “the conception of man as ‘nothing but’ a physico-chemical mechanism is at once scientifically unsupported, philosophically-inadequate, and morally pernicious” (Gray 1981).

The human body doesn’t exist without the mind and the mind doesn’t exist without the body. What exists is a unique inseparable mind-body entity (MBE), in which any process would equally affect it. Every conscious or subconscious process affects the physiological function of the body; for example, anger causes acceleration of the heart rate and elevation of blood pressure, and for confirmation observe any patient with an anxiety reaction. Body equally affects mind; observe any patient with premenstrual syndrome. Consciousness qua consciousness cannot affect environment, but a man who is an integration of mind and body could and would.

 In a review of John Herman Randall’s book Aristotle, Rand writes:

For Aristotle, life is not an inexplicable, supernatural mystery, but a fact of nature. And consciousness is a natural attribute of certain living entities, their natural power, their specific mode of action—not an unaccountable element in a mechanistic universe, to be explained away somehow in terms of inanimate matter, nor a mystic miracle incompatible with physical reality, to be attributed to some occult source in another dimension. For Aristotle, “living” and “knowing” are facts of reality; man’s mind is neither unnatural nor supernatural, but natural—and this is the root of Aristotle’s greatness, of the immeasurable distance that separates him from other thinkers.  (1963, 19)

I’d argue that living is knowing. Without awareness of its environment, living organisms cannot exist. As Rand beautifully put it in “We the Living: “: “I know what I want, and that something which knows how to want—isn’t that life itself?” (1959, 388).

By definition, SIGOR cannot have any antecedent cause. Moreover, any antecedent cause would negatively interfere with living processes. Consider the following 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. Deterministic processes are contradictory to SIGOR. Since mind is SIGOR, which is functioning on the conceptual level, the initiation of force can only hinder its function. However, it would be preposterous to claim as Goodell (2007, 1) does that:

Rand’s non-initiation of (physical) force (NIPF) principle is the complement to this in that she recognized that physical forms are utterly impotent to affect the mind, our consciousness: “a man’s volition is outside the power of other men.”

Obviously physical forces can and do affect the mind. Consider, for example, the bullet in the head, alcohol, drugs, brain infection, and so on. The point is that since physical force is antecedent force, it can affect the mind only in a negative way; it cannot make it work, and it can only thwart it. That’s what Rand means when she says that you cannot force a mind. Goodell observes that “All entities are capable of change in response to external forces, from the shattering of two rocks in a landslide to a plant utilizing sunlight for photosynthesis; such changes are directly affected by the external force’s impingement on the entity” (7).

          I’d elaborate: inanimate entities can only be acted upon by external forces, contrary to living entities who initiate acting forces by themselves in order to achieve their goals. External forces can only impair a living process or terminate it. The process of photosynthesis is no more initiated by sunlight than the process of breathing by oxygen. Photosynthesis is a process initiated by a living plant that uses sunlight, chlorophyll, carbon dioxide and water for this purpose. None of them represent antecedent causes.   As proof, consider a dead plant that is illuminated by sunlight.

          So far I’ve demonstrated that life qua life cannot be determined by external forces. Does it mean that the life process is causeless? No.  Determinism is a concept that designates a chain of antecedent interactions between two or more entities.  In this sense, the living process is undetermined. However, since causality is a corollary of identity and life’s identity differs from that of unanimated objects, its causation is also different from classic determinism. Instead of antecedent causation, living entities are driven by agent causality, in which their final cause (goal) also serves as efficient cause of their actions.

Goodell argues:

An important point with regard to values for emergent life is this: Values for life should not be characterized as goal-seeking.  What this means is that value is a passive concept: plants cannot look for sunshine and ocean sponges cannot seek food; rather, what happens is that the lack of a stimulus energy interaction leads to particular physiological changes in the organism that may in turn have behavioral consequences, which for the sponge may be to release its attachment from the sea floor, or for the plant to draw more resources from the soil through its root system.  (12)

This is self-refuting, since what Goodell describes is exactly the process of goal-seeking. Moreover, his description contradicts known biological facts; we know that plants actively look for sunshine by turning their leaves to the sun; animals actively look for food by hunting and so on. The truth is that on a preconceptual level this behavior is not volitional, but, nevertheless self-initiated by the organism’s final cause:  its survival.

          One may ask:  in such cases, what are the causes of this process? If the alleged cause is nutrition or growth or restoration of health etc., then it’s clear that at the moment of the process’ initiation, its cause doesn’t exist. The answer is:  the cause is the goal that is projected into the future, that is, the anticipated result of that particular SIGOR. Every living organism (except man) has a built-in evolution-based mechanism on the level of DNA or wired as an instinct to project its goals into the future.  Man, however, uses different tools:  volition and mind.

Mind, essentially, is man’s teleological tool of survival.  As Rand (1967, 16-17) writes:

Man’s essential characteristic is his rational faculty. Man’s mind is his basic means of survival—his only means of gaining knowledge. . . .  In order to sustain its life, every living species has to follow a certain course of action required by its nature. The action required to sustain human life is primarily intellectual: everything man needs has to be discovered by his mind and produced by his effort. Production is the application of reason to the problem of survival. 

As a teleological tool, the mind represents an essential faculty that exists in each and every living entity.  Mind’s function is to provide a self-initiated goal-oriented response of a certain living organism:  in man on the conceptual level. Phylogenetically, mind is the development of SIGOR during evolutionary process, as Goodell defines it, “from the bottom to the top.” Pre-sensory goal-driven responses of primitive organisms are a well known fact; viruses and bacteria develop resistance to anti-viral drugs and antibiotics; an amoeba, which is a single-celled eukaryotic organism, escapes from light that is harmful to it; plants turn their leaves toward light etc.  All living things possess built-in mechanisms of interaction with the environment that enable them to act for their own benefit. These mechanisms are no doubt of a physical nature, but their physics have a different kind of causality —that of the living goal-driven entity. With development of multi-cellular organisms, certain cells became specialized in receiving and processing sensory data.

During billions of years of evolution, these mechanisms have developed into the phenomenon that we call awareness or consciousness.  The whole process of evolution can be explained in terms of gradually increasing levels of awareness:  better awareness provides the organism with better tools of survival. Since mind is essentially a biological phenomenon, it is in principle undetermined (see above); its function is independent from any antecedent cause that can only hinder it. That explains the reason beyond Rand’s principle of non-initiation of physical force. Although this principle has been introduced by Rand as a moral, not metaphysical concept, its connection with the metaphysical essence of life is obvious. Strictly speaking, one cannot discuss mind as an entity separated from the body. It is no such thing; a mind-body entity (MBE) belongs to a unique category with its own causation and function. Such an entity can alter metaphysically given reality and create the man-made reality in which we all live. 

 Consciousness therefore can be defined as a faculty of awareness that operates on a sensory-perceptual and/or conceptual level and represents a tool of the organism’s goal-driven action. In the case of human consciousness, we should talk about purpose-driven action. Purpose is a voluntarily chosen goal and is therefore a notion only applicable to humans. MBE function is driven by volition and focus. Volition is a human mechanism of goal-projection; its basis is SIGOR on the conceptual level. Since SIGOR is the 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 that evolve to form the central neural system and eventually the brain, which enables integration of sensory data to percepts and concepts. The mind integrates percepts into concepts.

The description of the concept-formation process is beyond the scope of this article. However, it’s important to mention that contrary to pre-sensory, sensory, and perceptual levels, the action of SIR mechanism on the 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 antecedent event but represents the inherent property of SIGOR on the conceptual level and thus is not deterministic. In other words, Free Will is part of MBE identity.  Basic biological Law postulates that ontogenesis repeats phylogenesis.  During his prenatal development, the human child is functioning initially on a pre-sensorial and later on a sensorial level. After birth, he automatically develops the perceptual level (acquired skill), which is the base of conceptual consciousness. Observe that children with impaired perception have difficulty developing their conceptual faculties. A child without any perception will not be able to develop any consciousness; this is a fact that somehow escaped the attention of those skeptical philosophers who invalidate perception. The sensory-perceptual consciousness is given to us, but the conceptual is not. The child is learning to grasp concepts and to speak by an active volitional goal-driven process. Therefore, human consciousness is not innate but self-created.

Focus means the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality. Focus is also defined as the “primary choice on which all other choices depend” (Peikoff 1991, 59). Focus itself has two properties: Intensity and selectivity. Observe animal behavior: for them (especially for hunted animals) to be in focus is a question of survival and not of choice. The level of animal focus intensity is high, but selectivity is low; they are aware of  everything all the time. The animal with a higher level of awareness has a better choice to survive and to transfer this trait to its offspring. Evolutionarily, it may be the way to reach the level of human consciousness. Adult humans cannot be focused on every thing all the time. Their focus thus becomes selective.  Our subconsciousness may adjust the intensity level of the focus needed to obtain some particular goal. Obviously the level of the focus needed to get ice cream is different from the one needed to write a philosophical treatise. In other words, the intensity of the focus is determined by the chosen purpose. The choice of the purpose is the primary choice. Volitionally, man can only unfocus himself and also not for a long time if he wants to live.

Goodell (2007, 23) claims:

In the Objectivist corpus, volition is usually construed as “choosing to focus one’s mind” to a higher or lesser degree, with the implication that this is a moment-to-moment decision we make and are capable of altering at any time (whether as a result of a choice or as a function of the Objectivist model of volition as a special variety of causation). The error in this account of volition, as a choice to focus, is that it requires a top-down conceptually-driven process to make the decision—to focus more or to focus less—but there is no criterion for when it should choose more or choose less.

This seeming contradiction is easily resolved if one takes into account that action of volition is goal-driven.  The trigger of the process of focusing is goal-setting. The truth is that the state of focus exists permanently as an inherent attribute of mind as long as man is conscious. The choice is only the object and degree of focus.  In other words, focus is a teleological, goal-driven concept.   “‘Focus’ designates a quality of one’s mental state, a quality of active alertness. ‘Focus’ means the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality. It’s the state of a mind committed to seeing, to grasping, to understanding, to knowing” (Peikoff, 1976, lecture 3).

Like any living organism, man faces a constant choice between life and death, but has to make this choice consciously and volitionally, since unlike other organisms he doesn’t possess inherent tools (instincts) for this purpose, only the inherent ability for conceptual thinking. This ability he has to operate volitionally; therefore, man’s primary volitional choice is to think or not. Volition is a faculty of consciousness that enables us to make choices; its function is to set or reset volitionally projected goals according to man’s priorities beyond an immediate range of action. Since man chooses his priorities according to his code of values, Free Will represents the bridge to morality.  The prerequisite of morality is the ability to choose. Man may decide to hold his life qua man—that is, as a rational being—as his standard of value, and to set his goals accordingly.  Or man can choose different standards and become self-destructive since SIGOR, which in man’s case is represented by mind and can only properly act toward the self, benefits exactly as on any other level of Life. The answer to Goodell’s question “to think or not” is:  For Man, to think is the sine qua non of to be.


Boydstun, Stephen.  1994.  Volitional synapses. Objectivity  2, no. 1:  109-38.

Branden, Nathaniel.  [1969] 1979.  The Psychology of Self-Esteem.  New York:  Bantam.

Goodell, Neil K.  2007.  To think or not:  A structural resolution to the mind-body and free will-determinism problem.  The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 9, no. 1 (Fall):  1-51.

Gray, John N.   1981.  The self and its brain.  Reason Papers  7:  121-24.

Peikoff, Leonard.  1976.  The Philosophy of Objectivism.  12 lectures.  Oceanside, California:  Lectures on Objectivism.
___.  1991.  Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.  New York:  Dutton.

Rand, Ayn.  [1957] 2005.  Atlas Shrugged.  Centennial edition.  New York:  Plume.

___.  1959.  We the Living.  New York:  New American Library.

___.  1967.  Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.  New York:  New American Library.

___.  1988.  The Voice of Reason:  Essays in Objectivist Thought.  Edited and with additional essays by Leonard Peikoff.  New York:  New American Library.

___.  1997.  Journals of Ayn Rand.  Edited by David Harriman.  New York:  Dutton.

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