A Journal for Western Man

 

 

Life, Consciousness, and Reason

Leonid Fainberg

Issue LXXXVI- January 10, 2007

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Eden against the Colossus

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Statement of Policy

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“The theory is dead, my friend, but the tree of life is everlasting green” ~ Goethe

 

The problem of mind, seemingly, presents a contradiction to Objectivist philosophy. If the mind is physical, as Stolyarov claims, then all its functions are the result of physical processes and therefore are inherently determined. These premises abnegate the notions of free will, choice, reasoning, and, in short, the very essence of the human mind. If the mind is spiritual, as Firehammer holds, then it spells a mind-body dichotomy and eventually primacy of consciousness.

 

I consider this dichotomy as false, and propose to resolve this contradiction by using a teleological approach. My ideas are based on the book of Harry Binswanger, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts (ARI press 1990).

 

Life

 

It would be futile to discuss consciousness and mind without full understanding of the concept of life, unless one is an idealist and believes that mind can exist without body.

 

Life is a self-generated and self-sustained process, but it is not the only process of its kind. For example, thermo-nuclear reactions in stars also represent this kind of process and can go on for billions of years. However, stars are not living entities. The only difference is that, to stars, it doesn’t matter if they shine or not. They can change their form and become cosmic dust, but they cannot die. This difference was not always obvious. For example, Aristotle thought that stars were living, conscious beings. Today we know better. Today we know that life is conditional and any living thing is constantly facing the choice - to live or to die - and in order to stay alive it has to act to this end. Therefore life is not only self-generated and self-sustained but is primarily a goal-driven, teleological process whose goal is to sustain and benefit the life. By “goal” I don’t mean consciously chosen object but rather Aristotelian “final cause”.

Despite this process being purely physical by nature, it has created a new form of causality-- it causes the being to stay alive as long as possible and to live its life as well as possible. In other words, in living organisms, causality causes goal-driven action. The law of causality is the law of identity applied to action. (Ayn Rand) The very requirement of teleological action to sustain life indicates that living beings evidently possess a different kind of identity than unanimated matter.

In Aristotelian terms, life becomes its own efficient cause when the final cause is self-preservation, development and well-being.

Therefore the law of causality which rules the “mineral kingdom” is not always applicable to the world of living beings. For example, living beings seemingly “refute” laws of thermodynamics, they can transform kinetic energy to potential energy (no boulder can climb to the top of the hill on its own), they can repair themselves, and eventually they can choose. When we understand how a conglomerate of organic molecules started to act toward their self-preservation and self-improvement, we’ll understand the origin of life. (Please note that no living organism can act toward self-sacrifice as its ultimate goal; that is why altruism is an anti-life philosophy).

Consciousness

Every living entity is an open thermodynamic system (laws of thermodynamics are obviously applicable to it) and in order to live, it has to actively interact with its environment. Pre-sensory interaction of primitive organisms is a well known fact: the amoeba, which is a single-celled organism, escapes from light, plants turn their leaves toward light, etc… This process is obviously not conscious, since these organisms don’t possess any organs of consciousness, but nevertheless they have built-in mechanisms of reaction to their environment, which enable them to act for their own benefit These mechanisms are no doubt of physical nature (there is no such a thing as entelechy), 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 years of evolution, these mechanisms had developed into the phenomena which 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.

Consciousness therefore can be defined as the faculty of awareness which operates on the sensory-perceptual and/or the 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 only applicable to humans.

Reason

Reason is consciousness on a conceptual level, the faculty of abstract thinking, and the ability to make choices. Reason presupposes volition. So how could a deterministic physical process provide us with free will? Physical and biochemical processes inside the human brain are not different from those of unanimated matter or low animals, and the most careful examination has so far failed to demonstrate the brain’s volitional center. And even if such a center were to be found, it would leave open the question: what causes to this center to operate?

To answer this question, we have to examine the nature of human volition.

As I have mentioned before, awareness is a tool of survival; it is the mechanism of teleological interaction of the living organism with its environment. Plants and animals have built-in mechanisms to adapt themselves to their environment in order to survive. In the process of the development of the human mind, the level of consciousness had increased enormously – we’ve acquired the ability of conceptual thinking and so, instead of having to adapt or change ourselves, we adapt the environment to our needs. The price of this was the loss of our instinct mechanisms of survival. Our mind is our only tool of survival, but its action becomes a matter of our volitional choice. In other words, we don’t have any instincts or innate ideas; we only can think or act on will.

We’ve acquired a new identity, and, since causality is a corollary of identity, a new and different kind of causality is governing our actions. The goal of these actions is the same goal: survival. However, animals cannot survive by the same means as plants, and humans cannot survive as animals. Humans can survive only as humans-- that is, as rational beings, by using their conceptual faculty. This use requires volition.

Therefore, for man, volition becomes the prerequisite of purpose-driven action. The cause of volition is the human mind itself, its efficient cause. Free will is inherent to the human mind’s identity. In short, free will is a property of the human mind. So the question, “What is the cause of free will?” is not valid. Free will doesn’t exist outside of the human mind, and the human mind is not a product of a biochemical or some mysterious sub-particle process; it’s neither physical nor “spiritual,” but an entity on its own.

The crude analogy of relation between mind and brain would be the relation of software and computer. A computer has the ability to process information, and software “knows” how to do that. Software is based on some physical substance like a floppy disc or CD-ROM, but its essence is information on how to process data. The brain is a tool which processes sensory-perceptual data, and the mind knows how to do that. The difference is that brain can generate its own software.

In conclusion:

1. Life differs from unanimated matter by the fact that it generates its own agent of action (efficient cause), and the final cause is self-benefit.

2. The mind is a result of a long evolution of awareness. Awareness evolved from the basic quality shared by all living things, which is the ability to interact with environment in order to survive. In human beings, this awareness has evolved to become reason, which is the tool of purpose-driven, chosen action. This action, and the use of the mind, requires volition -- which is an inherent property of mind. Free will represents efficient cause for the mind’s operation. In other words, the human mind and volition have evolved from the unique quality of every living organism- the ability to act toward its own end.

3. Mind and brain are inseparable and cannot be described in spiritual or physicalist terms. This mind-brain entity has its unique features, which should be described in informational and teleological (purpose-driven action) terms.

4. The operation of the mind is not unconditional but volitional. The primary choice is to exercise this faculty of reason or not. The ultimate purpose is existence of man qua man (i.e, as befitting to a rational animal).

Leonid Fainberg is a contributor to The Rational Argumentator.

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

Click here to return to TRA's Issue LXXXVI Index.

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, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.