BBTC, Chapter 1
Types of Processes
by William Dale
Date: 22 March 1994
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: William Dale
In the beginning, teleogical causation was a natural way to think about causation. Babies and primitive human beings perform action _in order to_ accomplish goals, with the "in order to" understood at least implicitly. It's only at a relatively advanced stage of knowledge that natural processes like stones rolling down hills or rivers overflowing their banks are seen as being other than teleological. Animism--explaining the actions of inanimate objects as being teleologically caused--is a natural consequence of a primitive stage of knowledge. This is because causation is first understood introspectively. Therefore, the first epistemological advance in understanding causality is the separation of consciousness-based causation from physical causation.
Part 1 - Distinguishing Living Action From Inanimate Processes
Binswanger suggests two features separate living entities from non-living ones: self-produced movement and conditionality of existence. This fits pretty closely with Rand's definition of life as "a process of self-sustaining and self generated action". Self-generated action and self-produced movement are obvious synonyms, and self-sustaining action seems to refer to the fact of life's conditional nature. So far, so good.
Next, Binswanger begins a practice too often neglected in Objectivist writing--defining one's terms. Most of the rest of the chapter is a series of conceptual distinctions to lay the groundwork for the rest of the book. To the extent that this is a result of the dissertation process (as this book is an extention of Binswanger's dissertation), I find it to be very useful. I'll try to carefully quote as he gives definitions, and we'll see how well he sticks to these definitions for the remainder of the book.
First, Binswanger distinguishes "action" from "processes" and "behavior"
ACTION: applies "only to the self-produced movements of living organisms." PROCESSES AND BEHAVIOR: "wide, neutral terms to designate any relatively extended change involving the parts of a whole"
While I understand the distinction he wants to make, I'm not sure how well "behavior" fits this definition. Isn't behavior a change of the whole in relation to its environment? I think one needs to keep this distinction clear, since it seems to be an artificial one. As we'll see, Binswanger is constantly referring to "living action" rather than just "action", which suggests he's made a strange distinction he himself isn't quite comfortable with. I don't think this distinction is a crucial one, but rather a tactical one to avoid canstant explaining later. This is why I like the fact that he's laying out his terms up front--one can disagree with them, but at least one can follow the argument anyway.
Next, Binswanger moves to the second part of his definition of life-- conditionality.
CONDITIONALITY: "the fact that [an] organism's existence is conditional upon its actions"
Again, I understand the definition, although it's circular. I think he should have used the word "dependent" in place of conditional. Nevertheless, I think its clear what he's getting at--that something alive has to act to maintian it's continued existence as a living thing, and thus its existence is conditional in contrast with non-living things.
Life's conditional nature leads immediately to the concept of needs. Those things an organism had to obtain to maintain its existence are the needs of the organism.
NEEDS: "conditions which must be satisfied by positive action on the part of the organism if the organism is to remain in existence."
Don't look in the Lexicon for a definition of needs, it's conspicuous in its absence. Also, I'll defer for now a discussion of needs vs. values, although we may want to discuss this.
This section is summarized with a revised definition of living organisms.
"Living organisms maintain themselves by a ceaseless process of action to derive needed energy and materials from the environment and utilize them for self-maintenance."
Part 2 - Vegetative Vs. Conscious Action
Having excluded the non-living portion of reality, Binswanger makes his next epistemological cut by dividing the living world into the vegetative and the conscious.
CONSCIOUS ACTIONS: actions "which are initiated and directed by [an] organisms consciousness"
VEGETATIVE ACTIONS: actions "which are _not_ initiated and directed by [an] organisms consciousness"
He gives an example of the first as a dog chasing a rabbit and of the second as a wound healing. He goes on to emphasize how many actions he is including as vegetative. They are "any _self-produced_ living action not initiated and directed by an organism's consciousness regardless of the biological level--biochemical, physiological, or behavioral--on which the action is performed."
I think it's interesting that he included the term "behavioral" as a potential vegetative action. I think this is a hint of things to come. I'll try to continue to point out such hints as we go. I think Binswanger is overly reluctant to grant sub-human animals the rudiments of what becomes volition in humans; I think he has an overly mechanistic view of sub-human animals.
Binswanger's epistemological knife next slices apart the concept of consciousness. After pointing out that consciousness is an axiomatic concept known through introspection, he diferentiates consciousness from self-consciousness. He does so via the example of a bird versus a human being.
A bird is aware of reality, but it is not aware that it is aware. Only human beings has this ability. This is certainly obvious in animals like birds, but is it so obvious for chimps and dolphins? They're not conceptual in the way we are, but don't the geniuses among them have a shadowy sense of self? I certainly hope he considers some of the harder cases in the later parts of the book.
B makes yet another distinction, this one between the concepts of the conscious and the volitional.
VOLITIONAL: "a process of conscious deliberation"
Let's conpare this to Rand and Peikoff's definitions. In the Lexicon under volition, Peikoff offers:
"Selected from 2 or more alternatives that were possible under the circumstances, the difference being made by the individual's decision which could have been otherwise."
We are referred to the section on "free will" for Rand's comments. The best I could come up with was: " ...'free will' is your mind's freedom to think or not."
On the face of it, Binswanger's difintion seems pretty restrictive of volitional.
I make lots of choices that I don't consider the result of "conscious deliberation"--they're more like snap decisions. I like Peikoff's explanation a bit better, and I think to fails to exclude the actions of several of the higher animals. I think Binswanger is overdoing it in his desire to exclude higher animals from any form of volition. Rand is certainly referring to human beings, but notice that "free will" is trapped in quotes. Isn't it possible that higher animals have the ability to choose among alternatives, and that they are not necessitated to choose one way or the other? I think I've made my point, although there's a bunch more to discuss here, and I hope to do so.
B offers an example to bolster his definition--a bird buiding a nest as an example of a non-volitional act. That is, an act with a
"COMPLETELY NECESSITATED OUTCOME of the bird's biological/ psychological makeup: the bird responds automatically to the pushes and pulls of pleasure and pain, with no power to deliberate..."
But is this a fair characterization of birds? Maybe, although I'm willing to consider otherwise. But it doesn't seem to be true of even my cat, much less a bright old chimpanzee. These animals seem to have an increasing ability to direct their consciouness in some way and even to make limited choices. Again, although I know there are significant and important differences between people and whatever the next most complex organism is to warrant different concepts between "volition" and "free will", I also think there's a continuum of ability to direct consciousness as one rises in the animal hierarchy (using the nervous system as the measure). And I don't even think such animals as cats can be termed "necessitated" in the way Binswanger uses the term. I refer readers to John Enright's "Ascent to Volitional Consciouness" in the second issue of _Objectivity_ for a fuller discussion.
One more time, then I'll be quiet on this. Binswanger suggests actions are classified as conscious or vegetative on the basis of introspective inference and the similarity of physiological structures, primarily the nervous system and its sense organs. He gives the example of a dog. It moves better in the light than the dark, evidence of its acting consciouly. True. But the next example is fascinating: the same dog perking up it ears to APPEAR to attend to sounds (my emphasis). Why the "appear"? Surely the dog perks its ears to attend to sounds. I think Binswanger's hedging again for fear of fiving the dog too much credit, and thereby permitting to it some measure of volition. Enough.
DBinswanger follows this with a description of consciousness as lying on a continuum and of coming into being as a result of evolution, and he's careful to exclude plants.
Next, he offers a living organism action continuum of complexity.
1. one-step physio-chemical biochemistry (not teleological)
2. many-step cellular metabolism (teleological)
3. gross actions of plants
4. physiological prossess (eg. digestion)
5. most comples vegetative actions - spinal reflexes
6. stereotyped beh'r with a releaser (eg. web-building), first conscious action
7. learned beh'r - "not merely triggered and guided by sensory stimuli, but also developed through the animal's conscious experiences, and is, within limits, modifiable to conform to differring environmental conditions"; eg - cats learning to kill via operant conditioning.
8. Rational behavior of man using concepts
This is nicely done, although it raises some questions. First, it skips some of the most interesting cases, esp. between the learning behavior of young cats and concept formation by adult human beings. Two, if consciousness is on a complexity continuum, shouldn't volition be as well?
DBinswanger offers a few caveats at this point. He suggests the line between vegetative and conscious action is a difficult one to draw, but that his thesis only depends on human actions being conscious and some other actions being vegetative He also notes that there are borderline cases. He also notes that certain types of action can change status. In the direction of conscious actions becoming vegetative, he offers an infant learning to stand and an adult doing so without a though. In the opposite direction, he offers a yogi controlling his heartbeat through practice and will.
Part 3 - Goal-Directed Action Vs. Purposeful Action
Binswanger ends with a few more definitions.
PURPOSFUL: "allies only in the case of counscious actions-- that is, in the case of actions in which the agent has an "end-in-view" which can be conceptual or perceptual"
In contrast, goal-directed actions are braoder, and they subsume purposeful actions which only pertain to higher animals. Between the extremes of goal-directed behavior and inanimate natural process lie vegetative actions. And this is the subject of the next chapter, which I gratefully turn over to Rick Minto.
Part 4 - My Thoughts
I don't want to sound too negative about this chapter. I think it does a decent job of laying out some good groundwork within which Binswanger can build his case. I like the was he trys to lay out his conceptual distinctions up-front. Finally, I agree with the basic line he's taking in trying to define the source of teleological concepts, ie. their basis in reality.
However, I did want to emphasize up front where I disagree with Binswanger, and how I think his later arguments will manifest some of the early distinctions with which I disagree. I confess that I haven't yet read the entirity of the book, although I have read pretty carefully his article in The Monist which condenses his argument into much less space.
Finally, I think the reason Binswanger's characterization of non-human animals is wrong is that he has accepted a non-entity based concept of causation. However, this is a discussion for a later time, and one I'm sure will be brought up over the course of what will hopefully be a far-flung discussion of the Objectivist attempt to more fully bridge the is-ought "gap" in philosophy.
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