A new fundamental subchoice

The primary volitional choice is to take charge of your mind or not—i.e., to focus or not. “Focusing your mind” is a broad abstraction; what are the basic acts you use when you are in focus?

To change the metaphor, the primary choice is to manage the operations of your mind or not. What are the basic tools of mental self-management?

It is clear that one basic volitional operation is directing your mind: enacting your purpose by giving attention to this or that. If the primary choice is to direct your attention at all, rather than letting go and letting what passes through your mind be determined by chance, short-range factors, this basic subchoice is taking the wheel and steering.

As I’ve discussed, “steering” involves the choice to either keep in focal awareness one or more of the items that are already in focal awareness, or to bring into focal awareness material of which one is less clearly or only dimly aware—things on the periphery of awareness. Further, the conceptual level gives man the possibility of actively seeking material that was completely out of awareness, being neither focal nor peripheral, through the use of words, concepts, propositions and reasons of which one is aware. Thus, I can order myself to think of animals in a zoo or how to play a C chord on a guitar or whether or not I should stop working now—none of which were in even the periphery of my awareness a minute ago.

But the choice of what to attend to presupposes the primary choice: to take charge of the operations of my mind, pursue a purpose, and work to attain full awareness of reality.

So, riding with a stray thought, apropos of nothing, just because it feels good to do so is not to make a choice at all, neither to focus nor to direct the object of one’s attention.

The choice of subject, of what to attend to, is something that I and others have “chewed” for many years. But a couple of days ago, I thought of another basic operation of consciousness that’s under direct, immediate volitional control: scope.

If the choice of subject is the choice of where to point the searchlight of your mind, the choice of scope is the choice of how broad or narrowly focused is that light.

You have the power to “zoom in” and to “pan back”—to narrow the beam to give more attention to a part or aspect of a subject or to widen the beam to get a wider, integrative view. When one pans back, the illumination per square inch (so to speak) drops, which causes particulars and details to be dropped, but the surrounding material is now given some attention.

Think of a map on your smartphone. For a given screen that is displayed, you can move north east south or west. But you can also spread your fingers on the screen, to get a closer view, or pinch your fingers on the screen to pan back and see more territory at once. And, as I’ve mentioned, moving in closer reveals more details or specifics; but pinching to get the larger-scale view brings the wider context into view.

The ability to control the scope of your attention in this way is crucial for your general sense of self-control. Indeed, it’s crucial to your experiencing your self, itself. And in terms of cognition, your control of the scope of your attention is a big factor in explaining the difference between examination and mere gazing.

An animal gazes at things, looks at things, but does not examine them. A human being, from early infancy, can use the ability to zoom in on an object to consider the basic question of all thought: What is it?

To answer that question, one has to both analyze and integrate—i.e., both zoom in to perceive parts (and, for an adult, to consider aspects) and to pan back to observe how the item relates to the wider context, how it fits into (or contradicts) the network of one’s knowledge.

In the Objectivist literature on free will, the point is emphasized that the choice of subject is not a primary: it depends upon one’s knowledge, interests, circumstances, and psycho-epistemology. The same is true of the choice of scope: whether one zooms in or pans back (or neither) depends on, but is not deterministically set by, the same factors. We are all familiar with this in detective shows. The detective notices some apparently innocuous detail that has been in the field of view of everyone, but given attention by none. But the reason the detective can choose to zoom in on it is that he has a background of knowledge and values. He would have had no purpose in doing so when he was two years old. Lacking the motivation, he could not have focused on it (except by wild chance) and even if he did — even if someone else showed the clue to him and asked him to think about it — he could have made nothing of it.

Adjusting the scope of one’s attention to match the requirements of gaining full awareness is a basic subchoice that one makes if one is in focus, pursuing knowledge, striving to deal with reality.