In light of the present debate about volition raised by my two questions, I thought it would be both useful and interesting to post some of my notes on the topic from Barbara Branden’s NBI course Principles of Efficient Thinking, Tape Two (“Focusing and Problem Solving”). Despite my present view of Barbara Branden, I do recommend listening to the course, as it includes much material not discussed elsewhere in the Objectivist corpus. In particular, I think the five levels of focus nicely differentiate focus from concentration. (Warning: As these are only lecture notes, I cannot guarantee perfect accuracy.)
There are not merely two primary states of consciousness, being in focus or being out of focus. Rather, there are a variety of mental states between these two extremes. Also, a person can be in a mixture of levels of focus or rapidly alternating between levels. There are five major levels of focus:
1. Passive daze: A person is seeing and hearing what is going on, but not identifying those events in any conceptual terms. Recounting those events later would be difficult, not because the mind was elsewhere, but because the mind was nowhere. This is probably the lowest level of consciousness possible.
2. Passive identification: A person is conceptually identifying what is going on, but not integrating, judging, or identifying the meaning of those events. The knowledge necessary to make judgments is available, but unused. Because judgments are not made, the resulting gap is filled in with emotions and/or the opinions of others. This is the level of awareness of the social metaphysician; by not forming judgments, there is no possibility of their judgments clashing with the judgments of others.
3. Arbitrary focus: A person is identifying and judging what is going on, but not integrating. The mind is conceptually active and purposeful, but arbitrarily selective concerning the objects of focus. Awareness is fractured and splintered, as the person is constantly going in and out of focus. The resulting incomplete awareness warps a person’s judgments, such as when a person judges someone to be of good moral character due to one good deed or character trait. The primary cause of this state of awareness is that the person allows emotions (or chance) to determine what is focused upon. One secondary cause is evasion; a person might not want to think about something unpleasant, and so goes out of focus rather than think about it. Another secondary cause is unidentified emotions or fear. This level of awareness is not the same as purposeful selective focus. In this state of arbitrary focus, a person focuses only on selected objects and is in a daze about everything else. In order for a selective focus to be rational, there must be a reason for the selectivity, awareness of the selectivity, no need to act upon the facts not focused on, and no need to pass a judgment upon the facts no focused on. The crucial issue here is that a person must always be in focus and that the person’s values determine the object of their focus. A person must be aware of all the relevant aspects of a situation and never blur out important details, as the arbitrary focus level of consciousness does.
4. Unsharpened awareness: A person is conceptually identifying, judging, and integrating, but only in broad outline. No new knowledge, connections, or integrations are being integrated. If events are more subtle or complicated than past thinking, then those peculiarities will not be grasped. This level of consciousness is not active, independent, or creative. The person is not aware of the limits of their knowledge or that there is more to be known. An extreme example is seen in some people who cannot seem to grasp an idea simply because it is new.
5. Full mental clarity: A person is conceptually identifying, judging, integrating, and connecting the full conceptual meaning of every aspect of reality with which one is dealing.
The level of awareness is the degree of active cognitive integration in which the mind is engaged.
The lecture also touches upon the question of why people choose not to focus. Branden offers six reasons for that choice:
1. It requires effort, which on the very short term, is not worth exerting.
2. Some people enjoy being unfocused.
3. The effort of focusing might not be regarded as worthwhile even in the long term.
4. Acting on impulse and whim is sometimes regarded as more exciting, interesting, and romantic than acting on reason.
5. Sectioning off an area of reality as unknowable means that thinking is regarded as useless.
6. Believing oneself to not be smart enough to understand something means that thinking is useless.
All very interesting!