In Rand’s 1957 exposition of her ethics in Galt’s Speech, she writes that for man “to remain alive, he must act, and before he can act, he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch—or build a cyclotron—without a knowledge of his aim and the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think” (AS 1012).
She continues: “But to think is an act of choice.” The key to human nature “is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness. Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct.”
A few pages later, she remarks that “all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others” (1020).
The quotation from Rand in my first paragraph is expressed in the generic mode of Man. It is descriptive of the overall condition of the species. The quotation in my third paragraph is expressed in the personal mode of each listener’s possibilities. This personal mode is descriptive in the range of human possibilities it poses, but it is also normative. It harkens back to the preceding generic mode of Man and denigrates individual human life not rising to the creative requirements for Man overall.
Taking theses three quotations together, Rand seems to say she is reserving the term thinking for levels of human cognition requiring purposeful creativity. I surely agree with Merlin’s picture of us as having natural desires to think. Furthermore, thinking can become a habitual proclivity, in the sense Rand portrayed in her story “The Simplest Thing in the World” and in the premature “retirement” she composes for the character Dagny in AS.
To some limited extent, also, our thinking skills can become automatic. Practice at catching, scaling, and frying fish makes less the deliberate thought needed to accomplish the bitty steps. Practice at proof in high school geometry does not seem to make it any less deliberate, although it does make us faster in generating a proof (one not memorized). Reduction in deliberateness or easiness in thinking does not abolish, we should notice, its substantial willfulness and creativity.
Let me return to the implication for Rand’s moral theory of our having a habitual proclivity to think. Does maturing so as to have the habitual proclivity to think abolish the choice: to think or not to think? It certainly seems to make the not-to-think option deeply inaccessible for such a person. Which thinking remains a perpetual life-and-death matter for such a person, until a caretaker who is other takes over. On the other hand, for generic Man, there remains the standing choice: to be really thinking or to be wiped out by nature.
To choose to think would seem to remain a central moral precept, undisturbed by the fact that many people develop into chronic thinkers. (In one of Rand’s entrances onto the Johnny Carson Show, he greeted her by remarking “you seem so happy tonight,” to which she replied, “yes, I am chronically happy.”) Many people chronically have that moral trait, and I suggest we can continue to regard it as a moral trait even though these people cannot readily choose to lose it.
Many other people develop a habit of religious faith, around which and in accordance with they organize their lives. Faith in the sense of an act of suspending critical reason does seem to be a perpetual matter of choice. In faith of this genre, one is choosing not to really think. It seems to me that even though one is deeply invested in the method and content of such religious faith, it is possible for one to pause and directly turn one’s heart and mind to expanding one’s sphere of reason and accepting the natural world of one’s senses full weight. In such a case, one could be choosing to think—to let reason go everywhere—and this could have grand results for one’s life and one’s understanding of one’s life and world.