From ARCHN, Chapter 1,'Theory Of Human Nature:
...According to Objectivism, man's capacity to choose stems from a "primary choice" which, because it presupposes "all other choices and is itself irreducible," cannot "be explained by anything more fundamental"(1991, 57). What is this "primary choice" ? Leonard Peikoff describes it as "the choice to focus one's consciousness.""Until a man is in focus" Peikoff goes on to explain, "his mental machinery is unable to function in the human sense - to think, judge, or evaluate. The choice to 'throw the switch' is thus the root choice, on which all the others depend...By its nature, it is a first cause within a consciousness, not an effect produced by antecedent factors. It is not a product of parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, hereditry or environment...In short it is invalid to ask: why did a man choose to focus? There is no such 'why'. There is only the fact that a man chose: he chose the effort of consciousness, or he chose non-effort and unconsciousness. In this regard, every man at every waking moment is a prime mover."(1)
There are so many questionable statements in this passage I am not sure where to begin...(ARCHN, 13)
Nyquist's right: where do you start with stuff like this? Obviously there's its reliance on one of those handy, all-purpose Platonic/Aristotelian 'first causes' to set human consciousness in motion. Of course, appeals to mysterious 'first causes' can either be phrased as either simple expressions of our ignorance in the face of an incredibly complex problem, or more typically, as philosophic platitudes which pretend to explain, but really tell you nothing. Objectivism opts for the latter.
While I do not doubt that something like 'conscious choice' exists, and that its workings are very mysterious, the Objectivist position offers no special insight into why or how. Further, it seems to wildly overstate the range of its action. "Man, according to Objectivism, is not moved by factors outside of his control. He is a volitional being, who functions freely." Peikoff writes. This is a typical overstatement. Of course we are moved by factors outside of our control every moment. Further, if we have been making 'integrations' since our every waking moment we have had no choice but to be 'moved' by vastly important 'factors outside of our control'. For example, the language we are brought up to speak, the culture we are embedded in, the psychological and genetic traits we learn and inherit from our families. Because they are so deeply embedded, these influences become very difficult to even see objectively, let alone cheerfully program, deprogram and reprogram at will. A simple example is an accent. No-one even notices their own accent; it only becomes evident when contrasted with other people with different ones. And consider how difficult it is to change your accent, how much immense effort would be required to eliminate it fully and permanently. And this is something relatively trivial, without anything like the depth and complexity of changing say a psychological disposition.
Needless to say, with their lack of what Nyquist calls 'empirical responsibility' Peikoff and Rand don't seriously consider - or even suggest - basic counterexamples to their arguments. Peikoff argues that the choice 'to think or not to think' cannot be influenced by anything external:not "parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, hereditry or environment." What, not even by reading "Atlas Shrugged"?! Think about it: this means that the person makes the decision 'to think' based on nothing but the indefinable workings of their own mysterious 'selves'.
Obviously there is much hairsplitting that can be done over the word 'think', but seems clear enough what Peikoff means: to focus your mind, to expend effort thinking. And it is true that we often walk through the world in a bit of a dream, not really paying full attention, not really 'using our heads' as the saying goes. Yet it is also quite obvious that in reality, people can be taught by other people to think; they can be trained to focus their attention, to think logically, to judge, to evaluate; and they can personally discover the rewards of this, even if they are reluctant students at first. They can be brought up in households where debate is encouraged, in families, societies and environments which are stimulating and in intellectual traditions that are challenging rather than dogmatic. Physically, they can be properly nourished, and genetically may have more intellectual temperaments. Surely this will result in more 'thinkers' than the opposite situations? Yet according to Peikoff, these factors should make absolutely no difference - we should get exactly the same amount of 'thinkers' regardless. If Peikoff is right, we should find just as many intellectually able kids neglected in a Romanian orphanange as in a typical Western school. But this is hardly the case.
So Peikoff gives us what is really an absurd exaggeration of the situation, and once again illustrates the danger - and laziness - of relying on antique pedantry like 'first causes' and not testing your rationalisations against reality. Appeals to 'first causes' tells us about as much about human consciousness as they do in physics; that is, nothing.
1. "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand", 50-60