Ayn Rand writes about the process of abstraction from abstraction in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The human infant looks at concrete sensory data first, then he differentiates and integrates among the various sensory data to form an abstraction, then he builds higher level abstractions upon the lower level abstractions.
For an infant, free will and self-awareness as we know it do not exist. There is, however, a special way of seeing things. Instead of an indiscriminate representation of the visual field, which is what animals perceive, a human being has an awareness of similarities and differences between different colors, shapes, and angles. He is able to abstract one aspect among all other aspects of the visual field.
In order to develop free will, the newborn’s mind has to make a countless number of abstractions, in the visual field and from other senses as well. This happens automatically, much like a computer program running. The development of the child’s mind works by logically progressing through tiers, or levels, of abstraction. The first level would be the most basic, perceptual level abstractions. An example would be red vs blue, or square vs circle.
A higher order abstraction would be color vs shape. There would be a similar progression for the other senses such as touch and auditory perception, which are of crucial importance for forming these abstractions. For instance, the differentiation between pleasure and pain, or a low note vs a high note. I suspect that these conceptual leaps are not possible without the other senses, and without interaction through tactile learning.
Again, an infant is not explicitly aware of this process, it happens automatically. The progression from one ‘level’ of abstraction to the next is necessitated by the very nature of the process. The same ability to differentiate and integrate will make the next level abstraction happen after a number of abstractions are made on an earlier level.
Further on in this process, the child’s mind differentiates between the senses themselves, i.e., sight vs sound. This would be a very advanced conceptual leap for the child’s mind.
Given this pattern and this logic, what would ultimately be one of the last and most important abstractions for the child’s mind to make? It would be between its own processes and the external world. In short: Volition is the abstraction of abstraction. It is the process of abstraction differentiating itself from everything else. This is when free will and, simultaneously, self-awareness are born.
This is how I explain free will in terms of the ability to abstract. I had also tried to explain the capacity to abstract in terms of volition, but I couldn’t see how that could be done. However, I have noticed there is a certain kind of binary nature to both abilities, that I would like to explore further. The ability to abstract involves differentiation and integration between one or more mental units. Volition involves a choice between one or more options. This binary nature of the human mind’s most fundamental abilities seems to be the key to its nature and what makes it so special. I would not be surprised to discover this represented in some physiological aspect of the human brain.
In regards to this I have considered the two hemispheres. Perhaps in the human brain they can play off of each other in a way that animal brains cannot. (I am aware of a girl who is said to live with only one hemisphere of her brain, removed in early age due to seizures. The plasticity of the brain could have compensated for this at the age when she had the surgery, but perhaps in her infancy it would not have been possible for her to develop self awareness and true volition with only one hemisphere.) I have no way of knowing or proving this, it is just a suspicion of mine since it seems to be an obvious way of explaining the binary nature of volition and abstraction.