To choose or not to choose

Choice is often fraught with anxiety. We can agonize over decisions and are happy enough when an outcome is decided for us. That’s why we flip coins. Perhaps this says only that human beings loathe responsibility, which means accountability to others for possible error. We are essentially social creatures, after all. The meaning and value of our acts is always in relation to others, whose opinions we curry and fear. Even those unconcerned about reputation while they live may hope for approval in the long-term by posterity.

Perhaps there is a more fundamental reason why choice can be anxious. We have but one life. To choose one option or path seems to forfeit others. The road taken implies other roads not taken; one cannot have the cake and eat it. Choice implies a loss or narrowing of options, which perhaps explains why it invokes negative feelings: one grieves in advance the loss of possible futures, and fears the possibility of choosing the wrong future. Nature created us as individual organisms, distinct from others. That means we are condemned to the unique experience and history of a particular body, out of all the myriad life histories that others experience. Each of us has to be somebody, which means we must live a particular life, shaped by specific choices. We may regret them, but we can hardly avoid them. A life is defined by choices made, which can seem a heavy burden.

Yet, choice can also be viewed more positively as freedom. Choice is the proactive assertion of self and will, not a passive forfeit of options. It affords the chance to self-limit and self-define through one’s own actions, rather than be victimized by chance or external forces. To choose is to take a stand, to gather solid ground under one’s feet where there was but nebulous possibility. Rather than remaining vaguely potential, one becomes tangibly actual, by voluntarily sacrificing some options to achieve one’s goals. This is how we bring ourselves into definition and become response-able. We may be proud or ashamed of choices made. Yet, whatever the judgment, one gains experience and density through deliberate action.

To do nothing is also a choice—sometimes the wisest. The positive version of timidity or paralysis is deliberate restraint. Sometimes we chomp at the bit to act, perhaps prematurely, while the wiser alternative is to wait. Instinct and emotion prompt us to react impulsively. To be sure, such fast response serves a purpose: it can mean the difference between life and death. Yet, some situations allow, and even require, restraint and more careful thought. When there is not enough information for a proper decision, sometimes the responsible choice is to wait and see, while gathering more information. This too strengthens character.

Life tests us—against our own expectations and those of others. Perhaps the kindest measure of our actions is their intent: the good outcome hoped for. We may not accurately foresee the outcome, but at least we can know the desire. Yet, even that is no simple matter. For, we are complex beings with many levels of intention, some of which are contradictory or even unknown to us. We make mistakes. We can fool ourselves. The basic problem is that reality is complex, whereas mind and thought, feeling and intention, are relatively simplistic. We are like the blind men who each felt a part of the elephant and came to very different conclusions about the unseen beast that could crush them at any time. With all our pretense to objectivity, perhaps we are the elephant in the room!

Choice can be analog as well as digital. Plants interact with the world more or less in place, continuously responsive to changes in soil condition, humidity, temperature and lighting. Animals move, to pursue their food and avoid becoming food. Their choices have a more discrete character: yes or no. Yet, there are levels and nuances of choice, and choice about choice. We can be passive or aggressive, reactive or proactive. We can choose not to act, to be ready to act, or to seek a general policy or course of action instead of a specific deed. We can opt for a more analog approach, to adjust continuously, to keep error in small bounds, to play it by ear rather than be too decisive and perhaps dangerously wrong.

Of course, one may wonder whether choice and will are even possible. Determinism is the idea that one thing follows inexorably from another, like falling dominoes, with no intervening act of choosing. The physical world seems to unfold like that, following causes instead of goals. And perhaps there is even a limit to this unfolding, where nothing further can happen: the ultimate playing out of entropy. Yet these are ideas in the minds of living beings who do seem to have choice, and who seem to defy entropy. Determinism, and not free, will may well be the illusion. For, while concepts may follow one from another logically, there is (as Hume noted) no metaphysical binding between real events in time. The paradox is that we freely invent concepts that are supposed to tie the universe together—and bind us as well.

Where there is no free choice there is no responsibility. Determinism is a tool to foresee the future, but can also serve as a place of refuge from guilt over the past. If my genes, my upbringing, my culture or my diet made me do it, then am I accountable for my deeds, either morally or before the law? On the other hand, where there is no responsibility, there is no dignity. If my actions are merely the output of a programmed machine, then I am no person but a mere a thing. Of what account is my felt experience if it does not serve to inform and guide my behavior? I cannot rightfully claim to be a subject at all—to have my inner life be valued by others—unless I also claim responsibility for my outer life as an agent in the world.

Easier said than done, of course. Supposing that one tries to act morally and for the best, one may nevertheless fail. Worse, perhaps, one may wonder whether one’s thoughts and deeds will make any difference at all in the bigger picture. Especially at this crossroads—of human meddling and eleventh-hour concern for the future of all life—it may seem that the course is already set and out of one’s personal hands. Yet, what is unique about this time is precisely that we are called upon to find how to be personally and effectively responsible for the whole of the planet. The proper use of information in the information age is to enable informed choice and action. That no longer concerns only one’s personal—or local or even national—world, but now the world. This is the meta-choice confronting at least those who are in a position to think about it. Whatever our fate and whatever our folly, we at least bring ourselves more fully into being by choosing to think about it and, hopefully, choosing the right course of action.