You Choose to Read This

You Choose to Read This Article on Choice 072811


You hear the word “choice” a lot, particularly in relation to personal misery.  The pregnant, meth addicted daughter “chose” the no good chain saw stealing boyfriend she has, let her live with the choice.   She could quit using meth, but she has to “choose” to. 


It’s a very functional term used like that.  Sierra County Board Chair Lee Adams in a meeting recently suggested that those addicted to drugs had a problem and it was “their choice”.  The Prospect recently argued that adults should have the “choice” whether to use cannabis. 


These two uses, the first to assign responsibility to an alcoholic, and the second to assign liberty to a pot smoker, are very functional uses of the word “choice” but making use of the term in this context ignores a lot about the reality of making a “choice”.


There are many different kinds of choice, but most are “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choices, a “Bush-Gore” choice where one squints to discern the lessor evil.  Occasionally one is spoiled for choice, meaning the pallet is so broad it’s difficult to select one option.  Oddly, it’s easier to live with one’s choice in the first instance, but remorse often follows the second, since unknown opportunities have been declined.


So, how do we make a “choice”?  We do it using equipment and strategies which have their roots in the dank and fertile seas of a much younger earth. 


It’s an advantage to be able to swim about in a sea of food.  Just moving at all exposes one to more volume and so more food.  But swimming around blindly has its perils, because there are bigger critters out there looking for you.  To navigate you need 2 things: a detection system and a correction system; that is, you need to be able to know something about the ecology and change directions when necessary, and my friend you just invented choice. 


Early correction systems were pretty primitive.  It’s likely that hearing, or in this instance vibration detection was developed first.  Even some plants can detect and react to vibration or movement.  But light was extremely useful, at first perhaps to move toward or away from sunlight, but eventually to recognize shape.  If something is big and dark, frantically move your cilia to get away; if it’s small and yummy, frantically move your cilia to catch it. 


But as the detection system improved, more sophisticated mechanisms were needed to make the choice.  When everyone is equipped to see and frantically flail cilia, you have to be more discerning.  You and a competitor both spy a tasty critter.  Should you expend the energy to try to reach it, or will the competitor get there first and you should try to find something else, perhaps something the competitor overlooked on the way to the better grub. 


Living creatures have worked out algorithms, which are ways of deciding things based on some simple rules. 


All kinds of critters use these rules, but here are examples:

When you come in to an area of ripe berries, pick all the best and easiest to reach first, and then go back and pick the ones that are not the best but easy to reach, and then pick the best of the hard to reach ones and finally the least of the hard to reach ones.  This is the “low hanging fruit” analogy, and it becomes most clear when picking blackberries as there is often a small cost, a prick to the finger by a thorn.  A drop of blood always adds meaning to a choice. 


A second is the “75%” rule.  Fishing is safer close to shore, but there aren’t many fish.  Three miles out the fishing is great but the waves are horrifying and death is always present.  Where do you fish?  Probably a little more than two miles out. 


There are other algorithms, some that cause us to send “good money after bad” in “sunk costs” which cause the “ratchet effect” to make us put more into an effort than we can recover because we’ve already invested so much.  Gambling works like that. 


These strategies are somewhat hardwired in, we use them in emergencies or moments of stress, but also when we go to the grocery store.  They often involve nothing more complicated than moving from areas of pain toward areas of pleasure.  More about drug use later.


When your most important ecological feature is a rampaging predator or scurrying food, your choices are pretty straightforward, but humans almost never live in that kind of environment, even when hunting and gathering.  For humans, for all of our history and the history of the bipedal primates who preceded us, the most important feature is always other humans.  We are critters like meerkats who are happiest with our tribe.   


But, that makes choice making very difficult indeed.  Because we aren’t just running or chasing, we’re interacting for the long haul.  People remember, they build expectations, they express their pleasure or displeasure to others. 


Now that choice making is sufficiently complex, we can talk about the elephant in the room, the thing we’ve been talking all around: free will.


Free will is distinguished from free choice in that one’s will might not be available from the choices one can freely make, which is not much of a distinction. 


People with absolutely nothing else to do have spent a great deal of time (centuries) working out the ways and mechanisms of free will.  They vary from determinists to liberationists to those who believe free will means doing something unpredictable.  In general, “free will” means one has the ability to choose free of outside coercion.  Taken literally, the idea “free will” is almost completely meaningless, and it’s fun to talk about why.


To a microsociologist or social psychologist the idea of an “individual” completely abstracted from social context is almost meaningless.  Pluck a person from New York City and stick them with a Baka family in the rain forest and they’d freak out, for a little while.  But eventually, they’d look at their Pygmy hosts and recognize humanity and before long they’d be making some kind of connection.  Some of my favorite exercises of psychology involve seating a person at a computer which is programed to throw out answers as though there were another person at a computer in a different room. (No one knows how to torture someone like psychologists.)  People are above all social, and their need for social interactions peoples with gods the forest and even the cold and distant heavens.   


Further, social constructionists and microstructuralists have perfected the deconstruction of the person, teasing out the influence of family and culture, locating the individual in a social matrix and leaving very little left except a tangled string of biological predispositions.  When we make any choice it is dependent on who we are in society and where we are in history.


Indeed, the idea of “free will” is a product of the Enlightenment, a social idea.  For many people in history “mate selection” was done by parents or professionals, there was no notion of freely choosing a partner, and though it sounds terrible to us, there is no reason to believe that partners loved each other less than people do today.  To some degree, “choice” is a social concept.


But it is a useful one, and we can choose to continue using it to discuss choice in the real world.


The algorithms of our early ancestors continue to work well for us, even when doing such critical things as mate selection or employment.  Such life tasks aren’t simple, but our choices are seriously limited.  Very few of us can select absolutely whomever we wish for a mate, our selection is limited by class and status and even geographic location.  Likewise, only a few of us can work wherever we want to.  We have the freedom to choose from among a fairly limited, though sometimes still somewhat broad, selection.


However, kid, anytime someone tells you “you can be anything you want to be,” they are probably wrong.  “Anything” in that sentence should be associated with the phrase “within reason”. 


What about Lee Adam’s alcoholics and dope fiends? 


Choices typically have two temporal components, now and later.  Taking drugs recreationally is typically a “now” event.  The later is later, and when the later is now, it’s time to do drugs again. 


Is it a “choice”?  People often start using alcohol because other people use alcohol.  For some, there is a biological component: their brain circuitry predisposes them to a kind of pleasure.  For others, biopsychological circumstances predispose them to emotional pain.  For all of us, it simply feels better to feel better than not to.  There is an indication that “meth” is so popular because it makes a person feel “as good as anybody.”  Again we remember, we are meerkats, little social critters for whom others of our kind loom large on our horizon.  Emile Durhkheim long ago demonstrated that people need other people to be emotionally well.


Like all choices, addiction is rarely much of a free choice.  Very few people enter grammar school thinking, “to hell with fireman, I want to be a rummy when I grow up.” 


When we use “choice” in that way we are simply saying we blame a person for their circumstances, that we are different because we “chose” to be and so are superior.  It’s a socially convenient way of reflecting life events back on a person.  Typically, the “choice” we select for them is meaningful in our lives, but perhaps not in theirs.


On the other hand, attitude means a great deal.  Persistence comes from attitude, so do courage and resilience.  It does seem to matter that we at least feel we’ve chosen, and to feel that choosing is empowering. 


So, are we not free?  What are we to think of all this discussion, which reduces the notion of choice to social and biological circumstances?  Two answers: first, you can choose to believe it, or you can choose to believe that you can ignore it, and second, what difference does it make?  Life isn’t really a linear, predictable thing.  We are like sparks from a grinding wheel, some lasting long, others burning brilliant, each on a life course of our own.  No one has perfect free will, or complete freedom of choice, and rarely does such abundance of choice make us happy for long. 




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