I'm going to try again to explain what I mean by choice is an illusion by
responding to some points below by Dave Birren (and, by the way, I do not
think that this idea is limiting -- it is, the way I understand it,
>This is a comment on the continuing discussion about choice. John Woods
>seems to be saying that as prisoners of our paradigms we are really not
>free to choose. Our internal programming sets us up to make certain
>"choices" that are really not choices.
I did not say that our internal programming sets us up to make certain
choices. In fact, I didn't say we make choices at all. What I said was
that we confront situations, we understand ourselves in relation to those
situations (i.e., we see the order of that situation according to our
experience, knowledge, and insights), and what we'll do in light of that
understanding simply becomes apparent. For example, if I say choice is an
illusion and that conflicts with your understanding, you naturally tell me
that is the case. (So, I would say, you're right according to your
If you study decision making, what you'll see is the whole process is not
about making a decision, it is about gathering information that you
interpret in some way. Your interpretation will dictate the decision.
The so-called decision is the most trivial part of the process--in fact,
the decision is really just what you do based on your interpretation or
understanding of the situation you're confronting. Making choices is
simply taking the information of the moment, understanding and then acting
on it--which is one way of describing the essence of human behavior.
How you understand something is based on the assumptions you make. This
is why there is so much disagreement in the world and so much conflict.
Everybody is starting out from different assumptions; sometimes they're
aware of this, and sometimes they're not. Then they try to cram these
assumptions down the necks of others who don't see the world their way.
Now why would anyone choose to behave in such a stupid way?
Chris Argyris and many enlightened souls have tried to tell us this.
They're trying to get us to wake up and _understand_ that we operate out
of our assumptions, and use that understanding to get along with others by
exploring with them your different assumptions. In doing that we can come
to understand our different conclusions and behaviors and get along
better. In other words, by understanding that I operate in accordance with
my understanding, I am no longer trapped by this into doing stupid things
that would be hurtful to myself and others. My understanding now takes
this into account, and that affects my behavior (not "choices") at any
time in a positive manner.
(One other small and parenthetical point here. Our behavior, in fact
everything about our conscious life, is a function of our brains at work.
The brain is a biological organ that operates according to certain
physical, chemical, and biological principles, like every other organ in
the body. Why would you think you, whoever that is, are somehow separate
from your brain and someholw have control over that brain? The mystery
and the wonder, that I, my brain, am totally overwhelmed by is the fact
that this biological organ can know about itself. There are important
implications in that, some of which I am exploring here from a perspective
that doesn't use biological terminology.)
>I sense the same frustration now as I did 25 years ago in college
>discussions of logical positivism and determinism. Basically, what
>difference does it make whether we are really free to choose? What
>matters is whether we *think* so. Maybe it has to do with Aristotle's (I
>think) dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living. If I'm unable
>to make choices, imprisoned by the complex programming of my destiny, then
>why should I bother with self-knowledge? Nothing will come of it anyway,
>except that I'll be able to see the cell bars more clearly.
Certainly the unexamined life is not a very interesting one. But let's
say I'm right (and, according to my admittedly subjective assumptions, I
have to be). Then what a gift it is to be able to know that I behave in
accordance with my understanding of the situation in which I find myself
at any point in time. My understanding now takes that into account. My
mental model is one that assumes I will (1) be doing the best I can, (2)
that others are as well, and (3) that I can learn from my experience and
expand my understanding to continue to improve as time goes by. In other
words, I have discovered the built-in motivation to learn about myself and
my world to perform better, experience more, to become an ever better and
more complete human being--because that is consistent with my
understanding. Given that understanding, I could not want or act otherwise
than to do that. Why do you think I participate so enthusiastically in
>So I don't want to hear that I'm a captive of my perceptual set, or that
>it's just karma, or that choice is an illusion. The faith that I can make
>real choices is what drives me, it's what makes my life meaningful, it's
>what distinguishes me from the apes. Ultimately, as my father once said,
>we can act like humans or we can act like dogs, and what sets the species
>apart is our human ability, unique among all earthly species, to be aware
>of our thought processes and make choices about what we do with them.
>I choose choice because that's what makes me human. And right now I
>choose to wish all you fellow learners a fulfilling hoiday season, and I
>charge you with the wondrous task of helping everyone you interact with
>find fulfillment in their lives. But I guess that's your choice, eh?
What makes us human is not choice. What makes us human is self awareness
with all the attendant paradoxes, experiences, and understandings that
entails. The truly self-aware person cannot but take into account the
kinds of ideas I am talking about here. Truly self aware people
understand that they are the sum of their relationships to the world.
They understand that to look out for themselves is to look out for the
world. They understand that the stupidity and self-destructive behaviors
of so many are manifestations that they don't understand this, that they
have limited themselves, that they truly are prisoners of a poor paradigm.
Indeed, the human species is filled with self-destructive tendencies.
That's why it's so important to become aware of ourselves. We can come up
with a paradigm, an understanding, that allows us to transcend our
self-destructive ways, to be open to the possibilities. In other words,
it liberates us, but not from being human, but to take full advantage of
what being human means.
-- John Woods email@example.com Madison, WI