Choice or Illusion?

While it seems like a simple enough proposition, the fact is that choice can be a very complicated subject. I think most people believe “You are a victim of your own choices.” They have shared story after story about how they made bad choices that led to their downfall, as well as good choices that led to great success – often in the face of enormous obstacles.

I agree that where we are at any given point in our lives is primarily the result of the choices we’ve made. But I’m not as hard line on the issue as you might expect. For example, if a person does not have the mental capacity – or emotional makeup – to make good choices, it is virtually certain he will make a lot of bad ones. This is the plight of the so-called “special needs” child.

I’ve taken some heat from hard-core conservatives and libertarians for saying that Seung-Hui Cho, who murdered 32 fellow students and teachers at Virginia Tech in April 2007, was a victim as well as the perpetrator of a heinous crime. No one has the wisdom, let alone the moral authority, to decide who is, and is not, mentally capable of making good choices.

Another interesting way of looking at choice was sent in by one of my readers who said: “I would assert that none of us ever has free will or choice. Choice is an illusion – an illusion that ego is ever so proud of.” He went on to explain that extensive studies have shown that the brain is “already in the process of executing all actions and thoughts one full second before the action takes place, and a half a second before the action/process is noticed by attention/consciousness.”

In other words, the ego/mind notices something that’s already happening and, while it is happening or sometime afterward, says, “I did that!” or “I chose for that to happen” or “I willed that to happen.” But, my reader pointed out, since “the action had already started and would continue even if it never made it into consciousness/attention/ego/mind,” that makes us nothing more than stimulus-response machines.

So, it all comes down to the same old question: Does man really possess free will – the power to choose? Or is our every thought just a result of the way our brains evolved? Was the “thought” in my mind to type these words already set in motion 14 billion years ago, as well as the thought to even ask the question? Is my belief that I am, of my own free will, sharing all this with you just an illusion?

Gosh, I hope not. For if we are nothing more than organic automatons, life has no meaning. If we do not have free will, we are but actors on a cosmic stage, playing out our parts exactly as we were programmed to do. Which would make for rather dull theater.

And that makes the Dalai Lama no better or no worse than Adolf Hitler. One of them was simply programmed to be a good toy, the other a bad toy. In fact, aside from criminal defense attorneys and politicians, you’d have to give everyone a free pass for their “bad” actions. Which is why, though I believe in free will, humility compels me to admit that I don’t understand it.

Why not just make everyone good? Why give anyone the power to make bad choices?

Regardless, to one extent or another, most people do believe in free will. Which means they believe in some degree of self-determination, a concept with two divergent groups of adherents – humanists and “spiritualists.”

To oversimplify it, a humanist believes that man is totally at the controls and that science, in effect, invalidates God. From an intellectual viewpoint, the problem I have with this is that while man continues, at an accelerating pace, to figure out how things work, it seems clear that he will never be able to answer the “why” question. Why does gravity work the way it does? Why do atoms combine to form certain specific molecules? Why is math the language of the universe?

I am what I would call a “straddler.” I believe in self-determination brought about by connecting with a “Universal Power Source.” But, at the same time, I believe that many things are not within man’s control. Yet, there are two important questions this viewpoint does not answer:

First, why do certain events seem to be predestined and out of our control? And, second, which events really are out of our control? We pretty much know that macro events such as earthquakes, typhoons, and collisions between objects in the cosmos fall into this category, but what about events in our day-to-day lives?

And what about the age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? I’ve listened to many people do mental cartwheels in an effort to glide around this one, but my own answer is as straightforward and honest as I can make it: I simply don’t know.

The subject of fatalism versus self-determination constitutes far more than just a fascinating philosophical discussion. It gets at the very heart of making good choices. If you believe in fatalism, there is no reason to even try to make good choices. On the contrary, it gives you a good excuse to embrace the most extreme form of narcissism. This, I believe, is the underlying, perhaps subconscious, mindset of the John Edwards Genre.

But if you are among the millions who believe that some things are predetermined while others are not, my advice is that you not spend a great deal of time worrying about which things fall into which category. It makes a lot more sense to make a conscious effort to make good choices at all times. This doesn’t guarantee that you will always succeed in making good choices – but if you don’t even make the effort, it does guarantee that you will rarely make them.

And what if our choices really are nothing more than illusions? What if we really are nothing more than stimulus-response machines? Not much you can do about that except enjoy the illusion that you have free will, and keep on imagining that you’re making good choices… just in case, somewhere down the road, you should discover that you do have the power to control your own destiny.

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Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is a New York Times #1 bestselling author and host of the highly acclaimed Liberty Education Interview Series, which features interviews with top political, economic, and social leaders. He has appeared on Fox News, Fox Business, The Tonight Show, Today, The Dennis Miller Show, Good Morning America, The Lars Larson Show, ABC Nightline, and The Charlie Rose Show, and has been the subject of feature articles in such major publications as Time, People, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Barron's, and The New York Times.