Is Choice an Illusion?

Choice and free-will are strange concepts to grasp when you examine what they really mean. Consider this statement:

“I will eat a doughnut.”

That seems quite simple and straight forward. There is a doughnut and you are making a decision to consume it. But does that actually mean your choice is pure and untainted? Or does it mean your decision-making process has been guided by the world around you?

Think of the processes involved that lead you to that make that decision. The list of effects can be quite long but I think it can be summed up with these facts: 1) Knowledge of the existence of a doughnut – 2) Hunger for something sweet and sugary – 3) Desire to try something you have only heard/read about – 4) Your proximity to and availability of a doughnut – 5) Receptors in your brain, chemical needs in your blood and the rumbling in your tummy tell you that a doughnut will satisfy your current needs.

So you may think you are making a choice to scoff down a doughnut but the decision has already been made through cause and effect. Imagine you are walking along a sea front promenade and you smell a hot yummy batch of doughnuts, there is the cause, the effect is you buying a doughnut and chucking it down your throat.

There were 2 closely related topics on the Daily Post that got me thinking:

Topic #171 – Do you believe in free-will? Can you prove what you believe?

Topic #170 – They say “everything happens for a reason” – do you think this is true?

Both questions prompted a lively debate but I couldn’t help wondering how so many people brought the issue of religion, ethics and morals into it. I know cause and effect is a branch of philosophy but it does make sense that everything in the universe happens because of something else.

Gravity & Spacey Stuff

If we set aside the creationist view-point for a moment and think about the universe and how it doesn’t have a choice in how things happen, we then start to get a picture of cause and effect. Swirling gas clouds condense due to gravity, not choice, stars are formed and planets are the result of debris gathering together under gravitational forces.

A few billion years later you are about to eat a doughnut. It seems like a bit of a stretch to say because of gravity and the sun and our planet you therefore eat a tasty snack, but it does kind of demonstrate cause and effect.

God Created the Doughnut.

Now if we look at this from a religious stand point (I’m generalising here, using my own experience and limited  knowledge of the Bible) God created the world and everything in it. He told Adam and Eve that eating the apple would be a bad idea, thus granting them the ability to choose. However, by telling them not to eat the juicy fruit he successfully planted the seed of curiosity, thereby removing freedom of choice. Clearly there is an argument that suggests without any warning from God, Adam & Eve would eventually eat the apple due to their own curiosity, but then since God made them, curiosity was built in. And then there is the issue of the dirty snake giving his opinion and acting the bully. That also influenced them, again removing choice and prompting cause and effect to take over.

Days 1 – 7 were the cause and everything from Day 8 has been the effect. To me that makes sense. It doesn’t matter whether God plays a part in this or not, or if we are all aliens evolved from single-celled organisms brought to Earth on the back of a meteorite. Something caused these events to happen. Was God prompted to create everything?

So after all the amazing adventures laid out in whatever religious texts you happen to believe, we arrive in the modern world and the subject of the doughnut. Everything that has happened has led you to the point where you are about to eat that doughnut. By the way, the type of doughnut is not at question here, it can be glazed, sugared, topped with pink stuff or smothered in sprinkles. It is yours to enjoy regardless.

My Nothing Theory.

Imagine for a moment you have been created in isolation. No light, no dark, no heat or cold, no language or social group. You have no emotional state because there has never been a need for it. No loneliness because that implies experience of connection and thus loss and longing for that connection. You have no memory, no assumptions, no influences of any sort. The only thing you have is what your body needs, nourishment in its various forms. How this is delivered is irrelevant for this argument. The only cause and effect here is your body growing from that nourishment and expelling waste. Nothing else.

Now imagine the doughnut appearing beside you. How would you react to that? Would you understand what the smell was or that it was related to the doughnut? Given that your senses have never experienced anything would you touch it or taste it? Would you simply not acknowledge it because it is meaningless to you?

Two hypothesis can come from this:

1) That is the only time where choice can be true and pure.

2) Because of your situation the sudden appearance of a doughnut, the cause, prompts you to acknowledge it and everything else that follows, the effect, – smell, touch, taste, eat, vomit, desire, hate, love and so on.

Point of View.

I like the idea of cause and effect. It’s simple and logical. But I also like the idea of choice, that I am in control of my life, my destiny and the doughnut’s immediate future. I am influenced by my surroundings but ultimately I choose to eat the doughnut or not. So isn’t this about your point of view and not which is right or wrong?

In The Matrix, Neo and his pals visit The Merovingian who ends their conversation by saying he must leave. His wife/partner/girlfriend asks where he is going to which he replies he has drunk a lot of wine and must go pee-pee, ergo cause and effect.

But he could just as easily not use the loo and wet his pants, after all it’s his choice where and how he drains the weasel isn’t it? However, the fact that he consumed wine, the cause, means the eventual effect will be the need to expel waste. Again, it could be argued that he didn’t need to consume the wine and then not need the toilet.

Ultimately can’t cause and effect work in tandem with choice? Can one exist without the other? Or does all choice come from cause and effect? Is choice an illusion because we don’t understand how cause and effect works or refuse to believe we don’t have choice?

I do know one thing is certain, my brain hurts after giving this a couple of hours thought, and I’m pretty sure that is a good example of cause and effect!

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17 thoughts on “Is Choice an Illusion?

  1. cause and effect, free will, self-determination, acceptance, consciousness – we can spend our life discussing, arguing, discerning, challenging, dismantling or, we can just…………..walk in beauty! I think the latter is less exhausting and more satisfying!!! that’s just me.

  2. Wow, very interesting! I’m new to this wordpress thing, and i happened to come across this post. Really made me think. hah

    Also, I would like to point out that your blog looks very professional. Wonderfully done! Check mine out(nothing as good as yours, but hopefully i could get to your level someday lol)

    Texttap.wordpress.com

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    -Micah

    • Hi Micah! Thanks for stopping by. I just watched the video on your “What’s your Next Move?” post, very powerful stuff. I think blogs take time to cultivate and polish, most of us longer term bloggers have groomed out blogs over a long time. Yours looks okay, nothing wrong with it. It’s worth experimenting with the themes until you find one that you like and suits your personality.

      One thing that is important is having your blog listed on your Gravatar so when people hover over your icon thingy that’s next to all your comments, they will see links to your blog or other website. You have a picture there already but log into your Gravatar and add some information.

      On your Dashboard go to Users and My Profile, then fill in some of the boxes, About Me and farther down there are boxes to add links.

      If anyone is interested, check out Micah’s latest post:

      http://taptext.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/whats-your-next-move

  3. Now those are some serious thoughts!

    “Ultimately can’t cause and effect work in tandem with choice?”

    I think I agree that it can. Some things come our way due to cause and effect and when those thing reach us we are presented with the opportunity to choose, which sets new causes and effects in motion – maybe somewhat like the ripple effect of throwing a stone in a pond. What do you think about that?

    • Yeah, I like that. You can choose to throw a stone into a pond but how the ripples ebb and flow are due to cause and effect. I like to think there is choice even if it is strongly linked to the properties of cause and effect. It’s a real thinker isn’t it!

  4. You know what I love most about your writing? You have this deep, headach inducing debate going on yet you have “drain the weasel” in there too! Ha! Love your stuff, always good for a deep think and a laugh 🙂

    • Thanks Indigo! That’s because I’m not a university professor or a rocket scientist! When I read very deep high brow stuff I struggle to concentrate after a while because even the subject might interest me the writer clearly doesn’t know how to make the connection work for the reader. I love deep stuff but the humour in me leaks out now and then!

      • They say humor is a sign of the highly intelligent because it is harder to make someone laugh AND understand. Either way I love your humor, your writing & the deep think 🙂

  5. Hmm…I am starting to worry about you…maybe you have too much time on your hands? 😉

    Right, I haven’t read the whole post, please forgive me but you lost me somewhere along the line (the pinkness of that daughtnut put me off too to be honest, I hate daughtnuts too yuk). But I so happen to have a word or two to say about choice. I can’t explain it using big words and clever comparisons, but recently, I did something that I believe shows I am completely responsible for my own choices, despite the fact that cause and effect may come into play.

    So I realized I had a real drinking problem just as my husband left me. Some people in this situation (getting dumped by the person they love) will say they have no choice but to carry on drinking some more, even justify getting completely drunk on a regular basis, it’s not their fault you see, it’s the result of the breakup, they just don’t have a choice, it’s the only way they can handle it see. Some even start smoking again, however long they might have quit, it’s not their fault really, it’s the circumstances, and they usually can be forgiven because, well, you know, a break up does that to you poor them.

    Well I feel I exercised my right to have a choice. I have stopped drinking since the split. Completely. Yep, Just like that. It’s about 3 weeks now too so not just a little while. A proper while with withdrawal symptoms and everything. And since I was at it, I thought I’d stop smoking dope, because I finally realized it really isn’t good for you either. And…just to make a point about choice, I didn’t even start smoking again, even though I only stopped in February.

    I guess the ultimate choice is I have realised what went wrong towards the end there for us too, I started to suffer from Korsakoff’s syndrome (wiki it), although we didn’t know see. I only just found tonight what had been happening to me. My husband left me because he couldn’t cope with the symptoms. That’s fair enough I reckon, I wasn’t a nice person to be around, hell even I didn’t like myself. So I have emailed him the link now. And I am waiting to find out what he does. I reckon that also shows I am completely in control of the choices I make. I have decided to give him a chance to realize he made a mistake. If he does, great, I am happy to start working on us properly. If he doesn’t, well I am off for a two months holiday before moving back home (Thetford), once my tenant has left. I can’t wait.

    Because what ever happens, I am moving home, I know that, that’s the choice I made too when I went there for a visit just recently, without or without him.

    So, I am not too sure what point it was you were trying to make, but I reckon I am the living proof that people can make their own choices…but they just simply won’t sometimes.

    (ps: and yes, I do have too much time on my hands..it’ll change when I’m home though, I have plenty of plans already to …walk in beauty :-))

    • Gosh! Like I said before there seems to be a lot of drama in your life. I guess it depends on your point of view how things pan out. When people break up that is cause for the brain to put in place coping mechanisms, whatever they may be, and the effect is the outcome of those mechanisms – drink, drugs, depression even joy and other positive emotions. So yes there is some choice there but it still works together with cause and effect because in some situations I think without one the other won’t work, otherwise we would make random pointless decisions since birth.

      The point I was making is that even though some firmly believe we have a choice, others don’t and think cause and effect is the only logical process, I don’t see why they can’t work together. There will always be a cause and that will always lead to an effect but somewhere in that complicated process I think there is the freedom for choice, no matter how limited that may be.

      As for having time on my hands, well, I wish I had some! I’m working on my novel a lot at the moment, and spending less time on my blog, but even those highly enjoyable chunks of time are being eaten up with job interviews, taxi service, gym, house work and a whole slew of other tedious tasks! I’m not one to edit and re-edit and then edit the re-edits of my posts, I take time to think about the purpose of my argument and then let my fingers do the rest.

      When it comes to my fiction writing I’m more cautious. I’ve been writing for many years now and my current project is the first one I have felt incredibly passionate about, maybe that is due to experience or how my craft has matured. I want to get it right this time. Even so, the time I have available to sit down and write is precious to, so when I write a blog post this gives me the chance to keep writing but let my brain cool off from fiction writing, like a mini-mind vacation!

  6. So I was right then. Indeed, we all have a choice, “no matter how limited the freedom of choice might be” – so in other words, no, choice is not an illusion.

    ps: yes, I know there’s a lot of drama, I guess I chose it in the past, but trust me, I am working hard to eradicate it now coz I have decided I don’t like it one bit.

  7. ps: I got the syndrome wrong btw…phew (ish)! (it appears it’s ADHD rather than Korsakoff, but awaiting professional diagnosis)

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