Choice or Illusion?

Posted on December 16, 2014 by Robert Ringer


Choice can be a very complicated subject. Are you or are you not a victim of your own choices? Do bad choices always lead to a person’s downfall? Do good choices always lead to success, even in the face of enormous obstacles?

I generally agree that where we are at any given point in time is primarily the result of the choices we’ve made. But I’m not as hard line on the subject 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 choices. Who has the wisdom, let alone the moral authority, to decide who is and is not mentally capable of making good choices?

Some scholars believe that choice is an illusion, that we are really nothing more than stimulus-response machines. I guess it’s possible, but difficult for me to accept.

It all gets down to the same old question: Does man really possess free will — the power to choose — or is his every thought just a chaotic result of the Big Bang? 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 this question? Is my belief that I am, of my own free will, sharing all this with you nothing more than an illusion?

I hope not, because if we are nothing more than organic automatons, it would seem that life has no meaning. If we do not have free will, we are nothing more than 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 behavior.

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 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, 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 theory is that while man continues, at an accelerating pace, to figure out how things work, he is not able to answer the question “Why?” Why does gravity work the way it does? Why do atoms combine to form certain molecules? Why is math the language of the universe?

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

First, why do certain events seem to be predestined, i.e., beyond our control? And, second, which events are we not able to control? We pretty much know that macro events such as earthquakes, typhoons, and cosmic collisions fall into this category, but what about events in our day-to-day lives?

Which raises 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 question, 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 great excuse for embracing the most extreme form of narcissism. But if you are among those 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 the best choices possible 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 good choices.

But 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 it 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.

Just think of it as a great insurance policy.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

15 responses to “Choice or Illusion?”

  1. John Eslinger says:

    RR, this is very profound and is something I have been pondering these thoughts most of my life. I live in the realm of we are a product of our choices. I can prove this in my existance. On the other hand, I like your comment that some folks just ain't got the mental capacity to get out of their own way. You can't make a bicycle break the speed of sound. In the mean time, keep up the good work. You and yours have a fantastic Christmas and New Years season. Happy Con Trails, John E.

  2. wpn says:

    How about both? The choices we make affect our core spiritual being whereas this "solid", physical world we interact in is the illusion. Choices that build our spirit are much more important than choices that affect the things around us. If this illusory world were not in place we would have no opportunity to gain good or bad experiences and have the chance to analyze the results. As we accumulate and value good choices our spirits grow and expand. (IMHO – In my humble opinion.)

    • Jim Hallett says:

      I like a lot of what you said. I think that the real meaning in life comes down to focus on the present moment and coming from a place of love to do the best you can in that moment. I don't pretend to KNOW all the deeper things in life, but I strongly believe we are not mere puppets, but rather an avenue of God to express a part of Him on this planet. Our lives exist continually (before and after their apperance in a body on this earth), and we CAN make a difference. In addition, there are those advanced souls that have transcended the physical laws, so I think our real essence is indeed spiritual and the physical egoic experiences are what trip us up and they are so incessant and so LOUD! Great article for thinking deep, Robert.

      • Ted Wagner says:

        Although I don't know anything for sure, what I observe seems best explained by what WPN and Jim H are saying. We are spiritual beings having a temporary human experience. The creator's finger puppets. It is the experience that matters. While "good" and "bad" are our own descriptors, the nature of this life's experience dictate what comes next. The trick is to maintain a spiritual focus in the face of overwhelming physical demands while equipped with little more than a monkey's chittering brain.

  3. bullwink says:

    Goodness R R,the Past few days have been rewarding ! My horoscope said all's swell, the previous day i had rewarded myself w/ a break working on a personal project in my enthusiasm I had forgotten to eat that day, as an entrepreneur can make their own hours the next day I awoke before dawn to resume the 24/7 leisurely life, had to get to the post at opening (Sun) to take care of a new repeat customer , returned home collapsed , got up did some work ditto, "Bah expletive was my mood" didn't share it, accepted the is's kept busy, applied a systematic ordered approach to what needed to be done, as there didn't seem to be any immediate results from my efforts I said "SO WHAT ! " kept busy , more repeat biz too , seems tiring to succeed at anything, it seems the only things I've learned not to do are the most helpful, and doing nothing at times is best (if one is contemplating something negative) and worst if there is opportunity .
    The illusions of personal success I have , I am indebted largely to you, the Delusions of Grandeur the popular ones have is longer as maddening , I just don't have the time for, many thanks for the acuity and enduring insights for more than 3 decades now… Happy Holidays to you and Yours !

  4. Smucko says:

    RR, my answer to your question of "Why not just make everyone good?", is that I believe that God is the ultimate jealous owner of a G.I. Joe set, and we are here for his enjoyment. In your early writings your referred to the PIN-SPOTTER, who would eventually put you in your place. God is that PIN-SPOTTER. He set the game by creating the heavens and the earth, giving us the physical laws, the basic instincts, the ability to learn, and free will. He set the rules (the Gospel) that instruct each of us to learn about him, fear him, and love him, and He gave us the results of our ability to follow his commands. He set the devil loose on this earth to relentlessly test your will, and He acknowledged that "narrow is the way" for us to keep his bidding until the day he calls us home. He loves us, and wants us to succeed in living the life that he created us to have. I don't believe that there is any pre-destiny. It just doesn't jive with the Gospels. As for bad things happening to good people, it is just another test of your faith. The mentally incapacitated and children are giving a pass to him. The rest of us are on our own. Your best course of action is to study and follow the Gospels, and not get too deep into this world. If you can keep your faith in Him while this world spirals along on its merry way, make the moral decision when faced with temptation in dealings with others, then you should be ready to meet Him on that day. God is the ultimate insurance policy.

  5. Joan says:

    My head hurts now. Therefore, I will set such challenging things aside and just say, "Happy Chanukah"!!

  6. Scott theczech says:

    When I think about the relative good and bad choices made by defense attorneys and prosecutors alike, I am hard pressed to see much difference. However, it seems that every week I read about some poor bastard finally being exonerated by new evidence or science after spending years deprived of that most precious of gifts – liberty! These prosecutors, accusers are political animals seeking convictions using the public purse while the defense attorneys seek acquittal sometimes at the public expense. Apology for the digression, but I do not understand your disdain for defense attorneys – it can't be solely based upon the People vs. O.J. Simpson…could it?

  7. The S-R psychologists, Behaviorists, have a place in the scheme of things, but, a LOWER PLACE. That they took over in college psych departments cheated great number of student. Students were denied knowledge of the Big Guns in psychology, such as Jung et al,

  8. Regarding MEANING and PURPOSE in life, Albert Camus' great work, THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS, illustrates that the meaning in our lives is in the 'rolling of the rock", not only end-orientation or getting it to goal or destination. Process is the locus of human meaning and purpose.

  9. The Karma theory, if it does not explain all the questions you have raised, at least reduces the confusion significantty.

  10. larajf says:

    I believe that before we came down here, we set up a few crossroads to learn from. And all our choices leading up determined some of the things that happened to us when we were faced with a choice. Did we have the courage, did we have the wisdom. And sometimes I think we have bad times happen to us to help us develop into better souls. I certainly don't know the answer, but I would like to believe that I have a hand in whatever happens ever if it doesn't appear that I do in this life :-)