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.