On Choice, Perception, and Human Nature

DoorIn my last article, I presented the reader with an impossible choice — which I will here call a choice between two equal scenarios. I went on to talk about the role of authority in the development of a moral compass and in ethical decision-making. Because of some of the comments, and because my arguments were admittedly shaky, I wanted to revisit the idea of an impossible choice from a different angle, and even go so far as to ask whether or not there is such a thing as a truly impossible choice –or otherwise stated — whether or not two identical options could really exist.

When confronted with a choice that seems to have no perceivable pros or cons one way or another, how do we choose? I don’t just mean intense ethical decisions, I mean any decision at all.

If a path splits in two directions, and we can either go left or right, and have absolutely no idea what either choice really entails, do we just close our eyes and spin in a circle with a finger pointing out? Do we roll some dice? Flip a coin? We could do this, I suppose, and in decisions where the consequences are deemed to be relatively unimportant, this may well suffice as a method of choosing. This is not, however, because the options are identical, but rather because the difference in the outcomes is decided to be personally insignificant.

Regardless of what we know of the particular choice at hand, we approach it full of ideas and experience and assumptions. On top of our own preconceived notions, we can look upon two options and make quick, surface-level judgements. If we are simply on a stroll with no goal in mind, flipping a coin might be a perfectly reasonable manner of decision making; the outcome will be the same –we are still on a stroll. If, however, we are –to take a universally relevant example –carrying the One Ring toward the fires of Mordor, the potential difference in the outcome of our choice could be monumental. It is in a case such as this that we are forced to rely upon our quicker judgements and scrutinize the seemingly identical options for any notable difference at all. And because of the way our minds tend to qualify data, because we have the brilliant and misleading capability to ascribe meaning to otherwise insignificant information, we will end up making an ‘informed’ decision based upon what we come to believe of the options before us during those moments of scrutiny. As thinking, meaning-craving, creatures, I believe that we will end up differentiating two identical scenarios, even if there is no difference inherent in them (and I am struggling to imagine two truly identical situations at all). Where there is no difference in a set of options, but the consequence of the choice between those options is important, we will eventually impose a difference upon them so that we can make a choice in a manner that reflects the importance of the outcome. Like I said, deciding between two directions on a walk with no decided destination might as well be done randomly. Deciding between two directions on a walk whose purpose is to get you from A to B and not C, however, will force us to create a more guided situation that does not rely so heavily upon chance in creating the outcome –even if it is chance, in the end, that actually creates it.

On top of being judgmental creatures who can inject significance into the insignificant, we are also self-interested creatures, which would be important when considering some ethical choices. If you are walking by a lake and there are two people, a man and a woman, drowning in the cold water, and you know that your body could only endure enough stress to save one of them, which one would you choose? Assume they are equidistant. You could flip a coin here, but since the outcome of each option is measured in terms of an entire human life, that would be inappropriate at best. Your quick judgements might ascribe some personal qualities based upon facial features or the sound of their cries, which you then could process into some ‘useful’ information and decide, for example, who you can relate to more, or who you might like better. If that fails, self-interest might kick in. If you are a heterosexual man, you might immediately –if you are unwittingly sexist or consciously seeking a mate –move to save the woman. Saving her life might yield favorable future situations. Then again, if you notice the man’s watch –which keep in mind is only a detail that has arisen out of scrutiny –you might perceive a financially lucrative outcome in saving his life. We have neglected the third, very self-focused option, which is to do nothing because you do not want to be cold or put your body under any stress. I suppose there is a fourth option as well, which is to save one, and die attempting to save the other. This one, depending upon how you look at it, would be reserved for the very selfless or the very self-interested; selfless for obvious reasons, and self-interested, perhaps, because you cannot handle being perceived or remembered by others as that guy who let the man/woman die in the lake.

You could go on in this exercise of hypothetical scrutiny, and you could go on trying to make the hypothetical situations identical. I could have said they were both men or both women –identical twins perhaps, whose clothing, facial expressions, and voices sound exactly the same. The lights could be totally blacked out so that nothing visual at all affects the decision. No matter how hard you try to control the variability of the two scenarios, though, the presence of a conscious observer –the chooser –will always yield a qualified difference, subtle or great, between the options at hand. The harder you try to control the variables, either the sensory capability of the perceiver dwindles into that of a blind and deaf passerby, or the features of the options become unrealistically equal.

I find it hard to believe that we could find within the scale of our perception a truly identical situation, and therefore find it hard to believe that any person, other than to choose between options deemed inconsequential, would ever truly make –or even be capable of making –a  random decision.

Since I know that this is all personal, reflective conjecture, I am very curious as to what any reader might think. For the science minded followers –is there such thing as two truly identical scenarios in the physical universe? For those more philosophically inclined –what am I missing? For those of you who simply like to deal in hypotheticals –I hope that you will put forth a situation that challenges everything I have written. I am not bound to this idea personally –so please have at it.