The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry

Posted: 07 November 2016
Updated: 12 December 2017

The Illusion of Choice

A good, caring friend wrote something to me recently, and I often hear similar advice from people who are sincere and kind and intend their advice to be encouraging and helpful. She wrote, “You have a choice to live or die. It is your choice.” The intent is loving. And the words might seem to be good and helpful, but there are some problems. I attempt to explain, below.

Please do not forget about the Holocaust-advice-test. If advice or consolation would not have helped a German Jew in 1941, then it is highly likely that it does will not help me or other people in extreme circumstances. I do not have a choice whether I can magically cure myself of my health problems.

We contemporary humans have a delusional understanding of how much control we have over our lives. There are dozens of factors contributing to my current situation that I have absolutely no control over. I do not have a choice about those things. I did not have a choice whether some person who stayed in the same hostel I was in decided to steal money from three of the other people in the hostel. That was not my choice. If we shift this entire issue to the idea that all of the conditions in my life are my choice, then everything in my life is my choice, therefore everything bad in my life in my choice–my fault.

I sincerely doubt you believe that everything bad in my life is my fault. Therefore, the original premise must be false. It is not true that I have a choice between life and death. I have many smaller choices, and each of those choices affect my the probabilities of death, life with suffering, life with healing, life with prosperity, and infinitely many other outcomes. But it is almost always unclear how most of those smaller choices affect the probabilities of my future.

For example, when I was robbed a few weeks ago, I was sleeping in a place that was only 50 meters from where I normally sleep. I slept in the alternate place because there were rain clouds and lightning, so I thought it would rain. It did not rain. If I had slept in my normal place, then it would have reduced the probability I would have been robbed. But, if I slept in my normal place, and it rained, then it would have increased the probability that my electronic equipment would have been ruined and that I all of my clothes would have been wet (as what happened back in July) and that creates massive problems for me.

For all people, choices are about probabilities. When people choose to drive a car, they increase their probability of injury or death–the increase is actually shockingly significant. Nevertheless, for most people living in developed countries with a government that generally protects the public health, choices rarely have a dramatic affect on the probability of an event with a massive impact.

For me and for people living in conditions that the developed world would consider extreme, my choices can dramatically affect my probabilities. And, even worse, there are many choices in which it is impossible to know how the various options will affect the probabilities.

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