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What is choice? And what did we or do we or will we have a choice about?

Even though we frequently use or think about the words "I" and "choice" and "decide," either consciously or subconsciously, they remain among the most challenging concepts for humanity.

These two notions are interconnected. The terms choice, choose, or decide can't be employed without identifying an "I" or someone who makes the decision or selection.

Furthermore, without the concept of "I," the idea of "choice" becomes redundant. Animals, to our current understanding, don't possess a self-identity or an "I". While they indeed "make choices," they lack the conscious awareness of "I am choosing this over that."

Are choice and free will an illusion?

I will not address that issue here. I recommend the book Elbow Room: the Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel Dennett.

What do we have a choice about?

Setting aside the challenge of defining more precise distinctions for "I" and "choice," let's delve into various categories of actions that each of us (as an "I") can engage in, refrain from, and potentially have a choice over.

What none of us have any choice about

  • You have no choice regarding the impact of universal physical laws upon us (for instance, gravity).

  • You have no choice pertaining to past occurrences (examples: the Second World War, your birth and upbringing, the conversation with your friend a few moments ago).

  • You have no choice concerning circumstances beyond our current influence (for instance: sprinting a mile in a minute, mentally determining the square root of 235534 within three seconds).

What none of us have any choice about given our current context

  • Being unfamiliar with mathematics, you are unable to elaborate the Riemann Hypothesis to someone else without the assistance of AI tools like ChatGPT or an equivalent.

  • Being inexperienced in tennis, you stand no chance of winning a match against any of the top world tennis players.

  • As someone who is not the CEO of IBM, you are not in a position to make decisions about the hiring of a specific new division manager.

  • If you're not currently living (or nearby) Timbuktu, Mali, Africa, you don't have the option to spontaneously decide to undertake a 20-kilometer walk to the Niger River within the next 15 minutes.

  • As someone who is not married to Millie Bobby Brown (a star in the movie "Enola Holmes"), you don't have the ability to consider seeking a divorce from her.

No choice because of your current (lack of) awareness of options

  • As a doctor seeking a new role within an HMO, you are unable to contemplate applying for a research position at a university, as that kind of work falls outside your sphere of interest or potential opportunities.

  • While commuting on your usual work route, you don't have the option to choose a lengthier, more exciting route at the next turn, unless this idea had already crossed your mind before you reached your usual turn on your typical commute.

  • You lack the option to deliberately wear your undershirt inside-out, unless for some reason this presents as a feasible choice on a day when your lifelong habit has been to wear your undershirt the conventional way.

No choice because of weighted values, principles, or rules that remove them from consideration

  • Even if a friend insists that you have the freedom to put your cherished cat in the microwave and run it on high for 20 minutes, they are misinformed. Even though physically possible, such an option does not truly exist for you.

  • If a friend proposes that, given everything else as equal, you can choose to hire a less competent worker and pay them twice the salary of a more skilled worker who is eager and content to work at the standard pay, they are misguided.

  • Even if a friend contends that you have the choice to steal a $20 item from Walmart, regardless of your liking for the item, for the majority of us, they would be in error.

Limited choice

  • "I can choose to call my friend and have a conversation." Indeed, you can lift the phone. Assuming the phone is functional, you can dial the number. If your friend picks up and agrees to engage in conversation, then you can chat with them. You have the conditional power and choice to execute these actions. However, you don't inherently possess the choice to directly engage in conversation with your friend.

  • "I can choose focus continuously to appreciate things in the next five minutes." Certainly, you likely have the choice to concentrate on the initial thing to be grateful for, which could occupy a few to many seconds. Yet, it is doubtful that you can guarantee a continuous process of generating gratitude for various things over the following five minutes, before your mind begins to wander.

  • "I can choose to commence exercising tomorrow at 2 pm on the treadmill." You can decide to harbor the intention to do so. This doesn't mean that you may not decide to override your initial intention or commitment when the appointed hour arrives. You might choose to take immediate action (like promising your friend $10 if you fail to exercise as planned) to reinforce that current intention or pledge. Nevertheless, that doesn't necessarily assure that you will reaffirm what you currently intend when the time comes.

Choices that open up or shut down a buffet of other choices

  • If you choose to restructure and replenish your kitchen with only wholesome choices, you'll eradicate an entire spectrum of readily available unhealthy food options for snacking or cooking to easily choose from in the future. Simultaneously, you'll introduce an array of healthier food alternatives that are now at your fingertips and easy to choose from when the need to snack or cook arises.

  • If you choose to relocate to a new city or country, you effectively discard a vast array of familiar options from your previous residence, replacing it with a fresh assortment of possibilities within your new surroundings.

  • If you choose to end a marriage and subsequently choose to remarry or embrace singlehood, you essentially close off a specific spectrum of choices that were previously readily accessible to you, whilst introducing an entirely new set of options.

Creating something out of nothing

As human beings, we possess the unique ability of language, setting us apart from other creatures in the animal kingdom. Predominantly, scholars and linguists have viewed language as primarily a descriptive and logical tool. However, a fundamental and powerful aspect of language is its capacity to "create something from nothing" merely through sincere speech.

Consider the simple act of greeting someone with a "hello". When we utter, "That is an orange," we are identifying and describing an object that already exists in our surroundings. But when we say "hello," we aren't describing or identifying a pre-existing entity. The act of uttering "hello" brings the greeting into existence purely through our sincere declaration.

All declarations hold weight within a specific context. If I declare to my employer, "I quit," that statement holds significance within the context of my employment and under the circumstances where it's addressed to the individual who has the authority to process the implications of my declaration based on our shared understandings. Conversely, if I were to say, "I quit" to my drill sergeant during basic training, it wouldn't carry the same validity.

For a deeper understanding of critical linguistic distinctions such as assertions, requests, promises, and declarations, delve into the work of Fernando Flores.

Choices cf. Reasons

The process of weighing costs, benefits, risks, and opportunities (reasons) across various alternatives is crucial in making well-informed decisions. Nevertheless, the act of choosing itself is a distinct faculty from the preceding deliberation process. Understanding that we have the ability to consciously make a choice through our speech or thought, which can also include the decision to conclude further contemplation of costs, benefits, risks, and opportunities for a specific alternative at any given time, is a fundamental power that we can tap into.

Having a choice because you declare you have a choice: from the trivial to the monumental...

You're perusing the restaurant menu. One dish is a familiar favorite, yet another catches your eye, new and intriguing. You have limited appetite and can't possibly accommodate both. You could justify either decision. And then you decide. You communicate your choice to the waiter. You feel satisfied and content with your selection.

Often, you find yourself irked by your friend's apparent indifference toward your conversations. You consider confronting them about it, yet you're unsure if it will yield any positive change or if it might actually exacerbate the issue. Nevertheless, you arrive at a decision. You feel satisfied and content with your choice.


You've come to the sobering realization that you're struggling with alcoholism. Its detrimental impacts have been accumulating over time, affecting your health, relationships, and professional performance. Continuing down this path portends a grim future. Conversely, should you decide to abstain from drinking, it's going to be challenging. It could potentially mean parting ways with your drinking companions. Perhaps there's a risk of relapse, leading to further self-loathing. Yet, armed with the knowledge of your power to choose, you make a decision. You feel satisfied and content with your choice, wholly accepting the pros and cons, risks, and possibilities tied to the path you've chosen.

Declarations to choose a context within which many future choices were or will be made

A declaration of choice that I made and continue to make in the form of this poem:

"I am play.

I am the dance and tease of the wind.

I bring the lightness and frivolity of the gods

to brighten and charm the heaviest of hearts.

I am playful about seriousness and serious about play.

Play is the essence and bubbling spirit

of every moment and nuance of my life.

Laughing through the tango,

horsing around in my play world,

mocking the drama of it all

is who I am and am."

A declaration of choice that Carl Jung made:

"I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become."

A declaration of choice that Charlotte Bronte made though her character Jane Eyre:

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will."

A declaration of choice that Ayn Rand made through her character of John Galt:

"I swear - by my life and my love of it - that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

At the age of 32, while considering suicide, this declaration of choice that was made by Buckminster Fuller:

"I will spend my life doing an experiment to find what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity." 

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