choice

The Important Thing

 Leonard Mlodinow, from "Randomness and Choice," OnBeing with Krista Tippett, April 30, 2014:

When you look at your life, if you had to sit down and think about, and I'm talking about in detail, not just the headlines, if you think about all the details of what happened to you, you will find that there was a time where you had the extra cup of coffee, where if you hadn't, you wouldn't have met Person A.

When I look back in my life, I could find so many instances like that. And I had fun tracing some of them. And the course of your life depends on how you react to those opportunities and challenges that the randomness presents to you.

If you're awake and paying attention, you will find that things happen. They might seem good, they might seem bad but the important thing is how you reacted to it.

Dandelion seeds are dispersed by the wind.


See also: "Stochasticity," Radiolab

Finding an Identity is Easy

 

"Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful, and decide what you want and need and must do. It's a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that's the deal: you have to live; you can't live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It's the easy way out."

~ Zadie Smith, from On Beauty

Where the Work of Choosing Comes In

From  "This is Water" by  David Foser Wallace:

"The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people...

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do - except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations...

...if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

...there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing."

Only Three Kinds of Things To Do

Lewis, C. S., Dorsett, L. W., & Mead, M. L. (1985). C.S. Lewis letters to children. New York: Macmillan."Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do.

(1) Things we ought to do (2) Things we’ve got to do (3) Things we like doing.

I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them.

Things you ought to do are things like doing one’s school work or being nice to people.

Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing — but of course I don’t know what you like.

Perhaps you’ll write and tell me one day."

~ C.S. Lewis, from a letter to a young fan on April 3, 1949

[Thanks, Brain Pickings!]

A Brand New Choice

Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick at Wired magazine and author, most recently, of What Technology Wants, in conversation with Vincent Horn, Buddhist Geeks: Episode 196, November 22, 2010:

what-technology I’m not big on utopias, and I think one thing that any candid appraisal of technology would have to acknowledge is that every new technology is creating nearly as many problems as it is solving. And most of the problems in our lives today are technogenic, they’ve been generated by previous technologies. It suggests very clearly that most of the problems in the future will be technogenic, created by technologies that we’ve made today. For that reason alone, it’s not utopia, and where we’re headed is not a place where there are no problems or technology solves, mends everything so that we kind of live in this state of bliss. Or, it’s not even to suggest that there’s some endpoint in evolution, or some Omega Point where we’re all headed and everything is fixed and works perfectly, or it’s, in some ways, culminated in perfection. First of all, there is no endpoint in evolution–in fact the point of it is that there is no endpoint, that it’s an open-ended process of continual flux and change and more importantly that the nature of the change itself is changing. So in that way there’s no utopia, but also part of that internal flux is the fact that problems are constantly being invented as well as solutions.

Kevin KellyHowever, saying that I do think there’s a moral dimension to technology and that comes in the fact that while it’s true that newly affected technology will create as many, rarely as many problems as solutions, it’s not neutral. I wouldn’t say that life is neutral although obviously life cannot go on without death. Death is sort of part of those two cycles. But even though for every animal that’s born there’s an animal that dies, we don’t think of life as neutral. No, we say life is good. Overall, the net effect of life is good.

More life is better, even though everything born dies, and so you say “Why isn’t that neutral?” That’s because the same thing happens in technology, when something is invented–let’s say you have a hammer. You could use that hammer to kill someone or you could use it to build something, and there is a sense that that’s just neutral. They’re just tools. You can use them for harm or good.

But in fact, the invention of that hammer actually introduces a brand new choice that we’ve never had before, and that choice, I think, tips the balance. That new choice that did not exist before, tips the balance slightly in favor of the good because there is a new choice for good or harm that had never existed before. That new choice itself is good. Even if we choose the harm in it, we have a choice we did not have before.

So, I think, it turns out that you don’t need very much more good over time to get progress. That if you use technology to create 1% more than you destroy a year, that 1% compounded over time is what we call progress.

See also: What Does Technology Want? (Radiolab, Nov. 16, 2010)

The Art of Choosing

 

“Americans tend to believe that they've reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They think that choice as seen through the American lens best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans. Unfortunately, these beliefs are based on assumptions that don't always hold true in many countries, in many cultures. At times they don't even hold true at America's own borders.”

~ Sheena Iyengar

[Thanks Kit!]

Condemned to Freedom

Excerpt from “The Limits of the Coded World,” by William Eggington, New York Times (July 25, 2010):

In Immanuel Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have thought.

rainbow Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon, they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God, and our duty to others.

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism…

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre…gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.

Read the entire Opinionator post…