Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Our choices are a foundational aspect of life. If I stand up right now, I can either turn to my right or to my left. How could someone predict in advance what I would do?

But I am made up of atoms. Does an atom have any choices to make? It seems kind of ridiculous to ask, but if atoms do not have any choices and everything is predetermined by physical laws, then how do I have any choices? Can a whole bunch of atoms together make a real choice, even though they are individually predetermined by physical laws?

I suppose it seems irrational to say yes. But then again, think of the magical things that relationships create. The sum is greater than the parts, or else the relationship would have no point! Hydrogen is not water. Oxygen is not water. But they come together, along with the right conditions, and they flow over and under the land. Neither could do that alone under the current conditions of the earth.

What about music? I can play a C, and I can play an E. They sound similar - individual tones at different pitch levels. Yet when I play them together, an interval is created - a major third. It has a character that the individual notes absolutely do not have. It's magical. We are not hearing two tones. We are hearing their relationship.

Identity only exists within the context of relationship. I am nothing without you, my family, the earth that I stand on, and even the farthest galaxy. You and I are only here because of this cosmic balancing act.

So yes, perhaps genuine choice can emerge out of atoms without choice. Or do atoms exhibit a kind of choice in their own way? I'll be pondering this question a bit over a few posts.


  1. Your line of thought is definitely interesting, but it is also important to remember that we often do NOT have a choice as human beings. So, perhaps all things have a choice, but, also, perhaps, all things don't have a choice as well. It seems you could go down a debatable path either way. An atom deciding to meld with another atom is pretty interesting. Does that mean some atoms are more popular than others? More attractive? More anATOMically correct? :-)

    On a side note, regarding personal identity being so attached to who is around us and what relationships we have . . . . I have often wondered what I would be like if I lived on an island alone for a long time (the book Robinson Crusoe inspired this line of thought). I couldn't imagine doing it without anthropomorphizing things around me. Which means i would create relationships where there are none.

  2. John - you are absolutely right. There are way more things we do not have a choice about - I think even the most ardent supporter of "free will" would have to accept that.

    Where we are born, the weather, etc. etc.

    anATOMically correct - haha!

    that's an interesting notion about anthropomorphizing things on a desert island - "Wilson!"

    Even alone we are in relationships though. With the earth - without it to stand on we couldn't exist. With plants - our food, our shade, and we eat the fruit and poop out the seeds to help them reproduce.

  3. The fallacy of composition comes to mind.

    1. Atoms are invisible to the naked eye.
    2. People are made of atoms
    3. Therefore, people are invisible to the naked eye.

    I am interested to see where you are going with “atoms exhibiting a kind of choice” and if you can do it without watering down the word choice so much that it becomes difficult to recognize.

  4. Figuring out what a choice really is is difficult - particularly if we think our feeling of choice is ultimately an illusion.

    As far as the fallacy of composition, I see what you mean. That's kind of what I meant by the magic of emergence. Different things arise in groups and relationships. But at the same time, choice seems a bit different than size. If all parts are pre- determined, can the actions of the whole be indeterminate in any way?

  5. What does indeterminism do for your choice to look left or right? If an undetermined impulse motives you to look left, then in retrospect, can you really say you could have chosen to do otherwise? However, if the motivation to look left or right has some sort of regularity or pattern or susceptibility to influence, you may be able to do something about it...

  6. I think "indeterminism" as I meant it means that a 3rd party observer will not know what I am going to do before I do it. Pre-determined would mean that if all available knowledge were at hand, a 3rd party observer would know before I did whether I was going to turn right or left.

    A "choice" can be described in terms of both I think, but that'll be interesting to explore.

    "If an undetermined impulse motivates you to look left, then in retrospect, can you really say you could have chosen to do otherwise?"'

    I am not sure. Is there room for the idea of choice in any of this? Is a computational process with an inevitable outcome a choice?

  7. I think given all available knowledge, a third party would know where you would look before you looked. My belief is supported, not completely, but at least partially by experiments in social psychology known as priming. In the experimental setting a researcher can take measures to skew the available knowledge in his favor. Thus giving an insight, and in turn a shade of probability, as to what type of behavior will be exhibited. This is not knowing all the available knowledge, but it is a controlled environment where a greater portion of knowledge variance is known.

    In one famous experiment, John Bargh had participants read scrambled sentences. One group had words peppered throughout along the lines of ‘aggressive’, ‘bold’, ‘rude’, and ‘intrude’ while the other group saw words like ‘respect’, ‘considerate’, ‘patiently’, ‘polite’, and etc. After reading these scrambled sentences, the participants were directed to walk down the hall and talk to the person directing the experiment in order to receive the instructions for their next assessment. This is where the experiment measure comes into play.

    When they got to the office of the experimenter, they found that he was busy talking with another researcher who was standing in such a way that he was blocking the door. The researchers made sure that the conversation continued on and on; and the dependent measure of this experiment was how long the participant “chooses” to wait until they decide to interrupt the conversation. Of the people primed to be “polite”, 82% never interrupted at all in the 10 minutes allotted for the experiment while the “rude” group chimed in significantly and reliably quicker.

    If we were to place you in a controlled environment where a third party would have a better chance at knowing more of the available knowledge, it would be fair to say that the third party would have a shot at predicting your behavior commensurate with the amount of available knowledge that is known. If you were properly primed with “left” cues, a researcher could reliable predict left to the degree that he knew how much the environment primed you.

    In your living room the priming factors are not as controlled and clear cut as cues labeled “left” and “right”, but it seems probable that there are still cues nonetheless. Knowing all the available knowledge would give us access to these cues decoded. The closer we get to all knowledge, the closer we would get to a correct prediction.

    There is room for the idea of choice that lies in the absence of complete knowledge or ignorance of various input. I also suspect there is room for choice in an even broader respect, but we’ll save that for future comments.

  8. There is no doubt that there are many, many factors that affect our choices. They don't put up completely out of nowhere.

    If I am hungry, I will probably be grumpy. If you starve a man for 3 days and put a chicken leg in front of him, he'll probably eat it very quickly almost 100% of the time.

    The experiment you mentioned takes away a little of the free choice from the participants by denying them the knowledge that they are in an experiment. If they knew they were being monitored they might act differently. There is nothing wrong with that, the knowledge that others are watching you would just add another layer of factors to potentially affect the outcome. It's interesting though, what factors known and unknown affect our thoughts and feelings!

    With my scenario, I am thinking of a person who knows other people are monitoring her and has to decide whether to turn to the right or left. The person may choose to turn the opposite direction than the one that feels right (of left!). Can a person 's actions still be predicted? I don't know.

    Yeah, coming up with a working definition for "choice" is difficult!