“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
“If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Let’s agree that the following things are true, even though they might not be (featuring two 92 St Y bits from Radiolab, a good This American Life-ish science themed radio show)
1- The universe is infinite, and there is a very large, but not infinite, number of ways that the matter in the universe can be combined. The difference between the unimaginably gigantic number of ways the matter can be combined and infinity is… infinity.
In an a episode of Radiolab one of the hosts of the show, Robert Krulwich, interviews Brian Greene, a Columbia University math and physics professor, about the idea of an infinite universe. Professor Greene asserts that if the universe is really infinite and there are a finite number of ways the particles in that infinite universe can be combined, then there must be an infinite number of Robert Krulwichs and Brian Greenes having the same discussion at the exact same time in the exact same circumstances. Every possible combination must be represented an infinite number of times in an infinite universe. Infinity is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp, and Robert Krulwich is incredulous, on behalf of the layperson audience. I have no idea if this is really happening out there in the universe, nobody does, but it’s interesting, and it makes some sense to me.
So, what about all the other versions of me that are slightly different? What about that version of me that made some different decisions? What about that version of me that didn’t walk away from architecture a year after college? Is he married? Does he have a kid? The idea that each decision can lead to an alternate life, and reality, is pretty common in science fiction. I don’t know how much of that is science and how much is fiction. If Professor Greene is right, and every possible version of everything is out there then even if we aren’t actively creating alternate versions of ourselves, like in the movies, those realities would exist anyway.
2- Our conscious decisions aren’t really as conscious as we think.
What if we aren’t really in control of the decisions we make? We are finding out that people don’t really have freewill, or at least not in the way that we usually think of freewill. Past experiences and patterns dictate what choice we will make in a given situation. Each decision affects the next. There have been a lot of experiments done and books written about why we make the decisions we do. In Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink” he argues that our split second decisions may be better than our considered decisions. In the clip below Gladwell talks to Robert Krulwich of radiolab about decision making.
We make decisions all the time without really thinking, and we might not really consciously control the big decisions we make either. In Dan Airely’s TED lecture, link below, he argues that we aren’t always making “conscious” decisions. He tells us that how the question is asked and how options are presented to us have an immense influence on our eventual decision. The decision may already be made for us. Our decisions are also fairly easily manipulated, even seemingly insignificant outside stimulus. This is called priming- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priming_(psychology).
3- The more options we have the less likely it is that we will be happy with the option we choose.
Today we, especially those of us that come from a privileged background, have a huge number options from which to choose. Any decision isn’t just a decision for the option we choose, but also a decision against every other option. When we make a decision we are often aware of the opportunity cost of not choosing the other options. Below is yet another radiolab clip about choice, featuring the lovely and talented Oliver Sacks.
When I look at #1 and #2 together my first question is- how could both of these things be true? Is it possible for there to be a version of me out there in the universe that is almost the same except that he made a different decision at a crucial point? Would the other me that made the decision to stick it out with architecture even be interested in architecture in the first place? If that other version of me made that different decision then how similar where we really? What little things early in my life led to the important choices that I made later in life?
Like almost everyone, or everyone that isn’t an idiot, I am not totally happy with my life. I understand that life just is that way, and you don’t, and probably shouldn’t, have everything work out. I’m painfully aware of the problem of choice discussed in #3. There will always be doubt. There are things I think I would change, but I don’t know if really would. Sometimes I think I regret something, but then the more I think about it the less I regret my decision. I could be making more money, have a more settled life, and/or have a lot of the things I still would like to have in the future, but would I really erase all the other experiences, people, and things that have made me the person that I am right now? I don’t think so. My alternate versions probably wouldn’t either.
What about in the future? As an over-thinker, I worry that I am consistently picking the “wrong” option. The second quote at the top of the page is from the Seinfeld season 5 episode, “The Opposite.” George has the quoted epiphany early on in the episode. For the rest of the episode he does the opposite of what he would normally do, and instead of everything going wrong, everything in his life starts going right. Is that possible? If you aren’t really in control of the decisions you make can you consciously decide to over-ride yourself? Could you change the future that your past is setting in front of you? Should I be making more snap decisions and fewer calculated ones? Can I construct a new version of myself by consciously making a few uncharacteristic decisions?
In “The Opposite” George decides to go up and talk to a woman that he normally wouldn’t. In that situation, like regular George, I would talk myself into not talking to her. Then I would regret not talking to her for the rest of the day, or week, or my life. I am a very anxious person, and as a result I tend to make the non-decision or avoid certain things and situations.
I am a very self critical, and other person critical, person. I am not one of those people that is constantly churning out product that they think is “amazing.” In my experience people that are really confident in what they do are usually really confident because they just don’t realize how much their stuff sucks. I am more on the other end of the spectrum. I find reasons to not do things, or put things out there into the world. I am way too aware of how much my stuff sucks. That’s why I decided recently that I am going to do the opposite sometimes. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’m going to give it a shot. This blog is part of that shot. It probably isn’t that big of a deal to most people, but “publishing” anything that someone might think is dumb is a big deal for me. It’s a small risk. It’s an early step and a small step, but it’s an example of doing the opposite by actually doing something rather than not.
Maybe it will be the first step to a version of myself that would make another version of me, somewhere out there in the universe, jealous. Maybe I’ll meet the mother of my future children this week. Maybe I’ll have a great idea, or do something or make a decision that will change my life for the better and forever. Maybe this conscious decision will effect the quick unconscious and big “conscious” decisions of my future. I would say “there’s only one way to find out…,” but there isn’t one way to find out. There are no ways to find out. You just have to do it and hope it was for the best.
“Let’s Forget About the Past,” The Zeppers
“Indecision Time,” Husker Du
“Ask,” The Smiths
“Waiting Room,” Fugazi
“Freedom of Choice,” Devo