The Problem is Choice

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I’m a fan of the Matrix movies. This is not an interest shared by my family, however, so when the occasional “movie night” surfaces on the calendar and the discussion of what to watch begins, my suggestion of the Matrix trilogy is usually greeted with the rolling of eyes.

The trilogy of films is set in the distant future in a world where “machines” have overtaken humanity and created a system that conceives, grows and plugs an unsuspecting human population into a computer-generated world of illusion called the Matrix. This existence placates most, but the system is designed to create some element of choice allowing for the human instinct for independence to be managed over long periods of time. A few break free of this system to find the real world decimated and actual human life lived far below ground in a city of caverns call “Zion.” The Matrix is an impressive modern virtual world; Zion is a primitive place for cave-dwelling refugees. The hero, “Neo,” is rescued from the Matrix and is considered to be “The One,” whom prophecy describes as the human who can bring an end to this troubled existence. The clash between the real world and the virtual world grows as the story unfolds.

Through many travails and very impressive action sequences, Neo and his companions are confronted by a set of fundamental philosophical questions: freedom and determinism; cause and effect; morality and logic; and the problem of choice.

At the pivotal scene in the trilogy, Neo is led through the Matrix to the “Architect,” a computer program represented in physical form as an aging scientist or mathematician. He designed the Matrix. Neo’s love interest, “Trinity,” is in great danger in her attempt to help Neo save Zion. During the exchange the Architect boils the situation down to the following statement in which Neo is confronted with a choice to either give in to the control of the machines and save humanity or rescue Trinity. The choice sends Neo on the next phase of his journey…

Architect: “There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the Source and the salvation of Zion. The door to your left leads back to the Matrix, to her and to the end of your species. As you adequately put, the problem is choice. But we already know what you are going to do, don’t we? Already I can see the chain reaction: the chemical precursors that signal the onset of an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason. An emotion that is already blinding you to the simple and obvious truth: she is going to die and there is nothing you can do to stop it.”

Societies around the world are facing big choices these days. They involve questions of freedom and determinism, cause and effect, morality and logic. The problem is choice. Yet, no choice we face comes without a cost. Discontent in the United States and around the world tells us something about the human desire for freedom from control, but when is the pursuit of freedom simply an exchange of one control system for another? When we see and experience the effects of previous choices, but disagree about the causes as well as the potential solutions, can we find our way to another choice or is the result simply to assign blame? When logical solutions to tough problems press against our moral imperatives does the end justify the means? 

Neo’s fictional world suddenly feels more like our own real world.

Today we find societies around the world reaching one impasse after another. Choices made are leading to continuing power struggles within and among nations, people groups, religious sects and political parties. The consequences of choice by one group in power are rejected, nullified and recalled by another. Sometimes conflict leads to uprising; in extreme cases, to war. Most would agree there are bright lines of choice that stand against aggression, inhumanity and oppression. The lines, however, are blurring on choices related to collective economic well-being, individual freedom of expression and the rule of law. As scarcity increases, the choices only will become more difficult to make and implement.    

I’ve been wondering lately about what may happen if choice remains so illusive for a prolonged period time. First, we may lose our willingness to choose. When problems become so complex that solution can no longer find choice, people retreat into what they can positively impact. If I feel I cannot impact the choices of a nation, I may then begin to look at what I may be able to influence in my province or state. If fatigue continues, I may retreat further into my own local area through a municipality or neighborhood. Eventually, I will narrow my sphere of interest to the exclusive needs of my family. At this stage, collective action and common well-being are lost to my own needs. Any notion of a public good is subject to my own interests. My choices are my own, to the exclusion of others.

Second, we may lose our ability to choose. Living in a civil society requires practice. A set of skills and commitments associated with citizenship in a democracy exists, which involves things like listening respectfully to others, avoiding ad hominem attacks and challenging ideas, but not people. We can add to this list the need for sharing a commitment to fairness and equality, balancing individual liberty with the common good and living under the rule of law. We also see the need for strengthening our social fabric as human difference and diversity test new levels of tolerance, as well as the need to grow economic prosperity for all citizens. If we lose our ability to choose through civil discourse, we will fracture society to the point where choice is a function of power alone.

Third, we may lose our opportunity to choose. As time passes and options are gradually eliminated, the choices will be made for us. As competing interests pull harshly at our loose ends, our threadbare social fabric will gradually unravel. Instead of an unfolding future, we will find our fabric frayed to the point where it can no longer serve us. Five years ago, few would have predicted the news headlines today referring to the possible collapse of the Euro Zone, with Greece on the brink of financial failure and ongoing threats to other nations. We could not foresee the onset of a region-wide Arab uprising that would lead to regime changes in countries like Egypt and Libya, with Syria descending into civil war. The opportunity to choose is rapidly diminishing around the globe as the inevitability of consequence arrives.

In the end, the Architect was right. Yet the story unfolded in a manner different than he prescribed. Neo saved Trinity for a time, but eventually they both sacrificed themselves to save Zion. They demonstrated the power of choice in determining an outcome they both desired more than their own interests. They did so for future generations.

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7 responses to “The Problem is Choice”

  1. Thank you, Mark. This post was so thoughtful and far-reaching in terms of implications. I know that I tend to want to limit my sphere to my family, friends, work, and garden when I am overwhelmed by the great problems that our society and other societies are facing, or not facing. I am disturbed by how some want to focus on things like Obama’s birth certificate and even distort facts to do so when there is so much else at stake in the world.

    • Don Huffman says:

      I agree that this is a toughtful posting, and I understand your stated tendency to want to focus primarily on choices that relate to family, friends and work. It is not so much a matter of not wanting to make choices, but it seems evident to me that we receive so much distortion of choices related to our world, nation and states that one tires of contnually “throwing out the garbage” when in fact there are many choices that do need and merit our consideration. I don’t know how pervasive this loss of interest in wider choices is in our country, but when I listen or read the choices presented. It can be challenging to one’s hopes of working to change outcomes of decisions and statements which seemingly are factually irresponsible or intentionally damaging to ideas and persons we’d prefer to believe and take seriously.
      Is there value in one’s participation in or choice of information or ideas that are clearly distorted or patently untrue? I’m not certain what the answer should be, but it would be nice if we were playing on a level playing field, and by the same set of rules.
      I’m not a great participant in reading or listening to science fiction, but perhaps this is a less dangerous activity than making choices with reality as we now see it in our news outlets.

  2. Rob Froelich says:

    Your choice of comment has hit a cord with me. I have been contemplating this very thing over the last few weeks.

    The Problem is Choice, the Solution is the right kind of Education. (perhaps)

    It is said that humans were given free choice, but where is the understanding of what choice means.

    Where did our parents learn about choice and which parents are constructively teaching their children about choice, these days? I know that I have not done as good a job as perhaps I might have. Hind sight shows me a lot of things I could have done better in life and with my kids.

    Most of us are so wrapped up in our everyday work lives that we often lose sight of some of the more important things in life, educating our children in reasoned choice making and the consequenses regarding that particular choice. Oh sure, we send them off to school to learn many things, but it is the parents’ responsibility to teach them about choice and the weighty consequences of a choice wrongly made. Many of us are all over the teaching and advising of our children when they are young. It seems, about middle school years, many parents are fatigued and hope that their children have listened well to their admonishments about living a clean life and to work hard to get ahead. Unfortunately, this is the time that parents need to work even harder to remind kids about choices made and consequences.

    Other than the school of “some hard lessons learned”, where does one learn the about right or wrong choices? Perhaps Central with its Core required classes could help our freshman with an additional “core” class, “Freedom of Choice, Success or Doom”, or “Choice, a Worldly Conseqence” or something like that.^_^

  3. Larry Fish says:

    Mark, your comments are thought provoking as always. Lois I agree that the Obama birth certificate issue has taken on a life of it’s own if you will. But remember the devil is often in the details. In order to solve complex problems we must first have a solid base of simple truths. I know sometimes we can’t see the forest through the trees.If those trees are diseased or weak however, the forest may not be worth seeing.

  4. Sandy Van Engelenhoven says:

    Very thoughtful, Mark. I agree with Larry in that we must have a solid base of truth when making those difficult decisions. Sometimes those truths seem trivial to those who are too willing to trust what someone else tells us, i.e., the birth certificate. I also was intrigued, Mark, that your last statement echoes Scott Walker’s words in his recent speech: “They did so for future generations.” Sometimes those hard decisions have to be made — the decision on which door to open, which path to take. If we truly would stop thinking about ourselves (and our officials stop thinking about the next election) and concentrate what is best for future generations, maybe we could have things like tax reform, entitlement reform and the like. I hope that Central is working to help students learn how to think critically. That skill is more important now than ever.

  5. Bruce Rempe says:

    Hi all! Interesting how this has become a dialog about the birth certificate! I’ll leave that alone.

    But, indeed, a truthful foundation — or, maybe more accurately a heart-bound desire to discern truth — is essential if we are to ever to engage wise choices (decisions).

    Remember Alice in Wonderland? and, the two guys (I don’t remember their names) where one always lied and the other always told the truth?

    Indeed (as is well illustrated in the story), it can be impossible to tell which is which. This is why a heart that desires truth is so necessary – eventually, and sometimes over much time, truth is revealed and known.

    And, an honest understanding of history never hurts either!