Infinite Choices

The human condition and the Bible teach we are very limited in our ability to determine what is true; we can only objectively know what is true for events that occur in our space and time.  However, many of the decision we must make depend upon events that have occurred in the past or will occur in the future.  For example, when we choose to believe in a particular religion, we must decide upon the validity of events that happened in the distant past.  When we make decisions on how we will live our lives, we must consider the future consequences of our decisions.  So how can we make the right choices when our ability to gain all the needed facts is so limited?  Before we answer these questions, we need to make this issue a bit more complicated and discuss the extent of our decision-making.

Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance recounts his experience as a college student studying science.  He observed that all of science is based on testing a hypotheses and he could come up with more hypothesis than he ever could experimentally test.  Therefore, he had to make a choice about which hypothesis to test.  He found nothing in science that would help him make those decisions.  Pirsig wondered why the method that determines the entire direction which science takes, deciding which hypothesis to test, had never been investigated by scientists. [1]

The scientist Henri Poincaré also observed that scientists, because of the infinite number of facts and hypothesis at their disposal, must select the ones they will utilize based on their past experiences and their intuition. [2]  However, he never addressed how scientists are to determine the validity of their past experience and intuition.

This situation is not unusual; everyone in the world faces the same issue as the scientists.  Any person observant of the world around us recognizes that our choices are infinite.  Each day we make decisions that change our lives.  Our life is different because of the school we attend, the job we choose, the marriage partner we select, the friends with whom we associate.

Infinite choices are why one cannot predict the future using history as a guide.  Even if the circumstances people face would be the same, the choices people could make are so varied that the chances of the outcome being the same would be remote.  The historian Richard J. Evans notes:

While many people, especially politicians, try to learn lessons from history, history itself shows that very few of these lessons have been the right ones in retrospect. . .This is because history never repeats itself; nothing in human society, the main concern of the historian, ever happens twice under exactly the same conditions or in exactly the same way.  And when people try to use history, they often do so not in order to accommodate themselves to the inevitable, but in order to avoid it. . . [3]

Having infinite choices also means we create our world; if we make different choices, our world will be different.  We are all familiar with small decisions we made which have had major consequences in our lives.  As T. S. Elliot observes in The Cocktail Party:

Your moment of freedom was yesterday,

You made a decision.  You set in motion

Forces in your life and in the lives of others

Which cannot be reversed.

The creation of our world via the choices we make applies to the culture and society in which we live as well.  The choices we make as a nation determine what kind of nation we will become.  The United States would be a very different country if in 1770’s the founding fathers had decided to remain a British colony or if in the 1860’s the nation had permitted slavery to continue.

Philosophy is not far away from the idea that we create our world.  Locke and Hume believed that the mind is a blank slate on which our experiences are written. [4]  Kant counters by asking:  How all this data is organized?  Do the experiences organize themselves?  This does not seem likely since the same experiences can produce different results in different persons.  Kant believed that our purpose, our personalities, or minds organize the data from our senses.  The world is a construction, a manufactured article “to which the mind contributes as much by its molding forms as [experience] contributes by its stimuli”. [5]  We have the freedom to manufacture this world most any way we like.

Philosophy, history, science, and our everyday lives all teach we create our world via the choices we make every day.  God must have a perverse sense of humor to give finite beings infinite choices and the ability to create their own world.


[1]   Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York:  Bantam Books, 1974), pp. 99-102.

[2]   Henri Poincaré, The Foundations of Science (Lancaster, PA:  The Science Press, 1946), pp. 354-359.

[3]   Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 50-52.

[4]   Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1953), p. 205.

[5]   Ibid., p. 206.

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