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Choice, Awareness, Biology and Ability to Change

I'm still thinking of the complaint against use of catchwords by post-modernists (July 1st), especially use of the word "choice."

As I see it, choice is both a matter of staying on course with intention and awareness or choosing to change course. Thinking people wonder where they are or think about what they are doing. These are thoughts drawn from our memory banks, placing us within a context – a mental map. When we lose contact with this map during sleep, we don't know where we are and we dream. Choice is part of our navigation equipment.

As an aside I'll add here that the significance of choice tied to awareness makes philosophy also a part of our navigation equipment. Philosophy may add to your serenity, but philosophy for me is a process that serves choice by keeping awareness unobscured by clutter.

Some have questioned choice and in its place have reduced all that we do, all of our desires and intentions to biology, to our genes. Plants have genes (and some will argue that plants have will), and those who reduce choice to genetic biology put humans too close to plants. Look around! We are not plant-like. Plants might interact with neighboring plants, but we humans have more of what psychologists call socialization. How can we explain socialization as pure biology, as programmed genetics? Because of socialization it's not common to see adults acting on impulse as infants do. Infants, whatever their individual biologies, haven't had time develop social skills. It is not common for us to see people accosting others sexually in public or grabbing food out of people's hands. Socialization involves applying our will – intentionality. It's learning that becomes biology as cells in our memory bank, but this doesn't negate the fact that intentionality has occurred. We shouldn't declare a creating force one and the same as the object it creates.

The question arises whether we can change. In a British drama, "Doc Martin," Martin's aunt says, "We are what we are. We can't charge." Doc Martin, a man of science, says, "Yes we can." I agree with Martin. We can change and do, because what we do is not pre-determined by our biology. Studying history, we see people changing in attitude. For example, Americans in general have changed in their attitude toward race within the last century. So too have Europeans since the mid-1800s. How is that explained if we are determined by our biology alone?

Returning to the subject of philosophy, in my opinion whatever habits we choose to keep or to change should be part of a reasoned picture of ourselves. Questioning precedes choice, and in children it's an indication of intelligence, as it can be among adults. We can choose to question and to think about ourselves rather than just respond. We can decide what we want to be and to join the community of people we want to associate with rather than what someone else or a bigoted segment of society wants of us.

Moving to the issue of impulse as opposed to choice, during demonstrations in Florida regarding the return of a boy to his father in Cuba, I remember seeing a man among the demonstrators strike a government agent, a woman, with his fist and then pull back with a look of surprise at what he had done. It seems he had acted on impulse and then thought it not quite right. What he did was not sufficiently connected with his values, with his picture of himself. Believing in ourselves and our ability to guide our actions, some of us choose to keep our mind and actions integrated, but we don't always succeed. Many of us have regrets. Optimistically we may tell ourselves that we've grown up since then – a maturation process unconnected to our biological aging.

A priest, parent or companion might point to an error they think we have committed, and we bend to their expressed opinion or not. Either way, it's a matter of choice.

We are limited in our ability to choose. We can't choose to have Mozart's capacities. But without choice we are puppets, puppets to our body chemistry or to whatever addiction we might have, or, if we are religious, puppets of Allah, Jehovah or some other god. So I wonder what was bothering Chris Reeves when he wrote in the magazine Truth about use of the word "choice." His magazine emphasizes obedience rather than choice – however much he too, like other Christians, might believe in choice. There is something post-modern or just plain modern about emphasizing choice that touches on liberalism and democracy over a more authoritarian view. People who believe in democracy see it as the masses choosing their representatives who in turn choose what is to be law. Some in the US see creation of the US Constitution as a matter of political leaders or representatives gathering, wrangling and choosing what was to be in the document. The more old fashioned see the US Constitution not so much as a matter of choice by humans but as having been created by God, and God they seem to believe has human-kind on some kind of a track or given destiny as opposed to choice. On the other hand, recognizing our ability to make choices is, in my opinion, a more accurate appraisal of who we are and the drama that we as individuals or a society face.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.