PhilosophyFilter: The burden of choice- When did choice come into play?
July 22, 2008 12:22 AM   Subscribe

I was thinking today about the idea of choice. The existentialists talked about choice all the time- How every human has the "burden of choice". In other words, we all have the "burden" of free will, the choice to do something or to not do something. I know my philosophy knowledge is rudimentary at best, but I guess my question is: when did this idea of choice emerge? Primitive man had no luxury of choice, everything was about survival- So at what point did humans develop the idea of having a choice?
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

When people started talking about free will was probably after the invention of agriculture, I would guess. People and animals have always made choices (which fruit to eat, which mammoth to attack, who to mate, etc). It's only talking about the abstract notion of choice instead of actually making choices that requires the luxury of free time.
posted by aubilenon at 12:38 AM on July 22, 2008

Primitive man had no luxury of choice, everything was about survival

I'm not sure this is true. In the right place with the right population hunting and gathering doesn't take much time compared to farming and presumably hunting/gathering preceded farming. Some of our primate cousins spend a lot of energy and time engaging in complex social interactions which look to me like a series of choices and negotiations. So I think we've probably been making choices since before we became human.

I have no idea when we first came up with the ideas of individuals, free will, and choice.
posted by rdr at 12:39 AM on July 22, 2008

Thanks for the replies so far. I guess my question is a bit simplistic. I think what I'm trying to figure out is at what point in time did man become conscious of having a choice? I have to imagine that early man made most choices based purely on survival. Obviously every action involves choice, but at what point did choice become separated from pure instinct and survival? When did choice become a luxury that we have, rather than a choice based on survival?
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 12:53 AM on July 22, 2008

Daniel Dennet talks about freewill or choice as an emergent property as a result of our evolution within a material universe.

"From a biological perspective, what is the difference between the wasp and a person? The person can, through interaction with his/her environment, construct an internal mental model of the situation and figure out a successful behavioral strategy. The wasp, with a much smaller brain and different genetic program, does not learn from its environment and instead is trapped in an endless and futile behavioral loop that is strictly determined by its genetic program. It is in this sense of people as animals with complex brains that can model reality and appear to choose among several possible behaviors that Dennett says we have free will.”

Hence the title of his book, Freedom Evolves.

I think the same can be applied to other human development; as our cultures, technologies and ways of life evolve and change, this affords us a greater level of choice.
posted by ashaw at 1:03 AM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks ashaw, that makes a lot of sense.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 1:11 AM on July 22, 2008

ashaw: How would you (or Daniel) know we're not trapped in a more complex, yet endless and futile, behavioral loop?
posted by mpls2 at 1:34 AM on July 22, 2008

Oh damn, mpls2 brings on the cynical side! Keep it coming, it's all good! That's the whole point of free will, we're not trapped at all. We do it to ourselves. We have the luxury of choice- which is the whole point of my question. I think ashaw made a good point, choice evolved as society became more advanced. Maybe this is a philosophy 101 question, but I'm not a product of higher education, so I'm asking.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 2:00 AM on July 22, 2008

I don't the the experience (data) of free-will and choice is accommodated in a naturalistic worldview (theory). A materialistically determined brain state is a materialistically determined brain state. In other words, there is no room for free will--it's just atoms and chemicals arranging themselves in this way or that to give you this or that thought or sensation. Check out Charles Taylor on this here and here.
posted by keith0718 at 2:23 AM on July 22, 2008

People have always had choice, for as long as recorded human history extends (or, if you're a certain kind of determinist, people have never had choice, but it's always seemed as if we had choice). Given two rabbits in the field, you choose which one to chase. People have always been able to make decisions about trivial matters.

It seems to me that the existentialists are primarily concerned with greater decisions like choice of lifestyle, choice of moral code, etc,, not choice of rabbit or breakfast cereal. Only recently in human history were people able to view the future content of their own life like a consumer and pick and choose what they want. Primitive humans couldn't choose their own lifestyle because either there wasn't that much division of labor, so everyone did the same thing, or when there was division of labor there was also a strict social hierarchy, so it still wasn't a matter of individual choice which career you took. Even if you could choice to be blacksmith instead of butcher, people probably lived relatively uniformly because there weren't the same dense populations that allowed different interest groups to form, and people didn't really choose where to live because transportation options were limited and you were probably very dependent on family. People couldn't really choose their moral code because interaction with other cultures and hence with other moral codes was limited. Nowadays, for example, religious fundamentalism and relativism are two options, everyone has a basic familiarity with both, and you can choose to live according to either one without anyone stopping you.

When this substantial sense of lifestyle choice arose is a historical question, not a philosophical one. My sense is that when populations get denser, you get a greater plurality of interest groups, hobbies, lifestyles, etc. living alongside one another, hence presenting you with a choice. This also depends on progress in international transportation and communication, which has increasingly mixed things together. I know that the founding fathers foresaw a real pluralism emerging in America with the rise of trade; at the beginning of our country, things were pretty uniform compared to today. Most people were farmers, I imagine, and had no choice in the matter. But again, these farmers had free will and had choice about trivial matters, like which pair of pants to wear; what they didn't have is lifestyle choice.

When existentialists talk about choice, they mean all kinds of choice, from moral code to breakfast cereal, but I think that if the only choices were choice of breakfast cereal then existentialism wouldn't really have gotten off the ground. Their writings are motivated by the modern phenomenon that no foundation to one's life is simply given; one chooses the most fundamental parts of one's personality, and seen in a certain light the choice is always arbitrary. I can't put a date to this notion of choice, but it's more recent than the notion of free will. The concept of free will has existed at least as long as Christianity, according to which we can choose salvation or death.
posted by creasy boy at 2:33 AM on July 22, 2008

We have the luxury of choice- which is the whole point of my question.

No, that's just your assumption. Of course, you can't help yourself. It's just part of your genetic programming. ;)
posted by mpls2 at 3:04 AM on July 22, 2008

You're choosing to believe choice is a new concept. It isn't. Even ants choose where to put their ant hill. They use many factors which of course include environmental factors, but it isn't a prescribed spot on their "map" that says "Ant hill goes here". Likewise humans aren't operating off of pheromones alone when we choose a mate. It's a choice. In earlier days when survival was harder that was still true. They were physically identical to us in every way, so why the assumption they were automatons? They still had to weigh options and make choices just like we do today. The number of options were less back then, but they had just as much mental ability to create new ones as we do today, just less skills and materials.

Good example - Zheng He built 400ft x 170ft ships out of wood in the 1400s. That's a big ship even by today's standards and he did it without any modern technologies. People have always tried to make the best use of their resources. That's choice in action.
posted by jwells at 5:11 AM on July 22, 2008

As phrased, your question is more biological than philosophical.

Following are some reflections on what is entailed by the concept of free will (memory, responsibility and reason), and how self-consciousness of free will may have evolved. In this account, choice is not a luxury, but a product of sacrifice. Instead of choice being a burden, it is the mark of the sovereign individual. The fundamental development is not economic wealth but the ruthless development of tradition for the benefit of the community. Choice does not arise because of freedom from necessity, but rather it is sought after in order to gain freedom from the passions (instinctual responses). Excerpts are from the second essay in Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals:

'To breed an animal that is entitled to make promises — is that not precisely the paradoxical task nature has set itself where human beings are concerned? Isn’t that the real problem of human beings?

In order to organize the future in this manner, human beings must have first learned to separate necessary events from chance events, to think in terms of cause and effect, to see distant events as if they were present, to anticipate them, to set goals and the means to reach them with certainty, to develop a capability for figures and calculations in general — and for that to occur, a human being must necessarily have first himself become something one could predict, something bound by regular rules, even in the way he imagined himself to himself, so that finally he is able to act like someone who makes promises—he can make himself into a pledge for the future!

Precisely that development is the long history of the origin of responsibility. That task of breeding an animal which is permitted to make promises contains within it, as we have already grasped, as a condition and prerequisite, the more precise task of first making a human being necessarily uniform to some extent, one among others like him, regular and consequently predictable. The immense task involved in this, what I have called the “morality of custom” (cf. Daybreak 9, 14, 16) — the essential work of a man on his own self in the longest-lasting age of the human race, his entire pre-historical work, derives its meaning, its grand justification, from the following point, no matter how much hardship, tyranny, monotony and idiocy it also manifested: with the help of the morality of custom and the social strait jacket, the human being was made truly predictable.

“How does one create a memory for the human animal? How does one stamp something like that into this partly dull, partly flickering, momentary understanding, this living embodiment of forgetfulness, so that it stays current?” . . . This ancient problem, as you can imagine, was not resolved right away with tender answers and methods. Indeed, there is perhaps nothing more fearful and more terrible in the entire pre-history of human beings than the technique for developing his memory. “We burn something in so that it remains in the memory. Only something which never ceases to cause pain remains in the memory” — that is a leading principle of the most ancient (unfortunately also the longest) psychology on earth. We might even say that everywhere on earth nowadays where there is still solemnity, seriousness, mystery, and gloomy colours in the lives of men and people, something of that terror continues its work, the fear with which in earlier times everywhere on earth people made promises, pledged their word, made a vow. The past, the longest, deepest, most severe past, breathes on us and surfaces in us when we become “solemn.”

When the human being considered it necessary to make a memory for himself, it never happened without blood, martyrs, and sacrifices, the most terrible sacrifices and pledges (among them the sacrifice of the first born), the most repulsive self-mutilations (for example, castration), the cruellest forms of ritual in all the religious cults (and all religions are in their deepest foundations systems of cruelty) — all that originates in that instinct which discovered in pain the most powerful means of helping to develop the memory.

These Germans have used terrible means to make themselves a memory in order to attain mastery over their vulgar basic instincts and their brutal crudity: think of the old German punishments, for example, stoning ( — the legend even lets the mill stone fall on the head of the guilty person), breaking on the wheel (the most characteristic invention and specialty of the German genius in the realm of punishment!), impaling on a stake, ripping people apart or stamping them to death with horses (“quartering”), boiling the criminal in oil or wine (still done in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), the well-loved practice of flaying (“cutting flesh off in strips”), carving flesh out of the chest, and probably covering the offender with honey and leaving him to the flies in the burning sun.

With the help of such images and procedures people finally retained five or six “I will not’s” in the memory, and so far as these precepts were concerned they gave their word in order to live with the advantages of society—and it’s true! With the assistance of this sort of memory people finally came to “reason”! — Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over emotions, this whole gloomy business called reflection, all these privileges and showpieces of human beings: how expensive they were! How much blood and horror is at the bottom of all “good things”! . . . '
posted by BigSky at 5:40 AM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

The belief in free will seems to be as old as humanity itself, since it seems to play a key part in our capacity to feel resentment (he –should- share, she –shouldn’t- hit me with a stick), and I believe even our earliest legends work from the premise that the characters have a choice in their actions. Multi-generational struggles in cultural mythos tend to be based on the idea of someone’s actions setting events in motion, by choice. Hell, the belief in free will can be said to be as old as our belief in good and evil, as free will is an intrinsic component.

I think it's easy to mistake having limited options for not believing in choice. For example, I am aware that there is a choice to become a frontline infantry soldier in Afghanistan, but I don't really have that option, since I'm female and lack the aptitude for battle. Similarly, your poor subsistence farmer of grain, circa 100 BC, may know that sometimes people leave the village instead of marrying their cousin and farming, but you may be aware it's not a sensible choice. I have the choice of going naked to work and robbing banks, but for some reason I decline that option.
posted by Phalene at 5:48 AM on July 22, 2008

How does the quote go?

We must believe in free will, we have no choice.
-Isaac Bashevis Singer

Possibly we labor under an illusion of freewill, but the illusion is complete and thus is a ersatz reality. Even if the 'confirmed' knowledge of predestination exists (whether it be from science, or faith) that would not make the illusion of freewill shatter. The scientist or zealot who believes everything is preordained is still burdened with choice.
posted by ian1977 at 6:26 AM on July 22, 2008

I would say that "choice" (as framed in the original question) evolved as humans gained more knowledge of and control over their environment.
Whether its understanding weather, social interactions, transportation, communication etc., as people gained more knowledge of how they fit into the overall picture, it became more and more clear that they were an integral part of this ecosystem. With this type of understanding, it becomes clear that there is not a single linear "best" way but that each choice evolves and changes the environment. This creates the knowledge of things like: a bad choice in the short term, could be a great choice long term; or a good choice for me is a bad choice for my partner; and so on. This is basically inline with ashaw's comment about being able to model reality, but I think another important factor is the scope of the reality being modeled (i.e. the level of understanding of the environment and its interactions) is proportional to the amount of choice we have (or perceive we have).
posted by forforf at 7:15 AM on July 22, 2008

The more recent existentialists (French) suggested that there was no authority above one to make you choose this or that but rather that we are always free to choose one or another way (ex: there is no god that mandates stuff etc)...and though we now think we are "free" because we do not have
god or gods to tell us what to do, nonetheless we do have upbringing (family) and culture that probably helps inform our otherwise "free" choices. The important thing, though, is we are told by these thinkers that what we choose gives us responsibilities too...example: I can choose to not be drafted into the army but I should be willing to accept the fact I might be arrested for my act.
posted by Postroad at 7:35 AM on July 22, 2008

For an early example of free will, look at Genesis. When read theologically/philosophically, one has to ask why God didn't just make Adam and Eve not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If God is all powerful, couldn't he have just stopped them, or taken that desire away?
The answer is that God wanted them to have the choice. God made us free so we could freely choose God. If he created us to blindly follow him, we would just be little robots.
My philosophy professor in University, who was a Hegelian, said that this is probably the earliest text to show some self-awareness of free will. The Greeks by comparison had no concept of their own free will. They were bound and determined by fate, oracles, etc.
It doesn't mean that the Old Testament was written and overnight superstition disappeared. Our current concept of free will emerged during the enlightenment. It is just that theologically/philosophically, this is an early example (possibly the earliest) of awareness of free will.
posted by Brodiggitty at 10:05 AM on July 22, 2008

The Greeks by comparison had no concept of their own free will. They were bound and determined by fate, oracles, etc.

As Nietzsche points out, in the above quoted essay, imagining that the Gods have interest in human affairs presupposes that man has free will. There would be nothing interesting about a deterministic cosmos, certainly nothing could require intervention. If the Gods were all-seeing (a common epithet), then whatever was out of place could have been put right from the get go.

Fate and free will are entangled in Homer, and perhaps the sometimes contradictory tension between the two serves other, greater themes. Homer does not answer the question, but there are passages, particularly in the Odyssey, that show consciousness of free will, e.g. choosing to leave Calypso.
posted by BigSky at 10:39 AM on July 22, 2008

Even primitive people did more than survive. If you killed a mastodon, you had plenty to eat for a while. And there were always choices -- Which cave to sleep in. Which mate to choose. Whether to go hunting or fishing. Which tribe member is a friend. Who's a good hunting companion.

Further, as Maslow noted, everyone has the full hierarchy of needs built in. The higher-level ones are silent when a lower level overwhelms them, but the moment a lower level is satisfied, even temporarily, the next level emerges.
posted by KRS at 12:03 PM on July 22, 2008

I recommend the "freewill" tag in both Metafilter and Ask for previous threads.
posted by nanojath at 12:57 PM on July 22, 2008

Primitive man had no luxury of choice, everything was about survival

I'd question your premise, incidentally. Whatever choice or will actually mean, philosophically or metaphysically or scientifically, being under the compulsion of necessity doesn't negate its perception. Indeed, if a greater percentage of your choices might lead to death, you might be all the more acutely and agonizingly aware of them. On another tack entirely, it has been argued that hunter gatherer societies actually had more leisure than technological ones: certainly the presence of prehistoric art indicates at least the possibility of recognizing choice. I'd guess the concept well predates written language and hence your question is unanswerable.

There is probably more meat in asking when and how the question came to be addressed in a formal, philosophical sense.
posted by nanojath at 1:08 PM on July 22, 2008

I believe that choice emerged at the time in our evolution when we developed the ability to understand our personal timeline.

In order to realise that there is a future early humans would first have to have developed the notion of self hood. They would have to understand what is meant by believing that 'I' have a future. Secondly they would have needed to develop the ability of abstract reasoning in order to project the image of 'me' now into 'me' of the future.

It is only at this point that true choice in the sense that you are referring to develops because it is only at this point that the consequences of actions may be understood.
posted by Laura_J at 4:56 PM on July 22, 2008

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