Choose! Choose now!

Fractal tree
Fractal tree

Life throws many choices in our way. One view of the world is that it is like a many branched pathway, with our every day choices causing us to thread a particular path though this maze of branches, to reach the ever growing tip of the tree of events that is our past.

The future is yet to come into being but we can see dimly into it, and we use this limited view to inform our choices. The view into the future is like a mist. Things appear dimly for a while only to fade and be hidden from view. Sometime in the future is the instant of our demise. We know it’s coming but we do not usually know how and when.

Misty Morning
Misty Morning

We try to compensate for our inadequate view of the future by trying to cater for all possibilities, and one way we do this is by making a will, to prescribe how we would like our things, our assets, to be distributed when we are dead.

Some people try to predict the future. Some people gamble, on horses or whatever, trying to guess the winner of a race. There are two sorts of such people, those who estimate the odds and then build in as much of a safety margin as they can. These are usually the ones who run the books, while the other sort take a more optimistic view and gamble that the bookmakers are wrong. The first group is generally happy to make small profits while the second group want high returns. Generally the first group does a lot better than the second group over a reasonably long time frame.

Bookmakers at Higham
Bookmakers at Higham

The interesting thing about choice is that it is a discrete thing. We choose from one or more possibilities and the number of those possibilities is an integer. Often it is a choice between option one or option two. Pretty obviously it isn’t option one point five.

If we have two possibilities, call them A and B, then the probability of A occurring might be thirty percent. This means that the probability of B happening is seventy percent. The two must always add up to one hundred per cent.

Choice of paths
Choice of paths

So there is a mapping here between discrete events and continuous probabilities. Between integers and real numbers. One way of looking at this is that “event A” is a sort of label to the part of the probability curve that represents the event. Or it could be considered that the probability of the event is an attribute of the event.

It could be that when a choice is made and the probability of making that is more probably than making the other choice then that it is similar to making a choice of road. One road is wide and one is narrow. The width of the road could be related to the probability of making that choice.

Choice of routes to Pinnacle Hill
Choice of routes to Pinnacle Hill

The width of the road or the probability of the choice may well be subjective of course. I might choose to vote for one political party because I have always voted for that party. The probability of me voting for that party is high. The probability of my voting for another party would be quite low. However for someone who is the supporter of another party, the road widths are the other way around.

Is it true that when I vote for the party that I usually vote for that I exercise a choice? Only in a weak way. Merely doing things the way that one has always done is just taking the easy way and involve little choice. The reason for taking the easy choice may be because one has always done it that way and there is no reason to change. Habit, in other words.

A or B?
A or B?

Most choices we make are similar. We have a set of in-built innate or learned reactions to most situations, so that we don’t have to trouble to make a choice. If you make a choice, if you drill down far enough you will find that there are always reasons for a choice that you make. Your father always voted for the party, so you do out of loyalty and shared beliefs.

Every choice, when you examine it, seems to just melt away into a mass of knee jerk reactions and beliefs. When you examine choices you find that there was in fact no other way that we were likely to choose and free choice doesn’t really exist.

Spoilt for Choice
Spoilt for Choice

We have all been to a fast food restaurant only to find that the person before us is unable to make up their mind. This is probably because they do not have strong preferences so that they don’t have any reason to choose one dish over the other, or they dislike all the dishes equally.

If we put people in a situation where they have no reason to prefer one course of action over another and we force them to make a choice, they will often think up ludicrous reasons for making the choice that they finally make.

Reason Why lobby card
Reason Why lobby card

For instance on game shows where they have to make a selection from a multiple choice question in a limited amount of time, quite often they will say something like “I haven’t pressed B in a while”, or “I guessed A last time and it worked out for me so I did it again”, even something like “It’s my boyfriends favourite colour.” It’s hard to know if they really used that reasoning or whether they are justifying their choice after the event.

Another way to cause people to make a random choice is to try and remove all distractions. I can envisage an experiment where people are placed in a room with a screen and two buttons. They are then told by a message on the screen to press the correct button within ten seconds and a count down starts. Since they have no knowledge of which is the correct button they will be forced to choose any button to press or to let the timeout expire. Then they will asked why they chose that particular button. The results of such a test would be interesting.

Random Walk Trace
Random Walk Trace


Grace - Mirror
Grace – Mirror (Photo credit: phil41dean)

Who is this strange person “Me”? Obviously I am “Me”, but you claim that “Me” is you. How could that be? And when you say “You”, you mean me! You are you and I am me and that’s an end of it! It is absurd for you to claim to me when, patently, you are you.

Have you (yes, YOU! I know that I have!) ever read science fiction? An SF story might revolve around a device, maybe invented by Professor MacGuffin, which allow the actors in the drama to move instantly from one place to another. The ‘transporter’ may be a simple tool to place the actors in a situation from which they have to extract themselves (as in the Startrek TV series and movies), or a device central to the plot, such as the machine in movie “The Fly” (‘Help me! Help me!)

Cover of "The Fly [Blu-ray]"
Cover of The Fly [Blu-ray]
Sometimes, for plot reasons, the device may malfunction and instead of transporting the person from A to B, it essentially copies the person so that he exists at both A and B. (Both you and I agree that he is ‘he’ or she is ‘she’, don’t we? I’m glad that that is sorted out, at least).

Transporter (Star Trek)
Transporter (Star Trek) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So if I walk into the transporter at A, I walk out of it at B, don’t I? But the person at A claims to be me and to have walked into the transporter at A and walked out of it at A, thinking that it hadn’t worked. He, (obviously “he”, since he isn’t me and he isn’t you), also claims that my car, my dog, my wife, are all his, and they are because he was me when he walked into the transporter. Obviously “his”, since they aren’t yours and they aren’t mine. Hang on a minute! They ARE all mine! This is getting tricky.

So which of us is me, and which isn’t? Which is ‘him’? Which of us gets my things? Do we get half each? It’s a puzzle.

Even when we exclude transporters as ‘impossible’ (but who would be so bold as to rule them out entirely), even then, there are other ‘mes’ to consider. There’s the ‘me’ from five minutes ago. The ‘me’ who had yet to write this sentence, who didn’t even have this sentence in mind, in fact. There’s the ‘me’ of five minutes in the future, who know what the next sentence brings. (I can’t even guess what it will bring). Are they the same ‘me’? Well the future me knows things that I don’t, and I know things that the past me doesn’t (yet) know.

Memories (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It gets worse as you consider moments further from the ‘now’. When I was at school, I was not the same person as I am now – I have years of experiences that the schoolboy had not yet had. I’ve no idea what will happen in the future, but the future me does. So are the future ‘me’ and the past ‘me’ really me? They are different from me in terms of their memories and experiences. They have different bodies, maybe sporting scars that I don’t have or vice versa.

Ages of Man, late 16th century
Ages of Man, late 16th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people would think that they are ‘me’, in spite of these differences. There is a continuity of memory, a thread of remembrance, that joins all these ‘mes’ in a continuous thread of experience. But if you take two widely time separated ‘mes’ they in fact have little in common. The schoolboy ‘me’ has not learned things that the future ‘me’ knows and the future ‘me’ may have forgotten much of what they schoolboy has experienced.

From some points of view they are very much not the same person. It reminds me of the saying by Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. While it may seem to me that the memories I have connect me to the school boy that I was, as I can work backwards down the stream of memories and say ‘I was that school boy’, that same stream of memories makes me different from him. Even in my own mind I think of the school boy as ‘him’ and refer to him as ‘myself, X years ago’.

English: Fast flowing. The fast flowing river ...
English: Fast flowing. The fast flowing river from the Coedty reservoir flowing into the River Conwy at Dolgarrog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not uncommon for people to say things like “If I hadn’t done so-and-so, something else would have happened”. “If I hadn’t read that book in school, I wouldn’t have chosen to study history at university…” There is a probabilistic component to personality. If things had been otherwise I would be a different person, probably living in a different country, and certainly with different memories and desires. “I’m glad I went to the moon, even though it meant giving up that opportunity to live and work in Antarctica”. Well, something like that!

So this mysterious ‘me’ lives only in the present, and is different to all other ‘mes’ through time. Yet this ‘me’ is singular, for I am the only ‘me’, and your claim to be ‘me’ is patently false. This ‘me’ is not any of the possible ‘mes’ that could have been, had things been different. This ‘me’ is not the same as the ‘mes’ that have been and the ‘mes’ that will be, even considering the chain of memory that connects us. The ‘me’ that goes through a transporter device is not the ‘me’ that stepped into it, as the new ‘me’ is composed of different atoms (presumably, ducking a few questions), even though the transported ‘me’ feels otherwise. But then again neither is the ‘me’ who stayed since time separates him from the ‘me’ that entered the transporter, even if it is only seconds.

“A Vision of the Future. An aërial motor-car”
“A Vision of the Future. An aërial motor-car” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more that I consider ‘me’, the stranger ‘me’ (or ‘I’) appears to be. Each ‘me’ exists only in the now, but is linked in more ways than one to future and past ‘mes’, just as the river exists today, and is different to the river yesterday, though they are connected by the flow of time.

Flowing Waters of Time
Flowing Waters of Time (Photo credit: MaugiArt)