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Choice Theory

There is a branch of philosophy which I call *choice theory*. It is about what a choice is, and how to make good choices. It has two major branches which are related but distinct. The first branch is: for a given goal, which choices will achieve it? The second branch is: which goals are best to choose to pursue?

Choice theory is not about personal taste. It's not going to tell you which ice cream to eat, which music to listen to, nor what type of chair to use. It may give hints, and rule out some approaches, but people are different and choice theory is general. On the other hand, you can think about and develop the relevant theories for your own personal situation, and use that to help you make choices.

Which ice cream should you eat? Well, not one you hate. Not one you can't afford. And don't stop to get ice cream when it will make you late to something important. And stuff like that. Otherwise, whichever you like! And which is best to like? Well, I have no idea. There must be some answer to: which ice cream should you like *if* you have the following personality, values, bank accounts, life situation, life history, and live at the following place, and the following ice cream sellers are nearby, and so on (in short: specifying your mind and your complete environment, which is the whole universe). And for all I know whatever person and life you put into the question, the true answer comes out: chocolate (though I seriously doubt it is always the same). But suppose you could work out exactly which ice cream was best. It would be bad to do so. Waste of huge amounts of computing power (including human thought). It'd be much more productive to pick whichever ice cream you feel like, quickly, and then get back to doing something more important. Even in real life it's generally not worth thinking for long about which flavor to get. Just try one, and have another later if you didn't like it, because your time is valuable. So, even if we could tell you exactly what ice cream to eat, we would be foolish to do so.

Achieving Your Goal

What is choice theory good for, then? Suppose you have a goal, then you shouldn't choose things which prevent or sabotage achieving your goal (except by way of causing you to change your mind about whether the goal is good, that sort or prevention is not bad). This sounds really obvious, but bear with me: it has implications. As long as you agree it's true I'll be happy. Suppose the goal is to invent something cool. You have a specific idea in mind, but what I'm going to say applies no matter what it is. Consider for a moment. That's pretty powerful. What we're going to say next applies very broadly: to all inventors. Even if it's a pretty small thing at least it's relevant to many, many people. That's the power of generality. So, we have our inventor. Should he petition to have profane books censored and/or burnt? You may think the answer is: we can't tell from the very limited information. It depends on his personality and his values and what kind of society he lives in and a thousand other things.

But it does not depend on any of that. He should not wish for books to be censored or burnt because they are profane.

This isn't a matter of personal taste, or subjective. I'm not saying this because I love books, or because my society values books, or because I can't imagine having a different way of thinking about the world. The arguments that he should not burn the book come from the laws of physics and epistemology (the study of knowledge) and logic. Those are the most rational, objective things we have.

For precision, I will add that it depends also on the meaning of the words "book", "burning", "profane", and so on. If you imagine a society where burning is a way of taking information in, just like our reading is, then certainly "book burning" is good there, because the words refer to something else entirely. But I don't strictly need to put this caveat. My sentences should be interpreted in terms of what the words mean here if you want to understand the intended meaning.

So what do we know? He wants to invent something. And how do you do that? The details vary, of course, but in general it requires thinking to create knowledge of how to make the new invention, and also knowledge of what the invention should do. Now that we see thinking and knowledge are important issues then it should not be surprising that epistemology has a lot to say.

Creating Knowledge

The prevailing theory of how knowledge is created, which current has no serious rivals, is evolutionary in nature. I'm not going to explain it in great detail here, but I will sketch out some relevant details. The main idea is that knowledge is created through a process of conjecture and criticism. You guess at the truth. You point out problems in your guesses. You reject guesses that you've discovered are flawed. And you make new guesses, including slight variants of old guesses (change them to remove the flaws you found). In this way better ideas are found: knowledge is created. Perfect knowledge is never created, but there is no limit to how good it can get (except as may be imposed by the laws of physics).

Notice that two of the requirements for knowledge creation are to have other guesses, not just one you like, and to have criticism. These other guesses we can call *rival theories*. They are alternative ideas about what might be true. It's important to have an open mind and create any rival theories we can imagine which make sense. This gives a better possibility of finding good ideas. And the type of criticism needed for knowledge creation is: criticism in terms of what is true, or not. Other types, such as disliking something, or being annoyed, or parochial, personal preferences cannot be part of the process of discovering the truth -- of creating better and better knowledge.

If you don't have these things -- rival theories and criticism -- then knowledge will not be created. And that's bad for invention. Further, the more you have of these, and the better they are done (with more devotion to seeking the truth and less personal bias and more of an open mind, and with more effort and creativity), then the more and faster and better knowledge will be created. And that's good for invention.

So what is best for this inventor to do, in terms of the most effective way to invent things? It is absolutely not to try to censor and burn books he considers profane. That is the destruction of rival theories and the suppression of criticism. Better is for those books to be subjected to criticism, and for his own ideas also to be subjected to criticism, and for the truest ideas to win out. Even if that means he discovers he holds mistaken ideas and should change his mind. In fact, such a discovery is a great thing: now he has the opportunity to improve his ideas, thus increasing his capacity to invent things. What the inventor should prefer is an open society.

Inventing is also aided by thoughtful, literate friends to have interesting communication with. You might try to imagine a solitary inventor, but if so what business does he have trying to get books banned? That's not a solitary activity. He could just leave them alone if he's really, truly solitary. And also if they read books and get smarter they will be more able to get good enough to help him in the future. His excuses could be:

1) If other people get too smart they will destroy me before I can finish my invention.
2) If other people learn too much they might discover my invention should not be invented, and persuade me to stop. Or even force me if it's dangerous and I don't listen.
3) If other people read this book, which is bad, they will become worse, and thus be less able to contribute help to the inventing process in the future.

The answer to (1) is that the more they learn, the more reliably they will have good ideas, including about choice theory. And choice theory does not recommend destroying inventors. It argues in favor of creative lifestyles (in the senses both of creating things and creating ideas) -- we will get to this argument later in the section about which goals are best to pursue. The less people know, the more possible it is they will mistakenly think it's a good idea to destroy the inventor (a bit like he mistakenly thinks he should destroy books). So he should want them to become smart.

The answer to (2) is that if the invention is a bad goal then it's best to learn that and choose to have a better goal. One of the ideas of choice theory is that to have and pursue good goals we must not only choose wisely now, but we must also be open to changing our mind later, and happy to learn new things that help us see more clearly which goals are good. Doing anything else is not the most effective way to have the best goals. Also, it is folly to assume we are right and that persuasion is to be feared. The knowledge creation process allows only criticism in terms of which ideas are true, never in terms of who believes which ideas, not even in terms of which ideas we believe. Rejecting ideas because they are not our own is not valid.

The answer to (3) is that we should deal with rival theories by criticizing them, not suppressing them. Because, again, we might be wrong. If we suppress the rival theory we won't find out who was right. If we criticize it, and allow criticism of our own theory, then we have a chance to find out. More knowledge will be created by not suppressing the rival theory (book). So the claim that allowing it to exist will make society dumber and less helpful is wrong: actually free access to ideas -- even those you consider bad ideas -- will help society to improve.

There is one exception to these things: war. If an idea, or book, intends to spread violently, and does not listen to criticism, nor does it care to compete with rival theories on the battleground of reason, then no matter what we do the outcome isn't going to be determined by reason, it is going to be determined by force. In that case, any arguments about how it is best to have an outcome based on reason, and to act to allow one, are void. because that isn't going to happen.


With that established, can we perhaps expand the reach of these arguments without changing any of the logic we can see this line of argument applies to videos as well as books. And to pamphlets. And posters. And even computer files and web pages. Most generally: it applies to censoring or destroying any type of *knowledge* because we consider it profane. And not just profane. Any kind of dislike will do: the only valid reason to reject rival theories is because they are false. And each person should make up their own mind: if one person makes up his mind and forces everyone else that is more prone to error. And force isn't using criticism: people who haven't changed their mind to the correct theory, aside from perhaps being right, must have some false idea, which you could criticize.

And it isn't just inventors who are aided by knowledge creation. It is anyone who wants to know something new, or accomplish something difficult. It is anyone with a creative goal.

We can summarize this as a principle: all people with creative goals should prefer an open society and prefer for rival theories and criticism to be freely expressed.

And that is not trivial! Nor arbitrary. Nor personal opinion.

As an aside, what would justify the intentional destruction of knowledge? First: war. Second: we delete computer files frequently. But it isn't because we dislike them. It's because we want to free up space for new files we consider more important. We also sometimes knock down old buildings. Again not because we have anything against them. It's just they are in the way of things we think are even better. Censorship is not like that. You can write your own book which you think is better and people can make their own choice of which to buy. Existing books are never in the way of yours like a building or computer file physically occupies part of your property that you might wish to use for something else. And even if we imagine running out of space due to all the bad books everywhere, censorship remains bad: you could instead persuade people that they should make room for new things by deleting old ones. And you could offer advice about what is bad, which they would listen to if they considered the advice worth the space.

What does it mean to have an open society? It means having institutions of some sort that facilitate discussion of ideas. It means having people who are open to criticism and to changing their mind. It means having traditions of voluntary interaction so that theories of what to do are never forced on people who disagree with them. It means a society that values persuasion: that believes if your idea really is good you should be able to convince others, and if you cannot, that is evidence not of their unreason but of the weakness of your idea (though it could be neither, and you are free to try again later). It means a society where only the supporters of an idea bear the risk of trying it out. Why, by the way, would true ideas be persuasive? Because people who are seeking the truth will prefer them. And because no one will think of valid criticism of them, but people can think of valid criticism of their rivals (and if no one has thought of that criticism yet, then how do we know which is true?). Why should people seek the truth? Because, like our inventor, they have creative goals, and seeking the truth is part of knowledge creation. (Other goals are addressed later.)

Some Examples

That's all somewhat abstract. What does living in this way look like day to day? How do the institutions of our society compare to the ideal?

Democracy is good. This does not mean there is nothing better which might replace it in the future. But we have a system in which people in power voluntarily step down simply because their ideas did not persuade enough voters. The policies our Government enacts can be changed through criticism. Each politician running for office provides conjectures about how a part of Government should be run, and faces off against rival theories. We have a system that is rational and which creates knowledge.

The free market is good. This does not mean there is nothing better which might replace it in the future. Competition between companies consists of competition between rival theories of how to run companies and what products to make (they compete over making what customers want, which is a helpful thing for people to create knowledge about). And the free market is responsive to criticism: people who believe a criticism of a product can choose not to buy it. The free market is a knowledge creating institution.

Problem solving in personal relationships is good. It means creating knowledge which helps people to have better lives. This is an open society issue because one of the main alternatives, which is in fact the status quo in many parts of the world, is to deal with disagreement in relationships by insisting on obedience (generally to the man, head of household, or elder). Obedience to one set of ideas about how a family should live is not a way of creating knowledge, and it is not an effective way of accomplishing creative goals people in that family have.

Here is another one which isn't really an open society issue: human cooperation is good. There could be an open society in which people generally led solitary lives (though it's somewhat difficult to imagine why that would be best -- other people are a good source of both conjectures and criticism -- and if it is not best why would people in an open society, where knowledge is created, continue to do it for long?) One reason human cooperation is good is that I can trade something that you value more than I do, for something I value more than you do, and we can both benefit. This sort of benefit helps make humans more powerful and and more wealthy -- it means they can better achieve their goals because they now have traded for things that will help achieve their goals more. Human cooperation also helps people who share a goal, because they can work together to achieve it, and share insights into how to achieve it, and share criticism of ineffective ways to achieve it.

Creative or Destructive Goals?

What about the issue of which goals we should choose to pursue? First, they should not contradict, or we won't succeed at achieving them all. And second, they should always allow for error correction in the future -- they should allow for themselves to be changed. Never should our goal be to be completely committed to a certain future and to devote all our efforts to creating that future. Rather, it is better to be strongly committed, but also to continue to think about whether this is for the best, and to reevaluate our goal if we find reason to. We must always include in our goals the idea that they may be an error, and be open to correcting them. Our goals should be held tentatively.

As we've seen, creative goals imply a preference for an open society in which knowledge is created which helps us accomplish those goals. But we have not seen why we should prefer goals of that type. Why should we aim to create and do, rather than to destroy and die?

Here are two reasons. The first is that we only ever have imperfect knowledge of what our goals should be. We, partly, don't know. And thus it is strongly in our interest to become powerful -- to gain the ability to accomplish whatever we want. That way as we learn good things to want we will already be prepared to accomplish them. And as we learn new facts, we will already be prepared to react to them. And as new facts happen (a volcano erupts, a meteor comes) power will give us more available choices to react. The way to become powerful is to have knowledge of how to accomplish a wide variety of things, and also knowledge with general applicability, and also to physically change our world to be more useful to us. The open, creative society is the powerful one which is ready to achieve new goals as we find them.

The second reason is that massively destructive goals, such as destroying the Earth or committing suicide, if accomplished, create a barrier. It is a barrier against error correction. Once the destruction occurs then, if it was a mistake, it is too late. You will never find out you were mistaken, never learn to live better, because now you are dead.

What about minor destructive goals? Well, what good are they? They are perfectly useful as a lead up to massive destruction. But they don't mesh well with our creative goals, including to have enough food to eat, a nice place to live, an interesting and happy life, and to be able to solve our problems.

Also consider that we do not need to justify our preference for creative, not destructive, lifestyles, nor justify that we already have creative goals. Ideas do not need justification. They only need to best their rivals. What are the arguments for a destructive way of life? What is claimed to be good about it? Nothing. Just because it is a logically permissible alternative does not make it an important rival theory. Until an strong argument or explanation is created in favor of destruction then we need not concern ourselves with it.

Creative goals is a very wide range of goals. It gives a lot of freedom for people to differ. That's part of the power of the open society. People with wildly different goals can live together in peace, and even cooperate in mutually beneficial ways.

Which Goals For Me?

But which creative goals are best for me?

Of course it depends on your situation. But here are examples of the sort of thinking that you might do for yourself.

Let's start with something simple: you prefer not to fight with your wife. Then you should want to understand the fights, and you should want to have some understanding of human psychology, and you should want to have fine control of your emotions, and you should want the ability to think clearly and rationally during the beginning stages of a fight. And to get all this, you should want to be good at introspection, and able to take criticism very well (in fact: you should enjoy it and seek it out), and you should, today, enjoy to read (because that gives access to a lot of knowledge), and you should prefer to live in an open society where your ideas about how to prevent fighting will not be suppressed, and where other people with ideas about it will be able to cooperate with you.

Say you want to be rich. Then you better not be scared of failure -- you need to be willing to try out your ideas without any guarantee they will work, and you need to be willing to pay the costs of the trial, or persuade people to help pay. You will be aided by an ability to think quickly and clearly, and to do work efficiently. You will be aided by knowledge of what people want and will pay for. You will be aided by knowledge of techniques for constructing things -- the more general the better -- and to aid in that you could learn about the laws of physics, and about chemistry and engineering and architecture and so on. You would do well to understand economics, and also the law. For many of the previous some math will help. And understanding computers will help a lot: they can automate many tasks, and store information, and they open up new ways of doing things, and new ways of interacting with customers, and new ways of advertising. You can get rich without all of this, but there are other reasons they are good, and certainly if you wish to become rich you should make improving your skill at some of these a goal.

Say you value your time. Then seeking rational attitudes towards your habits and compulsions will help. Questioning some of your strong desires will help. Is acting on romantic love the best use of time? Sex? Bad moods? Smoking? Drinking?

Say you value the truth. Then you should not be a person who lets emotions cloud his judgment. You should not always try to prove you are right: it's better for your goal to be to figure out who is right. You will be more effective if you are not apathetic or lazy in your efforts to find the truth.

Say you are racist. Why? You should want to know, if you want to have good goals. Are racist goals good? If you don't know why you are a racist -- why being a racist is correct -- then you have no reason to think that sort of goal is good. Better not to pursue it. You might think you are a racist because of your upbringing, but that it isn't best. In that case you should try not to pursue racist goals, and should try to pursue self-change.

One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of change in how we live is already recommended, and once that is done, what to do next will be much easier to see.

The Two Branches

The two branches of choice theory are related. This is important to know because we shouldn't first think about what goals to have, and then after we decide that start to work out how to accomplish them. You can learn about which goals are good to have by thinking about how to accomplish them. Suppose the goal you are considering is to sell a billion copies of your book. You might work out that the most effective way to do that is to give speeches explaining why your book is great. Alternatively, you might figure out that won't work because a different book will be more popular, and the only ways to sell that many copies without rewriting are to force people at gunpoint, or to secretly destroy the other book and its author so the ideas can't be recovered. Just by working out what methods of achieving the goal will succeed we can sometimes see whether it's any good or not.


OK, this is it. It's time for the secret, surprise ending! There is something I haven't been telling you. *gasp* It is another name for "choice theory". And the other name is: *moral philosophy*. Morality is about how to live. Or, we might say, which choices to make.

The reason I use the name choice theory is that many people strongly believe morality is not objective, or don't listen closely to moral philosophy, or associate morality strongly with religion, or with sin, or with sexual rules. But choice theory? Many more people are persuaded *that* is objective. Why wouldn't it be? It's largely about epistemology, logic, and physics.

Choice theory faces rivals for being a good theory of morality. Mostly they are religious. None of them are up to the standards of modern philosophy. Unfortunately, some of those rivals are the prevailing moral philosophy right now, and they cast a shadow over the whole subject. Because they have serious flaws, often including: false, logical contradictions, arbitrary or subjective, no particular reasons given why it is right, based on faith, argued for via the weight of authority, full of parochial rules like about sexual conduct and other sins, and trying to tell people what to do instead of help offer them ways to life effectively.

You may not be sure how objective epistemology is. That is another can of worms which I won't go into detail about. But I will give a brief argument. One of the things very widely held to be objective is science. And the reason it's objective is: the scientific method. It tells scientists to put aside their personal fancy and look dispassionately at the evidence and to seek the best conclusion regardless of what they would like to be true. Or in short it says: seek the objective truth. There is also a philosophical method. It's like the scientific method, but used for matters of non-science (issues determined by argument alone without reference to evidence, measurement, or observation). Both the scientific and philosophical methods are ways of thinking. And they both say roughly the same thing: seek the truth. And if we were to categorize them they are both ... epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with how to get knowledge and truth, and these methods are ways of doing that. And epistemologists, of course, use the philosophical method, just like scientists use the scientific method.

You may still think science is different. Well, what's different about it? There's evidence. We can see and touch things to see who's right. It isn't our choice. However, and as many philosophers have pointed out, our sense data is not a certain road to truth. It can be mistaken. Our beliefs about our sense data can be biased. We can delude ourselves unconsciously. Lots of things can go wrong with observational evidence. So how does science work if the evidence is uncertain? By using the scientific method which provides good ways to think about things objectively. That is all the sanction science has, but also it is all that it needs. Epistemology has the same sanction: philosophers of epistemology use the same sort of method in their thinking. None of this provides certainty. But it is persuasive. There are no known alternative ways to think about these things which are better, or even comparably good. (I realize that statement deserves further argument and explanation. Maybe another time.)

In conclusion, call it what you will. Choice theory is essentially a type of logic. It exists objectively. What it says is based on not personal taste but mostly the laws of epistemology (which are governed by the laws of physics). And it can help you answer the ancient moral question, "How should I live?"

Elliot Temple on July 23, 2007


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