Comments on “In praise of choicelessness”


Since choicelessness is a

Kris's picture

Since choicelessness is a very satisfying practise, it would be a waste of operating in the fluid mode to not incorporate choicelessness where it is most practical and beneficial.

What difficulties does the fluid mode have when trying to replicate choicelessness?

Choicelessness 2.0 needs conditioning

Kris's picture

I think the difficulty with incorporating choicelessness is that traditional choicelessness requires an unspoken hegemony that has always been, or a communal experience that’s too busy doing what the community is doing to ask why.

Consistently questioned and upturned authority is the norm in the west, which makes unspoken hegemony alien and undesirable. Communal experience is primarily voluntary and interest-based now - “Why do I want to participate in this group? To further [interest] of course!”. The very premise for participating in a contemporary community prevents choicelessness.

To attempt incorporating Choicelessness 2.0 in a contemporary setting, you’d need to replicate the effects of traditional choicelessness. The effect of just doing things that you do, because that’s what you do.

I propose that to do Choicelessness 2.0 without hegemony or a survival community, you need consistent long-term action for the conditioning to make it practical, and the mental ability to avoid dismantling the conditioning with “Why?”.

I feel that I have accidentally incorporated choicelessness through what was just a very enjoyable hobby - Fighting Games(Street Fighter et al). I have been engaging in the process of consistent improvement, practise, competition, playing and theorising on this area for so long that “Why?” is an almost laughable question. I have more important things to think about, like fireballs.

However, the more I think about this as I’m typing it out, the less solid the choiceless hold feels. I’m used to choicefulness. Exploring the “why” of choiceless action removes some of the glue that holds it together. I’m not very good at avoiding or steering direction of my thought yet, so in self-interest I’ll stop pondering this.

Flow and choicelessness

Choicelessness 2.0 is a fascinating idea. The one thought that occurred to me is the potential similarity between the feeling of choicelessness and flow. The feeling of “natural smoothness” I experience when sufficiently engrossed in some task or experience is what I imagine it feels like to participate in a society where “whys” aren’t relevant or necessary. Maybe we can find ways to scale flow to do more, for more people, more of the time?

As an aside, the description of what it felt like for you to manage a business :

Briefly, in managing a business, I learned to divide my energy finely, and to send out the fragments of my being to animate all the minute details of a complex enterprise—leaving as little as I possibly could within my own body.

Rings really true to me. I wish I had the words for this sooner! I’ve suspected for a while that this is the feeling when “you’re doing it wrong” in regards to the management, but maybe everyone is experiencing it this way. This is one of the factors driving me to leave my current business! Thanks again, David

Flow and management

Maybe we can find ways to scale flow to do more, for more people, more of the time?

I hope so! See also my discussion of flow, and how it might be extended, here.

I’ve suspected for a while that this is the feeling when “you’re doing it wrong” in regards to the management

I was definitely doing it wrong, inasmuch as I built a small tech company without any external funding and without any mentoring or social support system, and scaled it to the point where I would have needed to add a layer of professional management to grow further, which would have meant taking VC money, which I didn’t want to do at the time. I passed my stress limit before selling it, which was nearly disastrous. On the other hand, I and the employees kept all the equity.

In some ways, it was a great experience; in others, horrendous. I would recommend it it enthusiastically to anyone capable of it, and also warn strongly against it!

History of religions

In your “gigantic chart” choicelessness begins to end around 1450. However, I would think that while the vast majority of people lived in the choiceless state during the middle ages, among the small group of educated people the choiceless state ended much earlier, with the beginning of the high middle ages and the development of universities. Scholasticism is definitely systematic, not choiceless.
When Christianity emerged, it did so in a world of competing religions and cults, i.e. in a situation of choice. It was originally a small sect. In late antiquity, there was definitely religious choice. Think of St. Augustin switching from Roman paganism, then to Neo-Platonism and Manichaeism and finally to Christianity. Only at a later time (and this marks the end of late Antiquity and the beginning of the middle ages) did the majority of people (at least in Western Europe) dip back into the choiceless state. Probably, some of the culture of Antiquity survived all the time, in Byzantium, Persia and some other places.
So the choiceless state may secondarily emerge, among the uneducated.
I don’t think that something like Choicelessness 2.0 can work. We had that in the inquisition and we have it among the Taliban. There is a knowledge of alternatives, combined with an attempt to base society on a single creed or ideology. This will always lead to suppression and violence because there is knowledge of alternatives and so there will be dissenters. The secondary choicelessness described above was partially a result of breakdown of economy and civilization, leading to people becoming uneducated and analphabetic, but partially also of violent suppression, e.g. at a certain time, pagan temples where closed, all non-Christian religions where forbidden, certain competing forms of Christianity (e.g. Arianism) where forbidden and the Platonic Academy was closed.

Choicelessness 2.0

Thank you for the useful historical review!

I said somewhere in a footnote that systematicity is a matter of degree, not all-or-nothing, and that several ancient civilizations (especially Rome) were highly systematic. More than Europe before about 1700, in fact.

And, yes, contra certain politically-correct historians, I think the reversion of Europe to the choiceless mode after the Fall of Rome was a catastrophe. I also think your analysis of the suppression of knowledge of alternatives requiring violence is right.

Part of my analysis of the atomized mode is that it threatens a reversion to something like choicelessness; choice verges on meaninglessness when coherence is lost.

I think it’s important to understand why and how choicelessness feels natural, though. Partly because most people are, implicitly, constantly trying to revert to it, and systematicity is only maintained by a cognitive elite forcing it on everyone else. Cultural and economic collapse is a real possibility, if the masses get what they think they want. Partly because, since most people implicitly want choicelessness, those of us in the cognitive elite have a responsibility to create for them something that simulates it as well as possible, while also making it possible for them to have smartphones and self-driving electric cars.


And yet change, sometimes radical change, comes to traditional societies also. Or we would not have non-traditional societies. Supposedly choiceless human beings walked out of Africa 70,000 years ago and founded colonies around the globe. They might not have chosen to colonise the globe per se, but something made them keep moving a mile up the road every couple of years for the next 700 centuries. So if “choiceless” really the right term?

At the end of my four month retreat in fairly basic conditions in the mountains of Spain, where I had few choices, I could not wait to get back to choosing for myself. The first month was blissful - peace, quiet, nature, simple life, loads of meditation, grand rituals, blah blah. The middle two were down hill into hellish states and I sometimes wished I could die, let alone leave. The last month dragged on but I found something to occupy my free time that kept me sane. I found shady spot, a bottle of PVA glue, and mended every book in the library that needed it - i.e. I rediscovered my autonomy, because after 3 months of having hardly any, I was hating it.

Even if choicelessness makes sense in a culture where most major things are already decided when you are born; enforced choicelessness generally sucks. Ask a refugee. They are not jumping for joy because all their options have suddenly disappeared and they have no choice but to run for it or die. A certain level of choice/autonomy would seem to be optimal.

You chose temporary choicelessness, but you always had the choice of walking away and a life to go back to. A holiday from being bombarded with unnecessary choices was probably always going to feel good for a short period, especially then the extreme novelty counteracted the lack of choice to help keep you buoyant. Had you been seriously ill on your retreat and had no choice of medicine you might have come to quite different conclusions. Had you been taken prisoner and deprived of all choice you almost certainly might not have enjoyed yourself quite so much. Throughout your experience of “choicelessness” you were choosing to stay, choosing to participate, and so on. You never lost the ability to make choices and you continued to make them. You were never in the same position as the people you lived with for that short period.

I recall reading research on this that suggested that there is an optimum level of choice and correlated level of autonomy. The Amish are closer to the optimum that the USA generally. Most other American have to make too many choices and it makes them miserable. Back in Jan 2000 when Martin Seligman was President of the APA, he edited a special edition on Positive Psychology and choice featured in several articles. You might find the article Self-determination: The tyranny of freedom. particularly apposite on this subject.

Choicelessness sucks

Yes… On this page, I point out what is good about the choiceless mode, making as strong a case in favor of it as I could. Overall, I think it mostly sucks. But there are things about it humans do like, and find comfortable and natural, in ways I think are important. The aim (in subsequent bits of the story, as yet unwritten) is to find ways to capture as much of that as possible in a future mode that also provides key benefits of other ways of being as well.

And yet change, sometimes radical change, comes to traditional societies also.

Yes. As I wrote on the following page, “the choiceless mode feels timeless, because you have no awareness of historical change.” I think I explained somewhere else that traditional societies always do change, often quite rapidly, but it’s not thematized by them, so it’s mostly not noticed. (I can’t find this passage. Maybe it’s not published yet!)

There’s a paper I skimmed recently—maybe you pointed me to it?—about the ritual practice of a particular Australian Aboriginal tribe. They are quite sure they have been doing it exactly the same way for 40,000 years. However, there are detailed anthropological accounts of it from a few decades ago, when it was done quite differently than it is now. It just changed gradually enough that they didn’t realize.

So is “choiceless” really the right term?

I said in the introduction to the history that these “modes” are “ideal types,” which are never entirely realized in practice. Complete choicelessness is impossible, for example. A final page of the history will explain that, in some sense, everyone has always been “in the fluid mode,” because choicelessness is impossible, systematicity is impossible, and atomization is impossible. But they are powerful as tendencies.

Thanks for the literature pointers—I’ll take a look!

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