Monday, February 27, 2006

what determines the choices we make?

Yeah, been taking some much-needed flack lately for not updating this thing so here goes. If it weren't such a time drain...but I guess it's more productive than what I do with a lot of my time.

Anyway, I finally managed to show up to the biweekly book club meeting tonight. It's my first one for this book and I'm only 136 pages behind, but one has to start somewhere. But the discussion was well worth the trip. Even after 12 hours at work and having read only the first five pages (while I was waiting on the others) I was able to contribute a bit.

The title of the post comes from what I remember as a central argument of the evening. I don't remember how the topic developed, but at some point I brought up the fact that people, Christians especially, often claim to live by a set of standards that is way out of line with their actual lifestyle. We say we care about the hungry and pray for them and even give gift offerings on their behalf, and then eat out a few times a week at a cost that could feed hundreds elsewhere in the world. We claim to be against slave labor but then we knowingly and uncaringly buy clothing, coffee, shoes, and various other trinkets that were made by people who don't earn enough money to even survive much less lead what we think of as a decent lifestyle. We claim to really care about the living conditions of people elsewhere, so much so that when we spend thousands on excursions to far corners of the world we'll even spare some change and crumbs for those folks who are taking better care of us than we ourselves ever do at home. (Oddly, it seems that people--including myself--are always surprised at the conditions they find abroad, as if they somehow thought our standard of living applied to the rest of the globe.)

My purpose isn't to just bash humanity. The bottom line is that we will always serve our own self-interest above all. In other words, we do what we want. Big surprise, eh? Beyond instincts such as breathing and uncontrollable needs such as sleeping, we make choices based on our desires.* We are not ever forced into choosing against our own will at the moment. For example, if someone points a gun at us and commands us to give up our cash, we hand it over because we want to--the threat of certain death changes the circumstances such that we'd rather live a little poorer than take some extra money to the grave. But if someone pulls out a gun and commands us to kill some random stranger, someone with conviction is going to choose their own death over someone else's. That's because, at the moment they have to choose, they want to get shot because it's the best available option. That may sound weird but that's how we work.

So when we do all these things we say we oppose, it's not because we don't want to and are somehow having our brains controlled by something else.** It's because at that time we really do want to do what our ethics oppose, and our convictions aren't strong enough to make us want to do what we think is right. So what I'm trying to say is, our momentary desires are constantly changing based on the world around us. Our standards by which we make our decisions is based on these desires so they are also in constant flux. They might not change as much or as often if we have strong enough morals to hold them in place and resist the temptation surrounding us, but they will inevitably change.

No Christian would dispute that there is a perfect standard we're all held to. Nor would any Christian claim he can attain that standard in this life, and thus come to a point where he is always making good choices. The Christian life is a matter of doing our best to make those good choices yet also knowing we can't possibly choose right every time or even most of the time. This much is Christianity 101. So there is God's perfect set of standards, and there is a person's imperfect set of standards, and they don't match. That's a problem when we're commanded to live by the former. So here's the catchy part I think: the trick here isn't to deny one's own set of criteria for living--that would be impossible because, as discussed above, it's what we base our decisions on--but to do our best to align those criteria with God's. We don't pretend we can somehow willingly act contrary to what our brain tells us to do--well, maybe if we're charismatic, but you get the idea. (Sorry, been a while so I needed to get a jab in there for some of you.) What we have to do is build our character such that it shapes our thought patterns in a way that makes us more apt to match our thinking and impulses to God's commands. I think this is basic psychology at work. Nothing too strange going on, right?

Much to my surprise, someone in the group took exception to this. As best I can remember--and it's late so my already poor memory is fading fast--the point was that we as Christians live according to a higher standard. We know better than to just follow our flesh, so we are living by a different set of rules. (I'm sure I'm not doing this justice but that's the gist of it and I think the main idea is there.)

Okay, no Christian would dispute that. We do know there is a greater standard we're called to adhere to. But that doesn't mean we actually do all the time, or that we can somehow deny our own desires and follow God's rules over our own at a given moment. We're still humans, we're still creatures able to think and choose for ourselve and thus driven by our own desires and interests, and we're still sinful beings who will choose wrongly every now and then (yeah, that's being generous). So because of free will, our own self-interest is what drives every decision we make. We can't reject our own desires in favor of something external to us; we can't deny ourselves. The best we can hope to do is to conform ourselves to the likeness of Christ so that our desires and His desires match. Again, this is an impossibility that we can only work toward and rely on God to finish when we get to heaven.

I don't actually remember any resolution to that. My conclusion is that we were just arguing semantics and were actually in agreement for the most part. But there you have it. Interesting stuff, and I even managed to get myself into a debate of sorts. That's something I haven't been able to do with much consistency since leaving college. I need to go to these book club meetings more often. Not to mention read the book...

* Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs was brought up somewhere in all of this. I don't know much about that but based on what little research I've done it's BS. He doesn't break his lower levels down enough to differentiate between pure instinct (breathing, sleep) and strong urges that can be resisted to a great degree (hunger, thirst, sex drive). He also seems to make the claim that lower levels must be fulfilled before upper levels can be tapped and that's false. Someone tonight brought up the great point that throughout history POW's and political prisoners have denied these lower level needs even to the point of death, and to me that makes it clear that they were able to willingly putting aside Maslow's most basic needs in favor of those higher in the pyramid. And someone can operate at the top two or three levels and still have gaping holes in the bottom levels. That's where personality problems and mental illness and such come into play. Maybe I just need to learn more about this but for now it doesn't make sense in any more than a very general way. But it's interesting nonetheless. I actually remember this sort of thing from college, probably from an awesome organizational behavior business class I took, and I think on a purely business level this could actually be a very good tool.

** I'm not talking Satan and demons and other such spiritual stuff here. And I'm sure not talking about sovereignty vs. free will. That's all part of another discussion. I'm just talking about the extent to which we humans have the ability to make choices.