Monday, November 26, 2012

On being decisive

Here I am in the supermarket, and before me stretches, on shelf after shelf, a bewildering array of toothbrushes. Here I am again, faced with a decision! Making decisions is a theme that fascinates me. Volumes could be written about the process of decision-making, both from a philosophical and psychological perspective. I am going to begin with a little exploration of the words “decide” and “decision” themselves.

If we look closely at the word “decision” we can see that it is closely related to words such as “incision” and “precision”. These have their roots in the Latin verb caedere meaning “to cut”. The connection is obvious with respect to “incision”, less so with respect to “precision”. Nevertheless to be precise is, so to speak, “to cut something fine”. To decide (in Latin, decidere) literally means “to cut off”. So already, here, we see some important philosophical and psychological ideas.

A decision involves cutting off possibilities. When we choose one option, we exclude others. There are many fascinating “what if” stories (eg. the movie Sliding Doors) which explore the outcomes of alternative decisions. Herein also lies a whole realm of science fiction speculation about alternate futures and timelines. Making a decision is a potentially terrifying experience, because in committing ourselves to one path rather than another, we exclude other possible futures, for ourselves, and perhaps others. The cutting involved is not simply theoretical or external – it “cuts” right into us. Of course, some decisions will be more critical (and painful) than others. Choosing which kind of toothbrush to buy today is unlikely to affect my life as much as choosing whether to take this or that job. Although, in some circumstances, choosing to turn left rather than right could prove fatal.

If we look at the word “decide”, rather than “decision”, we discover a whole other range of associations. “Decide” shares a common root with other “-cides”, such as homicide and suicide. These are also processes of cutting off, on this occasion from life. “Decide” shares with these other “-cides” this cutting away of life, or, in this case, other possible lives. So every decision is also, to a greater or lesser extent, also a death. No wonder that, sometimes, facing a large decision can render us paralysed.

Finally, as much as we might like to, we can never know for certain whether we have made the correct decision in life, because we have no way of knowing the results of the alternatives, which are now dead to us as possibilities. For that reason, it is pointless to say to ourselves, “If only I had...” At the same time, this is also liberating, because we also can never say for certain that we made the wrong decision. All we have is the here and now that results from the previous decisions we have made (and perhaps also from the decisions of others) and a whole vista of further decisions stretching before us.

Now, back to that toothbrush choice....


I have made a promotional video for Maybe they'll be watching me, which can be found here.

I also thought it might be interesting to make a "soundtrack" to the book, including some of the songs that are featured in it it one way or another. This can be found on my Pinterest page, here.


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