Do we really always have a choice?

No matter how much we’ve retooled, reorganized, and self-medicated, it’s not easy to recover complete confidence in the future.

by Matteo Scanni

Culture 01 March 2022

Although we often use the two terms interchangeably, doubt and dilemma are not synonyms. We could roughly define the latter as a subcategory of the former. Whereas doubts are the mental condition that arises when one challenges a certainty or ceases to believe in a fact, dilemmas are powerful logical refutation tools that reduce our options to just two alternatives (sometimes three). The origins of both are lost deep in time, yet their recursive, almost obsessive presence in our conversation has become the hallmark of these uncertain months of isolation.

Let’s face it, no matter how much we’ve retooled, reorganized, and self-medicated, it’s not easy to recover complete confidence in the future. It takes a daily effort that is not at all easy, a well-disciplined mental physiotherapy. This is because the lingering emergency situation has cracked our resistance to pessimism. By letting that crack sneak into our reasoning, all our positive thoughts are thwarted by contrarian reasoning. It doesn’t take long for the problem to escalate from ethical to pathological. It is no coincidence that there is a word — aboulomania (from the Greek a– “without”, and boulē “will”) — that identifies this pathological indecisiveness that affects teachers and students, young and old, scientists and philosophers, workers and CEOs, ordinary people and sophisticated minds.

In general, indecision is driven by uncertainty, i.e., the lack of information that helps us decode the context, assess the likelihood of a reliable outcome, and act before it’s too late. A loop that breeds apprehension and anxiety. To cope with this wave-like motion, we have always relied on our judgment. But lately, moral, existential, and work-related hesitations have surged. How often do we find ourselves overwhelmed by choices that we would normally dismiss as routine matters and that now we find challenging?

Sometimes, however, when doubts become dilemmas and a choice is simply impossible, anxiety is inevitable. In her investigative book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), journalist Jessica Bruder tackles a dramatic issue: every day in the United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, more and more people find themselves having to choose between paying rent and putting food on their table. And so, hounded by banks and creditors, many decide to give up rootedness, buy an RV, and become four-wheeled nomads. What would you do, by the way?

Poor People by William T. Vollmann (Harper Collins, 2007) accomplishes something different. Here the dilemma is a matter of style. Which is better to tell a story: fiction or journalism? In this extraordinary literary reportage, the author sets out with his camera to describe poverty in all its aspects and nuances. However, he doesn’t answer the question and lets the two perspectives fatally blur. Giving a voice to that blend of desperation and pride, defeat and resilience which abides in the damned of the earth, Vollmann asks a single question: “Why are you poor?” A tricky question since, as we all know, the choice seems obvious when it comes to deciding between good and evil. But what happens when we have to choose between two evils or, worse, between several evils that appear to us with the same face? What would you do?

Let’s get back to doubt and its functions. In the field of scientific research, any theory, to be defined as such, must be subjected to review, or to the so-called “critical doubt.” This also applies to the information that certain media offer us, considering that fake news and conspiracy theories have become a sort of amniotic fluid in which we float, and it has become hard to tell the difference between quality information and garbage. How do we get out of it? This is what debunking — the activity that exposes quackery and the like — deals with very seriously: searching for reliable data, rewording questions, and keeping an eye on psychotics out of touch with reality who fabricate alternative truths.

Fortunately, the art of doubting can also help raise our spirits. According to the semiologist Umberto Eco, “One of the first and most noble functions of things that are not very serious is to cast a shadow of distrust over things that are too serious.” So in this issue, we have not only dealt with fake news, digital spirituality, decision making, artificial intelligences undergoing identity crises, but also with crosswords, women who play football better than men, 3D art, and brutalist architecture. And, to answer the question “Is there life beyond Earth?”, we chose a ufologist over an astrophysicist.