Quite often, people will try to push you into having to choose between two mutually exclusive alternatives. A dichotomy, a boolean, binary choice. Yet life is not always boolean.

More often than not, there is an infinity of options. Since you're offered only two, which can usually be expressed as yes or no, true or false, 0 or 1, all other options can be regrouped into the third one, henceforth referred to as "mu": refusing that choice, unasking the question. Rejecting the frame, reframing.

As a first order of business, if you're told that you have to choose between only two options, this would mean that someone intends to use violence against you in order to force you into choosing only from those two options. In this case, the only valid answer is: defend yourself against that person. But let's dig deeper.

Reframe religion

Psy. 1: Excuse me, what are you doing?

Marge: Oh, I was just praying to God that you'll find me sane.

Psy. 1: I see. And this "God", is he in this room right now?

Marge: Oh, yes. He's kind of everywhere.

[psychologists exchange disapproving looks]

Psy. 2: Marge Simpson, you give us no choice but to declare you utterly-

Marge: [rising] I'm not insane!

Psy. 2: You didn't let me finish. -insane!

– The Simpsons

Pascal's wager is an extreme example of a false boolean choice, in assuming that there are only two possibilities in matters of religion (leading to two options):

  • There exists one and only one God AND he is as described by the Christian faith, AND he wants to be believed in above all else, AND he can't tell the difference if you're just pretending to be believing in him, thus believing in that God is the best course of action (quite the package-deal, indeed);
  • there is no God.

In reality, of course, there is an infinity of such possibilities. Without any further proof of their respective probabilities (which we would need to know anyway even if there were only two of them), picking these two out of the possible millions is not in any way smarter or more relevant than positing a dichotomy between "there are 5 gods with 3 wings each who drink milk" and "there are 4 gods with 4 tails each who eat cake" and asking you to bet on either one option. Or, put another way: "if there is a God, then he definitely expects you to spend your life hopping instead of walking, surely you won't take the huge risk of disobeying him!"

Reframe politics

Another classic example of this sort of fake dichotomy comes in electoral politics, when you're asked to support either one of two candidates. The Simpsons satirized this best: Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos.

But the political version of the package-deal false dichotomy is even worse than the religious one: asking the question as "for" or "against" misses the whole point of options. Any real decision is always a decision in terms of courses of action (such as, from the Pascal's wager example: living your life as if the Christian God exists, OR living your life as if he does not). Any question regarding a hypothetical situation, completely abstract, has not much relevance for the real world, if it is not tied to any actual course of action.

What does it mean to be "for Obama"? Writing his name in a ballot box? Actively campaigning for him? Devoting your life to kidnapping and thus preventing from casting a vote anyone who plans to vote for the other guy? Or merely holding a floating opinion on the matter in your mind? Because if it's the latter, then saying "I wish for Obama to be President, because he's the lesser evil", is not anymore "pragmatic" or "realistic" than saying "I wish for myself to be President". As long as you're merely dreaming, you might as well dream of what you really want, not merely a "second best" or "lesser of two evils": one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. And if you're not dreaming, than actually do assess your real options.

Statistically speaking, voting is only marginally more efficient than, say, praying. Therefore, you can't pretend it to be always rational, or even a moral duty. Sure, while the probability-adjusted benefit is low, the cost is low as well. So, sure, do it if you wish, but don't pretend like it's making a difference, and don't pretend it's anymore pragmatic or rational than voting for a third party. And don't pretend it's the best you can do.

If you wish to be pragmatic, actually do something, don't talk about wishful thinking (even people who can't actually vote in the US elections will have an "opinion" on the matter!). The relevant question is how you will actually use your precious time in terms of action, not your un-demonstrated, unrevealed, unproven hypothetical preferences. Thus, the only real choice is in terms of what you intend to do with each and every second of your life, not hypothetical abstract questions falsely divived into imaginary dichotomies. Again, "casting a vote for Obama" and "casting a vote for the other big party candidate" are two actual options for using a specific amount of your time and effort in order to influence the political future of the USA in the direction you want (the real objective, right?), two options among, again, an infinity, even if we assume that one given end as a datum.

The same goes for expressing regrets regarding past decisions. The relevant question, again, is not some abstract position on an unrealistic scenario (should I have done that? should I not have done that? once it's done, it's done). Any decision is only meaningful in terms of present action: try to revert the consequences of the past action, ignore it, write down a big note to avoid such mistakes in the future, etc.

Reframe everything

But the concept is even more general, and can be applied to a lot of areas:

US politicsgovernment partyopposition partythird party/abstention/revolution/agorism
optionsoption aoption bsecret option c
a pointless debatewin itlose itdon't enter it
the spoonbend itdon't bend itthere is no spoon
in a given contextsucceedingfailingswitching context
what you think you wantgetting itnot getting itchanging what you want
idiots' respecthaving itnot having itnot caring/not checking whether you have it
asylum requestacceptrejectNichteintretensentscheide
police interrogationconfessdenyremain silent

Cognitive reframing consists of changing the way people see things and trying to find alternative ways of viewing ideas, events, situations, or a variety of other concepts.

A point of view, or opinion, is a chosen option within a given frame, one possible answer to a given question. The frame is the question itself. If you don't like the set of possible answers, you have to change the question. That's exactly what Don Draper meant when he said "if you don't like what is being said, change the conversation". You don't just voice a different opinion within a given conversation, you change the conversation itself, the topic being discussed. The topic can be a certain angle, way of seeing a given issue. Seeing this issue in a completely different way becomes a wholly different conversation. It's the meta level.

You don't win by letting your opponent set the rules, then playing by those rules. You win by rejecting his rules and then playing and winning by your own rules. That's it. I reject your reality and substitute my own.

Winning within a given frame may be irrelevant in some other frame. You should, for instance, often ask yourself the question: Is this peer group worth impressing? Being admired by a group of drunkards for holding up your drink, for instance, might not get you the same admiration from a wholly different group of people. It's about changing the frame, not changing people's opinions within that frame. The goal is not to convince the group of drunkards to admire you for your talents with the violin instead, but to find another peer group.

Of course, when it comes to game, relative power, being the alpha male of the tribe, is often the most important. But remember that game isn't everything. And that if you find yourself losing within a frame you dislike, you'll be much better off changing the frame, by changing location, people, approach, attitude, or expectations.

Religion is an example of having to change the frame, as we've seen above. For religious people, say Christians, there is one God, he's the way their holy book describes him, and the only question within that frame is whether you believe in him or not. They even created a word, "atheism", for someone who doesn't believe in their God, and another word, "agnosticism", for someone who is unsure of the answer to that one specific question.

Well, I won't answer that question, because I'm not interested in that question. I reject their frame. I reject the conceptual validity of the question (ignosticism) and its relevance (apatheism).

Politics, as well, has to be reframed. The usual frame is party politics, and the possible answers to that question are usually in the form of various candidate names. I reject that frame. My frame is instead: who is initiating the use of force, and thus being a criminal? And what is the best use of my time in protecting myself and others against criminals?

Likewise, you'll get sucked into debates that you can't win. Why accept those debates? Is the answer relevant? What is the goal, the end?

Be clear about your ends. Be clear about your values. Be clear about your options. Then, you can make relevant choices, and appreciate the freedom of choosing not only the results of the game, but the rules of the game, and the very definition of the game.

More mu examples:

  • Gordian Knot

  • Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.

    – The Matrix

  • Don draper: What do women want?

    Roger Sterling: Who cares.

    – Mad Men

  • Do you think I consider their question debatable?

    – Dagny Taggart, in Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

  • -Quizmaster: If you were a clam, what would you say to the postman?

    -Bombie: [Utter silence].

    -Quizmaster: You have exactly ten seconds to come up with the jack pot answer!... Time's up! You win! You didn't say anything, and that is what the clam would say! We give this gentleman with the tremendous brain the grand prize-the wheel-barrow full of money!

    – Donald Duck, Voodoo Hoodoo

  • You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus:

    1. An old lady who looks as if she is about to die.

    2. An old friend who once saved your life.

    3. The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.

    Which one would you choose to offer a ride to, knowing that there could only be one passenger in your car? Think before you continue reading.

    This is a moral/ethical dilemma that was once actually used as part of a job application. You could pick up the old lady, because she is going to die, and thus you should save her first. Or you could take the old friend because he once saved your life, and this would be the perfect chance to pay him back. However, you may never be able to find your perfect mate again.

    The candidate who was hired (out of 200 applicants) had no trouble coming up with his answer.

    He simply answered: "I would give the car keys to my old friend and let him take the lady to the hospital. I would stay behind and wait for thebus with the partner of my dreams."

  • Roberto Benigni La Vita è bella

  • We're not having this conversation.

    – Don Draper, Mad Men

  • 39 Test Answers That Are 100% Wrong But Totally Genius At The Same Time

  • The best revenge is living well.

  • Capitalist free market competition: prevents businesses from locking you into one given frame, in which you'd think their exorbitant price is normal, and your only choice is either to buy (yes) or not buy (no) their product. The mu option, which exists only on a free market: choose another product, create your own brand, etc.

  • When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down "happy". They told me I didn't understand the assignment. I told them they didn't understand life.

    – John Lennon


In conclusion:

  1. just because someone tells you there are two options, doesn't mean there are only two options;
  2. all relevant options are in terms of actual courses of action;
  3. reframe everything, thus defining your reality.