Free Will, Regret and the Choice Engine

choices of doors

While I was on vacation earlier this month,  I had a few “heavy” talks with a friend who was with us. At one point we got into a discussion of regrets. My philosophy is no regrets. I think regrets hurt our present and future. I’m a believer in the idea that if you change one thing in your past, you change everything that follows. And I am not unhappy with my present and changing something in the past that I wasn’t happy about would move me out of this present.  Yes, changing something might make my present better in some ways,  but there’s no guarantee of that positive result.

Of course, this is all a thought experiment since we can’t change the past. That only happens in science-fiction.

Are you reading this article because you chose to? Or are you doing so as a result of forces beyond your control? That is how an article I read this past week about free will and regrets begins.

Tom Stafford is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield who studies learning and decision making. “The Choice Engine” is an “interactive essay” about the psychology, neuroscience and philosophy of free will.

How and why do we choose? Are our choices free, or determined by things like our past, our brains or our environment? Are our choices ours?

Studies have shown that people who believe things happen randomly and not through our own choice often behave much worse than those who believe in free will. That makes sense. If you don’t think you have a choice in the matter, then what-the-hell is the difference?

There is a simple example given using an insect to illustrate. When a female digger wasp is ready to lay her eggs, she hunts down a cricket or similar prey, paralyses it with a sting, drags it back to the lip of her burrow, and then enters to check for blockages. If you move the cricket a few centimetres away before she re-emerges, she will again drag it to the threshold and again leave it to check for blockages. She will do this over and over. The wasp has no free will – no choice in the matter. The digger wasp has become an example for biologists of determinism.

Determinism is the idea that what we think of as a “choice” is in fact a path dictated by pre-existing factors.  I don’t subscribe to that philosophy.

“I’m no wasp,” you might say. “My choices are my own. Freely made.” But these neuroscience-of-decision-making people seem to think that sophisticated animal that we are, we are also trapped in behavior beyond our control. Free will is just an illusion.

I disagree.  Stafford, a cognitive scientist, disagrees.  I would like to believe that he is correct and that “… the evidence shows that most people have a sense of their individual freedom and responsibility that is resistant to being overturned by neuroscience.”

Stafford’s book, Mind Hacks: Tips & Tricks for Using Your Brain, has hacks/exercises that examines specific operations of the brain. They are a hands-on way to see how your brain responds and learn about the “architecture”of the brain. You can try to “Release Eye Fixations for Faster Reactions,” “See Movement When All is Still,” “Feel the Presence and Loss of Attention,” and “Understand Detail and the Limits of Attention.”

It is your choice whether or not to read the book.

Grass Moon of May

moon grass

What can I say about this month’s Full Moon that has not been said before? It occurs tonight, May 18th, at 5:11 P.M. in Paradelle. But you might have looked up last night and said, “Oh, it’s a Full Moon tonight,” because it certainly looked pretty full then.

This May Full Moon is often called the Flower Moon, for obvious reasons. Things are probably blooming in your Northern Hemisphere neighborhood. In Paradelle, we are past all the early spring bulbs like crocuses, daffodils and tulips. We have moved on to azaleas, rhododendrons and irises. Mother’s Day was often the time for my mom’s iris bed to be filed with blooms, but this year we are behind by almost two weeks because of a very wet and cool spring. But we will catch up eventually.

Flies are buzzing and ants are trying to eat up my home’s framework. I’m sure the mosquitoes are very happy about all the vernal pools, unintentional puddles and water filled objects around for their breeding.

Does this feel like Flower Moon or the Planting Moon, or the Medieval Hare Moon?  I have written about it being the Buddha Full MoonCorn Planting Moon, Hare Moon, Moon When Frogs Return, and Milk Moon.

In 2016, it was a Blue and Day for Night Moon.

In my neighborhood, it feels like the Grass Moon this year. The American Indian name of  Moon When the Grass is Green mixes well with the Milk Moon because of the grass and cows connection. The Dakotah Sioux called this the Moon When the Leaves Are Green.  With all the grass peaking in its chlorophyll green, historically this is the time of the hay harvest.  It is a planting time for vegetables, so rather than celebrate harvests, this is seen as a time of hope and promise.

No cows in Paradelle, but lots of rain has made lots of grass in my front and back lawns. It is at its peak green. I could use a few cows or goats to graze there, because my lawn mower refuses to start. So, for this Full Moon, I will be pulling apart the carburetor and cleaning the float and checking the gas line and pulling the starter a bunch of times. The rabbits are enjoying the grass for now, waiting for me to plant my vegetables.

The grass needs cutting.

I Am Not a Pluviophile

raindrops

I like words. I like learning about new words. I write on another website about the origins (etymologies) of words and phrases and names.

The past few weeks have been very rainy here in Paradelle. It was said that “April showers bring May flowers,” but the rain continued into May and the flowers came more slowly and hung their wet heads.

I discovered the word “pluviophile” this past week. A pluviophile is a person who loves rain. It comes from the Latin word “pluvial,” which means rain, and “phile,” which denotes a thing or a person.

Pluviophiles find joy and peace in a rainy day. I don’t I qualify as one, but there are times when I can love rain. Watching a gentle rain through a window and being warm and dry inside is very pleasant. But I suppose that is not true pluviophile love. It has been a long time since I was a kid who loved running outside in the rain, especially in a summer shower.

I don’t love the flooding rains that wash out my garden or leak into my basement. In fact, I more often dislike rain. But then I see it soak and refresh my vegetable garden and rinse the pollen off the world. And when the sun comes out, there are tiny prisms on leaves and maybe even a rainbow.

The pluviophiles will not accept me as one of them because I’m not with them all the time, but I can appreciate their attraction.


Pluviophiles seem to like to make short films about rain. I prefer to just hear the rain, but if the rain needs a soundtrack, then maybe it is some Erik Satie coming from the next room that is filled with umbrellas.

Green Childhood, Happier Adulthood

forest trees woods

On this Mothers’ Day, I am remembering my mother, now gone 8 years. I believe my childhood might be considered tough by other people’s standards. My father had a serious illness and died much too young. My sister was born with mental and learning issues. We were certainly lower-middle-class. I was forced into adulthood by circumstances at age 11. But my mother was always there, and my overall memory of childhood  – those first 10 years and especially the summers – is of many good days.

Though I lived in a very urban, densely populated town in New Jersey, there were pockets of green in my neighborhood and green places that I could escape to on my bicycle.

From our backyard garden of vegetables and the apple, peach and plum trees, to the front rock garden full of my mother’s flowers, I felt surrounded by nature.

I am convinced that the greenish light, the smells of soil and herbs and flowers, and learning about plants and trees had a powerful effect on my life. Our dog, our rabbits, even the salamanders, turtles and safe snakes that I temporarily had as pets and then released to their real homes made me feel connected to what we later called the “web of life.”

So, I am not surprised when I read articles that confirm that researchers believe that a greener childhood is associated with a happier adulthood.

I have written here before about related topics such as forest bathing and the healing effects of the forest.

Being in my current little garden in the backyard, walking through the nearby smallish woods or a local park with a tiny creek and pond are still ways that I slow down time and immerse in nature.

Of course, I love getting out into a big forest or on a tropical island, but those experiences are out of my ordinary life. And so, I cling to those same islands of green that fascinated me as a child and offered me refuge as a teenager in a troubled home.

park bridge

Green spaces are shrinking. Scientists are still studying the association between green spaces and mental health. I’m glad that research shows that growing up around green (vegetation) is associated with a significantly lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood. But I knew that.

Other studies seem to indicate that a lack of green space increases the risk of mood disorders and schizophrenia and can even affect cognitive development.

The green of my childhood couldn’t prevent my father’s illness or my sister’s cognitive development, but it helped me. I don’t want to overstate the power of green spaces. One of the scientists in those studies cautions that studies have limitations: and some of the findings are correlational. They can’t definitively say that growing up near green space reduces risk of mental illness.

Many questions remain. Would a forest have more impact than a park? Are positive effects evolutionary or cultural? Can the effects be physiological as well as psychological? Maybe having more green spaces around us simply encourage social interaction and exercise, both of which improve mood. Does a decrease in air, water and noise pollution have a positive impact on mental health?

My non-scientist mother maintained that exposure to the dirt (a wider diversity of microbes) would make me healthier. Mom knew.

Tea As Philosophy

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful
among the sordid facts of everyday existence.
It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity,
the romanticism of the social order.
It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect,
as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible
in this impossible thing we know as life.”
― Kakuzō Okakura, The Book of Tea

I enjoy tea. I’m not alone, as it is the most popular beverage in the world after water.

It can be a simple thing to make and enjoy. But it can also be complex.

From a simple cup of the very common orange pekoe to a more unusual pu-erh tea, the choice of teas even in tea bags has become an almost overwhelming series of grocery store shelves. The way it is made and enjoyed can also be complex and even ceremonial.

I came under the spell of The Book of Tea (which is really a long essay) when I was a college student. It was originally written in English and was meant for Westerners.

In the book, I learned that tea began as a medicine and later became a beverage. But in fifteenth century Japan, it was elevated to a religion of aestheticism known as Teaism.

Teaism is not merely the appreciation of te but an adoration of the beautiful among the sordid in everyday existence. It worships the imperfect.

This “philosophy of tea” is far more complicated than this short post can summarize. It involves ethics and religion, our relationship with nature, even cleanliness and economics.

I saw it described as “moral geometry” in that it tries to define or refine our sense of proportion to the universe.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough
or a book long enough to suit me.”
― C.S. Lewis

But that cup of tea, if you go deeper, is more complex, subtle, varied, challenging and interesting than you would have imagined. Perhaps you simply drop a tea bag into a mug of hot water or put it into the microwave, but tea is still hand-crafted and treated like a bottle of wine, in some places and by some people.

Can tea have a positive effect on your brain, mood and attitude? Perhaps.

Can reading the tea leaves predict the future. Probably not.

Can you follow the way of tea? Absolutely.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently,
as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves –
slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh

green tea incup on rocks

Reading the Tea Leaves

tea readers

This morning, I brewed a little pot of tea in the old way and so I ended up with some tea leaves in my cup. And I did a bit of reading the tea leaves.

You’ve probably heard about that and I’m not claiming that tasseography (or tasseomancy or tassology) works, of course. But divination by interpreting patterns in tea leaves is quite an old practice.

Tasseography comes from the French word tasse for “cup” (which comes from Arabic tassa) and the Greek suffixes -graph (writing), -logy (study of), and -mancy (divination). You get a bit of history by looking at the word and see who practiced this art. It is also done with coffee grounds and wine sediments, but tea leaves are the most common method.

I know there is no scientific evidence that the future can be determined through any method, so you can view this as just a party game – but I do have an affinity for things that are interpretations of synchronistic events.

The methodology is simple: pour a cup of brewed tea made without a tea strainer into a white cup and drink the tea. (I don’t think you should just pour it out.) Some things I have read say to shake the cup but that seems like some deliberate changes to the leaves, so I leave them be unless they are all in a lump. I did give a final swirl before I finished the last sip. There aren’t that many rules about what to see and much of the interpretation is in the eyes and mind of the reader.

Look for a pattern: a letter, a shape, a face. There are books that give clues, much in the way that dream interpretation books suggest meanings and symbols. But the meanings are supposed to be so personal that you need your own system to interpret your future.

Guides will say that a heart means your love life, a snake is falsehood, a spade is good fortune, a road or mountain is a journey, though the mountain might be an obstacle along the way. Pretty standard interpretation stuff and far too generic to have much personal meaning. Maybe, for you, a heart indicates actual heart health. Maybe snakes are pets to you, or perhaps you just saw one in your garden this morning. Meanings are personal. You could certainly anger some people by saying that a cat represents “a deceitful friend or relative” while a dog is “a loyal friend or relative” as I read online.

I was taught (by a girlfriend in college) that you read a cup starting at the rim by the handle as the present, and down to the bottom as the future. If you’re able to do it, some readers can see not only images in the dark tea leaves, but also the reverse images in the white negative spaces (the dark leaves are then the background).

tea leaves

What did I see of my future in my cup of plum tea?

I think near the handle I do see a mountain.
Those two blobs to the left? Clouds?
On the bottom, I see an alligator with its mouth open at the left. Not sure what is below it.
So, am I facing a mountain that I must climb soon? One obscured by clouds or something?
To the future, that alligator doesn’t bode well. Unless, it’s a lucky dragon.

I think I’ll stick to my casting of the runes.