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.

Walking with Einstein and Gödel

I picked up the book When Einstein Walked with Gödel this past week at the library because of the title and the photo on the cover of the two mathematicians walking across a campus in Princeton, New Jersey.

I was disappointed that the entire book was not about the two of them, but is instead a collection of essay by Jim Holt. The title essay is one I really like as it deals with one of my favorite topics – our changing notions of time. It comes from a friendship between Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel when they were both working in Princeton in the 1930s. Einstein had shaken the physical world with his work, and Gödel had shaken mathematics. They ended up taking almost daily walks to their offices at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Gödel would have looked pretty fancy (he liked white linen suits) and Einstein would have looked like the absent-minded genius that we know with his crazy hair and too-big pants.

But what really interests me in reading the essay today was the walking. Today was a very nice spring day that was warmer than it has been. I took the covers of the deck furniture and sat outside with my lunch and coffee. And I went for a walk.

I love walking and I am a firm believer in the power of walking to spark creativity and thought. (More on that tomorrow) Of course, it would be great to have the content of those walking conversations between Al and Kurt. I imagine that the conversations went beyond math and physics, though I’m sure math and science were the main themes.

I have so far only skimmed a few of the other essays in the book, but each could be a walking conversation. Did you know that the word “scientist” was only coined in 1833? It was a philosopher, William Whewell, who used it in his efforts to “professionalize” science and separate it from philosophy. Holt quotes Freeman Dyson (another person at the Institute who I actually got to meet and talk with briefly when he gave a talk at NJIT) as saying that “Science grew to a dominant position in public life, and philosophy shrank. Philosophy shrank even further when it became detached from religion and from literature.”

I certainly couldn’t keep up with Einstein and Godel on the science of time, but I would love to put in my own ideas and get some feedback from the boys.

Some of Holt’s questions that he attempts to answer in the essay are also intriguing ideas for a walking conversation. Does time exist? What is infinity? Why do mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down? And the biographical sketches of famous and not-so-famous thinkers makes me want to go on walks with them too – Emmy Noether, Alan Turing, Benoit Mandelbrot, Ada Lovelace and others.

There Will Come Soft Rains

As a follow-up to my earlier post  on the disappearance of humans from the Earth, I offer “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a 1918 poem by Sara Teasdale. The poem imagines nature reclaiming Earth after a war that has led to human extinction. It is interesting that she wrote this poem 25 years before the invention of nuclear weapons.

 

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote a story in 1950 that used Teasdale’s title as its title. The story shows us a world in which the human race has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Bradbury was writing during the “Cold War” era when the devastating effects of nuclear force was frequently in the news.

Mantra: Instrument of Mind

 

Om
The Om syllable is considered a mantra in its own right in the Vedanta school of Hinduism.

 

The word “mantra” comes from ancient Sanskrit combining man meaning mind and tra meaning instrument, with the idea being that it is an instrument of the mind. A mantra is a word or phrase in Sanskrit that you repeat over and over, either aloud or silently.

I first learned about it when I first encountered meditation because the repetition of a mantra quiets the mind and should bring peace and clarity.

“Om” is probably the most well know Sanskrit Mantra. Om is believed to be the sound of creation. It is the first, original vibration. Positive mantras create a powerful sound vibration that aligns the mind, body and spirit to divine energy.

Using mantras is a type of meditation and chanting one is treated like meditation – seated in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.

In transcendental meditation, a mantra is considered a personal and secret thing, but now you can find mantras online and even YouTube videos of how to pronounce the ancient Sanskrit words.

I was taught to chant it out loud seven times, then again seven times but softly, and then silently in my head seven more times or for as long as needed silently until the vibration of the sound connects in some way to your  subconscious mind.

I learned much later that in India tradition, the mantra is repeated 108 times, using a string of 108 Mala beads to help you keep count. This reminded me of the praying of the rosary and other props used to focus meditation or prayer.

So, are mantras really prayers? I think they can be, but they do not have to have any connection to a religious sect or practice. Mantras, when used properly, are said to direct your life force energy (Prana) through the body and your energy centers. That is why some practitioners credit them with deep healing.

It is easy to make fun of mantras, as Woody Allen did in Annie Hall. (Do you recognize the rather distraught young man in the clip above who has forgotten his mantra? It’s Jeff Goldblum in a bit part back in 1977.)

When I first was given a mantra by some “Buddhists” I met my freshman year of college, I was told that I could request anything and by chanting my mantra regularly my wish would be fulfilled. “Could I get a new guitar?” I asked. “Absolutely,” was the reply.

That is not what mantras are about.

I question the powers attached to an individual mantra. For example, Om Namah Shivaya is the “great redeeming mantra” and is supposed to help us to call on our higher self, overcome our ego, aid in purification and space cleansing, physical and mental healing and increase self-esteem and confidence. That seems like a lot to ask of six syllables.

Om Shanti translates as “peace” and is a popular mantra. Om Namah Shivaya is also a well known Hindu mantra and the most important mantra in Shaivism. It means “O salutations to the auspicious one!” or “adoration to Lord Shiva.”

You don’t have to use a Sanskrit mantra. There are other words and phrases in English or any language you can use. J.D. Salinger introduced me to the Jesus Prayer which is used as a mantra. That short prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Salinger is most famous for The Catcher In The Rye, but after the fame of that book sent him off to a hermit’s life in Cornish, New Hampshire, he wrote Franny and Zooey. That book introduced me – and I’m sure many others – to the Jesus Prayer.

Salinger’s novel also introduced me to the Russian tale The Way of a Pilgrim, which is essentially an introduction to The Philokalia – part of Christian mysticism.

In a literary sense, the story of the siblings Franny and Zooey, the two youngest members of the Glass family which was a frequent focus of Salinger’s writing, may be a reaction to the success of Catcher in the Rye.

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher, is full of teenage existential angst. It puts him into a mental hospital.  Salinger himself escaped the fame train that his first book put him on and went into isolation and read a lot about philosophy and spirituality.

Franny and Zooey is a modern American take on the path from existential depression to spiritual illumination. Franny explains the method of the Jesus Prayer in this way:

“… if you keep saying that prayer over and over again, you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what but something happens, the words get synchronized with the person’s heart-beats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. The prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness.”

Positive mantras should be words that resonate for you. You could just use a word such as “peace” as your mantra. People will create their own mantra. Someone coming out of a broken relationship or leaving a job might say “I will find a better life.” The mantra can be about your intention.

More than a few self-proclaimed modern”gurus” have built a career (and fortune) by getting people to use mantras (whether they use that word or not) and to repeat over and over positive phrases such as “I am strong.”

In Franny and Zooey, Salinger also has a character warn us about using a mantra.

“You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you ever move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. ‘Cessations from all hankerings.’ It’s this business of desiring, if you want to know the goddamn truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why’re you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line – in one damn incarnation or another, if you like – you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to – be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?” source

I identified as a college student with Franny Glass. She is a 20-year-old English major. Her story takes place when she visits her boyfriend for a college football weekend at his school.  She is already tiring of the phoniness of college life and the egotism of faculty and students – including her boyfriend.

“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting.’

Her existential crisis is at a point where it is making her physically sick. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand the little book, The Way of a Pilgrim, she has borrowed from the college library that is in her handbag.

At the end of her story, she explains that the prayer means to her that ‘You get to see God. Something happens in some absolutely nonphysical part of the heart—where the Hindus say that Atman resides…”

She is nauseous, sweating and has just confessed out loud what she is feeling. Franny faints on the way to the bathroom. “Alone, Franny lay quite still, looking up at the ceiling. Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.”

Salinger was writing Catcher fresh from getting out of WWII and surrounded by Beat Generation poets and novelists and their fascination with Eastern philosophies. We know that Salinger also was interested in Eastern religious philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Hindu Advaita Vedanta, but also Christian spirituality.

The nineteenth-century Russian peasant who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim tells the story of his journey as a mendicant traveller across Russia, He repeats the Jesus Prayer uninterruptedly, as a type of mantra.

It’s too much to say that the two stories of Franny and Zooey are full stories of pilgrims or hero journeys or even someone in crisis finding enlightenment. And it’s too much to say that chanting a mantra will solve all your problems.

Nichiren was a 13th-century Buddhist monk who saw as the essence of Buddhism the belief that we have within us at each moment the ability to overcome any problem or difficulty that we may encounter in life. He believed we have the ability to transform any suffering through a power we possess by being connected to a fundamental law.principle that underlies the workings of all life and the universe.

The name he gave to this principle was “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” This was the first mantra I was given in that college encounter with budding Buddhists. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and I used in meditations for about a year, but I left it.

I rediscovered it (though it had been flashing in my brain on and off for the rest of my life) only a few years ago. I read an article explaining the meaning of the words and then realized that part of what appealed to me about the mantra was that I did not know what the words meant. The mystery of the words was part of my attraction to them.

The past year I have used this mantra as a way to clear my mind of thoughts, especially when I am trying to get to sleep. Luckily, I have forgotten the meaning of the words so that the chanting carries no other meaning, no associations that are an opportunity to distraction. The silent chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo pushes other thoughts away. An empty mind can be a wonderful thing.

Mad as a March Hare

March hare
The March Hare as illustrated by John Tenniel.

“Mad as a March hare” is a common British English phrase. It is still in use today and was in use in the time of Lewis Carroll when he was writing his books about Alice’s adventures. The phrase appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546.

The origin of this is thought to come from a popular (though not scientific) belief about hares’ behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season. (In Britain, it would be from February to September.) Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that this “fighting” was between two males competing for breeding dominance.

The March Hare as a character is called Haigha in Through the Looking-Glass. The March Hare most famously appears in the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice says, “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”

hare
A Scrub Hare (Lepus saxatilis) with prominent ears

Hares and jackrabbits (leporids belonging to the genus Lepus and classified in the same family as rabbits) are similar in size and form to rabbits and have similar herbivorous diets, but generally have longer ears and live solitarily or in pairs rather than in groups or families. They are very independent creatures and unlike other rabbits, their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. They are generally faster than other rabbits.

illustration from Alice in Wonderland
The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot – illustration by John Tenniel.

The March Hare character is certainly more hare than rabbit. he is friends with The Hatter character. The Hatter also appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Readers often call him the “Mad Hatter” but Carroll never uses that adjective for his name. But at the tea party, the Cheshire Cat refers to The Hatter and the March Hare as “both mad.”

In Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the March Hare is shown with straw on his head, which apparently was a common way to depict madness in Victorian times, perhaps alluding to to a straw-stuffed scarecrow head.

For all you language fans, jackrabbits are hares, rather than rabbits. Should they be jackhares? A hare less than one year old is called a leveret. A group of hares is called a “drove.” And the march Hare’s real name in the books, Haigha, should be pronounced to rhyme with “mayor,” according to Lewis Carroll – which would mean it is pronounced “hare.” Madness indeed.

What I’m Listening To: Self-Promotional Edition

I post here occasionally about what I am listening to in the podcast/online/radio world.  I still listen to many podcasts (too many, my wife would say) and I will update the list at some point, but this brief edition certainly falls under the category of self-promotion.

I have listened to the daily podcast of The Writer’s Almanac since 1993. It began as a public radio show that was harder for me to catch every day. I was glad when it became a podcasts that I could subscribe to and have waiting on my phone. It ran on public radio through 2017 and episodes are archived online. Now, the show is available as a podcast and online on the host’s, Garrison Keillor, website.

I had listened to Garrison Keillor starting in 1974 on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. I loved that voice and his ad-libbed weekly stories of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon.  I went on to read his short stories and novels. You can label him as author, storyteller, humorist, voice actor and radio personality. He hosted that show through 2016 when he retired and passed the reins over to others.

I was lucky to have three of my poems featured on the Almanac this month. I really enjoy hearing other people read my poems and that is not something I get to experience very often. The links are below and you can read the poems there online, but I strongly recommend that you listen to him read the poems. The poems are at the end of the program, so you could fast-forward through the news, but I enjoy the news of the day every morning as much, sometimes even more, as the poem.

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. This Gothic beauty was the original setting of my poem, “Shame.”
“Shame” is a serious poem that came from an experience I had as a young man in a beautiful cathedral.
The other two are less serious, though not totally meant to be funny.
“Who Shows Up at My Poetry Reading” portrays the kinds of people I actually have had show up at readings. The poem often gets laughs when I read it, though fellow poets may be more likely to just nod in recognition.
My poem, “Somewhat Optimistic Horoscopes,” came from reading an actual horoscope column online. The short-form horoscopes tend to be pretty positive, though you might get a warning prediction once in a while. What I thought was missing was ones that were somewhere in-between.