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.

The End and Stephen Hawking

Some of Stephen Hawking’s predictions are things that I don’t want to be around to see as they focus on the end of human life on Earth.

For one thing,Hawking was quite fearful of the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). He joined in an open letter with other scientists saying that when AI becomes equal to or exceeds human intelligence, the “robots” were likely to destroy the human race.

But he also feared an old enemy – ourselves. He feared that human aggression in the form of something like a major nuclear war could lead to the extinction of the human race.

And he warned about another enemy – alien life. He was of the belief that if intelligent alien life does exist, it is more likely not to be friendly towards humans. Conquering and colonizing Earth would be their logical plan for Earth.

I had heard these and other theories of Hawking’s in a 2010 documentary, Into the UniverseHis is a rather pessimistic view of the future. The depletion of our natural resources and the warming of the planet until it is as inhospitable as Venus are also possibilities for the end of us in his predictions.

I hope he’s wrong about all of these futures.

Brain Waves and Biohacking

Neural oscillations are more popularly known as brain waves. These rhythmic or repetitive patterns of neural activity in the central nervous system occur in several types. I first learned about this in a high school science class, though I had certainly encountered a version of them on TV and in movies before that.

My teacher said that our body contains electricity and it can be measured. In the brain, an electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test used to measure electrical activity of the brain. Small metal discs with electrodes are placed on the scalp to send signals to a computer to record the results.

Certain actions cause the neurons in our brains to communicate with each other in an electrical or chemical way. There are five types of frequencies or brainwaves.

Beta waves occur with day-to-day activities when we are alert and when we are learning.

Alpha waves are present when we are relaxing, waking up or winding down from our learning and working activities.

In the non-dreaming portions of deep sleep, the restorative healing sleep, slow Delta waves are present.

Dreaming is a special part of sleep. Theta waves appear when we are dreaming or in flow states or in meditation. Those sound like pretty serious times of concentration, but theta waves also occur when you doing something like taking a shower and arrive at solution to a problem at work. It’s not because you were focused on that problem, but you were completely in the moment.

Gamma waves were essentially unknown before the development of digital EEG recorders because the older analog machines could not measure brain waves at that high frequency.

Gamma brain waves are associated with the “feeling of blessings” which are reported by experienced meditators. You have probably heard about the studies done with monks in meditation and nuns in prayer. Neuroscientists believe that gamma waves are able to link information from all parts of the brain. They are associated with peak performance, mentally and physically.

People with high gamma activity have exceptionally vivid and rapid memory recall. They have increased sensory perception, and increased focus. In a gamma state the brain is able to process incredible amounts of information very quickly, remember it, and retrieve that memory later.

There are benefits to entering a gamma state. And all this leads to the idea of brain wave training. What if we could be trained to produce certain waves?

If you could make more theta waves, it could be very beneficial. It could help produce a state of relaxation. It might help those with sleep problems quiet their brain to sleep. It could help the stress and anxiety of those with phobias, OCD, eating disorders and other issues. It might be able to replace tranquilizers.

The term biohacking is used to describe this brain wave training.

How might you try to generate theta waves?  It’s not easy. I have read about some interesting methods. You could try listening to specially prepared “music.” called binaural beats which are two slightly different ranges of hertz that are played in each ear. You can find some of these sounds online by searching YouTube or Spotify for something like “theta binaural beats.”

But you can try meditation practices such as focusing on your breathing which will enable you to be in the present moment. Regular meditation increases alpha activity and decreases beta in waking states.

If you want more serious, data-driven, training you could work with a neurofeedback coach using tools like EEG in the way that people use biofeedback training to control heart rate, skin temperature, and blood pressure.

The Walking Solution

solvitur ambulando

A walk can often help me solve a problem, issue or make a decision. I am not alone in this way of thinking.

Have you ever seen the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando?ˈIt translates as “it is solved by walking.” The saying is often attributed to Saint Augustine, though in a poem with that phrase as a title by Billy Collins, he credits it to a “thoughtful Roman.”

Collins writes:

The maxim makes it sound so simple:
go for a walk until you find a solution
then walk back home with a clear head.

Yesterday, I wrote here about walking conversations between two very famous mathematicians. Collins also thought about that –

And what about the mathematician
who tried to figure out some devilish
mind-crusher like Goldbach’s conjecture
and taking the Latin to heart,
walked to the very bottom of Patagonia?

There he stood on a promontory,
so the locals like to tell you,
staring beyond the end of the hemisphere,

with nothing but the cries of seabirds,
waves exploding on the rocks,
clouds rushing down the sky,
and him having figured the whole thing out.

In an interview, Collins explained a bit about the poem: ” I do have a poem in this new book called “Solvitur Ambulando,” which is Latin for ‘it is solved by walking,’ and the poem is sort of about that belief that, if you have a problem, you take it out for a walk, and you don’t turn around until you have some clarification. So, the poem, really, is about someone who just walks for hundreds of miles without clarification. Walking is always a good time to pick up something.”

Poets are “working” on their poems all the time, so don’t think that if you see a poet gazing out the window, having a drink and staring into space or walking in the park that they aren’t hard at work. Of course, Max Beerbohm said, “The most difficult thing about being a poet is knowing what to do with your remaining twenty-three and a half hours a day”.

Solvitur ambulando appears in varied places. It is in Lewis Carroll’s “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles“, and in Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach. It was cited in “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau and in The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin.

These days the phrase can mean more than just walking and might refer to a problem which is solved by a practical experiment.

In The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, the phrase comes up several times. It also appears in the writings of Aleister Crowley and Oliver Sacks.

Here’s an odd one – it is the motto of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society which concerns those Royal Air Forces airmen who “failed to return” from sorties during WWII but either evaded capture or more rarely escaped from captivity.

I also feel that using walking meditation (kinhin) that is practiced between long periods of the sitting meditation (zazen), is another kind of way to solve by walking. The practice is used in Zen, Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon and Vietnamese Thiền.

And that Goldbach Conjecture that Billy Collins referenced in his poem is a yet unproven conjecture that is one of the oldest unsolved problems in mathematics.  In case you want to walk and try to solve it, it states that every even integer greater than two is the sum of two prime numbers. The conjecture has been tested for numbers up into the hundreds of trillions, but is still unproven. I could take a very long walk and still get no closer to the answer to this conjecture.

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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.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

A recent study says that I drink too much coffee per day. Another article I read says that researchers now say eating a few eggs is not healthy. I can find articles from a year or two ago that say the opposite; my coffee would be helping me and those eggs were the perfect food. I feel like everything I know is wrong because they keep changing what is right.

It’s one thing to just believe something to be true because you got the wrong information from someone (maybe in school, maybe online) but it’s different when “they” change the answers.

There is a book titled The Book of General Ignorance which has the subtitle “Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong.” Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Baseball was invented in America. Henry VIII had six wives. Mount Everest is the tallest mountain? Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

You may be disappointed to learn that chameleons don’t change color to match the background (it’s more of a mood ring kind of thing) or that a centipede does not have a hundred legs. You assumed that a two-toed sloth has two toes, but it’s either six or eight.

Some of those things I had learned incorrectly along the way. Maybe I was told these “facts” by someone who believed them to be true. There are plenty of things  I never learned right or wrong, so the information is new. I didn’t know that Honolulu is the world’s largest city. That may because it wins based on a technicality – 72% of its 2,127 square miles is underwater.

I am more disturbed by the scientific research kinds of facts that seem to keep flipping. Chocolate and red wine: Good or bad for your health? Depends on when the research was done.

Entire books probably get knocked off the shelf as new research proves them to be incorrect. Take a book like The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain By Dr. Steven R Gundry M.D. This neuro-nutrition book was marked as the “most read” book on Amazon, at one point with 2000+ 4 and 5-star reviews.

It is one of those books that tells you what you know is wrong. You were eating more plants and less meat because that’s the healthy way to go. Right?

This book clues you in on highly toxic, plant-based proteins called lectins. Are they hiding in some strange foods? No, they are in grains like wheat but also in the “gluten-free” foods and many fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and conventional dairy products. These proteins are found in the seeds, grains, skins, rinds, and leaves of plants. Why are they there? They are nature’s way of protecting plants from predators. Humans are plant predators too, I suppose. We’re not talking about genetically modified foods (though the book isn’t happy with those either).

What do they do to us? Like so many other things, they do chemical things in our guts that cause inflammatory reactions (inflammation being the current cause of almost all the evil in your body), and can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions. The book has spawned cookbooks and other guides, but some of its suggestions are simple to follow.

Peel your veggies. And here I thought the skin and seeds of plants were good for you, but that’s where a lot of those lectins are hiding. It saddens me to peel and de-seed my beloved tomatoes to reduce their lectin content. Fruit contain fewer lectins when ripe, so eat your apples and berries at peak ripeness.

Remember how you were told to swap that white rice for the healthier brown rice? Okay, flip that swap.
Swap your brown rice for white again because whole grains and seeds with hard outer coatings are full of lectins.

Does everyone agree with this science. Of course not. In fact, I suspect that as soon as a book like this is published, several other authors start working on the opposite theories for another book.