Monthly Archive 2018-04-24


The Mysterious Case of Free Will

Free will has endured a long run of, well, freedom. Could that time be at an end? Yet again, free will has been summoned before the court. The prosecution has mounted a fresh case which they believe will, at long last, be decisive.

A sense of intense anticipation hangs in the air and all eyes are on the judge.

Judge: “We will now hear the opening statements”.

The Prosecution: “Thank you, your honour. We will categorically prove that free will is a con-merchant of the highest order. A confidence trickster! A master illusionist! You will hear expert testimony proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have no free will whatsoever and you are not even free to decide the outcome of this case.”

This statement provokes an uneasy tension in the courtroom, tinged with bewilderment at what this could all amount to for the judicial process itself and for everything.

The Defence: “The prosecution would have you believe that free will has deceived us all, perpetrating one of the greatest hoaxes in human history. That we are all automata controlled purely by the forces of cause and effect. That all of our decisions and actions are predetermined. We shall present the case for free will and show that you are actually free to conduct your lives and indeed free to choose a verdict in this case.”

The Judge: “Can I please remind everyone to stay calm in this highly emotive case and keep an open mind. The Prosecution, are you ready to present your case?”

The Prosecution: “Thank you, your honour. We call to the stand our first expert witness, Benjamin Libet”.

The Prosecution: “You are Benjamin Libet, a pioneering neuroscientist in the field of human consciousness?”

Benjamin Libet: “I am.”

The Prosecution: “You and your team put free will to the test. Can you please explain what you did and what you concluded?”

Benjamin Libet: “Our aim was to determine if free will is what it appears to be or is actually a fraud. So we devised a simple test where subjects were asked to press one of two buttons. At the same time, they were asked to observe a clock and record the time at which they made the decision to press one button or the other.”

The Prosecution: “That seems straightforward and a fair test. What did you find?”

Benjamin Libet: “I should add that we connected the subjects to an EEG machine so we could monitor their brain activity. What we discovered was that the brain showed activity indicating a choice before the subject was consciously aware of that choice. The time gap ranged from half a second to five seconds. We gave this the name “readiness potential”. So this proved that even a simple choice such as selecting one of two buttons to press is not subject to free will. Therefore free will is purely a subjective illusion.”

The Prosecution: “Thank you Dr Libet. No further questions.”.

The Defence: “Dr Libet, isn’t it the case that the timings captured in your experiments were imprecise and subject to human error?”

Benjamin Libet: “Yes, but…”

The Defence: “No more questions your honour!”

The Prosecution: “We call to the stand Sam Harris”.

The Prosecution: “Thank you for being here. Can you confirm that you are Sam Harris the acclaimed author, philosopher, neuroscientist?”

Sam Harris: “I believe I am, yes.”

The Prosecution: “Could you please share with the court your expert conclusions regarding free will?”

Sam Harris: “Certainly. I have no choice.”

Sam exposes a wry smile which does not land well on the judicial assembly.

Sam Harris: “Ahem, right. Well, I wrote a book on the subject in 2012. From all of my years studying neuroscience and the human condition, it is clear to me that thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. I could demonstrate now with a simple experiment…”

The Prosecution: “Thank you but we do not have time for that right now. No more questions at this time.”

The Defense: “No questions your honour.”

The Judge: “We shall take a short recess at this point. We will continue at 2 pm promptly.”

During the recess, the Defense comes to a startling realisation and one which they believe guarantees the acquittal of the accused. They are eager to resume.

Back in the courtroom, the Defence approach the bench and discuss something with the Judge who’s facial expressions go through a series of dramatic landscape changes ending up in what might be described as furrows of ‘thought pain’.

The Judge: “Another recess is needed for me to consider the Defence’s position. Please assemble again at 2:30 pm.”

The hands of the courtroom clock move in the only direction they can while the neurons in the Judge’s brain fire in the only way they know how.  The court reconvenes.

The Judge: “Hmmm. This is most unorthodox but the Defence has asked to jump straight to their closing statement. So we are obliged to hear what they have to say”.

The Defence: “In this case, it is impossible for free will to be found guilty of fraud. On the one hand, if free will is found guilty this means that the guilty verdict was not by choice but predetermined by cause and effect alone, hence the trial is not valid and the case must be thrown out. If on the other hand, free will is found innocent, then free will goes free. In either case, free will must be cleared of all charges.”

The Judge: “I must admit the Defense’s logic is sound. Free will, therefore, you are free to go.  Case dismissed”.

And with that, we hear the final fall of the gavel for free will. Or is it?

Image by kalhh from Pixabay


A wise monk’s powerful and simple formula for happiness

Do you have a formula for happiness?

Last night someone suggested one to myself and around 500 other people.

The suggestion came from a wise 82-year-old man.

So you sit up and listen.

What’s more, he’s a former monk.

So you sit up even more and listen.

The occasion is an Action for Happiness event in London (19 April 2018) and the man is Satish Kumar and he’s an Indian activist and editor. He has been a Jain monk, nuclear disarmament advocate, pacifist, co-founder of the Schumacher College and is the current editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. And we’ve just watched an award-winning film featuring him entitled “A Quest for Meaning”.

So you definitely sit up and listen.

After watching the film Satish took questions from the audience. His formula for happiness is:

  1. Learn from the PAST
  2. Celebrate the PRESENT
  3. Trust the FUTURE

“Trust the future” – not always easy. Anxiety is often associated with thinking of the future. And anxiety in society is on the rise, especially among younger people.

Satish described what is needed to cultivate trust and that is courage.


Satish gave an example which is an example of an Odds Zoom-Out and a Univeral Zoom-Out.

Consider our inclination to trust people. It’s easy to be driven by fear and avoid trusting people. Avoid trusting people in case they betray you or cheat you.

The more courageous perspective is this:

“I prefer not to be cheated but would prefer to be cheated once in a while rather than never trust anyone at all.” – Satish Kumar

>> an Odds Zoom-Out; and a Time Zoom-Out

In other words, do not focus on a single ‘bad instance’ and an imaged one at that. Focus on the big picture over time. Of all the opportunities to trust someone, only a small number are likely (odds) to lead to something bad. Obviously, wisdom should be employed. Don’t trust a crook for example.

Satish also added:

“There is no guarantee that I will never be cheated.” – Satish Kumar

>> a Universal Zoom-Out (no law of the universe).

So to sum up and elaborate on Satish’s formula:

  1. Learn from the PAST
  2. Celebrate the PRESENT
  3. Be COURAGEOUS and Trust the FUTURE

Wishing you much happiness and success!


Einstein’s profoundly useful insight on reality versus experience

One of the things I really enjoy about exploring and researching Zoom-Out is how it crosses multiple schools of thought – spans multiple genres (it’s a real genre spanner in Mighty Boosh speak).

I was looking for sources regarding the nature of human emotion and came across a paper entitled: “The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization” by Lisa Feldman Barrett. And lo and behold, I came across this unexpected gem:

If the history of science has taught us anything, however, it is that human experiences rarely reveal the way that the natural world works:

‘Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not; however, it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world’ – Einstein et al., 1938, p. 31

Einstein is such a significant icon in the history of human thought, I just had to look it up – this is the page in Einstein’s classic book on which this appears:

So what does this insight from one our greatest Physicists highlight from the point of view of a Zoomologist? It reminds us that any model we construct about reality, is just that, a model and can never be truly known to be the model. For there is not one-true-model. This applies in trying to define precise physical predictions and “laws” of reality that will keep aeroplanes in the sky, drive nuclear reactors, predict solar eclipses and understand the destiny of a black hole. When it comes to everyday human experience, we also construct models to navigate our world. A model as we have discussed before should be judged on how useful it is to us. And we are free to construct as many models as we like in our search for such a helpful model.

This points us back to the Zoom-Out principle:

“All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful” – Zoom-Out Principle

If you have further interest in Einstein’s book, here’s the description:

For what purpose has this book been written? Who is the imaginary reader for whom it is meant? It is difficult to begin by answering these questions clearly and convincingly. This would be much easier, though quite superfluous, at the end of the book. We find it simpler to say just what this book does not intend to be. We have not written a textbook of physics. Here is no systematic course in elementary physical facts and theories. Our intention was rather to sketch in broad outline the attempts of the human mind to find a connection between the world of ideas and the world of phenomena. We have tried to show the active forces which compel science to invent ideas corresponding to the reality of our world. But our representation had to be simple. Through the maze of facts and concepts we had to choose some highway which seemed to us most characteristic and significant. Facts and theories not reached by this road had to be omitted. We were forced, by our general aim, to make a definite choice of facts and ideas. The importance of a problem should not be judged by the number of pages devoted to it. Some essential lines of thought have been left out, not because they seemed to us unimportant, but because they do not lie along the road we have chosen.

This book is a reproduction of an important historical work. Forgotten Books uses state-of-the-art technology to digitally-enhance the work, preserving the original format whilst repairing imperfections present in the aged copy. In rare cases, an imperfection in the original, such as a blemish or missing page, may be replicated in our edition. We do, however, repair the vast majority of imperfections successfully; any imperfections that remain are intentionally left to preserve the state of such historical works.