The problem of free will

8 minutes

The mechanics of bird flight

3 minutes

Shepherd’s delight

8 minutes

We are built to be kind

5 minutes

Footprint: where the towers stood

18 minutes

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If you knew everything, could you predict anything? A thought experiment

Of all the age-old questions of philosophy, the problem of free will might be most likely to result in existential angst. In this video from Wi-Phi or Wireless Philosophy, the English philosopher Richard Holton, formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now at the University of Cambridge, outlines the two problems often used to argue that free will doesn’t exist. The first says that, if the laws of physics are fixed, all our choices must be predetermined. The second holds that, with enough computing power and knowledge about how the Universe works, someone could theoretically peer into the future to see the predestined outcomes of our lives – which would also mean we’re not free. However, using a clever thought experiment, Holton demonstrates how the second conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the first. That is, our ‘books of life’ can never truly be foreknown, except by a thinker who exists entirely outside physics itself.

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Flight manifest: from take-off to landing, a bird’s eye introduction to flying

It seems to be a deeply human experience to catch sight of a bird on the wing and stand there entranced, whether by a hummingbird’s frenetic zipping lines, a hawk’s graceful curves or any of the countless other forms of avian flight. Created by the US animator Stephen Cunnane as a tool to demonstrate realistic bird movements to other animators, this breezy short renders winged flights using silhouettes, detailing the key manoeuvres of avian aerodynamics. If only this how-to manual allowed us to take to the air ourselves… For more from Cunnane, watch his companion animation Animal Gaits.

Video by Stephen Cunnane

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A horse walks into a pub: on the excruciating trauma of being told a joke

You’re at a party, perhaps finding your next drink, when someone you hardly know comes up and asks: ‘Hey, want to hear a good one?’ The real answer is almost always: ‘No, thank you,’ but as a polite guest, what choice do you really have? This excerpt from the film Shepherd’s Delight (1984) drops the viewer directly into this awkward scenario, with a quip about two racehorses talking shop in a bar. As the joke-teller eagerly addresses his audience, a wry running commentary breaks down the psychological minutiae of joke-telling, including the many emotions – from discomfort to sweet relief – experienced by the audience. Infused with a peculiar, subversive sense of humour, the UK filmmaker John Smith’s short is a mad meta-comedy – clever, a bit mean and discomfitingly relatable.

Director: John Smith

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Don’t misread Darwin: for humans, ‘survival of the fittest’ means being sympathetic

One of the shockwaves from Charles Darwin’s idea that humans evolved from other animals was moral panic. If our ethics are not guided by an omnipotent and all-knowing god and, instead, life is driven by ‘survival of the fittest’ via natural selection, how could we possibly expect humans to behave with anything other than brash self-interest? Yet Darwin’s use of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was hardly meant to suggest that existence was a knockdown, drag-out fight – he was very clear that generosity, sympathy and all those other traits that give us warm feelings are central to human survival. In this short video, the psychologist Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley puts kindness in evolutionary context, connecting his own recent neural-imaging work on compassion with Darwin’s view that sympathy is a cornerstone of human flourishing.

Video by Fig. 1

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At the 9/11 Memorial, grief, confusion and remembrance take countless shapes

‘Imagine the despair. Everything standing still… the world standing still.’

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in downtown Manhattan opened exactly 10 years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2011. Footprint: Where the Towers Stood observes the rhythms of a day near the Memorial’s two square reflecting pools that mark the former location of the Twin Towers. Against a background of flowing water and busy city sounds, visitors – largely tourists, from all corners of the world – experience the place in a multitude of ways. There are tears. There are selfie sticks. Parents attempt to explain the the tragedy to children born long after it. Tour guides repeat their well-worn explanations of the Memorial. The site has become what the US filmmaker Sara Newens describes as ‘a tourist destination and graveyard at once’, and she encourages us to observe deeply, noting its strangeness, its solemnity and its many meanings. 

Director: Sara Newens

Producer: Laura Heberton

Aeon for Friends

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If you knew everything, could you predict anything? A thought experiment

Of all the age-old questions of philosophy, the problem of free will might be most likely to result in existential angst. In this video from Wi-Phi or Wireless Philosophy, the English philosopher Richard Holton, formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now at the University of Cambridge, outlines the two problems often used to argue that free will doesn’t exist. The first says that, if the laws of physics are fixed, all our choices must be predetermined. The second holds that, with enough computing power and knowledge about how the Universe works, someone could theoretically peer into the future to see the predestined outcomes of our lives – which would also mean we’re not free. However, using a clever thought experiment, Holton demonstrates how the second conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the first. That is, our ‘books of life’ can never truly be foreknown, except by a thinker who exists entirely outside physics itself.

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Essay/
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