Monthly Archives: July 2009

Did you freely choose to read this blog?

If you are reading this blog entry, clearly, you made a choice to do so.

My question for you is, “Did you freely choose to read it?”

Unless someone is holding a gun to your head, holding your family hostage, or    thC2CAA889-979E-BACC-B8467A9CA1C4FA51_1reatening to blow up a government building if you don’t read it, then most of you would likely reply, “Of course I freely chose to read your magnificently insightful words of wisdom and enlightenment.”

That is the most common meaning of the phrase, “doing something of your own free will.” We simply mean that we are not acting under external coercion. In that sense, most of us in the western world make the vast majority of our choices of our own free will.

But let me ask the question differently.

If we could rewind time to the point at which you were just about to make your decision to read this blog entry, could you choose differently this time?

To put it another way, do we possess ultimate free will — what Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism likes to call, “contra-causal  free will,” making choices that are uncaused by any internal or external influence?

I would suggest that in this sense, we do not have free will. In other words, if we were to wind time backwards, and then let it resume, you would make the very same choice again. In this ultimate sense of the phrase, free will is a myth.

When you make a decision, how do you do so? What is involved in the the decision-making process?

Modern neuroscience is making many exciting discoveries about how our brains actually work. One of the areas where this is true concerns decision-making. A great overview of these decidediscoveries can be found in Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide.

It is clear that our decisions emerge from activity in specific regions of our brains. There is no evidence whatsoever for some non-corporeal entity, such as a soul, that is standing above the workings of our brains, making decisions in some unknown manner. Decisions which are separate from our genetics and our environment. Yet, that is what belief in free will requires.

Most of us know that our decisions are shaped, driven, or motivated by both internal causes (such as our personality type, our character, our upbringing, our beliefs, our values, etc.) and external causes (our friends, our upbringing, our job, our circumstances, etc.). But the vast majority of North Americans believe that there is some other entity — the real me — that may be influenced by these factors, but ultimately has the freedom to do whatever it chooses, even if that is diametrically opposed to all the internal and external influences.

Even many of us who are thoroughgoing atheists resist the idea that we do not possess contra-causal free will. We want to believe that we are truly free, able to make decisions separate from all influences. We want to believe that if the clock was rewound, we could very well have chosen not to read this blog.

But everything that neruoscience is discovering says it ain’t so.

The best evidence tells us that the decisions we make are fully caused. And if they are fully caused, you could not decide to do anything other than what you did.

As this blog entry is getting pretty long I will stop at this point. neurons_aboutIn the next entry I will discuss the curious case of Phineas Gage and what it show about how our mind is simply what our brains do. Then, in the entry after that, I will look at some of the common objections/concerns to the idea that we do not possess ultimate free will and some of the positive implications of this view.

But until then, I welcome your comments. Especially if you disagree!



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Some Friday Fun to Ease You Into the Weekend

This is quite funny.

Dara O’Briain Sets the Record Straight on Homeopathy

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Cronkite 92, Apollo 11, and a 12-year-old’s wonderment

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

Many of you will have already heard the news that Walter Cronkite, former CBS News anchor, passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Cronkite was a mainstay in most American family’s homes in the 60s and 70s and also in many Canadian’s. His prime years coincided with my youth and adolescence and the budding of my interest in politics. His coverage of the Viet Nam war and the Watergate scandal — two pivotal events that helped me awaken to the worlds of politics and international relations — are etched in my memory.

But it is another event in Cronkite’s illustrious career that I remember most — his coverage of the historic landing of humans on the moon.

This coming Monday, July 2oth, will mark the 40th anniversary of that momentous event. To quote from NASA’s own website:

On July 20, 1969, the human race accomplished its single greatest technological achievement of all time when a human first set foot on another celestial body.

Six hours after landing at 4:17 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining), Neil A. Armstrong took the “Small Step” into our greater future when he stepped off the Lunar Module, named “Eagle,” onto the surface of the Moon, from which he could look up and see Earth in the heavens as no one had done before him.

He was shortly joined by “Buzz” Aldrin, and the two astronauts spent 21 hours on the lunar surface and returned 46 pounds of lunar rocks. After their historic walks on the Moon, they successfully docked with the Command Module “Columbia,” in which Michael Collins was patiently orbiting the cold but no longer lifeless Moon.

Apollo 11 lift off with Saturn V rocket

Apollo 11 lift off with Saturn V rocket

My own anticipation of the 4oth anniversary has been growing over the last few weeks. As a pre-adolescent boy, I was obssessed with the Apollo space program. I had sticker books documenting each mission, numerous models of the spacecrafts which I had meticulously assembled, a scrap book of clippings from the newspaper, and, most importantly, my cheap little telescope which I used to regularly survey the night sky. One advantage of growing up on a farm is that the night sky is spectacular in its vividness.

I would often daydream about what it would be like to fly into space, feeling the awesome g forces as the powerful Saturn V rockets burned there way towards outer space, feeling the beginning of weightlessness. I dreamed of what space itself would look like and how the earth would appear looking back upon it. And, of course, I imagined that it would be MY feet that would first touch the surface of this foreign orb we call the moon.

So, the Apollo 11 mission was one I followed avidly and one I still keenly remember.

I remember the lift-off, always a tense moment, but always one that filled me with excitement as the slow upward climb gained more and more speed.

I remember following the progress of the space module as it made it’s 3-day journey across the 250,000 mile expanse of space.

I remember the moment Buzz Aldrin announced, “The Eagle has landed.”

I remember our minister concluding the evening service early at our Baptist church  so that we could all make it home in time to witness this event.

And, of course, I remember Neil Armstrong’s slow descent down the ladder of the lunar module, and then those famous words, as his feet touched the moon’s surface, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I ached to be on the moon with him as a I watched him trundle on the moon’s surface and take large, bouncy steps under it’s lesser gravity.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

As I watched, I was inspired with an idea. Perhaps I could see Armstrong and Aldrin directly on the moon without the TV. I headed outdoors with my trusty toy telescope. I was keenly disappointed when I discovered that I was unable to see either the Lunar Module or the astronauts themselves. Nonetheless, it was still a magical, marvelous evening.

I look forward to the coverage the anniversary will bring over the next couple of days and with it, a chance to relive my boyhood wonderment.

I wish Cronkite had lived to see the 4oth anniversary. My renewed sense of wonder and awe over the next few days will now be tinged with sadness at this good man’s passing.

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My second appearance on the John Oakley Show

John Oakley - AM640

John Oakley - AM640

Hi everyone. I am very excited that next Tuesday, July 21 at 9:00 a.m. EST, I will be a guest on John Oakley’s “The Culture War!” segment of his morning show (AM640). I will be debating and discussing with Charles McVety, President of Canada Christian College. I don’t know the exact topics just yet, but I thought I would put the word out now. If you want to listen to it by Internet, the radio station’s website is

Should be fun!


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A Phrase I Love to Hate

“I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.”

Or, its converse, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”

I’m sorry if I offend some of you reading this, but I find those phrases annoying as all get out.

I realize that most people have the best of intentions in using them. I get that they are trying to say that they reject the official dogma of any particular established religion. But, I would suggest that anyone using that phrase still believes in dogma, even if it’s only the “I believe in energy” kind. (Another phrase I find annoying, by the way).

What I do find valuable in these “phrases that I love to hate” is that they point to the human desire for a deep sense of meaning, awe, and transcendence in our lives. I happen to think that humanity would be better served, not by replacing rigid dogma with vacuuous dogma, but my a search for truth that is grounded in empirical evidence. For me, it is this search has deepened my sense of awe, wonder, and transcendence without postulating the need for something other than the natural universe.

I just posted a quote by Steven Pinker on my facebook account. And let me end this post by quoting it here:

“we should seek truth through reason and evidence and not through superstition, dogma, and personal revelation.”

Now that’s a phrase I can love.

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Vegetarian Diet Protects Against Some Cancers

This article is from Canada’s national paper, The Globe & Mail, and is written by one of our nationally known nutritionists, Leslie Beck.

If you favour meat over vegetarian fare, you might want to reconsider your menu. According to a study published this week in the British Journal of Cancer, vegetarians are less likely than meat eaters to develop cancer.

The most striking difference was in cancers of the blood – leukemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

It’s estimated that 4 per cent of Canadians follow a vegetarian diet, a number that’s expected to rise over the next decade. More people are embracing a meat-free lifestyle for ethical reasons: not wanting to be cruel to animals or to harm the environment. Others go the vegetarian route because they view it as healthier.

It seems that the notion of a vegetarian diet being better for you does, in fact, have strong scientific backing.

The most recent study compared the risks of 20 different types of cancer among 61,556 meat eaters and vegetarians living in Britain who were followed for more than 12 years.

The researchers found that vegetarians were 12 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the meat eaters – even after accounting for other risk factors including smoking, alcohol intake and obesity.

When the researchers compared the risk for specific cancers, the vegetarian diet offered significant protection for some. Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians’ risk of stomach cancer was reduced by 64 per cent, bladder cancer by 53 per cent, multiple myeloma (cancer of the bone marrow) by 75 per cent and non-Hodgkin lymphoma by 43 per cent.

This isn’t the first time research has suggested a meatless diet as an effective measure for fighting a myriad of diseases and health conditions. Previous studies have linked vegetarian diets with lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, lower body weights and a reduced risk of cancer.

The current study comes days after the American Dietetic Association published an evidence-based review showing a vegetarian diet is associated with numerous health advantages, including a lower risk of dying from heart disease. In the report, the association concluded that well-planned vegetarian diets – including the totally vegetarian vegan diet –are healthful not only for adults, but also for infants, children, teenagers, athletes and pregnant women.

There are several ways in which a meat-based diet might contribute to cancer. Compounds in cooked meat called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) have been shown to promote tumours in animals. Preliminary research also suggests HCAs can trigger the growth of precancerous colon polyps in humans.

Processed meats including ham, bacon, corned beef, bologna and wieners also contain sodium nitrite, a preservative added to prevent botulism food poisoning and to give cured meats their characteristic red colour. During cooking, nitrites are transformed into N-nitroso compounds, several of which have been associated with certain cancers in humans and animals.

While giving up red meat may improve the health outcomes of vegetarians, it’s not the whole story. A steady diet of whole grains, nuts, vegetables, fruit, beans and soy foods is also low in fat and offers plenty of protective plant chemicals, antioxidants and fibre.

Vegetarian diets range from those that avoid all animal foods to others that include a few. Vegans shun all animal products. Semi-vegetarians avoid only red meat. Pesco-vegetarians eat fish, dairy products and eggs but avoid meat and poultry. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, but avoid meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians include dairy and eggs, but no meat, poultry or fish.

If you’re a vegetarian, or would-be vegetarian, planning and variety can ensure a meatless diet is balanced and nutritionally adequate.


Vegetarians get protein from five main food groups: dairy and eggs, beans and lentils, soy and soy products, nuts and seeds, and grains and cereals. Aim to include a source of protein at every meal.

Include a variety of protein foods in your diet to meet daily requirements for essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein that your body can’t make on its own.

(While animal foods contain large amounts of all essential amino acids, plant proteins are low in or missing some. Eating a variety of grains, nuts, seeds and legumes throughout the day will make up for this deficit.)


Lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians can meet their daily calcium requirements by including three to four servings of milk, yogurt or cheese in their diet. Vegetarian calcium sources include fortified soy beverages, fortified fruit juice, almonds, soybeans, tofu prepared with calcium, bok choy, broccoli, kale and figs.

If you’re concerned you’re not meeting your daily calcium requirements, take a supplement. (Teenagers require 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day, adults aged 19 to 50 need 1,000 milligrams and older adults 1,500 milligrams.)

Vitamin D

Vegetarian diets often lack vitamin D because milk, oily fish and fortified soy beverages are the main food sources. Based on the fact that few foods contain vitamin D – and our skin produces little from sunshine in the fall and win-ter months – the Canadian Cancer Society advises taking a 1,000 IU vitamin D supplement in the fall and winter, and all year round if you are over 50, have dark-coloured skin, or do not expose your skin to sunshine in the summer months.


Vegetarians require almost twice as much iron as meat-eaters because the body absorbs iron from plant foods less efficiently. Good sources of iron include beans, lentils, nuts, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, breakfast cereals and dried fruit.

Iron absorption can be increased by eating vitamin-C-rich foods such as citrus fruit, strawberries, red peppers and tomato juice.

Vitamin B12

It’s only found in animal and fortified foods, so vegetarians should include three servings of B12-rich foods n their daily diet: milk, yogurt, eggs, fortified soy beverage, nutritional yeast, fortified breakfast cereal or fortified soy “meat.” Vegans should choose fortified foods and take a B12 supplement.

Omega-3 fats

Vegetarians who don’t eat fish need a daily helping of alpha-linolenic acid, the omega-3 fatty acid plentiful in walnuts, ground flax, chia, and flaxseed and canola oils. Supplements of flax oil or docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fat derived from algae instead of fish, are other sources.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV’s Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is

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