Free will isn’t free


It’s only two days before Christmas.  I know most people in the last forty-eight hours before the Yuletide would be focussing on last minute shopping for presents or foraging for the ingredients for their Christmas feasts, or making their last minute arrangements for their holiday celebrations.  So now may not be the right time to post something meaty about the philosophy of free will, but hey, it might just make for a welcome distraction.  Come with me, if you’re game, down the rabbit hole of our choices.

Dr Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, posted a quote today from former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, Keith Ward: “Free will is a place where people can decide to do what is right or to do what is wrong and nothing determines their choice – lots of things influence their choice but nothing determines it except them”.

But is it, really?  Clearly Professor Ward is a very learned fellow, but what strikes me about Dr Leaf’s quote of the day is Professor Ward’s false moral dichotomy, and his over-simplistic implication that every choice is a fully conscious choice.  Perhaps his quote is taken out of context by Dr Leaf and his intended message has been skewed.  It wouldn’t be the first time Dr Leaf has cherry-picked and misquoted.

Dr Leaf added in her ‘me too’ comment – “So we are responsible and can be held responsible for our choices – this is confirmed by science and scripture”.

I should say, it’s not that Dr Leaf’s comment is completely wrong – we are held responsible for our choices, but this isn’t confirmed by science or by scripture, it is something that is legal more than it is scientific or scriptural.

As humans, we have a strong feeling of voluntary control over our actions, that everything we do is something that we choose to do.  This sense of control is so fundamental to our existence that much of our social system depends on it, such as our laws and the penalties for breaking them [1].

Except that science has proven that our sense of full control is largely an illusion.

I understand this idea might be hard for some people to accept.  We’re taught that we have full control over our actions or ideas.  We experience this sense of control from the vantage point of our own perception.  It’s hard to believe that we’re not really in full control of our actions and choices.  The dominant paradigm in the Christian church is the idea of free will.  We’re taught that the words we say and things we do are the exclusive product of our will.  Cognitive neuroscience paints a different picture.

The modern neuroscience of the will started with Benjamin Libet.  Professor Libet was a researcher in physiology at the University of California San Francisco.  He was initially studying the electrical properties of different sensations in the brain, but in the early 1980’s, he performed an experiment to look at the electrical readings that take place when a person decides on an action.  His subjects would decide to perform a simple movement of their arm or hand, and say when they were aware of the intention to act.  Electrodes connected to the subject’s heads measured their brain activity before, during, and after their decision to act.

What was remarkable was that there was a clear spike in electrical activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act [2].  Libet suggested that an unconscious process was responsible for the ‘willed’ action.

Other studies since that time have confirmed Libet’s results.  In fact, a study in 2008 showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act [3].

This predictable unconscious spike of brain activity prior to awareness of our intention to act has been verified over and over and is beyond doubt, but there’s still lots of debate as to exactly what it means.  Defenders of the idea of free will have tried presenting alternative explanations of the pre-awareness unconscious activity, but none of them line up with the proven, repeatable science.

So if we don’t have full conscious control of our actions, what does go on in our brains when we perform an action?

Again, I won’t go into the fine print, but it’s important to understand that our brain does most of its work at a subconscious level, which includes the planning and execution of our actions [4, 5].  The brain takes the information presented to it, as well as information from memories, and makes a prediction of the best course of action.  This means that our processing of goals, rewards, and actions can be affected by ‘subliminal priming’ (in other words, information we process below our conscious level can affect the decision about the best course of action [5]).

Even though we’re not aware of every process the brain employs in our subconscious to formulate the best plan of action and to prime our system ready for that action, there is a element of awareness that provides real-time monitoring and a veto function [4].  Like if you were about to complain about your job and then suddenly remembered you were talking to your boss, you could stop yourself from saying something you might later regret.

What does it all mean?  The take-away message here is this: We have limited will, not free will.

We still have some capacity to choose, but our conscious choices are dependent on our subconscious brain activity, our experience and knowledge.

We can make choices, or “exercise our will”, if you like, but within the constraints of a number of factors beyond our conscious control.  We can “pull the brake”, so to speak, and stop an action that our subconscious brain activity primed us for, but wasn’t such a good idea when a bit more thought was applied.  Our brain also uses our experience and knowledge to predict the best action to take, and because some of our knowledge and experience comes from exercising our limited choices, we can also say we have some input into our decisions.

So in this sense, Prof Ward is correct – lots of things influence people’s choices and ultimately, the choice someone makes is their choice.  I don’t make your choices for you, they are your choices.  Except that it’s inaccurate and misleading to think of our will as being entirely conscious and thought driven.  We make a lot of subconscious decisions every day, often based on subconscious priming.  Most actions we take, day in and day out, are not influenced by our conscious thought.  They may sometimes make it into our subconscious awareness, and if they do, it’s often after the fact.

Have ever had a “Why did I say that” experiences, where your brain is thinking one thing and your mouth says another?  These are times that demonstrate the difference in the systems at work in our brains, which are usually co-ordinated, but not always.  There are other demonstrations of this as well, like specific brain pathologies leading to conditions such as Alien Hand Syndrome.

These sort of conditions show that intention is not the same as action.

Sure, most of the time they’re aligned, but not always.  And this is the key to Dr Leaf’s quote of the day today – the underlying assumption is that all of our choices are reflected in our actions, when really, our choices are better thought of as our intentions (although again, it’s still not that simple … is it morally wrong if you try to hurt someone but you don’t, or is it morally wrong if you try not to hurt someone, but you do?)

Professor Ward’s quote also sets up a false dichotomy of free will into only right or only wrong, and doesn’t take into account the intellectual or developmental capacity of a person to make a choice.  Would you expect a two-year-old to judge a complex moral life or death situation?  A more practical example is should people with dementia be able to make their own financial and health-related decisions?

Most reasonable people would say, “Well, that depends …” and that’s the correct answer here.  Nothing in the real world of human morality and choice is black or white.  There is always some subtlety, some nuance.

When put in context, the black-and-white thinking and teaching of Dr Leaf is shown up as shallow and inadequate.  Her little quote of the day doesn’t prove that free will is Biblically and scientifically supported, far from it.  All it shows is that Dr Leaf’s views are narrow and blinkered, and aren’t reflective of any scientific or scriptural expertise.

Dr Leaf is welcome to her opinion, but until she gains some actual expertise, she should reconsider her choice to share it.


[1]        Haggard P. Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nature reviews Neuroscience 2008 Dec;9(4):934-46.
[2]        Libet B, Gleason CA, Wright EW, Pearl DK. Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain : a journal of neurology 1983 Sep;26 (Pt 3):623-42.
[3]        Soon CS, Brass M, Heinze HJ, Haynes JD. Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature neuroscience 2008 May;3(5):543-5.
[4]        Bonn GB. Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Frontiers in psychology 205;4:920.
[5]        Horga G, Maia TV. Conscious and unconscious processes in cognitive control: a theoretical perspective and a novel empirical approach. Frontiers in human neuroscience 204;6:199.


Lies in the name of God are still lies

Let’s be honest, we all lie, and we lie a lot.

It’s ok, we’re all friends here.  You can admit it – lying is a regular part of everyday social cohesion.  We don’t call it lying, we call it tact, but it’s still lying.

Like when we automatically say to the mother of a newborn baby, “Oh, your baby’s adorable”.  Sure, most of them are, but there are some newborns that, shall we say, need to grow into their features.

Or when a patient walks in and asks, “Hey, have you lost some weight?!”  No, I’ve actually gained five kilos, but thanks for your flattery.

Even some of the most brutally honest people still figure out they have to lie at some point.  My children, for example.  They have absolutely no diplomacy filter between their brains and their mouths, “Aw, Dad … you stink”, or “Dad, you’re really fat.  You need to exercise.”  But when their butt’s on the line, things change, “I only ate one biscuit …”, or, “He started it …”.

Adults are no better.  Sometimes when things are important enough to us, we bend the truth to fit our world-view.  It’s often subconscious, though confirmation bias of our opinions can also be overt.

Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong, and sometimes there is no right or wrong, but our beliefs shape our interpretation of the world, and the language and actions that stem from them.  And most of the time, it doesn’t really matter.
“Chocolate is the nicest flavour of ice-cream”.
“Beer is better than cider.”
“The Broncos shouldn’t have lost the NRL Grand Final.”
“Holden’s are better than Ford’s at Bathurst.”
“Donald Trump is a great guy.” **

Hey, if you think Donald Trump is a great guy, then you’re welcome to your opinion.  It ultimately makes no difference, if you like Trump, or I like vanilla ice-cream, or if you’re a ‘Ford guy’.

Though what about when someone in the public sphere lies, or allows their opinion to shape their version of truth?  Is ‘a little white lie’ ever truly acceptable?

For example, is it justifiable if news reporters lie about themselves or their motives to get to the truth of a story?  For example, in an article written as an ethical primer for journalism students at Indiana University, Henry McNulty recalled an expose he was part of in which reporters posed as couples trying to get into the local real estate market.  The investigation exposed some inherent racial prejudice amongst the realtors, and eventually lead to the state governor ordering a formal investigation into real estate discrimination.

While he noted that the investigation had noble goals and positive outcomes for the community, he also concluded that the end should never justify the means.
“Credibility is our most important asset.  And if we deceive people in order to do our job, we’ve compromised that credibility before a word is written”, he said.

In recent times, the Safe School’s program has come under intense scrutiny.  For those not familiar with it, the Safe Schools program was touted by its supporters as an evidence-based anti-bullying program for mid-late primary school students, although its primary agenda appears to be in promoting the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) lifestyle and ideology.  Or as one commentator put it, “In reality, the debate is between those who support the right to childhood and children’s bodily dignity, the right to an education that educates, not indoctrinates, versus those who believe Marxist activism constitutes sound school curriculum.”

A post came up on my Facebook feed in the last couple of days, titled, “Gender Ideology Harms Children”.  It was published by the American College of Pediatricians, which sounds like an official body, except that the American Academy of Pediatrics is the peak body of paediatricians in America. Then the style of language of the statement was inconsistent with that used by most peak bodies – this statement by the American College of Pediatricians was very strongly partisan.  I couldn’t help but wonder who the American College of Pediatricians actually were.

As it turns out, the American College of Pediatricians are a group that promote a very conservative agenda under the guise of official medical and scientific opinion.

In their core values, they state that their college:
“A: Recognizes that there are absolutes and scientific truths that transcend relative social considerations of the day.
B: Recognizes that good medical science cannot exist in a moral vacuum and pledges to promote such science.”

I’m all for good science, but one has to wonder if they’re going about it the right way, because while they declare their pledge to scientific truth, their next core value is essentially an opinion:
“C: Recognizes the fundamental mother-father family unit, within the context of marriage, to be the optimal setting for the development and nurturing of children and pledges to promote this unit.”

As much as I agree with and share most of their values, their pledge to opinion-based science is somewhat duplicitous, because opinion-based science isn’t absolute truth, it’s still a version of truth relative to their values and presumptions.

The irony hasn’t escaped some of the colleges critics, who have highlighted some of the factual errors and bad science that inevitably occurs when one tries to fit scientific findings into a set of values rather than drawing conclusions from the science.

In fairness, I’m not saying that the LGBT community is faultless either.  I’m sure that an in-depth study of their sources would find some over-zealous misinterpretations of scientific data as well.

My point is that we tend to look for information that suits our own pre-conceived notions, and the Christian community can get itself into trouble by doing this.  Christian lobby groups and church leaders need to be wary selectively accepting ‘scientific’ information that conforms to their world-view.  They need to, in all diligence, ensure that the data they cite really does support their position, not cherry-pick or over-extrapolate.  Otherwise they’re no better than the moral relativists on the other side of the political spectrum, or journalists who would justify mistruth to achieve a higher goal, or my eleven-year-old denying his biscuit binge.

One critic of the American College of Pediatricians wrote something very incisive in the title of his blog, “Lies in the name of God are still lies.”

It’s a fair call.  Misleading with the best of intentions is still misleading.  We may have the best of intentions, and feel justified in picking the science that conforms to our world-view.

Even so, God called us to speak the truth, because Jesus was the way, truth and life, and it’s the truth that sets us free.  And our credibility is our witness.  If we deceive people in order to do our job, we’ve compromised that witness before a word is written.

That’s the honest truth.

** The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the authors, and are for illustrative purposes only … except the bit about the Broncos … but the rest is just illustrative. 

Dr Caroline Leaf – Serious questions, few answers (Part 2)

Yesterday I published the first part of an essay discussing the presentation of Dr Caroline Leaf, Audiologist, Communication Pathologist, and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, at Kings Christian Church, Gold Coast.

Tonight I want to continue dissecting some of the more pertinent statements that she made, including her view of the mind-brain connection, a smattering of smaller issues, her over-reliance on case studies, and her opinion on the cause and treatment of ADHD.

Tomorrow I will publish the last, and most important part of my essay – That Dr Leaf believes that ‘toxic’ thoughts are sinful, and why this single statement unravels her most fundamental premise.


A large part of her sermon was based on her next premise, that the mind changes the brain, and not the other way around. That is half true. The mind influences the brain, and how we think will have effects on neural pathways within the brain. But for a cognitive neuroscientist to state that the brain does not influence the mind is somewhat concerning.

There are several reasons why her assertion is deeply flawed. For starters, where else does the mind or thought come from other than our neural networks? Thought is built on our neural connections. To say that the brain does not influence thought is like saying that the foundation of a building doesn’t influence the bricks.

There are clinical reasons as well. These come from a few areas – firstly the research that showed that newborn babies (who do not have thought like we have thoughts) are pre-wired for emotions which are refined as we learn. There is no time for neonates to have enough stimulation to form those emotions and reactions if it was from our mind.

Secondly, people with brain injuries or tumours can have personality or mood changes. The most famous was a man in the 1800’s called Phineas Gage, who on 13 September 1848 was packing explosives into rock with a tamping iron (a long, tapered, smooth crow-bar). History says that the explosives sent the tamping iron through his left face and skull, taking a fair chunk of his frontal lobe with it. Depending on who you believe, Gage’s personality changed after his physical recovery, reportedly from a moral, respectful man into a cursing, angry one (Kihlstrom 2010). Some reports of his story were that Gage made an almost full recovery, but assuming that some of the historical record is true, changes to his brain changed his mental function, ie: his thoughts.

Further, I have personally seen two patients with personality changes secondary to brain tumours. The first was a woman in her late 20’s who had six months of worsening anxiety, who did not seek help despite my referrals, until she had a seizure and the diagnosis was made. Then there was the sad case of a girl in her pre-teens who had only two weeks of rapidly escalating sullenness then aggression then violence. Her parents initially thought she was moody, and when they brought her into the Emergency Department they thought she was perhaps in the middle of a psychotic episode. It turned out that she had a very aggressive tumour near her frontal lobe.

It is clear from these cases, and from a basic understanding of the concept of thought, that changes to the brain result in changes to thoughts and the mind, and vice versa.


If I had the time I would like to look at many others issues that she raised, but this isn’t a book. Suffice it to say that she claimed that stress prunes our “thought trees” although the evidence is only in animal models and only related to severe stress (Karatsoreos and McEwen 2011). She also stated that EVERY thought we EVER have is stored in ALL of our cells (so some random fibroblast in my big toe is somehow affected by my thought about tonights dinner), and that ALL our thoughts are stored in our gametes (our sperm and eggs) and are passed down to our 4th generation (but packed, like in a metaphysical zip-lock bag, and only opened if we choose to have the same thoughts.) And here I was thinking that nurture had something to do with learned behaviour.


She also claimed that 55-70% of ASD/ADHD cases are over-referred and the problem is in educational modeling. This one made me mad.

Not even professorial level researchers know exactly what’s going on in ASD/ADHD, so her statement is a brave one to make, especially without referencing her evidence.

She then espoused the party line of ADHD ignorance – that Ritalin is evil and all you need to do is stop their sugar intake and feed them organic foods and give them supplements. Ritalin isn’t perfect, to be sure, but it is the most effective treatment that’s currently available. If dietary measures and educational measures were effective, then ritalin wouldn’t be prescribed. I have never met a parent that has wanted their child on ritalin. Most of them have tried educational/psychological measures or dietary controls first. The reason why ritalin is prescribed is because dietary and psychological interventions on their own do not adequately control the symptoms, or fail altogether.

To confirm that I’m not just having a rant, there is published scientific literature to back me up. In their recently published meta-analysis, Nigg et al (2012) state, “An estimated 8% of children with ADHD may have symptoms related to synthetic food colors.” Eight percent. That’s all! That’s ninty-two percent of children with ADHD (real ADHD, not just rambunctious children with lots of energy) DID NOT have symptoms due to food colourings. Their conclusions: “A restriction diet benefits some children with ADHD. Effects of food colors were notable but susceptible to publication bias or were derived from small, nongeneralizable samples.” In terms of sugar, Kim and Chang (2011) note that, “children who consumed less sugar from fruit snacks or whose vitamin C intake was less than RI was at increased risks for ADHD (P < 0.05).” (emphasis added) The study was only of about 100 children, but the result was statistically significant. It wasn’t a chance effect.

The misinformation she stated as fact from the pulpit promotes scare-mongering and ignorance throughout the church, which has flow on effects. Church members with children with ADHD or ASD will avoid standard medical treatment on Dr Leaf’s advice. When her treatments fail in the majority of cases, those parents will either live with unnecessarily heightened stress because of their child’s poorly controlled condition, or the guilt of using ritalin, all the while believing that they are ruining their childs brain.

This also places the hosting church in a bind. Do they stand behind their guest speaker, or do they support the advice of the medical community? Is their duty of care to the reputation of the guest speaker or to the congregation under their protection? What would happen if Dr Leaf’s advice lead to the death or disability of a person in their congregation? Would they be libel?


Dr Leaf also told a lot of stories of how everyone afflicted came to her and how she healed them all. If you took her at face value, she would have you believe that people with ASD, ADHD, anorexia, OCD, depression etc, just needed a glimpse of their self-worth and their inner gift and they would be cured. While her stories were inspirational, the world of scientific research demands more. If Dr Leaf’s insights are worth more than the hot air she produces when espousing them, then they should be put to the wider research community so they can pass through the fire of peer review. If peer review prove her insights to be valid, I would be happy to apply them and promote them.

Tomorrow, I will publish the last, and probably the most important part of my essay – that Dr Leaf believes that ‘toxic’ thoughts are sinful, and why this single statement unravels her most fundamental premise.


Crum, A. J., P. Salovey and S. Achor (2013). “Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response.” J Pers Soc Psychol 104(4): 716-733.

Karatsoreos, I. N. and B. S. McEwen (2011). “Psychobiological allostasis: resistance, resilience and vulnerability.” Trends Cogn Sci 15(12): 576-584.

Kihlstrom, J. F. (2010). “Social neuroscience: The footprints of Phineas Gage.” Social Cognition 28: 757-782.

Kim, Y. and H. Chang (2011). “Correlation between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sugar consumption, quality of diet, and dietary behavior in school children.” Nutr Res Pract 5(3): 236-245.

Leaf, C. (2009). Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. Southlake, TX, USA, Inprov, Ltd.

Nigg, J. T., K. Lewis, T. Edinger and M. Falk (2012). “Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives.” J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 51(1): 86-97 e88.