Science or philosophy?

Kerri Smith knows that the concept of free will is no stranger to the hurdles of debates regarding scientific facts and philosophical conjectures. Covered in this past September issue of Nature, Kerri’s careful research surrounding the issue of free will prompts the curious philosopher in all of us. Apparently, a recent study by Dr. Haynes from the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin has prompted neuroscientists to re-evaluate the notion that actions are predetermined. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the study investigated participant button responses to a display screen of random letters. The results were startling — the fMRI data seemed to suggest that brain activity heightened prior to button-pressing. The brain, it seems, had already decided which button to press long before executing the decision. These scientists posit that free will, the ability to act at one’s own discretion, is nothing more than an illusion, a rather heavy claim from a philosopher’s point of view. As put by Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College, London, “we feel we choose, but we don’t.” This idea goes as far as suggesting that the decision to have coffee in the morning may have been made long before entering conscious awareness.

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In the past, other neuroscientists have conducted studies which resulted in a similar outcome. Benjamin Libet, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, performed a study in which participants were asked to watch a clock-face with a dot sweeping around it while their brain activity was monitored by an electroencephalogram (EEG). The participants were then instructed to note the position of the dot upon feeling the urge to point at it. Libet’s EEG findings indicated that brain activity occurred several hundred milliseconds prior to the study participant’s movement.

Critics of Libet’s study point out that the observed brain activity may not have been causal and instead may be indicative of the brain preparing to make a decision before executing the decision — in this case, moving one’s finger.

If the results of these studies prove that humans lack free will, the outcome would be troubling for everyone, including philosophers. Humans have a sense of security in presuming that they can control their thoughts and actions consciously. Some philosophers with a scientific background do not regard these types of studies as sufficient evidence of free will as an “illusion.” According to them, the decision to have a coffee in the morning is arguably more complex than the decision to press a button or move one’s finger.

Using a more precise method, neuroscientist and surgeon, Itzhak Fried, at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Tel Aviv Medical Center in Israel, studied individuals with electrodes implanted in their brains, detecting activity from single neurons. Fried’s experiments demonstrated activity at the level of individual neurons about a second and a half prior to the study subject’s conscious decision to press a button. With about 700 milliseconds to go, the researchers could predict the timing of these conscious decisions with greater than 80 per cent accuracy. Fried suggests that consciousness of decisions may occur after the fact. “At some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness.”

The concept of free will ultimately diminish if neuroscientists discover that unconscious neural activity drives decision-making. But from the perspective of many current philosophers, free will has a physical basis with decisions and actions stemming from physical phenomena in the brain. This means that the recent neuroscientific data may not preclude free will. Many philosophers today are more concerned with the relationship between freedom and determinism than free will in its entirety. Currently, neuroscientific results cannot yet completely close the case in favour of determinism. Adina Roskies, a neuroscientist and philosopher working on free will at Darmouth College in New Hampshire, states that results from neuroscience may yield insight into the predictability of actions, but not the issue of determinism.

It appears that the major contention with the neuroscientific perspective on determinism is the extent to which experimental models accurately reflect complex human decision-making. Pressing a button is arguably distinct from more abstract decisions such as making coffee, making career choices, or deciphering right from wrong. The presence of heightened brain activity is not necessarily an indication that a decision has been made. If, as the neuroscientists heading these studies suggest, these data indicate that the world is deterministic, what initiates such bursts of brain activity? Are they spontaneous or are they predetermined? Divorcing the discussion from philosophical conjecture may not be the answer.

Here’s the link to the original Nature feature:

UTSU hosts Vote Mob

“It’s our education, it’s our future,” chanted U of T first-year student Shak Gobert as he led the UTSU Vote Mob down St. George and into King’s College Circle on Thursday, September 29.
He stressed to students that their votes will matter in the provincial election being held on October 6.

“I believe that voting is important and I want to encourage others to do the same,” said Gobert.
His message was echoed by Matthew Cram, President of the Beyond Intellectual Discovery Club, who stressed to students the importance of casting their ballots. He urged them to take advantage of the advance polls at Hart House and Brennan Hall.

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The Vote Vob was part of UTSU’s ‘Take It Over’ campaign, an initiative to increase voter awareness, development and community outreach with the hopes of bringing student issues to election forefronts.

Shaun Shepherd, UTSU’s VP External, described the campaign’s mandate as one that aims to break down political parties’ platforms and focus on the points that affect students the most, such as funding for post-secondary education, transit, continuing education, unemployment, and health care.

“Currently, Ontario has the lowest government-funded post-secondary education system in the country, causing increased privatization of campuses, and students are bearing this weight through increased tuition,” explained Shepherd.

“And what is the future of transit in this city?” he continued, going on to note the TTC’s importance for U of T commuter students.

Shepherd went on to discuss the need to address unemployment. He believes that the lack of jobs is contributing to the debt cycle by inhibiting students from paying back their loans.
Statistically, three out of every ten students vote in elections — the campaign hopes to push more students to participate.

“The Vote Mob is really something that’s taken over,” said UTSU President Danielle Sandhu. “Our great energy [is resulting in] student issues [being] reflected in party platforms, and by encouraging students to vote, we’re making a difference.”

What if you were President of U of T?

Hart House’s “What If…?” lecture series launched on September 26. The program’s theme was the question, “What if…you were President of U of T?”.

The discussion addressed a variety of student issues, both academic and extra-curricular.
Featured guest, U of T President David Naylor, joined student panelists Kate Bruce Lockhart, Shagufta Pasta, and Kevin Sousa in the conversation.

“If you could leave any future legacy for U of T students, what would it be?” asked CIUT moderator Cynthia Yao.

Lockhart said she would aim to improve the University’s purchasing policy; Shagufta Pasta emphasized the importance of signature U of T resources such as the Multi-Faith Centre; Kevin Sousa would like to see the empowerment of students and their ideas through peer mentorship programs and other networking opportunities.

Naylor took a different approach: “The things that you can affect are most often very personal — a professor dealing with students, a coach dealing with a team, your interactions with your peers and your friends, your own research as a scholar … those are the minutiae that I think matter in terms of legacy.”

As much as this was a forum for students to debate current issues, such as the promises made to students by political parties in the current election, it was also an opportunity to discover more about programs currently underway at U of T.

The importance of virtual and physical space was a hot topic of discussion. “The importance of engaging our campus physically, whether it’s through a club, Hart House, or the Athletic Centre … these things really enhance our student experience,” said Sousa.

More seminar classes, study abroad programs, and engagement with the broader Toronto community were suggested as means to enhance student experience and campus atmosphere.
When asked what he hoped to take back to Simcoe Hall from this experience, Naylor replied, “I think any chance that we in the administration have to talk with student leaders and engaged students who have views they want to share … it’s a chance to learn, and I’ll always be looking for chances like this.”

At the end of the event, President Naylor stepped into the crowd to chat with students.
“It’s really nice hearing about all the things that are happening at U of T,” said Pasta. “As a student you have your own experience, but hearing the different pieces … gives you a sense of the university as a big picture. I feel like conversations like this should happen more often.”

Foundation to fight mental illness gains strength

Early last spring, Jack Windeler, a first year student at Queen’s University, took his own life. The tragedy came as a horrible shock to Eric Windeler and Sandra Hanington, who mourned the loss of their bright, beloved firstborn son.

After their loss, the Windelers vowed to help other young adults in the world overcome mental illness and depression.

During the eulogy, Windeler came forward and declared, “For Jack, we must let it be. But for others, we will not let it be.”

The Windelers made the courageous decision to respect Jack’s memory by trying to help as many others like him as they could.

In April of 2010, Eric founded the Jack Windeler Memorial Fund which raised $600,000 in its first few months of operation and, allied itself with the Mental Health Commission of Canada and Kids Help Phone.

“For me, it’s not about saving Canadian youth,” Hanington told Canadian Living. “This is about saving the next Jack, or the next girl. I’m a mother, and it’s one child at a time.”
The fund, which became known as “The Jack Project” in the fall of 2011, aims to reach out to Canadian youth to ensure that they maintain a stable state of mental wellness.

This year, Windeler is leading a pilot project in 12 postsecondary institutions and 22 high schools around Ontario that will evaluate the types of mental health programs available in the schools. If all goes well, the program will expand to 30 high schools and 30 post-secondary institutions next year.

Because mental illness frequently manifests itself in older teens, Windeler wants to promote awareness of symptoms to both teens and their parents. He wants Canadian Youth to be able to identify the signs of depression among themselves and their peers.

$300,000 of the money raised by The Jack Project will be going towards a new project for Kids Help Phone, where kids can talk to counsellors via internet-chat. By making help more accessible, the program hopes more youths will be willing to reach out for help.
“It is just another form of illness … and yet it is the most deadly to young people by far,” Wendeler remarked to the CBC. “It is part of the human condition and we have to learn to deal with it.”

October 2–8 is Mental Health Awareness Week, and October is Mental Health Awareness Month at U of T.

Environmental forum lacks fuel

Green taxes, railway systems, and alternative power were some of the major topics of discussion at an election forum held at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education.
On September 28, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) and The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), along with Professor James Nugent from the Department of Geography & Planning, hosted this provincial election campaign’s only forum devoted to discussing environmental concerns.

While the forum was intended to include all parties, some of the major ones were noticeably absent.

“We sent out emails to all the registered parties to save the date,” Nugent explained. He went on to state that “both the Liberal party and the NDP … [said] that they would be sending someone” but cancelled at the last minute.

The representatives and panellists present when the forum began were Tim Grant of the Green Party, Rod Rojas of The Libertarians, Miguel Figueroa of the Communist Party of Canada, Guy Fogel of the Socialist Party of Ontario, and Bahman Yazdanfar of Canada’s Choice Party. About halfway through the forum Kevin Clark from the People’s Political Party arrived.
The event started off with five-minute introductions by each of the panellists, then moved on to the discussion of previously submitted questions, and ended with an open question and answer session.

“We need a dramatically better railway system,” were the words constantly repeated by Fogel on behalf of the Socialist Party.

Fogel added that “the Socialist Party [also] supports creating an electrical network to recharge electrical and hybrid cars.”

One point that all of the candidates agreed upon was that nuclear energy in Canada would be non-existent if the government hadn’t decided to step in.

Grant expanded on the issue: “George Smitherman, before he ran for mayor, was energy minister, and he did one thing that no other energy minister in Ontario had done. When he called for bids for new nuclear plants, he said ‘Only submit a bid that shows that you’re going to include cost overruns.’”

“The only bid was the atomic energy control board — the federal crown corporation that’s now being privatized. [Smithermman] went to the federal government and said ‘We need you to accept the cost overruns,’” he continued.

The Ontario provincial election will take place on Thursday, October 6.

Meet your provincial candidates

Tim Grant

Tim is the kind of candidate you expect and deserve from the Green Party of Ontario.

An active community leader in Trinity-Spadina, Tim’s local leadership roles include serving as the chair and long-time board member of the Harbord Village Residents’ Association. He co-chaired the Downtown West Solar Energy Project, enabling 65 Trinity-Spadina households to add solar panels to their rooftops. He continues to co-chair Tower Power Toronto, which has helped residents in more than 250 condo and co-op buildings to green up.

A former high school teacher, Tim has published Green Teacher magazine for 20 years, co-edited six books, and given hundreds of presentations around the world on how best to educate young people about the environment. He is a founding member of Energy Educators of Ontario, the Ontario Environment Network, and Environmental Education Ontario. He served as the Vice-Chair of EECOM, the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication.

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Rosario Marchese

Rosario Marchese is a tireless defender of students’ rights and the NDP’s Critic for Training, Colleges and Universities. This year, he stood alongside U of T part-time students in the Legislature to denounce the Liberal government for allowing the University of Toronto to increase tuition fees by as much as 60 per cent.

Rosario introduced a bill to protect the financial autonomy of university student unions. He also introduced a bill to allow the Ontario Ombudsman to investigate complaints against universities. Both of these bills received the full support of the Canadian Federation of Students and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

Rosario and the NDP are also proposing to freeze tuition fees and make provincial OSAP loans interest free.

Rosario organized OSAP information sessions for U of T students throughout the riding to highlight ways to apply for more grants and bursaries.

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Mike Yen

After 8 years of the McGuinty Liberals, students now face a bleak future. The provincial debt is $240 billion and growing; you will inherit this debt! Career opportunities have become rare; over 500,000 people are unable to find work. How will you pay your student loan or afford a place of your own?

The Ontario PC Party has a plan, “Changebook”, to get Ontario’s economy back on track. We will stop runaway spending and create a business friendly environment to attract real career jobs. We will create more than 200,000 new apprenticeship spaces. We will put the needs of students and the economy at the centre of Ontario’s post-secondary education system. Strong universities and colleges, focused on developing the innovations of tomorrow, are fundamental to creating a dynamic economy today.

As your MPP, I will fight to ensure that the opportunities you deserve will be there when you graduate.

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Sarah Thomson

I am your Liberal Candidate, Sarah Thomson.

I’m an entrepreneur and built a multi-million dollar retail company, I founded the Women’s Post Magazine and most recently, I ran for mayor of Toronto against Rob Ford.

Liberals are committed to making education accessible to all Ontarians. We’re offering a 30 per cent grant to postsecondary students to ease the burden of tuition fees. Under our plan, a student starting at the University of Toronto next September would save $6,400 over 4 years.
Liberals have invested billions in wind and solar power, and will have completely eliminated all coal power plants by 2014.

With the global economic crisis still looming, it’s important to invest in our infrastructure and keep our economy growing to create jobs for graduating students.

The role of an MPP is to engage residents to create a better community. I will be a progressive voice for Trinity-Spadina and I hope I can earn your vote.

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News in brief

Studies question the value of university degrees

Recent studies have raised questions about the investment value of a university education and, in particular, whether a college degree could be more advantageous for certain individuals.
Research conducted by the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity reveals that the most lucrative post-secondary route differs from job to job. College-educated child-care workers and chefs make 8 and 9 per cent more, respectively, than their university-educated counterparts.

The data seems to indicate that the theoretical knowledge amassed in university is considered, by some employers, subpar to the practical tools acquired in college.

The state of the job market puts pressure on job seekers to distinguish themselves in any way possible, and some are doing so by adding a college degree to their resumes.

One’s field of study also plays a big part in determining just how much the time and money invested in a university degree will pay off. Studying engineering, business, or mathematics versus humanities or social sciences can mean a difference of 9.5 per cent in annual earnings.
Experts remain divided on the issue. TD Economics reports affirm that university is “the best investment you can make,” while economics professor Torben Drewes warns that “the investment is a risk.”

Nevertheless, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada projects lifetime returns of $1.3 million from investing in a university degree — a figure most can be confident in.

With files from Maclean’s and the Globe and Mail
­— Natalia Moskal

Harvard website hacked

Harvard University’s website was hacked on Monday, September 26 by a group of activists who call themselves the “Syrian Electronic Army.”

The “sophisticated” attack forced the site to be shut down for several hours while the intrusions were cleaned up. They included an image of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and messages accusing the United States of supporting a “policy of killing” in Syria and opposing Assad’s regime.

The messages went on to make violent threats in broken English.

“Do you support the war on Syria? If you are you, as well as the following Syria’s population of 23 million people. This means 23 million mobile bomb. Imagine what we could do [sic].”
Despite the activists’ claims otherwise, researchers have found links between the hackers and Assad.

“Recent months have seen a rise in frequency and sophistication of these attacks,” said a Harvard spokesperson. “We are analyzing this event and will use the findings to improve our security practices for an environment that is seeing escalating threats.”

With files From, BBC News and Harvard Crimson
— Samantha Preddie

Eoin Colfer

Meeting a childhood idol is a daunting prospect, even more so when the hero in question is an author whose work is far better recognized than the person behind it.

There’s the definite possibility of shattered illusions, of learning that the genius on whose word you hung is really just a tedious — or worse, conceited — person. Fortunately, Eoin Colfer is neither.

Growing up, I loved how the Artemis Fowl series was, as Colfer describes it, “subversive in a small way, not in a big way, but in a little way.” The fantasy story of a boy genius discovering and attempting to outsmart a secret species of people was an alternative to the straight-laced good vs. evil plots of Harry Potter.

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When the opportunity arose to interview Colfer, I was thrilled. The ostensible reason was the launch of Plugged, the author’s first “book for grown-ups,” which recounts the story of Daniel McEvoy, a former soldier, who loses his love interest, his best friend, and (briefly) his clothes in a series of increasingly extraordinary circumstances.

Early readers of Artemis Fowl, like myself, are now adults. With Plugged’s tagline reading ‘If you loved Artemis Fowl … it’s time to grow up,’ it appears that Colfer was quite conscious of this shift in generations.

“It was my tagline … for two reasons. One, I didn’t want children to read it, so I wanted to be very clear it was a book for grown-ups. But two, I thought, well, maybe if you read my [first] book when you were 12, you’re 22 now and maybe you’d like something else of mine to read.”

The Artemis Fowl series is slightly mature for children’s books, so writing a ‘real’ book for grown-ups was not much of a stretch for the author.

“I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t try and make things dumb for boys because they want it to be fast, fast-paced. And I think I’ve held onto that style with [Plugged].

“I think the Artemis Fowl books are kind of crime books with fairies and leprechauns, [and] this is a straight crime book. So the execution was pretty similar, but it took me a while to find the right voice, just the style, to write it in. But once I found that, then it was the same process.”

Colfer was aiming for the noir genre when he wrote Plugged, yet there’s also an undercurrent of humour, common to all of the author’s works, which serves to brighten the novel’s bleak setting of Cloisters, New Jersey. Colfer, though, was not looking for humour when he set out.

“Initially I wanted it to be very grim,” Colfer explained, “but it’s just not in my personality, I suppose, to allow a moment [to go] past when you could put some humour in … I wanted it to be very bleak and very much like the ‘50s noir books, where there’s not much humour and it’s quite depressing. But in this book, it’s a little uplifting at the end, and it gives it a little bit of soul maybe.”

The book deals with the usual themes of violence and sexual undertones of noir fiction. However, Plugged has only one sex scene, and it’s a bit of a cop out.

“I’m not good at [writing sex scenes],” Colfer admitted. “I mean, initially I was not going to have anything. [Sex scenes are] something I’m not comfortable with. But in a way, I feel like doing it like James Bond, a big lead up and then ‘next morning.’”

There’s another factor to consider, too. “I cannot help thinking that my mother will be reading this, and my wife, so I get a little bit embarrassed about talking about it. Even the little [scene] that’s in it, it’s a little embarrassing,” Colfer said.

The passage in question includes an almost meta-literary acknowledgment of this embarrassment; it’s not the only self-reference in Plugged. It’s something that Colfer says he enjoys seeing as a reader.

“Sometimes if I’m reading that, I feel, well, ‘this is actually the writer telling me something about himself ‘through his character,’” Colfer explained. “I look to do that, and sometimes it is me and sometimes it isn’t me and as a reader you have to interpret that. “

“I think it’s an interesting way to communicate with your audience. So there’s a lot in what Daniel says that actually someone said to me or I said to somebody. So it’s more autobiographical than you would think, actually.”

Another part of Plugged that reflects the author’s own experience is McEvoy’s inability to disconnect from his Irish roots.

“I think it’s more a reflection of the people that I meet [than of myself],” Colfer said. “A lot of expatriate Irish people come to my readings, and they talk about Ireland all the time. And sometimes they have an idealized vision of Ireland in their heads andnd sometimes they have never been to Ireland; they’re second generation, but they still consider Ireland as their homeland.”

One such more-Irish-than-Irish character is Mike Madden, a small-time mobster and one of McEvoy’s adversaries. Colfer uses Madden’s out-of-proportion identification with his Irish roots as something of a punch-line, contrasting it with the real Irishman McEvoy’s distaste for his own birthplace.

“It’s a little judgmental I suppose,” Colfer admited, “but I do poke fun at that idea … that [people believe they] can be Irish without ever having been to Ireland. But it’s really a game. I don’t think it’s a real thing for them — it’s a persona to adapt, so you can be Irish or you can be Italian and that’s who you are in society.”

Plugged has an interesting first-person narrative device, and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether McEvoy is talking to the reader or his missing friend Zeb.

“I think he’s telling you about the conversation he has with this guy [Zeb] in his head,” Colfer said. “I always imagine he’s sitting in a bar, with you, telling you the story. It’s meant to be a little disconcerting, and you almost wonder, ‘does he have a spiritual connection with this person?’

“I never cleared that up, so maybe he does, maybe it’s just his imagination. It’s left open. I think it’s a theme if I write more of these books — I really enjoyed the conversations in the head and I think I’d keep that going.”

But as Colfer continues to write fantasy, he is well aware of the dangers that come with the genre. “I think the best writing is probably very realistic and doesn’t involve fantasies at all,” Colfer said. “People like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett and Roddy Doyle: it’s very, very factual and realistic — very invested.”

Whether Colfer’s characters are the fairies and humans of Artemis Fowl or the gangsters and bouncers of Plugged, they’re all still wonderfully believable. No worries on that score, then.