Preview: Sam Harris on the free will delusion

The atheist author and neuroscientist on why we're not as free as we think.

The Christmas issue of the New Statesman (you can buy a copy here), guest-edited by Richard Dawkins, includes a brilliant essay by the neuroscientist and atheist author Sam Harris on the illusion of free will. Here, for Staggers readers, is a sneak preview.

Even though we can find no room for it in the causal order, the notion of free will is still accorded a remarkable deference in the scientific and philosophical literature, even by those who believe that the mind is entirely dependent on the workings of the brain. However, the truth is that free will doesn't even correspond to any subjective fact about us, for introspection soon grows as hostile to the idea as the equations of physics have. Apparent acts of volition merely arise, spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference), and cannot be traced to a point of origin in the stream of consciousness. A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you decide the next thought you think no more than you decide the next thought I write.

All of our behaviour can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge. In the 1980s the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that activity in the brain's motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used functional magnetic resonance imaging data to show that some "conscious" decisions can be predicted up to ten seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one's thoughts and actions.

For better or worse, these truths about human psychology have political implications, because liberals and conservatives are not equally confused about them. Liberals usually understand that every person represents a confluence of forces that he did not will into being - and we can be lucky or very unlucky in this respect. Conservatives, however, have made a religious fetish of individualism.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Far from being a leftwing radical, Jeremy Corbyn is slouching towards Milibandism

Most of the Corbynite agenda can be found in the pages of Britain Can Be Better, the party’s 2015 manifesto.

A pair of boxing gloves hangs in the office of Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency – not because the diminutive left-winger faces a fight to keep his party relevant, let alone in government (some surveys show him in fifth place), but because of his affection for Muhammad Ali, whose poster adorns one of the walls of his sophisticated, modern office. During his against-the-odds run for the Socialists’ presidential nomination, he likened himself to Jeremy Corbyn, as did his opponents. Though the comparison added a note of optimism to his long-shot bid, now that he is ensconced at the top of his party it is Corbyn, rather than Hamon, who is flattered by the comparison.

A casual observer of Hamon’s open-plan headquarters in Château d’Eau, a gentrify­ing area near the centre of Paris, might mistake it for the home of a tech start-up rather than that of a party that is more than a century old. Someone visiting Corbyn’s offices at Norman Shaw South in the Palace of Westminster, or the Labour Party’s headquarters a few minutes down the road, would have no such difficulties.

Although the demolition of its Miliband-era offices forced the move to the new digs, Labour’s organisational structures and campaigning approach remain firmly rooted in the world that Ed Miliband built. The offices of the leader of the opposition, too, are little changed since Miliband vacated them.

It’s not only the buildings that have a Miliband-era look to them. Labour’s policies do, too. For all that Corbyn is battered in the right-wing press for his “hard-left” past, his present is mired in the programme of his predecessor.

Most of the Corbynite agenda can be found in the pages of Britain Can Be Better, the party’s 2015 manifesto. A pledge to ban zero-hours contracts appears on page 27. A commitment to undo the Conservatives’ reforms to the National Health Service is on page 34, and a pledge to ensure parity of esteem for physical and mental health treatment is on the following page.

To address Britain’s housing crisis, the party leader has pledged to build 200,000 homes, the same commitment as Miliband and Theresa May made. On immigration, meanwhile, Labour remains mired in its Miliband-era rut: desperate to avoid upsetting the half of its coalition that likes immigration or the half that opposes it, the party settles for offending both with an incoherent mess.

Corbyn’s Labour has a more expansive ­fiscal rule allowing it to spend more on infrastructure than the Labour of Miliband and Ed Balls would have done but, on taxation, the party has moved significantly since the era of Balls – to the right.

The promise of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid was “a new kind of politics”. Corbyn’s claim to be to the left of what came before him rests largely on his career before becoming leader and his rhetoric, rather than the programme that he has advanced since becoming leader.

Here, Corbyn’s allies point to the oppo­sition of much of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Hamon, too, has to navigate a political elite that mostly backed his defeated opponent Manuel Valls, but has carved out a distinctive policy platform offering a universal basic income and pledging to legalise both cannabis and euthanasia.

The Labour leader’s office, meanwhile, can no longer claim to be understaffed. Ed Miliband had a staff of 25. Corbyn has one of 28, with four posts still to be filled. Although Miliband’s journey ended in electoral defeat, his leadership was at least an incubator for ideas about the future of the party, admittedly sometimes to the extent that his office more closely resembled a seminar room than a platform to seize power in a general election. There are serious thinkers in the current leader’s office, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Corbyn has proved to be a more adept player of the game of Labour politics than his opponents as far as retaining the leadership is concerned, and yet he cannot be said to have been a success in terms of transforming the Labour Party. A minister from the Tony Blair years describes Corbyn’s victory as a necessary “course correction” from the excesses of the latter years of New Labour and the arid unity of the Miliband era, but the truth is that Labour’s plane remains on the same trajectory that it was on when Corbyn took the controls.

Beyond the leader’s office, Labour’s left flank has shrunk under Corbyn. Fourteen of the 35 Labour MPs who signed Corbyn’s nomination papers could be described as sharing his politics. Today, the Corbynite caucus numbers just 13, as the late Michael Meacher, an eloquent supporter of Corbynism, has been succeeded in Oldham by Jim McMahon, a rising hope of the party’s right. If Clive Lewis, who is still regarded as the left’s best asset by many activists but is currently on the outside as far as the leadership is concerned, is counted out, the Corbynite caucus goes down to 12.

The struggles of Labour’s French cousins and, indeed, of most centre-left parties everywhere – the centre left has won just seven elections in the EU since the financial crash – show that the party’s problems do not begin or end with Corbyn. But, two years in, it is difficult to see which of those problems are improving under him and easy to identify the ones that are getting worse.

On the periphery of the Corbyn project, there is worthwhile work being done on the digital economy and the party’s structure; the latter has not been the subject of deep thinking since 1997. Yet those green shoots are likely to remain neglected until the leader’s successor, whoever that may be, inherits, just as Corbyn did from Miliband, a party that is weaker at Westminster than it was when he or she found it. And that, regrettably, is the optimistic scenario.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition