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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Why we can't let Liam Fox negotiate post-Brexit trade deals behind closed doors

MPs have little control over agreements struck with the US and others. 

Today Liam Fox will start discussing a trade deal with the United States. We don’t know who will attend or what’s on the agenda, and neither do our elected representatives in parliament. Nor do MPs have the power to guide the talks, to set red lines, to amend or to stop an eventual deal.

International Trade Secretary Fox is acting with regal powers. And that should scare us all. 

What we do know is that this deal, if completed, will affect pretty much everyone in the country. Like most modern trade deals it won’t be primarily about tariffs. Far from it, it will be about our environmental and consumer protections, about how we’re allowed to spend taxpayers' money, about how we run our public services and the power we give to big business. 

We also know that those feeding into these negotiations are overwhelmingly big businesses.  

New analysis of ministerial meetings published today by the Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Justice Now, shows that 90 per cent of meetings held by trade ministers in the last six months are with businesses. Most of these are massive companies including Starbucks, Walmart, Amazon, BP and HSBC.

So businesses have nine times the access of everyone else. In fact, it’s worse than it appears, because “everyone else” includes pro-big business consultants from the Legatum Institute and the Adam Smith Institute, together with a handful of campaign groups, trade unions and public institutions.

We can guess from Donald Trump’s approach to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations, which start in a couple of weeks, what the US agenda will look like. Corporate courts – which give big businesses power to sue states for decisions they don’t like – are fine, but state-to-state resolution isn’t. That’s because the US sometimes loses in the latter, but not in the former. 

Trump is also pushing Canada and Mexico for one-sided access for US companies to bid for government spending contracts (Buy America is allowed, but not Buy Canada or Buy Mexico it seems). He also wants better access for US financial corporations and further liberalisation of energy markets.

This is “America First” in practice. With Britain, it’s highly likely that access to the NHS and the UK’s higher food standards will be on the agenda. After all, Fox is likely to agree with Trump on those issues.  

Indeed, this is big politics for Fox. He knows that outside the EU, Britain must choose whom to align itself with – the US or Europe. Fox’s preference is clearly the former, because that would push us down the path of lighter regulation, lower standards, and “the market knows best”. That’s why failure to secure an EU trade deal while agreeing a US deal has enormous implications for our society.  

Finally, we know that this is only the first of ten trade working groups with 15 countries which will meet in coming weeks and months. Others involve Saudi Arabia and Turkey, hardly human rights bastions, where we have a big arms market. It also includes countries such as India, where Britain is desperate to increase intellectual property rules to help big pharmaceutical corporations clamp down on generic medicine provision. 

The long and the short of it is that none of this should be discussed behind closed doors. This is not a game of poker involving tariff levels. Huge issues of public policy are at stake. Yet even the most basic information about these meetings is apparently so sensitive that it is exempt from Freedom of Information laws. And don’t accept the assurance of Fox, who has form in this area. He promised a parliamentary debate on the Canada-EU trade deal last year. The debate never came. Fox simply signed the deal off on behalf of this country with no scrutiny or discussion. MPs should refuse to accept his assurances a second time. 

Anyone who suspects this is a Remoaner making up scare stories about Brexit should remember the process is the exact same one that will be used to agree our trade deal with the EU when we leave. That means our MEPs will have more power over that deal than our MPs. As will the MEPs of all other EU member states, and their national parliamentarians. In fact, the parliamentarians of the Belgian region of Wallonia will have more power than British MPs. Taking back control it ain’t.

But don’t despair. We have 18 months in which the government is not allowed to sign off any trade deals. We have a Trade Bill which will be introduced to parliament in the autumn. And we have a hung parliament. And a cross-party motion has already been tabled calling for scrutiny of trade deals like this. There is every chance we can overturn this archaic method of negotiating trade deals. But the clock is ticking. 

Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now