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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When Donald Trump talks, remember that Donald Trump almost always lies

Anyone getting excited about a trade deal between the United States and the United Kingdom should pay more attention to what Trump does, not what he says. 

Celebrations all round at the Times, which has bagged the first British newspaper interview with President-Elect Donald Trump.

Here are the headlines: he’s said that the EU has become a “vehicle for Germany”, that Nato is “obsolete” as it hasn’t focused on the big issue of the time (tackling Islamic terrorism), and that he expects that other countries will join the United Kingdom in leaving the European Union.

But what will trigger celebrations outside of the News Building is that Trump has this to say about a US-UK trade deal: his administration will ““work very hard to get it done quickly and done properly”. Time for champagne at Downing Street?

When reading or listening to an interview with Donald Trump, don’t forget that this is the man who has lied about, among other things, who really paid for gifts to charity on Celebrity Apprentice, being named Michigan’s Man of the Year in 2011, and making Mexico pay for a border wall between it and the United States. So take everything he promises with an ocean’s worth of salt, and instead look at what he does.   

Remember that in the same interview, the President-Elect threatened to hit BMW with sanctions over its decision to put a factory in Mexico, not the United States. More importantly, look at the people he is appointing to fill key trade posts: they are not free traders or anything like it. Anyone waiting for a Trump-backed trade deal that is “good for the UK” will wait a long time.

And as chess champion turned Putin-critic-in-chief Garry Kasparov notes on Twitter, it’s worth noting that Trump’s remarks on foreign affairs are near-identical to Putin’s. The idea that Nato’s traditional purpose is obsolete and that the focus should be on Islamic terrorism, meanwhile, will come as a shock to the Baltic states, and indeed, to the 650 British soldiers who have been sent to Estonia and Poland as part of a Nato deployment to deter Russian aggression against those countries.

All in all, I wouldn’t start declaring the new President is good news for the UK just yet.

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