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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Brawl MP Eric Joyce: Don’t blame me for Brexit just because I headbutted a Tory

The former Labour politician described Corbyn's politics as "quite literally bonkers".

Disgraced former MP Eric Joyce has insisted he’s not to blame for, well, everything that’s happened in British politics since he started a brawl in a House of Commons bar.

The butterfly effect theory runs that if Joyce had not kicked off in Stranger’s Bar one night in 2012, then the nation would look very different indeed.

The fracas, in which Joyce headbutted Tory Stuart Andrew and lamped his own party whip Phil Wilson, led to him giving up his Falkirk seat and quitting the Labour party.

That led to the infamous Falkirk selection fight which saw accusations that the contest was rigged by the unions and the Labour left.

As a result Ed Miliband drew up new rules for Labour membership, which included the option of paying just a few pounds to join and vote in leadership elections.

That allowed thousands to get involved in the 2015 leadership election and make Jeremy Corbyn leader. Corbyn’s ineffective campaigning and failure to deliver the Labour vote at the Brexit referendum is blamed by some for the Leave victory. And as a result of that Nicola Sturgeon is champing at the bit for another independence referendum and this week Theresa May called an early general election to essentially set up a five-year Brexit parliament.

“It’s quite a nice theory,” admits Joyce. “And on one level it’s factually true. But much as I like to self-aggrandise myself, if it hadn’t been Falkirk it would have been somewhere else.

“People were saying to me that the left were making a big push in Paisley to get rid of Douglas Alexander, then my thing came along and they made their stand in Falkirk rather than Paisley.

“Until that point I’d had running battles with the left, but I battered them down every year.”

After Joyce left Labour, Karie Murphy, now a key figure in Corbyn’s office and inner circle and close to Unite boss Len McCluskey, tried to win the nomination to replace him. But questions were raised about the role of Unite in the process and it was claimed that locals had been signed up to the party without their consent. As the scandal grew, then-Labour leader Miliband announced his fateful reforms to party membership in an effort to draw a line under it. (Labour later cleared Unite of any wrongdoing). 

Joyce told me: “Ed was very weak with the left and he had this terrible gullibility. If it hadn’t had been Falkirk the same issues would have surfaced somewhere else.”

He has largely kept his head down since stepping down from Parliament two years ago, other than the occasional blog on the state of the Labour party or the issue of Scottish independence – which he now supports. He’s canned plans for an autobiography but claims he’s adapted some episodes from his life for a thriller instead.

However, in this rare intervention he’s scathing about Corbyn and also about the moderate Labour MPs who oppose him.

He said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are quite literally bonkers.

“When I was an MP I took a lot of interest in Africa. I used to do quite a lot of stuff with Jeremy, he was really engaged and he just stayed behind the scenes focusing on his constituency and his issues. Then occasionally he’d make these bonkers speeches and I’d stay away.”

But he claims the current crop of MPs don’t have the skills to deal with the Corbynista tide.

The former soldier explained: “When I got selected I treated it like a campaign, I located in the constituency, contacted everyone, eventually I got selected, and when the left put their head above the parapet I knocked them down.

“A lot of current MPs got where they are by patronage, they’ve not had to fight battles, they’ve been special advisers. And when it came to Corbyn they weren’t able to carry their local party.

“Politics is all about numbers and organising. And while the Blairite bits of Labour write articles for Progress and tweet, the left just go and get the numbers.”

No longer a member, but describing himself as a Labour supporter, Joyce, an MP for 15 years from 2000, is gloomy about his former party’s prospects.

“It’s hard to see Labour in power before 2025, if ever," he said. "There was no coup, Labour had a nervous breakdown.”

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast.

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