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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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.