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.

A

To subscribe to the New Statesman or purchase this special issue, click here

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Brexit will send flight prices soaring higher

Ever heard of the Open Skies agreement? 

Ah, taking back control. Isn’t it marvellous? Only a week to go before Theresa May storms up to our soon-to-be ex’s lawyer and thrusts notice of divorce proceedings (demanding we keep the house, money, car, Costa del Sol holiday home, kids and dog) in the pocket of his shiny, European slim-fit suit. All sorted, yes?

Probably not, but panicking won’t help now - so why not take a moment to savour this blossoming (Great) British spring, enjoy some fresh air and take a few moments gazing to the heavens. Why not? Because the skies above us are a never-ending reflection of the Brexit nightmare we face on the ground.

Since the early 1990s air travel around Europe has become more simple and less expensive - the direct result of deregulation by the EU, which abolished rafts of bilateral deals between individual nations and instead merged them all into one agreement between member states. That movement removed numerous passenger and service restrictions, increasing competition and thus driving down prices. Low-cost airlines flourished, and Europe became more open than ever before. Damn that EU red tape, right?

Now the UK has chosen to veer off course, there are three main options for aviation deals with the EU - all of which are essentially mile-high versions of every other trade agreement now up for grabs.

Firstly, the UK can continue with its membership of the European Common Aviation Area, which would provide continued access to the European Single Aviation Market. Secondly, the UK can negotiate a bespoke deal with the EU, similar to the Open Skies agreement we are currently part of between Europe and the US. Like the deregulation of two decades ago, this resulted in pushing competition up and fares down, but post-Brexit the UK could end up on the outside of this deal.

Finally, there’s aviation’s own "nuclear option" - leaving the EU with no deal and starting the long process of individually-negotiated deals country by country. 

Option one, retaining membership of the ECAA, also requires acceptance of all EU aviation law and the European courts - something Theresa May has already proclaimed to be a "red line".

Therefore option two would seem the next best deal, but would still leave us out the loop when it came to trans-Atlantic flights - we may have to wave goodbye to Ryanair’s budget flights to New York before we even got the chance to say céad míle fáilte (the fact they are in partnership with Norwegian Air could further complicate matters depending on the exit deal).

So what does it really mean for the industry? In the short-term, the best case scenario is to maintain existing arrangements until a new deal or deals are reached. But if opting for individual bilateral agreements in the long-term, the industry will not only have to undergo the costly and laborious process of negotiating deals with individual nations inside the EU and out, it will also have no influence on EU aviation regulations, which it will still have to comply with when flying into and out of the bloc.

And for holiday-makers? Like many scenarios post-Brexit the impact will not be immediately obvious, but rising fares are one unwelcome result, and a return to 1980s bilateral restrictions and regulations is surely bad for all concerned. Having said that, if the laptop and tablet ban spreads it might give air travel something of a vintage feel anyway. What’s showing on that big drop-down TV in the aisle?

PS - European aviation law is one of the strongest obstacles to airport expansion. Hillingdon, home to Heathrow airport, was one of the few London boroughs to vote leave. Just saying.