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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The allegations of abuse in sport are serious – but we must guard against hysteria

This week in the media, from Castro and the student rebels, hysteria over football coaches, and Ed Balls’s ballroom exit.

From the left’s point of view, the best that can be said of Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, is that – to echo Franklin D Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza – he may have been a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch. Denying Castro’s dreadful record on human rights is pointless. According to the highest estimates – which include those who perished while trying to flee the regime – the death toll during Castro’s 49 years in charge was roughly 70,000. His immediate predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, murdered, again according to the highest estimates, 20,000 but he ruled for a mere seven years. For both men, you can find considerably lower figures, sometimes in the hundreds. It depends on the politics of the estimator, which shows the absurdity of such reckoning.

 

Murder is murder

What is certain is that Batista ran a corrupt regime with close links to the American Mafia and presided over outrageous inequalities. Even President Kennedy, who ­approved a failed military invasion of Cuba in 1960, said that, on Batista’s record, “I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries”. Castro, on the other hand, created a far more equal society where illiteracy was almost wiped out, and free health care brought life expectancy up to levels comparable to those in the US and western Europe. You could say that the numbers saved from early deaths by Cuban medicine under Castro easily exceeded the numbers that faced firing squads.

But nothing excuses torture, murder and political imprisonment. There isn’t a celestial balance sheet that weighs atrocities against either the freedoms from ignorance and disease that the left favours or the freedoms to make money and hold private property that the right prefers. We should argue, as people always will, about which freedoms matter most. We should be united in condemning large-scale state brutality whatever its source.

 

Spirit of ʼ68

Though his regime became an ally (or, more precisely, a client) of the Soviet Union, Castro wasn’t a communist and he didn’t lead a communist uprising. This point is crucial to understanding his attraction to the mostly middle-class student rebels in Europe and America who became known as the ’68ers.

To them, communist rulers in eastern European were as uninspiring as the cautious centrists who hogged power in Western democracies. They were all grey men in suits. Castro had led a guerrilla army and wore battle fatigues. As the French writer Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution? – a book revered among the students – Castro’s band of revolutionaries didn’t start with a political programme; they developed one during “the struggle”. Their ideology grew organically in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

This do-it-yourself approach seemed liberating to idealistic young people who didn’t want to bother with the tedious mechanics of bourgeois democracy or the dreary texts of Marxism-Leninism. They had permission for “direct action” whenever they felt like it without needing to ­formulate aims and objectives. They couldn’t, unfortunately, see their way to forming a guerrilla army in the Scottish Highlands or the Brecon Beacons but they could occupy a university refectory or two in Colchester or Coventry.

 

Caution over coaches

Commenting on Radio 5 Live on the case of Barry Bennell, the Crewe Alexandra coach convicted in 1998 of sexual offences against boys aged nine to 15 (the case came to fresh attention because several former professional football players went public about the abuse), an academic said that 5 per cent of boys reported being sexually abused in sport. “That’s one boy on every football pitch, every cricket pitch, every rugby pitch in the country,” he added.

This is precisely the kind of statement that turns perfectly reasonable concerns about inadequate vigilance into public hysteria. The figure comes from an online survey carried out in 2011 by the University of Edinburgh for the NSPCC. The sample of 6,000 was self-selected from emails to 250,000 students aged 18 to 22, who were asked about their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual harm in sport while aged 16 or under. “We do not make claims for the representativeness of our sample,” the researchers state.

Even if 5 per cent is accurate, the suggestion that abusers stalk every playing field in the land is preposterous. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, just about every DJ from the 1960s and 1970s fell under suspicion – along with other prominent figures, including ex-PMs – and some were wrongly arrested. Let’s hope something similar doesn’t happen to football coaches.

 

Shut up, Tony

Brexit “can be stopped”, Tony Blair told this magazine last week. No doubt it can, but I do wish Blair and other prominent Remain supporters would shut up about it. The Brexiteers have spent 20 years presenting themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy to silence them. Committed to this image, they cannot now behave with the grace usually expected of winners. Rather, they must behave as though convinced that the prize will shortly be snatched from them, and treat any statement from Remainers, no matter how innocuous, with suspicion and resentment. Given enough rope, they will, one can reasonably hope, eventually hang themselves.

 

Strictly Balls

Perhaps, however, Nigel Farage et al are justified in their paranoia. As I observed here last week, the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, in the spirit of voters who backed Brexit and Donald Trump, struck more blows against elite experts by keeping Ed Balls in the competition even after judges gave him abysmal ratings. Now it is all over. The BBC contrived a “dance-off” in which only the judges’ votes counted. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage