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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In this week's magazine | The longest hatred

A first look at this week's issue.

6 - 12 May issue
The longest hatred

 

Cover story: The longest hatred.
Brendan Simms
and Charlie Laderman: Why anti-Semitism in Europe today is a threat to us all.

Howard Jacobson on anti-Semitism, Ken Livingstone and an Oscar-winning argument for Zionism.

Jim Murphy: BBC neutrality in reporting on the EU referendum is misguided and dangerous.

Politics: George Eaton on tensions inside Labour; Helen Lewis meets the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, on the eve of the Holyrood elections; plus the Tory activist Shazia Awan on why she will be voting for Sadiq Khan tomorrow.

Jason Cowley: How immigration is testing Scandinavian welfare capitalism to breaking point.

Shiraz Maher on Syria: The slaughter of civilians in Aleppo is a threat to our national security.

From wars to power ballads: Helen Lewis on the geopolitics of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Philip Norman shares his memories of childhood food.

Radio: Antonia Quirke has had enough of the Guardian bias on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House.

“Alderley – for Alan Garner”: a new poem by Rowan Williams.

 

****

Cover story: The longest hatred.

In this week’s cover story, Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman consider the rise of Jew-hatred in contemporary Europe – the clearest manifestation of which is the flight of Jewish people from France. And the authors trace anti-Semitism to its roots in the pogroms of Christian Europe in the Middle Ages:

The cancerous belief that the world is run by an international Jewish conspiracy shapes the world-view of much of Iran’s governing elite, operatives of Islamic State (IS), nationalist leaders in Slovakia and Hungary, and a major Palestinian political organisation. It even pervades parts of a mainstream British political party, and our university campuses, too. Where did this poison come from, and is there an antidote to it?

[. . .]

Like Nazi ideology, Islamist extremism and far-right fascism are rooted in a deep-seated anti-Semitism that begins by targeting Jews and expands its focus outwards. Islamists and European fascists are convinced that a global Jewish conspiracy runs the world. They regard Jews as the embodiment of the West and as symbols of all they most despise about its values: tolerance, liberty, freedom and democratic capitalism. The West is thus regarded as politically “Jewish” whether it is aware of this or not.

Far from being an exclusively Jewish problem, paranoid, political anti-Semitism endangers us all. It is the harbinger of a broader assault on Western modernity.

[. . .]

The absurdity of anti-racist anti-Semitism is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by a march in 2014 in Toulouse against anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of racism that ended in Jewish protesters being denounced as Zionists and urged to leave. When Jews are being chased away from rallies against anti-Semitism, the problem should be clear for all to see.

[. . .]

We must recognise that, throughout history, the Jews have served as a “canary in the coal mine”, providing early warnings of extreme, xenophobic ideologies on the rise. This is evident in radical Islamism, the most extreme contemporary manifestation of anti-Semitism. While the West thinks it is fighting a war against “terrorism”, Islamists are fighting a war against what they perceive to be a world Jewish conspiracy. Islamist terror attacks are almost certain to be preceded by, involve, or be followed by attacks on Jews, and we must adjust our security measures accordingly.

Above all, we must all be aware of the stakes. Supporting Jewish people worldwide against the new anti-Semitism, be it Islamist, far-rightist or leftist, is not so much a matter of demonstrating solidarity, but of ensuring our own survival.

 

The Diary: Howard Jacobson.

In this week’s Diary, the author Howard Jacobson considers accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in the light of an Oscar-winning argument in favour of Zionism:

I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror.

 

Jim Murphy: The BBC is in danger of being too impartial on the EU referendum.

The NS columnist Jim Murphy argues this week that the unthinking neutrality of British broadcasters on Europe: Leave or Remain? is misguided and dangerous:

I want to put something to you that may at first sound strange. At best, it may appear counterintuitive; at worst, anti-democratic.

I believe that the British broadcast media are in danger of being too impartial. This has been especially true in the lead-up to the EU referendum. In a single-question vote such as this one, absolute neutrality lacks integrity and can produce gross inaccuracies.

Stay with me and I’ll explain why. In multiparty general elections, we have become used to hearing broadcasters announce which party they believe has had the best of the campaign on any given day. It’s the moment during the national ten o’clock news when the country gets to find out what campaigners likely already knew: that their preferred side has had a bloody awful 12 hours.

In its absolute form, however, impartiality declares every event a draw. At its purest, impartiality witnesses a house fire and declares it a shame for the property owner but a joy for the fire. And therein lies the difference.

There is a breed of critical mind which can accept that campaigners’ soundbites need to be reported, but also that their assertions must be interrogated, too. There are a good number of broadcast journalists who have mastered this art. However, it can prove difficult when much of their exceptional insight does not make it on to the flagship news programmes and remains instead on blogs, network websites and social media.

British broadcasters behave more like American newspapers, while UK newspapers often behave like American broadcasters. Given the choice, I’d rather have our system of partisan print than a US one of biased TV and radio. All the same, some will claim that what I’m arguing for will guarantee a “slippery slope” towards mid-Atlantic broadcasting. It will not.

We should avoid at all costs having a BBC or ITV that mimicks the liberal partisanship of MSNBC, or allowing Sky to become a home for Fox News-style shock jockery. All the same, in Britain today, the understandable desire on the part of broadcasters to appear to favour neither side in the EU referendum puts them at risk of stumbling into a vapid neutrality.

 

George Eaton: The Politics Column.

The NS’s political editor, George Eaton, argues that although many Labour MPs are unhappy with the party leadership – and especially its chaotic response to mounting accusations of anti-Semitism – none of them will challenge Jeremy Corbyn before the vote on Britain’s membership of the EU:

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation.

[. . .]

Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

PLUS on newstatesman.com: On the eve of the Holyrood elections Helen Lewis meets the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, and the former Conservative parliamentary candidate Shazia Awan on why she’s voting for Sadiq Khan tomorrow.

 

Editor’s Note: Jason Cowley.

On a visit to Sweden, Jason Cowley finds a country ill at ease with itself and in retreat from its habitual openness to incomers:

Mass immigration has tested the old Scandinavian model of welfare capitalism to near breaking point and resentment is festering. “Immigration is now the number one issue facing our country,” Johan Forssell told me when we met at the Riksdag. He is a former chief of staff for Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister from 2006-14. As leader of the Moderate Party, Reinfeldt is a conservative, but, in his commitment to free markets and open borders, the politician he most resembles is Tony Blair. I was a guest at a lunch for Reinfeldt in London last autumn, and, as he defended his immigration policies, I was struck above all by his liberalism.

In August 2014, in a celebrated speech, he called on his fellow Swedes to “open their hearts” and “show tolerance” to immigrants and asylum-seekers. The speech was received with derision. It surely contributed to the defeat of the Moderate-led centre-right coalition in the general election in which the far-right Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, recorded their best ever performance, winning 49 out of 349 parliamentary seats. “It was a brave speech, but Freddie didn’t prepare the people for it,” one senior Swedish politician said to me.

 

Shiraz Maher on Syria: We cannot accommodate Assad – we must hit him hard, for our own security.

As Syrian forces lay waste to Aleppo, Shiraz Maher wonders how much longer we can tolerate the slaughter and the threat it represents to our own security:

Whether we like it or not, the depressing conclusion is that the Syrian crisis is our crisis. The idea that we can somehow insulate ourselves from its repercussions is a fantasy.

Think of how the past few weeks of chaos in Aleppo will create even more pushing ever greater numbers towards Europe. Set aside humanitarian and moral arguments and look instead at the situation through the prism of our national security interests. The conclusion is obvious: instability in the Middle East and North Africa leads to instability here. This is how we must now think about the war in Syria.

Our security and interests are best served if Syria is a country in which its people can live. For the most part, Syrians have shown a remarkable willingness to endure the privations of war and have been forced into exile only by the relentless campaign of indiscriminate aerial bombing.

The West has flirted with the dangerous idea that we should somehow accommodate Assad or rehabilitate him in the expectation that this will end Syria’s civil war. Yet the president has proved that he is not a partner who can be trusted to act in good faith. Indeed, his actions drive international terrorism and destabilise Europe. All of this points to nothing changing while he remains in power. To secure ourselves, we will at some point have to hit Assad – and hit him hard.

 

From wars to power ballads: Helen Lewis on the geopolitics of Eurovision.

With just over a week to go until the glitter cannon fill the Globe arena in Stockholm – and in the year of Britain’s Brexit referendum – Helen Lewis explores the complex politics of the Eurovision Song Contest:

“War is the continuation of politics by other means,” the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once wrote. Defenders of the European Union often point to its success in bringing decades of peace to a troubled continent, but perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the Eurovision Song Contest has become a continuation of war by other means. The organisers of the competition are never going to succeed in making it apolitical, or “about picking the best popular song in Europe”, because an audience of 200 million people is too big an opportunity for any pressure group to pass up.

In 1956, no one could have predicted that the premier arena for political statements about European identity would be a music contest variously won by a bearded drag queen, a Finnish heavy metal group and a temporarily Swiss Céline Dion, but there you go. Still, no matter how much you hate disco or power ballads, they are infinitely preferable to a ground invasion. We should probably just let the Russians win it every year to keep them happy.

 

Plus

Ed Smith on Claudio Ranieri and Leicester’s lessons for losers.

Mark Lawson travels a thousand miles across England on a week-long, mammoth tour of 12 plays by Shakespeare.

Television: Rachel Cooke finds many shades of masculinity in Channel 4’s Grayson Perry: All Man and BBC1’s Chasing Dad.

Barbara Speed: Young women are ditching the Pill for tech-led, “natural” contraception.

Tim Wigmore: Why are Britain’s nightclubs closing their doors?

Ali Smith revisits the fantasy novels of Alan Garner and finds political anger as well as potent myth.

Simon Kuper wonders if Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football is the most pretentious book about soccer ever written.

Film: Ryan Gilbey is touched by the blind generosity of love in Florence Foster Jenkins.

For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396