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 US intelligence leaks on the Manchester attack are part of a disturbing pattern

Even the United States' strongest allies cannot rely on this president or his administration to keep their secrets.

A special relationship, indeed. British intelligence services will stop sharing information with their American counterparts about the Manchester bombing after leaks persisted even after public rebukes from Amber Rudd (who called the leaks "irritating") and Michael Fallon (who branded them "disappointing").

In what must be a diplomatic first, Britain isn't even the first of the United States' allies to review its intelligence sharing protocols this week. The Israeli government have also "reviewed" their approach to intelligence sharing with Washington after Donald Trump first blabbed information about Isis to the Russian ambassador from a "close ally" of the United States and then told reporters, unprompted, that he had "never mentioned Israel" in the conversation.

Whether the Manchester leaks emanate from political officials appointed by Trump - many of whom tend to be, if you're feeling generous, cranks of the highest order - or discontent with Trump has caused a breakdown in discipline further down the chain, what's clear is that something is very rotten in the Trump administration.

Elsewhere, a transcript of Trump's call to the Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte in which the American president revealed that two nuclear submarines had been deployed off the coast of North Korea, has been widely leaked to the American press

It's all part of a clear and disturbing pattern, that even the United States' strongest allies in Tel Aviv and London cannot rely on this president or his administration to keep their secrets.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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