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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I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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