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 Bangladesh, bat in hand, I list all the things that could go wrong

Not everyone gets to play cricket in Bangladesh but I still managed to notch up more worries than runs.

Back from Bangladesh. I picked up a stomach bug while I was out there, and possibly a heart bug, about which I’d rather not go into any detail at the moment, but both will get better as time passes. Meanwhile, as I lie in my bed of pain (the nasty stuff has stopped but I’m still getting the occasional painful ache in the guts), I have my memories.

I must say it was very odd to be treated like royalty while I was out there. (For those who missed it: I was invited to participate in the Dhaka Literary Festival, and saw no reason to refuse, especially after being bought an exceptionally good dinner by the main organiser.) The democrat in me feels shifty even when I’m addressed as “sir” in shops in the UK, so when, one day, on entering the campus at the Bangla Academy, I was actually saluted by a military policeman, I was somewhat taken aback. I wonder if I will see that look in the soldier’s eyes until my dying day: alert, respectful, possibly a bit unhinged. Anyone saluting me must be a little off their rocker, but then how was he to know what a cock-up of a human being I am?

Still, it was extraordinarily pleasant. The highlight was, of course, the cricket match, in which I was invited to play for a scratch team of five from the Authors’ XI, plus two extra lads from the local college, or perhaps affiliated to the local team, the Khulna Titans, whose boss presented us all with caps. I’m wearing mine even as I write these words. I find it soothing.

At the time, though, I was feeling most unsoothed. I found myself going through a list of worries. I should point out that I often start to worry when I start descending the staircase to my own front door – and I was, at this point, roughly 5,000 miles from my front door.

So here are my top ten worries on the way to, during and after the match. I present them in chronological order of beginning to freak me out.

1) Getting shot by terrorists. (That police escort does make one stand out in a crowd, and this lot didn’t seem to be carrying any guns.)

2) Being bitten by one of the dogs lounging around the side of the pitch and having to make the choice between having a series of terribly painful rabies shots, or having rabies.

3) Being stung by a wasp or something on the field and going into anaphylactic shock.

4) Being hit in the mouth by a bouncer and having to go to a hospital to have my teeth crammed back in somehow.

5) Making a huge mow at a full toss not quite as outside the off stump as I’d suspected it was, and missing and being bowled by it.

6) Dropping a catch . . .

6a) . . . and having the ball slam into my mouth etc (see 4).

7) Getting sunstroke/sunburn.

8) Being bitten by a dragonfly, or a swarm of them, while on the pitch. There were loads of dragonflies, for some reason, but they were rather drab. Maybe they weren’t dragonflies, but they flew in the same manner.

9) Throwing the ball back to the keeper in an unmanly or generally disappointing fashion.

10) Being stuck in traffic on the way back for ever and ever, and so missing the event I was scheduled to chair later in the afternoon.

As it is, only number 5) transpired. And maybe a bit of 9). However, I at least made one rather streaky run and so am now able to make the hilarious joke that I have scored on the subcontinent. I marvelled at the state of the pitch: it looked like very fine-textured, pliable tar, or mud baked halfway to being a brick, but soft enough for the spikes on your boot to make a neat hole. Still, it was loads better than the poor neglected pitches at Dogshit Park in Shepherd’s Bush. And I thought of my father, who would have been strangely proud of me for having played in so far-flung a place, and wished that he was still around so he could hear my news.

And so back to London. I was greeted, as I stepped, in my summer linens, from the Heathrow Express at Paddington to the cab rank (I was too tired and sick for public transport), by a blast of chill rain, and shivered as I turned on the cab’s heater. Once again I seem to have fallen in love with a place new to me, and I begin to get indignant at the fact that the weather gets miserable in the UK.

There might be millions of poor people in Bangladesh, but not a single one of them is living in fear that one night they might freeze to death while sleeping out of doors. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

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