In a paywalled Wall Street Journal story, theory of mind researcher Alison Gopnik informs us that “Young children develop the concept of free will in the short period between ages 4 and 6.” Here’s a free copy from her site:
Along with Tamar Kushnir and Nadia Chernyak at Cornell University and Henry Wellman at the University of Michigan, my lab at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to see what children age 4 and 6 think about free will. The children had no difficulty understanding the first sense of free will: They said that Johnny could walk through the doorway, or not, if the door was open, but he couldn’t go through a closed door.
But the 4-year-olds didn’t understand the second sense of free will. They said that you couldn’t simply decide to override your desires. If you wanted the cookie (and Mom said it was OK), you would have to eat it. The 6-year-olds, in contrast, like adults, said that you could simply decide whether to eat the cookie or not, no matter what. When we asked the 6-year-olds why people could act against their desires, many of them talked about a kind of absolute autonomy: “It’s her brain, and she can do what she wants” or “Nobody can boss her around.”
In other studies, in the journal Cognitive Science, Drs. Kushnir and Chernyak found that 4-year-olds also think that people couldn’t choose to act immorally. Philosophers and theologians, and most adults, think that to be truly moral, we have to exercise our free will. We could do the wrong thing, but we choose to do the right one. But the 4-year-olds thought that you literally couldn’t act in a way that would harm another child. They didn’t develop the adult concept until even later, around 8.
Fall of man? Rise of thug?
See also: How can we believe in naturalism if we have no choice?
“I will” means something after all
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Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose