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Researcher probes how young children think about free will

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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?

and

“I will” means something after all

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Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

4 Replies to “Researcher probes how young children think about free will

  1. 1
    mahuna says:

    As my wife pointed out when I remarked that the first conversational word (as opposed to “Mama”) that a toddler learns is “Hi!” (because they quickly see that other people will respond with “Hi!”), their first real word is “No!”

    Young children are FIERCELY independent, refusing to do the simplest and most useful things (put on your socks). And alternately insisting on doing things that can’t matter at all (here’s your blanket; give your brother back his blanket).

    So they may not be able to explain their logic (NO! I don’t WANT to!), but they make conscious choices from a VERY early age. And they understand some version of empathy: they will give you a hug if you hurt yourself and bring their screaming brother a toy or blanket because they’ve learned that’s how you comfort fellow members of the pack.

    I suppose that if they’re taught from birth to kick a guy when he’s down (sympathy is for losers), then they will follow the customs of their pack and hit their baby brother when he cries instead of offering a hug. Adults have to teach children to be human.

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    Although there are interesting nuances in the second sense of free will, i.e. in a child coming to grips with a fallen world and the moral obligation to do the right thing even when others, and even our own hearts, may not desire to do the morally right thing, it is interesting to note that Atheists/Materialists don’t even get there but deny the first, most basic, sense of 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.

    i.e. Atheists/Materialists deny agent causality and insist that the first sense of free will is an illusion. You, do not decide to do anything, whether it be walking through doors or raising your hand.

    In fact materialism insists that your sense of self, i.e. ‘I’, is an illusion. Dr Paul Nelson puts the atheist’s dilemma like this:

    Do You Like SETI? Fine, Then Let’s Dump Methodological Naturalism – Paul Nelson September 24, 2014
    Excerpt: Epistemology — how we know — and ontology — what exists — are both affected by methodological naturalism. If we say, “We cannot know that a mind caused x,” laying down an epistemological boundary defined by MN, then our ontology comprising real causes for x won’t include minds.
    MN entails an ontology in which minds are the consequence of physics, and thus, can only be placeholders for a more detailed causal account in which physics is the only (ultimate) actor. You didn’t write your email to me. Physics did, and informed you of that event after the fact.
    “That’s crazy,” you reply, “I certainly did write my email.” Okay, then — to what does the pronoun “I” in that sentence refer?
    Your personal agency; your mind. Are you supernatural?,,
    You are certainly an intelligent cause, however, and your intelligence does not collapse into physics. (If it does collapse — i.e., can be reduced without explanatory loss — we haven’t the faintest idea how, which amounts to the same thing.) To explain the effects you bring about in the world — such as your email, a real pattern — we must refer to you as a unique agent.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....90071.html

    Although Dr. Nelson used the example of writing a letter, (i.e. creating functional information), so as to tie into Intelligent Design, the same irrationality inherent in the materialistic worldview holds for any action that you, as a personal agent, freely choose to take. We could reword Dr. Nelson’s example several different ways:

    You didn’t write your email to me. Physics did, and informed you of that event after the fact.

    You didn’t walk through the door. Physics did, and informed you of that event after the fact.

    You didn’t raise your hand. Physics did, and informed you of that event after the fact.

    You didn’t etc.. etc.. etc… Physics did, and informed you of that event after the fact.

    You may think it is insane for anyone to believe as such lunacy, but that is in fact the prevailing belief being taught in leading secular universities. Nancy Pearcey recently wrote a book, ‘Finding Truth’, in which she quotes many leading academics confessing they believe as such:

    Why Evolutionary Theory Cannot Survive Itself – Nancy Pearcey – March 8, 2015
    Excerpt: To make the dilemma even more puzzling, evolutionists tell us that natural selection has produced all sorts of false concepts in the human mind. Many evolutionary materialists maintain that free will is an illusion, consciousness is an illusion, even our sense of self is an illusion — and that all these false ideas were selected for their survival value.
    So how can we know whether the theory of evolution itself is one of those false ideas? The theory undercuts itself.,,,
    Of course, the atheist pursuing his research has no choice but to rely on rationality, just as everyone else does. The point is that he has no philosophical basis for doing so. Only those who affirm a rational Creator have a basis for trusting human rationality.
    The reason so few atheists and materialists seem to recognize the problem is that, like Darwin, they apply their skepticism selectively. They apply it to undercut only ideas they reject, especially ideas about God. They make a tacit exception for their own worldview commitments.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....94171.html

    Darwin’s Robots: When Evolutionary Materialists Admit that Their Own Worldview Fails – Nancy Pearcey April 23, 2015
    Excerpt: Even materialists often admit that, in practice, it is impossible for humans to live any other way. One philosopher jokes that if people deny free will, then when ordering at a restaurant they should say, “Just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.”
    An especially clear example is Galen Strawson, a philosopher who states with great bravado, “The impossibility of free will … can be proved with complete certainty.” Yet in an interview, Strawson admits that, in practice, no one accepts his deterministic view. “To be honest, I can’t really accept it myself,” he says. “I can’t really live with this fact from day to day. Can you, really?”,,,
    When I teach these concepts in the classroom, an example my students find especially poignant is Flesh and Machines by Rodney Brooks, professor emeritus at MIT. Brooks writes that a human being is nothing but a machine — a “big bag of skin full of biomolecules” interacting by the laws of physics and chemistry. In ordinary life, of course, it is difficult to actually see people that way. But, he says, “When I look at my children, I can, when I force myself, … see that they are machines.”
    Is that how he treats them, though? Of course not: “That is not how I treat them…. I interact with them on an entirely different level. They have my unconditional love, the furthest one might be able to get from rational analysis.” Certainly if what counts as “rational” is a materialist worldview in which humans are machines, then loving your children is irrational. It has no basis
    within Brooks’s worldview. It sticks out of his box.
    How does he reconcile such a heart-wrenching cognitive dissonance? He doesn’t. Brooks ends by saying, “I maintain two sets of inconsistent beliefs.” He has given up on any attempt to reconcile his theory with his experience. He has abandoned all hope for a unified, logically consistent worldview.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....95451.html

    Here are a few more quotes from atheists along that line:

    “that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing.”
    Francis Crick – “The Astonishing Hypothesis” 1994

    Darwinian Psychologist David Barash Admits the Seeming Insolubility of Science’s “Hardest Problem”
    Excerpt: ‘But the hard problem of consciousness is so hard that I can’t even imagine what kind of empirical findings would satisfactorily solve it. In fact, I don’t even know what kind of discovery would get us to first base, not to mention a home run.’
    David Barash – Materialist/Atheist Darwinian Psychologist

    “We have so much confidence in our materialist assumptions (which are assumptions, not facts) that something like free will is denied in principle. Maybe it doesn’t exist, but I don’t really know that. Either way, it doesn’t matter because if free will and consciousness are just an illusion, they are the most seamless illusions ever created. Film maker James Cameron wishes he had special effects that good.”
    Matthew D. Lieberman – neuroscientist – materialist – UCLA professor

    Here is a very insightful testimony/lecture in which a former atheist finally realizes the sheer insanity of his materialistic position:

    A Professor’s Journey out of Nihilism: Why I am not an Atheist – 2012 talk
    University of Wyoming J. Budziszewski
    http://veritas.org/talks/profe.....er_id=2231

    A Professor’s Journey out of Nihilism: Why I am not an Atheist – University of Wyoming – J. Budziszewski
    Excerpt page12: “There were two great holes in the argument about the irrelevance of God. The first is that in order to attack free will, I supposed that I understood cause and effect; I supposed causation to be less mysterious than volition.
    If anything, it is the other way around. I can perceive a logical connection between premises and valid conclusions. I can perceive at least a rational connection between my willing to do something and my doing it. But between the apple and the earth, I can perceive no connection at all. Why does the apple fall? We don’t know. “But there is gravity,” you say. No, “gravity” is merely the name of the phenomenon, not its explanation. “But there are laws of gravity,” you say. No, the “laws” are not its explanation either; they are merely a more precise description of the thing to be explained, which remains as mysterious as before. For just this reason, philosophers of science are shy of the term “laws”; they prefer “lawlike regularities.” To call the equations of gravity “laws” and speak of the apple as “obeying” them is to speak as though, like the traffic laws, the “laws” of gravity are addressed to rational agents capable of conforming their wills to the command. This is cheating, because it makes mechanical causality (the more opaque of the two phenomena) seem like volition (the less). In my own way of thinking the cheating was even graver, because I attacked the less opaque in the name of the more.
    The other hole in my reasoning was cruder. If my imprisonment in a blind causality made my reasoning so unreliable that I couldn’t trust my beliefs, then by the same token I shouldn’t have trusted my beliefs about imprisonment in a blind causality. But in that case I had no business denying free will in the first place.”
    http://www.undergroundthomist......theist.pdf

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    Meanwhile, over at TSZ, keiths brags on his empathy for others. “I’ve been wired for empathy!”

  4. 4
    Graham2 says:

    I followed the link above to ‘best schools’ or something, and had a short to-and-fro with John something, a professed expert on PSI research. He was full of bluster about the close-minded skeptics … blah blah, and gave long, detailed lists of all the people doing research, but when pressed for some specific result, you know, something that might be useful … crickets. All of a sudden he had to go watch a movie!

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