Free Will Matters

Free will is a topic of immense practical importance, not only in the context of the law but also in the social development of children. A recent fashion among some neuroscientists is to say that free will is an illusion, implying that the law should be radically revised. Other neuroscience laboratories are devoted to studying the mechanisms for self-controlled behavior, both in animal models and in humans. They measure the capacity to defer gratification, maintain a goal despite distractions, suppress costly impulses, and so forth. Data show important differences in behavior among individual rats, among individual children, and in adults suffering various kinds of brain insults, such as lesions, dementias, and substance abuse. Researchers are tracking the brain pathways supporting self-controlled behavior, and they have found that self-control in children can be enhanced when they learn to imagine various options and their outcomes and when they engage in role-playing. At odds, therefore, with the dramatic pronouncements about free will are the data on self-control. Patricia Churchland, BPhil, will explore her hypothesis that the free-will-is-an-illusion idea is rooted in a confusion about the significance of causality in self-controlled behavior.