Ernest Nagel Lectures in Philosophy and Science: Lecture 2

  • Gates&Hillman Centers
  • ASA Conference Room 6115

Free Will & Self-Control

Free will is a topic of practical significance, especially in the context of the law but also in the socialization of children. The idea that free will is an illusion, recently bruited by trendy writers, is rooted on a rigid 17th century Cartesian theory according to which no decision is truly free unless it occurs in a causal vacuum. Because brains make decisions and decisions emerge from causal interactions, free will allegedly gets no purchase. Rather alarmingly, this view may inspire a call to radically revise the criminal law. To update our ideas of free will, it is useful to shift debate away from the puzzling metaphysics of causal vacuums to the neurobiology of self-control. Understanding is aided by research that maps the neural mechanisms supporting self-controlled behavior, in both animals and humans. Noteworthy also are data on decision-making that indicate a role for counterfactual learning signals, observing that this function can be impaired by, for example, nicotine. Not surprisingly, genetics play a significant role in the base-line capacities related to self-control, as is suggested by the stable patterns of self-controlled behavior over a 60 year period. Although the criminal law is unlikely to be revised to provide a new kind of excuse to reflect genetic differences in self-control and the reward system, such data may be modestly relevant to discretionary sentencing judgments. The more profound importance of emerging data on self-control will concern interventions relevant to addictions and compulsions.

About the Lecturer.

The Ernest Nagel Lectures in Philosophy & Science are held biennially. Through presentations by eminent philosophers and scientists, they highlight the deep connection between philosophical reflection and scientific activity.