Assuming you don’t believe in free will – and I am of the opinion that no one should – have you ever tried to explain it to someone who’s never considered the question? Among the many stumbling blocks is the fact that you might find need for words like “choice” and “decide” and even “your mind” in your explanation. That is, you use language that implies the existence of the concept that you are arguing doesn’t exist.
My colleagues and I were in the middle of trying to choose a topic for the final essay of a writing class when the topic of free will came up. The book that we assigned, The Power of Habit by Duhigg, has a final chapter that leaves a tasty morsel of philosophy dangling in front of the reader in the form of the question: Is there a meaningful difference in the decision-making power of someone who commits murder while sleepwalking and someone who gambles impulsively to the point of bankrupting her family many times over? Some people thought this would be a good foundation for a final essay, and I disagreed. I think free will is too heavy a lift for a 5-6 page paper in an ESL class, and only part of the reason is that it’s a hard topic in general. The main reason is that it’s a hard topic especially for language learners in that explaining one’s position involves a lot of scare quotes around otherwise normal vocabulary because one is using words while consciously denying that they really mean what most people think they do. It involves a great deal of questioning the meanings of the very words that we are using to explain our position, words which often come pre-packaged with an assumption that free will is real.
I am very fond of the story of the philosopher Wittgenstein asking his friend why people thought for so long that the sun revolved around the earth. His friend responded that “It just looks that way”, to which Wittgenstein posed the question, “What would it look like if it looked like the earth revolved around the sun?” (Paraphrasing, of course). The palette of intuitive concepts, what things naturally “look like”, is quite limited in our species. Whoever was the first one to think that maybe the relationship of the sun to the earth was the other way around almost certainly had to explain it to her tribe with reference to what came intuitively to them, that the sun “looked like” it went around the earth. Even stronger than the intuition that small things (as the sun appears to us) go around big things (as the earth looks from its surface) are intuitions like dualism of mind and body, linear time, heritability, purity (of substances, but also of blood, morals, etc.), and free will. These concepts are not just commonplace assumptions about how the world works, but they also infiltrate our language and force us to assert them offhand while having unrelated conversations. If I say “I decided to write a blog post about free will”, I’ve made an implicit argument already with my use of the phrase “I decided”. It’s the same if I say that “In my mind, I feel that duality is false”. Arguing against these concepts requires using language that presupposes them.
I call these concepts hegemonic metaphors* because they subsume even the arguments against them. Just like making extremely convincing arguments against capitalism is a highly marketable skill, arguing against the existence of a “will” fills the listener’s head with many repetitions of the words “choose” and “mind” and implicitly argues for the validity of the concepts that they stand for. I “choose” not to make my ESL students play this game.
*As with many of my posts, this naming reflects both a lack of reading of real philosophers who probably already a name for this phenomenon as well as a desire to give my posts the most pretentious titles possible.