Nine times out of ten, the conversation starts as follows:
“I’m Leonard,” I say. “I’m a philosopher.”
The interlocutor responds, “Oh! What do you do with a degree in philosophy?”
I shrug. “I hung mine in my apartment. It was the easiest way to prove the existence of walls.”
The interlocutor laughs politely, then remembers an apparently urgent appointment on the other side of the room.
If you become a philosopher, then a snappy way to answer the “what do you do” question is going to be an important element of your intellectual utility belt. It will get you through the vast majority of human interaction in a way that doesn’t require a constantly-updated summary of the most recent Jobs for Philosophers.
Just remember: on rare occasions, you’re going to meet that tenth person.
I had one such occasion recently, when an (admittedly comely) interlocutor started a conversation about philosophy of physics. As the discussion evolved, I eventually had to fall back on another tool in my utility belt: purposeful controversy.
“I don’t believe in free will.”
“You don’t?” The young lady seemed taken aback. She asked, “Then you believe in fate?”
That’s the question that really got me thinking, and the one that prompted this essay. I had to give a typically philosophical response: yes and no. To understand why that’s not simply a dodge, and why it’s worth revisiting an issue that’s already been covered extensively around these parts, let’s empty out the rest of my utility belt. It turns out that I don’t keep much in there: just some time travel stories and a copy of Jurassic Park (1).
For my money, there’s no entertainment more enjoyable on a greater number of levels than a good time travel story. The genre offers a number of interesting points for discussion. Does the story hold together consistently? What happened to other people in the original timeline? Is the ending to Superman: The Movie a crime against functional human brains? More important for our purposes, though, is the fact that many philosophers consider time travel to be part-and-parcel of discussions of free will.
This is not to say that all time travel is of philosophical value. After all, everyone travels forward through time, and all too often without any interesting results. Similarly, we’re not talking about the familiar DeLorean-assisted romps through spacetime. No: the philosophically valuable sort of time travel is somewhat more boring. Imagine simply rewinding the entirety of the universe back to an earlier point, then allowing it to play forward again. A time traveler in this sense would have no idea that she had traveled at all, because all of her thoughts and experiences would be exactly the same as they had been at the earlier point (2).
Consider the recently-released movie “Safety Not Guaranteed,” wherein the main character (mild spoiler alert!) entertains the idea of going back in time to prevent the death of her mother, for which the character (played by Aubrey Plaza) feels responsible. In the rewinding sense of time travel, she would find herself at a point ten years earlier in her life, thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same desires that she had previously. Would it be possible for her to behave differently, such that she doesn’t initiate a sequence of events that leads to her mother’s death? Intuitively, I say no.
But the truth is that my answer doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t say anything about fate. It turns out that time travel isn’t a particularly useful tool in discussing that issue.
I guess that leaves me with Jurassic Park.
By the end of his career, Michael Crichton would come to adopt a dogmatic opposition to the scientific establishment: in the name of “open-mindedness,” he denied global climate change, Darwinian evolution, and the proposition that airline unions don't bear any analogy with velociraptors. This conviction that science is an “outmoded practice” in the process of “destroying itself” had much more reasonable origins in Jurassic Park, wherein Crichton (rightly!) objected less to science itself and more to scientism:
“Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. …[its power] will be in everyone’s hands. … And that will force everyone to answer the same question—What should I do with my power?—which is the very question science says it cannot answer.”
This is just David Hume’s famed is/ought distinction, and if you don’t accept it by now, then I’m certainly not going to convince you. You’ll find it to be either axiomatically true or self-evidently false. Still: one is hard-pressed to find a balanced biochemical reaction that reads, “cloned T. rex ⇌ bad idea,” which is precisely what you should find if the distinction is denied (3).
I would imagine that the young lady seemed so surprised that I might believe in fate because the concept seems so religious. Indeed, “fate” has historically been tied to the idea of predestination, as determined by some deity or another. If Aubrey Plaza’s (fictional) mother is fated to die on some day, then she is supposed to die on that day. When she does, Ms. Plaza can’t be blamed for it: Ms. Plaza didn’t determine that fate, and so she can’t be held responsible for bringing it about.
Consider the language here. She’s supposed to die. She can’t be held responsible. These are moral considerations; we are very firmly on the “ought” side of the is/ought divide. This is very much in line with some of the earliest discussions of free will. Aristotle, for example, reserved his most extensive elaboration on the subject of free will for his Nicomachean Ethics, arguing that responsibility can only follow from deliberate choice. All of our moral reasoning depends on the assignment of praise and blame, and so we need an account of free will to justify reward and punishment.
This is why time travel stories, despite their ubiquity in discussions of free will, are such a poor tool for addressing the issue with which most people are concerned. Through these stories, we consider what could have happened previously, not what will happen in the future. We’re not talking about moral responsibility; we’re talking about metaphysical possibility. It’s possible that she won’t die. We’re on the “is” side of the is/ought divide now, and so we’re no longer addressing questions raised in the moral context (4).
“Yes and no” isn’t a wishy-washy non-answer to the question of whether or not I believe in fate because I can answer that question differently on the two sides of the is/ought divide. Metaphysically: yes, there is only one way the universe will unfold; Aubrey Plaza’s character will cause events that lead to her mother’s death no matter how many times she rewinds time. Morally: no, the way the universe unfolds isn’t the way things are supposed to be; it’s just the way things happen, in part because of our actions, and so Ms. Plaza’s character (indeed, any one of us) can still be responsible for what she does.
What do you do with a degree in philosophy? Obviously, you’d like to be doing something worthwhile and productive. It just isn’t clear to me that debating free will as a metaphysical issue accomplishes that. Intuition tells me that it’s not possible for the past to have proceeded differently; intuition may tell you otherwise. How do we resolve that debate? Our ignorance of what is and isn’t possible is so profound that philosophers can’t even agree on a system of logic with which to judge the truth of possibility claims. Discussions of free will in the metaphysical context just aren’t going to go very far; however, if philosophers get around to the moral context at all, it’s only after they’ve had the metaphysical debate.
My point is this: the philosopher’s traditional ordering of concerns—metaphysics first, ethics second—is just going to get us stalled before we ever address the issue people care about in the free will debate. Maybe, just this once, we should put ethics first.
In ten out of ten drafts, the essay ends as follows:
I’m Leonard. I don’t believe in free will, but you and I probably agree about moral responsibility anyway. I only raised free will in the first place to instigate a debate.
Why? Because that’s what you do with a degree in philosophy.
(1) Even I’m surprised by the number and variety of situations for which these tools are completely sufficient. Take that, MacGyver.
(2) It’s precisely because of distinctions like these that discussions of time, whether philosophical or scientific, get so confusing so quickly. Personally, I’ve found physicist Sean Carroll to be helpful in this regard.
(3) Let’s just dispense with this debate right now: if you think that cloning a T. rex might conceivably be a good idea, then you just haven’t read Jurassic Park closely enough. Watching the movie isn’t nearly an acceptable substitute.
(4) To be sure, the metaphysical issue is not unrelated to the moral one. Stephen Jay Gould referred to fields whose subject matter lay on different sides of the “is/ought” distinction as “nonoverlapping magisteria.” He noted that “the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously (sp) complex ways along their joint border.” The debate over free will takes place right along these disputed “is/ought” borderlands.