The Problem of Fr** W*ll or Verbal Essentialism

At the end of February earlier this year I had the privilege of hearing Peter van Inwagen give the keynote address at the North Carolina Philosophical Society. His paper was entitled “The Problem of Fr** W*ll” which sounds a lot like “The Problem of Free Will”–more on that in a moment. What follows is taken from his handout and it is worth thinking hard about. At issue are three theses:

Thesis One: On at least some occasions when a human agent is trying to decide between two or more incompatible courses of action, that agent is able to perform each of them.

Thesis Two: If the bad consequences of a decision are ever the fault of the person who made the decision, then Thesis One is true.

Determinism: the thesis that the past and the laws of nature determine a unique future. Indeterminism is the thesis that the past and the laws of nature do not determine a unique future.

The problem: There are seemingly unanswerable arguments for the conclusion that Thesis One is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, and there are seemingly unanswerable arguments for Thesis Two. Since either determinism or indeterminism must be true, the conclusion of these arguments imply that nothing is ever anyone’s fault–and it is evident that it’s simply false that nothing is ever anyone’s fault.

Therefore, at least one of the following propositions must be true:

  1. The seemingly unanswerable arguments for the incompatibility of Thesis One and determinism are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallacious.
  2. The seemingly unanswerable arguments for the incompatibility of Thesis One and indeterminism are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallacious.
  3. The seemingly unanswerable arguments for Thesis Two are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallacious.
  4. It is not evident that it is simply false that nothing is ever anyone’s fault; and not only is it not evidence, it’s not even true: the apparent self-evidence of that thesis is illusory.

Question: Which of these four propositions is true? If any of the first three is true, what are the fallacies in the arguments to which those propositions allude? If the fourth proposition is true, what is the nature of the illusion that has made it seem self-evident to so many that many things that have happened in the course of human history are someone’s fault?

After presenting this problem, van Inwagen called it “The Problem of Fr** W*ll” though he cautioned us not to confuse “Fr** W*ll” with “Free Will” even if it sounds a lot like it. His intent was not to solve this problem, but to present it without making use the of the words “free will” anywhere in his statement of it. This is because debates over free will, as he sees it, have substituted the problem laid out above with the problem of what the words “free will” mean, that is, whether they mean freedom is compatible with determinism or not. The real problem is The Problem of Fr** W*ll, and the dispute over the meaning of “free will” has fallen prey to what he calls “verbal essentialism.”

Verbal essentialism is the view that some meaning necessarily attaches to some string of symbols used to formulate words or phrases in a language. ‘Free will’ is a prominent example. Others might include “animalism”–the view that each of us is identical with a human animal. Some might think “animalism” refers only to views that are purely materialistic. Others dispute this claiming that it can include hylomorphic views (e.g. ‘rational animals’). Another rather notorious example is the word “atheism.” Some believe it refers to the positive to belief that there is, in fact, no God or gods. Others strongly assert, with fists pounding on the table, that it doesn’t mean that at all; rather, it means, “to be without belief” in God or gods, which is supposed to be compatible with the state of “being without belief that there is no God or god” (on this view, babies, bananas, and bowling balls are “atheists”).

After van Inwagen pointed out this curious feature of philosophical discourse, I’ve seen it all over the place–that impassioned and vigorous dispute over the meaning of words, and what they must mean if they are ever used. It’s rather comical. Indeed, it so often distracts the participants in the debate from the real interesting questions at stake and substitutes genuine inquiry for a hostile turf war over a word. No doubt this is because whoever gets to define the terms of the debate has the upperhand in the debate. But that sort of thing is all about power, not truth or knowledge or anything like that.

So beware of verbal essentialism.

Advertisements