Is Not Chicago

(March 2019)

Recently, I shared this quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer:

Of course I believe in free will. I have no choice.

I thought it was funny — I was, after all, a philosophy and religion major (with a minor in Monty Python) — but I certainly didn’t think it was a paradox. It is, in fact, possible to believe in free will and at the same time to believe that you have no choice. Not just possible, but inevitable.

It’s due in part to the manner in which time seems to pass. Your last possible choice may already be behind you and now you are compelled to face the inevitable and unavoidable consequences of your past actions. Wittgenstein talks about a related set of issues when he says that if you claim that, say, Chicago existed fifty years ago, you are also claiming that Chicago existed three hours ago, and that if you grant that Chicago existed fifty years ago, you are also compelled to grant that the whole earth existed fifty years ago. Once you freely choose something, you may find yourself forced to accept all sorts of consequences of that something.

The other issue here is the loose and sloppy way we define something like “free will,” and how easily we tend to slip into the polarity of freedom versus compulsion.

This slippage is easy when we think of ideas as discrete objects with clear boundaries — the way we think of physical things. This is a rock over here, but two feet to its left it’s not a rock anymore. If I say, This is a pencil, I’m setting a boundary around it, and implying that most of the rest of the universe is not a pencil. I’m also saying what the pencil isn’t: it’s not an orange or a tree or Chicago. And it certainly isn’t “free will.” It’s a pencil.

This way of thinking started with our own physical boundaries: I’m right here inside my skin, and anything outside my skin is not me. This is usually a very useful way of thinking, which helps us navigate the universe without too much trouble. But it can lead us to make some overly simplistic mistakes about how we categorize the things around us.

It’s not useful to say that you’re either in Chicago or not in Chicago. Just by the numbers, almost no one is in Chicago, and almost no one has ever been in Chicago. For nearly every human being who’s ever lived, this is a worthless distinction. Joan of Arc is not in Chicago. Laozi is not in Chicago. I am not in Chicago. (A related question, and one I’m not going to get into right now, is whether a pencil is in Chicago, or part of Chicago. This may seem like a stupid question, but not if we’re talking about Naperville or Waukegan.)

So the category “Not In Chicago” doesn’t really tell us much. Only if there were something unique to Chicago would it be meaningful to say this. For example, if Chicago were subject to a nuclear attack, or if everyone in the world was compelled to wear yellow hats except in Chicago, then “Not In Chicago” would have a useful meaning. A bomb goes off in a café, but I am not in that café.

Most of the time, boundaries are only useful in defining one side of the boundary. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling distinguish my living room from the rest of the universe. I’m either in my living room, or I’m out in the universe. (But honestly, even then, there’s almost nothing interesting, unique, or notable about my living room — the universe is right here inside with me. Just like the rest of the planet, my living room is packed with nitrogen and oxygen as it careens through the solar system, bombarded constantly by cosmic rays, subject to all the same laws of physics as a suburb of Atlanta or an outpost in Antarctica. To say “I’m in my living room” is almost always a pointless and meaningless claim. Not to mention it’s almost never true: most of the time, I’m somewhere else.)

But even if boundaries set one thing apart from the whole totality of everything else, we — silly chimps that we are — almost always end up thinking in terms of dualities. A line, after all, has only two sides.

So when we start thinking of ideas as things — or, as the academics say, we “reify” concepts — we tend to commit many of the same sloppy shortcut mistakes that we make when we’re thinking about trees, skin, and property lines.

If I start yammering about “Good” and “Evil,” it’s possible you might come to believe that these are the only two available buckets. Worse, I might start believing it, too. But just because I can place these three English words together in a row — “Good and Evil” — it does not follow that those words refer to two homogenous entities, or that all things must belong to one or the other category.

Think of Tolstoy’s happy and unhappy families: one group is homogenous — happy families are happy in the same way — and the other is a heterogenous mess with absolutely nothing in common other than being unhappy (oh, and presumably they all self-identify as being families of some sort; eight strangers trapped in an elevator may be unhappy, but they are not a family). Yet we still think of them as simply two groups: happy and unhappy.

“If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Remember that old chestnut? It doesn’t take long to realize it’s nonsense. After all: which solution? which problem? The language fools us into thinking there’s only one problem, and that this problem has only one solution. But hey, it sounds good — like advice that rhymes.

Of course I understand the intent behind the saying. It’s a call to action and a critique of apathy; it’s a variation on the old line about how easily bad shit can go down when a good person does nothing to stop it.

But the way it’s phrased plays to our need to simplify things as much as possible. Life moves fast, and our survival often depends on quick decisions based on several broad categories: safe, unsafe, friendly, hostile, that sort of thing.

Once we get a handle on these big buckets, then we can start drilling down, making distinctions between different sorts of flowers or herbs or demigods or wines. We can take my living room and subdivide it infinitely. (It’s a short step from splitting hairs to splitting atoms.)

So another polarity we often fall into is that of few versus many distinctions. Some of us prefer as few buckets as possible, while others prefer distinctions within distinctions. Lumpers and splitters, hedgehogs and foxes. Apparently we can polarize anything.

Shit, maybe there really are only two kinds of people in the world: the people who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and the people who know better.