The Ice Cream Metaphor

Freshman year, I craved academic beauty. I wanted that elusive Harvard experience that we all look for, that feeling that overwhelms you, squeezes your shoulders and catches your breath all at once. I wanted the “aha” moment that proved to me that yes, learning is just like walking through an art museum. Learning is about appreciating and coming to understand knowledge as an art form.

To find this, I of course took a philosophy class. It took the lofty task of describing how free will and determinism can exist if a God-like being does. To help us imagine the possibilities, the professor placed us in an ice cream shop: As we tried to poke holes in compatibilist or monist reality, vanilla and chocolate chip became our bargaining chips.

Instead of asking if our intention—the thing that gives us will—is determined in and of itself, we ask, “What happens if the store only has vanilla and I want chocolate chip?” “What happens if I’ve never heard of chocolate chip?" someone shouts, hoping their fellow classmates understand them when they wonder whether free will exists when their options are taken away. We asked a lot of questions—waded knee deep in arguments about Napoleon and extra toppings—without asking much at all.

This was almost the beauty I wanted, but not quite. Something was off. The words we used to express ourselves in class were getting in the way of the concepts. Instead of focusing purely on the merits of soft determinism over free will, we were spending time picking the best flavor to represent obstacles in our argument.

Time and time again, words became placeholders. I mean this but say that. You understand this but answer that. We both agree on that, but never talk about this. We play musical chairs until the idea that we wanted to express goes around the circle without us ever having to get fingerprints on our intentions. Play it cool, play it safe, we tell ourselves. Place bets on black or red only and let the roulette spin. Don’t tell the man behind the ice cream counter what you really want, for fear that he already knows it.


I told myself that I wasn’t the type for these placeholder games. I was a no nonsense, tell-it-to-'em-straight kind of gal who was determined to see the art sans filter. Rough around the edges, not embarrassed to go for what I wanted or if it made others bleed in the process. I didn’t need to wainscot my conversation in waffle cones for it to be pretty.

But I was wrong. I cozied up to my newfound personal philosophy, dressed it up and took it for a spin. I showed it off to my friends in various outfits, asked them what they thought of each interpretation. Did they feel like monistic determinism best captured the human experience? If an omniscient being can predict your actions, does that complicate your free will? Can free will and determinism exist together as compatibilism? And—begrudgingly—if you’re a regular at the shop and the ice cream guy always gives you vanilla, does it even matter that you dreamed about chocolate chip the night before?

Unsurprisingly, people preferred talking about the nighttime chocolate chip escapades much more than monistic determinism.

And that’s when I found it. It wasn’t so much the hard facts but the expression of it, the words themselves—the ones we said aloud and alluded to in the spaces caught between our metaphors—that were beautiful. It was the way in which words were simultaneously the placeholder for a concept, the concept itself, and the passion for it that made me see learning as a piece of art.

The ice cream metaphor has since developed a mind of its own in my conversations. It’s been used to negotiate intention and desire, contemplate the balance between complacency and taking a risk for success, and—of course—free will and determinism. Now, if I realized that I preferred free will, then chocolate chip was my Mecca and I’d reach over the counter and scoop it out myself with my bare hands. Free will doesn’t argue with determinism; it now is both the ice cream choice and my cupped hands, melting. Coexisting.

Maybe compatibilism was always right there—just over the counter, sitting pretty.

Jessenia N. Class ’20, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology concentrator in Quincy House.


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