Dumbo's Feather: Why We Need Free Will


Of course you know the movie, just by cultural assimilation if not by having seen it. There’s this young elephant, Dumbo, who has laughably big ears and has been pitiably separated from his mom. He’s aided by a friendly talking mouse2 into translating those otherwise hapless ears into the power of flight, which he eventually uses to rescue his mom and live happily ever after. The way the wily mouse gets Dumbo to believe that he could fly is to give him a “magic feather” which, held in his trunk, demonstrably imparts the gift of flight. Naturally the mouse believes throughout all this that Dumbo can fly anyway, but he also knows that Dumbo needs the feather as a confidence-builder to do so. At the critical juncture of the tale Dumbo loses the feather after being pushed off a precipice, and he thus plummets perilously towards earth—only to find at the last moment that he can indeed fly on his own.



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Villard Alan White
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

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