28 Feb 2021

Windowless individuals and free will

Posted by jofr

Free will is one of the big problems of philosophy. A big question in philosophy is a problem where Daniel Dennett has written at least one book about it: ‘Consciousnes Explained’ about consciousness in 1991, ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ about evolution in 1995, ‘Freedom Evolves’ about free will in 2003, and ‘Breaking the spell’ about religion in 2006. The general opinion of Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Daniel Wegner (*) and others is is that free will is an illusion.

The hard problem of consciousness could be one of the reasons why we have the illusion of free will. Why? Well, from the outside a person seems to have free will in principle. Every free person can decide itself what it wants to do in a given moment. Normally we cannot predict what someone else will do – our understanding of the whole universe of personal beliefs, desires and intentions is blocked by the hard problem of consciousness, and the personality is like a locked house where all windows are closed.

We have no access. Only if we know persons really well and they grant us access to their life the situation changes – for instance if the person in question is your wife or husband for 30 years, a main character in a movie, or the subject of a criminal investigation. In whodunit films it becomes clear in the end why people have acted they way they did. If we know the detailed history, the likes and dislikes of a person, the goals, desires and intentions, then we can almost always say in hindsight why people acted the way they did.

We also can not say how someone else will feel. Everybody feels something different and is controlled by path-dependent subjective experience, which is unknown to others, because the individual is not transparent and the history is not known. We have not evolved the ability to “put ourselves in somebody else’s skin”. It is not impossible, but can be very difficult and requires detailed knowledge and imagination. This is the reason why Hollywood has invented cinemas to show us how what it is like to be somebody else (the GoPro cameras in modern days have the same function).

Once we investigate the life of a person, for example by a detective as part of a criminal investigation, or as movie viewers in a cinema, we start to understand why a person acts they way it does. Movies provide a window in the life of a person. The more we step into the footsteps of a person, the better we understand the personal feelings and indivual motives. Could it be that the same thing that prevents us from understanding subjective experiences of others – the hard problem of consciousness – also creates the illusion of free will? 

Leibniz who lived at the time of Spinoza and Descartes was one of the first philosophers who examined this question. He tried to reconcile determinism and free will, and used the metaphor of “windowless individuals” (in the context of his “monads”). In fact we can not see the personality of another person – unless we know the personal history or experience how a person acts and reacts through some kind of window to the life of the person, for example a book or a movie about the life of the person.

If there is no window where we can observe the life and therefore the personality of someone, we are lost, and can not see any direct influences on individual decisions and personal choices. In this sense the hard problem of consciousness is not only a problem, but also a solution of another problem: the combination of determinism and free will. The actions of a person are determined, but it is normally unknown to others by what influences. Because of this lack of knowledge the actions seem to be undetermined, although they are not. In this sense a lack of knowledge helps to create and to protect an illusion of freedom (of free choice and free will).

Spinoza, a Dutch contemporary of Leibniz, argued as well in his book “Ethics” that it is the lack of knowledge & awareness that helps to create the illusion of freedom:”Experience teaches us no less clearly than reason, that men believe themselves free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined”.

If complete ignorance of a personality of someone else blocks our ability to predict the actions of that person, then intimate knowledge of someone allows us to predict how the person will act to a certain degree. You could say two minds have merged into one. In the same way intimate knowledge of the history of person allows us to experience the world as the person does, for example by seeing a movie about the life of a person. Watching this movie you experience the same events that the person has experienced. In this sense being married for 25 or more years is like watching the same movie, the movie of your life. Let us hope it is a good one 😉

( image of the house in Italy from wagrati_photo on Pixabay, image of the books from Unsplash user Chris Lawton, movie projector image from Rudy and Peter Skitterians on Pixabay)

* Daniel M. Wegner, “The Illusion of Conscious Will”, The MIT Press, 2002
* Daniel Dennett, “Freedom Evolves”, Viking Books, 2003
* Sam Harris, “Free Will”, Free Press, 2012

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