“Me teaching monads to you is like you teaching your parents about flashmobs.”

“Me teaching Monads to you is like you teaching your parents about flashmobs.”

When I said this during office hours, I realized I’d finally found a way to teach about monads.

1. Leibnizian Metaphysics

According to Gottfried Leibniz, there is nothing physical. Everything is, instead, composed of simple mental pieces he calls, “monads”. These monads can be weak (like the simplistic monads that compose a chair, for example, each like a tiny mind) or strong (like the human mind: the self). Think of it like this: the monads that make up the chair are simply aware of the other parts of the chair. The monad that is my mind, however, contains all my memories and emotions as well as all my rational and imaginative abilities. In short, for Leibniz, the world is composed of a wide spectrum of minds separated by their abilities and content.

2. The Scientific Push and the Freedom of the Will

As the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance, increasing economic and social stability in Europe paved the road to increased technological (and, thereby, scientific) advances, outing old models of understanding (mostly Aristotelian, filtered through the Church) as out-of-date. We codified the motion of one billiard ball causing another to move through, for example, Newton’s Second Law of motion. But as our explanatory power increased, it seemed entirely possible that we would decode all physical interaction and be able to predict all of a person’s choices by simply looking at the physical configuration of their body (the chemicals in their brain, the way their body was disposed to act and take in information, etc.). And if we can predict a person’s choices by the mere physical state of their body, it seems like that state determines that action. In other words, if I act only because of the chemical state of my body, it does not seem like it’s me doing the acting, but instead the chemicals. And so the existence of  Free Will seems threatened by the scientific push set off by the Renaissance.

3. Pre-Established Harmony

Leibniz claim that everything is mental, then, responds to this problem. Rather than condemning humans to a realm that cannot touch the material world (as would, say, Cartesian Dualists), he situated us in the midst of it as a powerful type of the same substance that makes up everything: a powerful monad. On his view, since they are minds each monad from the human mind all the way down to the chair piece gets to decide what it’s going to do in the world. Each monad has Free Will.

But herein lies a worry: if every piece of the world is deciding what to do independently of everything else, why does it look like, for example, one billiard ball moves because it was struck by another? It certainly LOOKS like the motion of the second was caused by the motion of the first (rather than all the monads that compose the second ball deciding to move).

Leibniz responded to this worry by positing what he called Pre-Established Harmony. Just as two pendulums (or two children on a swingset!) may swing exactly together without one causing the other to swing in harmony, so may the world LOOK harmonious (i.e., like one thing causes another) when really there is no causal interaction. In the swingset case, it is a decision on the part of each child to swing as they are, and their harmony can be chalked up to their individual choices happening to line up just right.

4. On Flashmobs

A flashmob is a set of individuals who decide to go to a (usually) public place at a (usually) busy time and, without identifying themselves beforehand, perform some action (sometimes a dance, sometimes just freezing in place) that achieves its grandeur from the number of people all performing in sync. They need not know each other at all, and afterwards all go their separate ways.

5. Imagine showing a flashmob video to your parents.

Upon seeing seemingly random people appear out of a crowd to dance or freeze with several other people, you can predict how the conversation will go:

Parent: “So…they’re all friends?”

You: “Nope.”

Parent: “They look like friends.”

You: “Never talked before in their lives.”

Parent: “How did they dance together then?”

You: “Each decided individually to do that dance.”

Parent: “So they’re not friends?” (this will be asked skeptically)

6. Monads are like Flashmob participants

Each individually decides what to do (and thereby saves Free Will for Leibniz). But their decisions line up just right so that it looks like we’ve got one thing causing another all over the place (i.e., there is apparently harmony in the world). In short, the Flashmob exhibits the apparent harmony resulting from independent, individual, free decisions that characterize the behavior of monads on Leibniz’ worldview. Each monad decides freely and independently what to do and it just happens* that it works out perfectly: all the monads in the first billiard ball decide to stop just as all the monads in the second billiard ball decide to go: harmonious apparent causation matched with independent free wills.

And that’s how, “Me teaching monads to you is like you teaching your parents about flashmobs.”


* – On the Leibnizian view, Pre-Established Harmony is Pre-Established by God. In the analogy, then, God is the Flashmob organizer (who decided what the flashmob would do and put the world out beforehand, i.e., Pre-Established what sort of harmony participants would exhibit).


About benjaminjh

Benjamin Hassman is Director of the Conversation Center (https://clas.uiowa.edu/rhetoric/conversation-center) and a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. The Conversation Center builds on his experience with Service-learning, peer-leadership programs (like the Berwick Boys Foundation) and teaching for the Rhetoric Minor, including Speaking Skills, Advanced Speaking Skills, and the Conversation Center’s own RHET 2090 Conversation Practicum (based on an experiential learning model). His PhD in Philosophy of Language studied paradoxes, and their implication for how we understand the relationship between our sentences and the world.
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2 Responses to “Me teaching monads to you is like you teaching your parents about flashmobs.”

  1. McKenzie A says:

    Very interesting ideas!! I didn’t understand monads until you started talking about flashmobs- fascinating analogy! Keep writing!!!

    • benjaminjh says:

      Thanks, McKenzie! It seems the longer I teach, the more real-world analogies come along to help me make sense out of all these esoteric views. They can feel so distant out of context, but I’m glad to hear they make (at least a little) more sense with this sort of presentation.

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