The Philosophy Inside: Your Averaged Joe

Warning: Contains SPOILERS

Your Averaged Joe tells the story of a man with a headache so horrific it feels like the universe has been crammed into his head. The problem is, it has …

I wrote this short story to examine two philosophical topics:

  1. Solipsism: What would it be like if I were the only mind in existence? If nothing but me existed?
  2. Freedom: Are my actions free? And in what sense are they free, if they are?

Solipsism

One of the problems that has plagued philosophers is the question: how do I know that there are other minds in existence? That is, how do I know that I’m not the only person in existence, and that it isn’t the case that everyone else is just an extension of, or idea within, my mind? This is called is the problem of solipsism.

Philosophers have come up with many ways to resolve this problem (although all of these solutions are controversial). One way involves Philosophical Behaviorism, or the claim that mental states just are behaviors. For example, the very concept of pain is the concept of doing things like shouting “ouch!”, rolling around on the ground in apparent agony, etc. If mental states just are behaviors, then merely observing behaviors resolves the problem of solipsism, since we are observing, directly, another mind at work.

However, in Your Averaged Joe I was interested not in proving that solipsism is false, but in asking what the universe would have to be like for solipsism to be true. And I think it could be something like the universe as it’s contained within Joe’s head in the story.

Freedom

Within debates around freedom, one question philosophers ask is: Are our actions determined?

In other words, given that the world (including our brains) is a certain way before we act, do we have to act in a certain way, or could we have acted differently? Put otherwise, can we make any choices but the choices we actually make?

In Your Averaged Joe two claims are true:

  • Each of Joe’s actions is determined. In the story, every action Joe performs creates a new version of him. But in addition to the Joe created, another Joe is created who performs a different action. So for each Joe, that Joe exists only to represent the performance of the action that that particular Joe actually performed. In other words, if that Joe had performed a different action, he wouldn’t be that Joe – he’d be a different Joe. For example, when Joe faces the decision to eat chocolate or ice cream, two Joes are created – the Joe* that eats the chocolate, and the Joe** that eats the ice cream. But Joe* that eats the chocolate couldn’t have done anything but eat the chocolate. For if Joe* had eaten the ice cream, he would be Joe**, not Joe*.
  • But although each Joe’s actions are determined, the original or “averaged”, Joe is undetermined. Before Joe splits into Joe* and Joe**, Joe has the choice whether to eat the chocolate or the ice cream, and Joe is capable of both. So, Joe’s choices are undetermined.

To conclude, in the story Joe’s actions are both determined, and undetermined, depending on whether you understand “Joe” as predating his choices, or the resulting Joe created by that choice.