(Pre-)Modern Silliness

(Pre-)Modern Silliness

I have a jumpy foot, and it’s got me to thinking about pre-modern silliness—and modern silliness as well.

Something hasn’t healed right since I had surgery a year and a half ago, and sometimes my left foot will just twitch for no reason. On bad days it can involve my whole leg. Usually it happens when I’ve been on my feet a lot, but only when I’m relaxing, never while I’m still active. Some nights it keeps both my wife and me awake, until I move out to another room: at least she can sleep then.

Pre-Modern Silliness

I can almost begin to sense why pre-modern people would have believed spirits might mess with them sometimes. My foot moves on its own, without me telling it to. With modern science on my side, I can put it down to nerve damage. I can take medicines for it, and they’re really helpful. But what would pre-moderns have thought, except that some spiritual force was making it happen?

Such a silly, laughable thought, isn’t it?

Here’s the other strange thing, though. This jumpiness is the exception. Most of the time my foot does just what I tell it to do. How do modern people explain that?

A Problem of Free Will

Maybe you’ve never heard of the free will problem. In one form it goes like this: everything in the universe is subject to physical laws. There are no exceptions. Nothing exists but matter and energy, the stuff of physics (so it is said), and matter and energy can only do what physical necessity make them do. Everything follows natural laws.

Modern Silliness

Some prominent people think this is how reality works. They think it’s the scientific thing to think. It isn’t: it all depends on the notion that matter and energy and natural necessity make up the whole story of reality, which science actually doesn’t say. It’s pure metaphysics.

Anyway, they’ve reached the point in their civilized journey that they can laugh at pre-moderns’ belief in animating spirits. They haven’t reached the point where they can understand why my feet do what I want them to do. They can only say my feet do what they have to do.

Speaking of silly ideas, though: do they think that they only laugh at pre-moderns because that’s what they have to do?

7 thoughts on “(Pre-)Modern Silliness

  1. From the movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’:

    Ali – “A man can do whatever he wants, you said.”
    Lawrence – “He can, but he can’t want what[ever] he wants. This is the stuff that decides what he wants.”

  2. Tom Gilson –

    Why do you disagree with pre-modern views of animistic spirits affecting the body?

    Neurology seems to give a better account of that.

    But I think that quote is a bit more than ‘glib’, I think it actually gets at something important.

    What does it mean to choose something, anyway? No choice we make is completely unconstrained. We always have some limits on our options. We select, we pick from what’s available (though sometimes we choose to work to make more options available… and sometimes we choose to limit our future options, like a dieter at the grocery store who doesn’t buy tempting desserts).

    We don’t mean that the choice is random, like a roulette table, either. Our choices are shaped by our desires, our beliefs, our character… or else in what sense are they our choices?

    Looked at a certain way, choice is a process of sorting through our wants, and applying those wants to the available options. Even someone who does something altruistically, with no thought for their own benefit, is still doing it with the intent of benefitting others – i.e. because they desire good for another. Consider (at least current) computers: without a program telling them to ‘desire’ something, they do nothing at all. The closest thing they have to an internal desire is the ‘urge’ to boot up from a particular address in memory.

    When we speak of ‘mastering our desires’ we don’t mean being able to turn them on and off like a switch. We mean recognizing what’s most important (to us), and not being swayed by the passions of the moment into doing something contrary to those things we deem more important. It’s not an easy process – and nobody does it perfectly – but it’s necessary, if there actually are things that are more important to us than others.

  3. But Ray, whether neurology gives a better account is immaterial — pun intended. If you disagree with pre-modern views for reasons, like neurology for example, then you don’t disagree with pre-modern views as a result of physical processes going on inside your brain. You simply cannot equate one with the other. Reasons are immaterial (in case anyone didn’t get it the first time) — they are not material objects, events, states, or any such thing. Brain states and processes are material. They’re not the same thing.

    That’s why I asked the why question: I want you to recognize that you have reasons for your beliefs (obviously); but that believing because it is reasonable is entirely different from believing because one is experiencing a brain state of belief produced through physical processes and physical processes alone.

  4. Tom Gilson –

    Reasons are immaterial (in case anyone didn’t get it the first time) — they are not material objects, events, states, or any such thing. Brain states and processes are material. They’re not the same thing.

    But you can map between them – recall this – and brain states can instantiate reasons. Why does changing physical states change mental states, anyway?

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