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.
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.
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?