Personal and Impersonal Nature

Around 2500 years ago, the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers conceived the notion that nature operates in a law-like and impersonal manner.   As it turns out, that’s a rather interesting notion.

Consider, for example, the well-known tendency of thongs to ride up a person’s butt.  Today, we quite easily assume a thong will do that because of impersonal properties and forces.  We do not ascribe the action to the wicked will and personality of thongs — except perhaps in jest.  But the fact we think thongs ride up butts because of the laws of nature — and not because they most wickedly want or desire to ride up butts — is a legacy of the Pre-Socratics.  It was they who pointed out that nature is impersonal and obeys laws.

Modern science rests on that notion (and a hundred other notions).   If we did not today think nature operates in a law-like and impersonal manner, it would be impossible for us to do science.

But why hasn’t it always occurred to us that nature is law-like and impersonal?  Why did that particular truth need to be discovered by the Pre-Socratics?  Why wasn’t it always known?

Allow me to suggest that it wasn’t always known because for most of our evolutionary history, we have thought of nature as personal.  Not as law-like and impersonal.  But as personal.

It appears that thinking of things as having a personality is a way in which the human mind predicts what those things will do.  Indeed, it may be our oldest and most traditional way of predicting the future.

When I think that my neighbor is currently cheerful, I have not yet ascribed to him a personality.  But when I think that my neighbor is characteristically cheerful, when I think he is more likely to be cheerful than not, then I have ascribed to him a personality.   To think of someone as having a personality is to predict, to some extent, their future behavior.

It is easy enough to see why an ability to think of people as persons — as having personalities — would be advantageous to survival.  All else being equal, the better you can predict someone’s behavior, the better you can deal with them.   Yet, humans are not merely capable of seeing other humans as having personalities.  Indeed, we are capable of seeing almost anything as having a personality.

You can see this tendency of ours to personify things even today — even 2500 years after the Pre-Socratic philosophers told us nature does not have personalities, but is instead impersonal. It is quite common for people to think of their car or their computer as having a personality.  Or the weather.   It’s possible that many of us live with one foot in an ancient world where natural things have personalities and with one foot in a somewhat more modern world where natural things are impersonal.

So perhaps it took us so long to invent or discover the notion that nature is law-like and impersonal because our species has traditionally thought of things as having personalities.  If that’s true, then it would not seem intuitive to us to think of nature as law-like and impersonal.

At any rate, just an afternoon thought.

7 thoughts on “Personal and Impersonal Nature

  1. Interesting thought about the animistic nature of human causal thought. We have always tried to assign a causal relationship to things which explains the unknown. I think this is where the “personality” of a car comes into play. While we may be incapable of determining the source of the problem or lack thereof, we describe this as we would the behavior of an organism. Similarly, we ascribe human characteristics to nature. This may come from our deeply seated desire to explain the world around us, but it may also come from cultural cues. I don’t really know all that much about the neurology of psychology, but I do know that humans often extend human traits to non-human objects and organisms.

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  2. What do you think about animal personalities? I’m thinking of dogs, cats, etc. They form affectionate attachments, respond to the moods of their people, display preferences for particular foods or activities. It seems to me that they have something akin to personalities.

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  3. I would state that animals have unique attributes and behaviors, but as far as ascribing human emotions and motivations to them, that’s going a bit far. Each one will have a personality in the same sense that humans or other organisms do, but they will not be like human personalities. Truthfully, I am hesitant to even say humans have a “personality” aside from that which their own brains construct as part of a self-concept influenced by the levels of numerous biochemicals. I would further state “personality” is an illusion stemming from instinctual responses to ascribe causality and predictive patterns to that which is observed.

    So, while animals have unique attributes (behavioral and physiological) as organisms, the term “personality” is intrinsically an attempt at anthropomorphically interpreting their behavior and appearance.

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  4. @ the Chaplain: I think animals like cats and dogs have personalities. That is, they have individual characteristics of behavior.

    Of course, we read quite a bit into what’s there. For instance, I very recently read that dogs do not, apparently, feel guilt — although they often have behaviors that humans interpret as guilt.

    @ Jared: You raise an interesting question about whether personality is a fiction. That’s something I need to think more about.

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