(About a 3 minute read)
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.
Originally published September 24, 2009.