Personality and Prediction

(About a 3 minute read)

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.


Originally published September 24, 2009.

14 thoughts on “Personality and Prediction

  1. When I think of nature as “law-like and impersonal” I assume it is also “unconscious” and “deterministic”. I’d like to avoid those other two characteristics because quantum physics is not deterministic and consciousness seems more pervasive than an epiphenomenon of my own brain.

    Instead of saying nature “obeys” a “law”, I like to think of the theories we come up with as “models” of some aspect of nature’s behavior that allows us to make useful “predictions”. What was a “law of nature” should simply be “our current model’s prediction”. As long as the predictions made by these models are useful for our purposes we don’t have to look for better models. In the case of quantum physics we are set for a while. In the case of gravitational theory, well, the word on the street is that we are missing 96% of reality if we look at our predictions of the behaviors of galaxies without considering dark stuff. Is our current gravitational “law” a sacred text? Is it a real “law of nature”? Or is it better to think of it as our current model that looks like it needs revision?

    It might be useful to bring back the “personal” as well. The most intelligent, practical approach to plants, for example, may be to acknowledge that they are intelligent. We might be able to use their intelligence to better predict aspects of our world, such as earthquakes. If that research leads to predictable science of use to us then who cares if it also brings back the thought of forest nymphs?

    I agree with you that our cars and computers are indeed law-like and impersonal. I know that because they have a manufacturer and, in theory, I could trace through their programs or laws to explain any “choices” they make. I don’t know that about nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree with you about models and predictions, Frank. Of course, that view was beyond the scope of the blog post — the pre-Socratics didn’t think in terms of models and predictions so far as we can tell — but I’ve written on the subject elsewhere. To me, laws of nature are just highly reliable generalizations, not genuine laws.

      I suppose whether one sees plants as intelligent has to do with how one defines “intelligence”. I have never given the matter thorough consideration, but I currently tentatively define intelligence in a way that would allow plants to be thought of as intelligent.

      It is interesting to me that we share so many similarities in our thinking despite such differences, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “You can see this tendency of ours to personify things even today —” Yes! Poets! They have an irrational tendency, you know, to speak of such thing as angry oceans, of sunshine that kisses our skins, and the kindness of Spring…. Poets! Are they behind the times, or ahead of them? That’s the question. And yes, my car DOES have a personality. He (James) even sent me an e-mail once. I’ll post it on my blog…. Speaking of my blog, thank you, Paul for posting such encouraging and kind comments regarding my poems. Much appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve got me hooked! I’ve got to find out how James sent you an email! And for anyone else who is interested in finding out, your wonderful blog is located here.

      You’re welcome about the compliments, Garnet! You’re poetry is among the best I come across in the blogosphere.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting, but I am not sure that I agree with you. I don’t have any evidence to support my feelings, they are just my feelings! I think humans, in some respects, need to feel connected to things, need to ascribe emotions to objects because we are basically chaos clothed with subtle order. Law is predictable, I would argue, personality is much less so. If we could predict every thing that happened in the world, how would we react? Just my meandering thoughts.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Great post and Interesting thought. I think it is important to be aware of what we take as naturally lawful and impersonal versus what we personalize, especially when judging the value of each. Maybe we should have more impersonal relationships to not getting unhealthy attached, and maybe we should personalize more seemingly “soulless things” to make them worth protecting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Paul. The thong illustration was delightful! : ) I am wondering if certain personality types are more likely to personify objects? I know someone who is an alcoholic, received treatment, and has been sober for +10 yrs. Not long after his treatment I asked him how he felt about it. His response was to treat the addiction like a rattlesnake in his pocket that could bite him at any time. It seems to have helped him. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me, if the “thing” is an inanimate object (like a car), or a natural organism (like a tree), if it is touching me on an emotional level, I am likely to personify it as a way of dealing with it. After all, it’s all about me! Lol … Fun post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think personification is instinctual in humans, Deanna. So I doubt there are many people who simply don’t do it. But your question about whether some of us do it more than others is an intriguing one. My suspicion is that some of us might do it more than others — or at least, might take our personifications more seriously than others. Interesting thoughts!

      Like

  6. I was just trying to get my head around gravity and thongs when Cades62 threw in the spanner about being emailed by a car. The Eurovision Thong contest dominated my weekend. Do you get to see it in your neck of the woods Paul?

    Liked by 1 person

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