Saturday, August 14, 2010

ancients, moderns, and ineffability

In a thread on John C. Wright's discussion of the classification of fantasy fiction, montecristo claims that the difference between the modern worldview and the ancient worldview is that to the ancients the world and its causes were "ineffable" by which he means something like "hidden", "beyond our ability to understand", or "ultimately inexplicable". He says the ancients considered the world ineffable in contrast to the modern who believes that everything can, in principle, be explained and understood.

I claim that this is a misunderstanding based on a failure to appreciate the much deeper differences in worldview between the moderns and the ancients. The ancients simply had a different idea of what it means to understand things.

To the modern, the world is mechanical, a clockwork universe. Everything is springs and levers and gears. When the modern wants to understand something, he looks to physical, mechanical causes: forces, energy, mass, waves, particles.

The modern world view is also compositional. When the modern wants to understand the whole, he does so in terms of the parts. You want to know how a car works? He will explain it to you in terms of the engine and the transmission and the electrical system. You want to understand the engine? He will explain it to you in terms of the pistons and cylinders and crankshaft. You want to understand what goes on in the cylinders? He will explain it in terms of molecules. You want to understand molecules, he has atoms. You want to understand atoms? He has subatomic particles. You want to understand subatomic particles? He's working on it.

Furthermore, the modern thinker believes in universal laws. Every particular cause is just an instance of a universal law. If you know all of the universal laws that apply in a specific situation, and you know all of the initial conditions, then you know what is going to happen.

To the modern, all real causes are simply instance of universal laws that can be pictured in 3D with moving parts. Anything else is just an illusion or epiphenomenon. This is the sense in which the modern person thinks that the world of the modern conception is more comprehensible than the ancient one. It is because he believes that everything can, more or less be reduced to this one limited paradigm, universal laws that operate mechanically on physical pieces. Since ancient explanations did not reduce things to this mechanical paradigm, moderns find the explanations unsatisfying.

The ancient view of the world is quite different from this. Although the ancients did understand mechanical causes, they did not try to put all explanations in mechanical terms --not even all physical explanations. Things in nature might have explanations that are teleological, moral, intentional, or semantic.

A teleological cause is a reason in terms of ends. Why does a human have two hands? A modern would explain this in terms of evolution and fitness --a mechanical explanation. An ancient might explain it in terms of function: we have two hands because a warrior must hold both a sword and a shield, a craftsman must hold both a hammer and a chisel, a woman must hold both a baby and a child's hand.

A moral cause is a reason in terms of rightness or propriety or beauty. Why do the heavenly bodies move in perfect spheres? Because that is their right and proper motion.

An intentional cause is a reason in terms of the deliberate intentions of some thinking being. Where did everything come from? The gods created it all.

A semantic cause is a reason in terms of representation or meaning. A voodoo doll is supposed to work by being a representation of something else. Words are supposed to have power in virtue of their meanings.

To a modern, these sorts of causes seem like magic when applied to the physical world. We have no problem talking about teleological, moral, intentional or semantic causes in their proper scopes --it is when these kinds of causes are applied to physical nature that they seem wrong. To the ancients there was not such a sharp line between mind and nature. I imagine that it would be a bit difficult to explain to an ancient exactly where the dividing line is.

Not only did the ancients believe in teleological causes, they also believed in capricious and singular causes --not everything has to be explainable by way of universal laws. The ancients believed in a genuine cause-and-effect relationship between sin and punishment but did not believe that there was any universal law about it. They were fully aware that some sinners live long lives full of good fortune.

Although to a modern thinker the ancient worldview seems ineffable, that is because he has been trained from early childhood to think in the modern way. To an ancient, who had quite a different upbringing, it might be the mechanical explanations that seem ineffable: "You keep telling me that x happened because y happened first, but that is just a sequence of events. What I want to know is WHY x happened."

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