About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Metaphysics at the dentist

I just got back from a dentist appointment, and as it is often the case in those circumstances, I've had a metaphysical experience. Let me explain. This has nothing to do with the effects of the sedative used by dentists to prepare your mouth for the work they need to do. Rather, it is about a recurring thought I have whenever I hear the doctor's tools scraping things from my teeth, or drilling to make preparations for filling a cavity.

The thought is: I feel like a car being serviced at the mechanic. Granted, cars don't actually "feel" anything, so the analogy is obviously imperfect. But it's hard to listen to all those clearly mechanical noises, made to respond to what in fact is a physical damage (say, a cavity) inflicted to a physical piece of machinery (i.e., me), and not smile at all those silly notions of souls, spirits, after-life and so on.

I told this to my dentist, who is a Hindu; he was a bit puzzled, smiled, and kept drilling.


  1. Strange post... short post...

    You sure the drugs have worn off?

  2. Eric, yup, no drugs in my system any more. Concerning the length of the post, well it doesn't always take pages of writing to get some food for thought going. As for its strangeness, hey, that's the beauty of the blog format, things don't have to always follow expectations! :)

    More substantial stuff coming soon...

  3. For some reasom I'm reminded of the Monty Python sketch where the vegetarian digs into a plate of screaming vegetables.

    I wrote this without trying to decide if it was off topic.

  4. Every time I go to the doctor or dentist it gives me an opportunity to reflect on issues of Nature vs. God(s). Like: why would God create tooth decaying bacteria? Or, if God created Adam and Eve (just 2 people) why do we have 3 major blood types (plus the Rh factors)? Nature answers these questions quite well, religion doesn't.
    BTW, I have a dental appt. tomorrow. I'll see if any metaphysical thoughts find their way into my thought stream.

  5. Here's one:

    The other day I was tested for Carpal Tunnel (turns out it was just inflammation from some type of injury).

    But the test involves measuring the propagation velocity of nerve signals in the affected area. They hook up electrodes and stimulate nerves via electric shock, then measure the results on a specialized digital oscilloscope.

    Anyway, having your hand respond uncontrollably to external stimuli really reinforces the "we are just biological machines" thoughts.

    Of course, to be fair, even theologians recognize the mechanical aspects of our bodies. It is the mind they don't like to believe is only material.

  6. As a veterinarian I am often involved in the mechanical work of fracture repair, removal of swallowed rocks, etc. It astounds me that so many of my fellow veterinarians find such a metaphysical gap between the non-human animals they treat daily and the human animal, especially when it comes to the brain/mind duality.

  7. I guess anything other than listening to that terrible drilling noise is good! In our society it is very hard to get some time to think. Maybe we all need to take some time in the chair!

  8. Reminds me of Dawkin's "extended phenotype." The bacteria on your teeth are not "you" the teeth themselves are not living, but then neither is the scraping device. The organism cleaning your teeth is working in your best interests, but in its own best interests as well. Recall the cleaning fish on coral reefs. Are you a machine in a shop or an ecosystem of microorganisms and community of genes experiencing a cooperative interaction with other gene communities? Depends on your perspective...

  9. Are you a machine in a shop or an ecosystem of microorganisms and community of genes experiencing a cooperative interaction with other gene communities?

    Very nice. As someone dear to Massimo's profession once said: "There is grandeur in this view of life..."

  10. ...Except that the presence of a car neither proves nor in any way implies the abscence of a driver. Sounds like "nonsense on stilts" to me. Must be the drugs.

  11. Having a body part under the control of an outside source reminds my of an incident that occured when I was a freshman in college. (A long time ago)

    As a result of a session of horseplay I managed to slip on a wet floor and go through a glass pane in a door, resulting in the severing of the tendon in my left wrist that lifts the thumb out of the palm. My roomate (an Englishman several years older than I and a veteran of the British Airborne) rushed me to the hospital where the doctor proceeded to examine my injury. In the course of the exam he ask me if I could put my thumb in my palm, which I did. He then ask me to lift my thumb out of my palm which I couldn't do. Then he reached into my gaping wrist, grabbed the severed end of offending tendon with a pair of forceps, gave a little tug and up popped my thumb. And down went my tough ex-paratrooper roommate - out cold.

    My exam was delayed until good old George was revived.


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