Monday, July 6, 2009

"Full And Vivid Information"

Image from the website

I have crappy teeth. I've got a gazillion fillings; I've got several crowns; I've got other problems you don't want to hear more about. When I was in Paris recently I broke a piece off of a tooth by biting into a biscotte. A biscotte! It's like a little piece of toasted bread! OK, this one was multigrain. But still.

One reason I have crappy teeth is that for a long time I didn't really take care of my teeth properly. Years went by with no dentist visits, minimal flossing, general lackadaisicalness. While there were a lot of reasons for all this carelessness, probably the number one reason is that I just hate thinking about teeth and and the fact that they decay. And you kind of have to think about it to be motivated to do anything to prevent it.

I hate thinking about tooth decay because as soon as I think about tooth decay, my next thought is almost always, Oh Yeah, I Am Going To Die. Teeth are a profound reminder of mortality. I think it's because unlike the rest of your body, teeth don't heal. They just stay bad or get worse until it's all over and you are dead. It's extraordinary, but there have been times when I've been reduced almost to tears by just sitting in the dentist's chair for a cleaning. I know the hygenist must think I'm nuts, because I'm always so unhappy even when I don't have any cavities and I'm just there for a check-up.

When philosphers talk about what it is rational to do, or what is the right thing to do, or about deciding among alternatives, they sometimes talk about "full and vivid information." So, you know, you might say the sensible thing to do is what you would do if you had full and vivid information about all the alternatives and you were reflecting in a calm state of mind.

I wrote about my doubts about the calm state of mind business before. But I'm nervous about this full and vivid information stuff too. Because when I have full and vivid information about the dental facts -- when I really have in my mind, front and center, that unless I take steps they are going to decay, fall apart, fall out of my head, break on a biscotte -- I feel so discouraged I feel motivated not to brush and floss but rather to stretch out in despair on the living room floor and feel sad about the human condition.

I guess you could say this is a defect about me, that a fully rational person wouldn't be motivated in such perverse ways, but would simply note the dental facts and act accordingly, without going through the whole "discouraged" and "depressed" phases. Like Spock, you could just do the calculations and choose the right outcome.

But that doesn't seem quite right to me. I don't think I would be a better person if I were less inclined to despair over the human condition, and I don't think I would be a better person if I were more like Spock. Even Spock isn't a better person when he is more like Spock: it's when we see glimpses of Spock caring about things that we start to care about him.

As a practical solution to these problems, I try to channel my motivations in more short-term directions. I work out because of how it will make me feel tomorrow, not because I want to live longer. I refrain from smoking so I can breathe today, not so I can avoid a horrible death from lung cancer. I floss so my teeth will feel healthy and look good, this month, rather than worrying about the big picture.

This little bait-and-switch works pretty well when things are going fine. But it's not a real solution to the problem, and interestingly, it requires keeping in one's mind a set of less full, and less vivid, information, than what is really the truth.


chris said...

When I was young, I remember refusing to go into my great grandmother’s old age home for years. Old people are depressing enough, but I absolutely can’t handle watching them prepare to die. You know, they start looking forward to playing bridge and Saturday night bingo. They start giving things away so their dinky little flats begin to look bare. And the smell, oh the smell!

Teeth aren’t so depressing. Sure they break, decay and fall out, but they’re cleanable, fixable, and at worst replaceable.

Patricia said...

Well Chris, I can say that your reflections on aging aren't going to make me feel better about mortality any time soon.

But yeah, at least dentistry is now efficient and effective and involves the possibility of nitrous oxide. Three cheers for modern medicine!