Superstition and rationality

Consider the question: “why superstition?” Our problem lies in circumscribing this notion itself: is it something we should use to characterize beliefs, or attitudes, or theories or actions or all of them? Our linguistic usage allows it mostly of ‘beliefs’ and to the act of believing: to believe that walking under the ladder brings bad; to believe that vampires exist and walk as ordinary humans in the night; to believe in the fairy who watches over you, etc. are all instances of superstition. It also allows us to use it in connection to the truth status of theories like, for instance, the claim that it is superstitious to believe in astrology. However, accepting this usage is not enough: what makes a belief a superstitious belief or an act of believing a superstitious act? It is here that many, many problems come to the fore. One easy way out is to use science and scientific theories as the contrast set: any belief that is not countenanced by the scientific theories of today is a superstitious belief. Of course, this is too broad: on this account, every belief that displaces the current scientific beliefs (i.e., the new scientific theories) becomes superstitious. If you try and circumvent this problem by speaking about ‘scientific theories’ in the abstract (i.e., do not circumscribe them in time), the danger is that every belief (almost) escapes the net. Just because scientific theories of today do not recognize the existence of ghosts, it does not follow, one could argue, that the sciences of tomorrow cannot recognize the role that mediums play in talking to the spirits of the long departed. You can try and say that all beliefs disproved by science should belong to the set of superstitious beliefs: however, similar problems occur. On top of it, you have the difficulty of saying why one should not have superstitious beliefs. And so on.

You see, one way out of these sets of problems is to take a dogmatic stance: any and every belief that the scientific theories of today do not countenance is a superstitious belief. Not only is such an attitude dogmatic, it is also stupidly irrational and anti-knowledge. Does science recognize the existence of moral agency, the will, or the bearer of human rights? It does not. So, is one to believe that all claims about them are superstitious? One might want to say that these ideas are cogently argued and philosophically defensible. But, then, so is the doctrine of transubstantiation and the concept of trinity in Christianity. Why is one superstitious and the other not so?

Is believing in astrology superstitious? Christianity has claimed this ever since its inception. Most arguments against astrology today do not even reach the level St.Augustine’s critique of the same.

You ask: “Why are causal explanations sought and clung to for life?” Did you know that this attitude was considered the hallmark of science and rationality for more than four centuries and was thought to be the antipode of superstition? The claim was that primitive people had no conception of ‘causality’ and, therefore, were superstitious and that the notion of ‘causal explanation’ is the contribution of science.

You ask: “Why do they attribute agency to supernatural beings?” Who are these “super natural” beings? If anything, magic does not have a conception of ‘super’ natural being at all; most people and cultures do not have it either. All their agents are agents-in-nature; among religions, only Christianity, Judaism and Islam speak of the “supernatural” agent, namely God. To provide an ‘evolutionary explanation’ of the cognitive-biological tendency to seek ‘supernatural agents’ everywhere is to ask a pseudo-question and provide a pseudo-answer.

You ask: “what is the grip of magical thinking?” I will not ask you to tell me what magic is; I will assume that we both know that the word, somehow, makes sense to us. However, do you know that magic asks a question that science cannot answer? And that the question is perfectly rational and intelligible? Consider a magical explanation about someone dying unexpectedly after, say, a brief period of disorientation. Let us suppose that science discovers that he had diabetes. Still, the person who believes in magic asks a question that cannot be answered: “why should this diabetic die at this moment and on this occasion? There are any number of people like the deceased, who have not died. Why he and now?” What is wrong with this question, to which, let us say, there is an answer from someone who does believe in magical thinking? What is silly or irrational about the question? And what is superstitious about giving an answer to this question?

In other words, the problem is not an absence of interest in understanding ‘heathendom’ as you put it. The problem is in knowing how to go about it.