Who am I?

Photo by Ralph TalmontMy name is Konrad Talmont-Kaminski and I am superstitious. Just like everyone else. Superstition is a universal human trait. It has been with us at least since ancient times and probably since before we were mammals, and it will almost definitely survive in some form so long as humanity survives in some form. In the meanwhile, I am trying to understand it.

I am a philosophy lecturer at the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland. My research focusses upon understanding rationality and irrationality. Superstition makes for a fascinating case study. It allows me to bring together a variety of outlooks on the issue: be they from philosophy, psychology, biology, history, anthropology or any other discipline. It also allows me to chuckle at the foolishness of humans, myself included.

24 Responses “Who am I?” →

  1. Cathy Legg

    May 30, 2007

    Hi Konrad! Your CFP for your conference in September (which looks interesting, but alas I can’t attend – Poland is too far from New Zealand) led me to your blog. My – you’ve been busy! A very impressive site. I hope all is well with you!

    Cheers,
    Cathy

    Reply
  2. Konrad, the KNEW 07 link on your webpage is still going to 06. Great blog and I’m linking a couple of your articles to my science and human values website. (www.csus.edu/indiv/m/mayesgr) We’ve got some similar interests. See drafts of my latest under Scribble link. Hope to meet you sometime.

    Randy Mayes, CSUS Philosophy

    Reply
  3. The links are fixed now, I hope. Thanks for the compliments.

    Reply
  4. Since before we were mammals??? That strikes me as an incredibly unlikely claim. Besides, it implies this “great-chain-of being” thing, which is just a misunderstanding of evolution. Before we were mammals “we” weren’t anything. A more charitable reading, however, suggests that you are claiming that an ancestor of mammals had superstition – but you do realize that you are talking abut amniotic tetrapods, right? This is an ancestor we share with all reptiles (and birds) so do you think reptiles and birds are superstitious?

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  5. Ashley, when talking about the time before ‘we’ were mammals I am fairly clearly speaking metaphorically. Or so I thought. As such it is meant as a statement of the evolutionary interconnectedness of all life and not of any chains-of-being which I do not believe in any more than you do. So, yes, I do think that not just humans are superstitious. Indeed, I am hardly the first to think birds superstitious. The classic text for this is Skinner’s 1948 “‘Superstition’ in the pigeon”. Skinner puts superstition in scare quotes and there has been an ongoing scientific argument about whether pigeons can be said to be strictly speaking superstitious. There are two main worries. The empirical one is whether the behaviour pigeons exhibit is properly understood as the result of operant conditioning in which the reinforcement schedule is not connected to the pigeon’s behaviour. The deeper question is whether superstition requires explicit beliefs such as humans have and are capable of espousing. Obviously, my answers to these questions are ‘yes’ to the first and ‘no’ to the second. Again, I am hardly the only person to make these claims. There are various underlying philosophical commitments which lead me to this stance. There is also a general methodological motivation – In recent years an enormous amount of research has been done which sees human behaviour in the light of animal behaviour (or vice versa). This research has been very fruitful, often in areas that were once thought to be paradigmatically human. Connecting human and animal behaviour seems to be a good move methodologically. So, which part of what I have said is ‘incredibly unlikely’?

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  6. Hello, I’m an Italian guy. I had your name from Dr P Stevens because I made photos rather unusual. I made a website http://www.sentieridiluce.altervista.org where I published the photos.
    I would know who can analyze the photos to understand what are the figures present.
    Sorry for my bad English.

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  7. I have no skill in analysing photos. All that I know is that there is a broad range of optical effects which can lead to the appearance of strange phenomena in pictures.

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  8. Konrad: thank you for the nice read this Saturday morning. I also enjoyed the CFI video link and saw some of my heroes; i will be reviewing your presentation on bounded rationality; my research interest is in bounded rationality with respect to military decisionmaking and examiniing the effect of military culture on adapting curriculum to accomodate insights from BR, whereas current military planning strongly favors a rational, analytical, economic model. If you find yourself in Kansas (it could happen!), stop in and see us at the US Army Command & General Staff College

    cheers! ken
    kansasreflections.wordpress.com

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  9. Konrad: i am sorry, but i forgot also to recommend Richard Burton’s “On Being Certain” (2008). a neurosurgeon who examines the case for how the brain organically creates a “feeling of knowing” that accompanies the production of a specific “intuition”, which through unconcious/subconcious processes “nominate” topics for our concious attention to focus on. It struck me that this might be of interest to you in your work on superstition. It has certainly caused me to examine with healthy skepticism various claims of “My intuition tells me that this course of action is the best” when conducting planning and decision making under conditions of extreme stress.
    cheers!
    ken

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  10. Ken, thanks for the kind words and the invite – first time I’d been invited to a military facility. Given the connection between stress and superstition the army must be a good place to run tests. Do you think the military are among the more superstitious groups of people? The Burton book sounds very interesting. In a bit of serendipity, Burton has an article in today’s salon.com on voting patterns.

    Reply
  11. i think we are very “superstitious” in the sense that we have invested a lot of belief in “rules of thumbs” and the received wisdom of very successful leaders in the past. We take up their advice with religous fervor. What i find interesting is that this is also a culture that places a very high value on rational, analytical control to achieve certainty. Yet when the stress levels go high and you must choose in the absence of certainty, military officers revert even more quickly and stubbornly to the chestnuts of the past. An example: we revere Clauswitz and Jomini, studying them carefully. In what other profession that idealizes certianty and modernity do you see the leading philosophers living in the 19th century? Is their content really that timeless or has our culture placed them on such a high pedestal and invested such emotion in being right that we are locked into this “superstition”? I am probably not using superstition in the formal sense but this is the paradox I see.

    Also, i should correct myself and note, as you know, that Burton’s first name is of course Robert, not Richard :D

    cheers!
    ken

    Reply
  12. Hello Konrad,

    I just viewed your response to the “Genetic map of Europe”. I want to thank you for being respectful of me and voicing your opinion in a positive way. Usually I don’t say this but you must forgive me, it is just the negatives done to Europe by the Turks that upset me, especially being 1/4 Serb myself. And yes I realize we are all mixed. Especially us Americans like I myself.

    Reply
  13. Interesting blog. I can’t say much, for I’m not superstitious: it brings bad luck, they say.

    Reply
  14. Even if this hasn’t already been shown empirically, I suspect that we humans are precociously superstitious. As with precocious religiosity, I would suggest that superstitious declarations would have been adaptive in hunter-gatherer societies and that the process I descibe as ‘Genetic Priming’ has resulted in contemporary precocious superstition.

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  15. It’s interesting that people have this kind of inbuilt credulity in their nature, a kind of disposition to belief things uncritically. I’ve heard Richard Dawkins argue that it could possibly be innate, that it’s been ‘selected for’ through evolution; because children who listen to and obey their parents have probably on average survived to adulthood at a higher rate to those who didn’t. “Don’t walk near that cliff edge!” for example, or “don’t play with snakes!” Children need to accept these commands without understanding why they should accept them. This line of reasoning seems interesting as a way of trying to understand why people are so credulous and inclined towards superstition. :)

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    • I’m afraid that Dawkins’ take on this is very simplistic. Dawkins sounds almost like children are a tabula rasa upon which the adults impress their own religiosity. Children are not simply willing to believe anything and everything that adults tell them, however. I would suggest looking at the work of developmental psychologists in order to see how much more savvy the children are – making the fact that religiosity comes so naturally to them all the more curious. I would suggest Paul Bloom (Descartes’ Baby) and Bruce Hood (Supersense/The Science of Superstition) as a good starting point. I have a link to Bruce’s blog in my blog roll.

      Reply

  16. Robert Landbeck

    December 27, 2010

    What science, religion, philosophy, theology, psychology, Hawkins or Dawkins thought impossible has happened. History now has it’s first fully demonstrable, Christian proof for faith. And coming from outside all existing theologies, clearly has ‘tradition’ in the cross hairs. Quoting from an online review:

    “The first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged is now a reality. A teaching that delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable, direct cause and effect, evidence based truth embodied in experience. For the first time in history, however unexpected or unwelcome, the world must contend with a claim to new revealed truth, a moral wisdom not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief! ”

    If confirmed and there appears a growing concerted effort to test and authenticate this material, of which I am taking part, this will represent a paradigm change in the nature of faith and in the moral and intellectual potential of human nature itself;  untangling the greatest  questions of human existence: sustainability, consciousness, meaning, suffering, free will and evil. And at the same time addressing the most profound problems of our age.

    While the religious will find this news most difficult, those who have claimed to be of an Enlightenment mind should find it of particular interest. But if they are unable to appreciate this change in the historical faith paradigm, to one that conforms precisely to a criteria subject to test and confirmation, then their own ‘claim’ to rationality is no more than pretension nor better then those theological illusions they find so abhorrent.

    A unexpected revolution appears to be under way. More info at [adress removed not to encourage spamming]

    Reply
    • An interesting variation on some of the things I have discussed on this blog. Two connected aspects are particularly striking. The first is the fallacy in the penultimate paragraph. It is, of course, false to effectively claim that the only reason why someone would ignore a set of claims because they are irrational. If the claims are nonsensical, it would be irrational to waste time on them. The other aspect to be considered is the flip side of this ‘equation’ – the author of the comment pays no attention to the claims made in this blog, thereby suggesting that they think these claims not to worthy of their time. In effect they make it clear that they only wish to use the comments section as a place to express their views without entering into any discussion. It’s not surprising then that they have spammed many other blogs with much the same message. This is sheer hypocrisy, a fault that is at once intellectual and moral.

      Reply
  17. I have mentioned my ‘Genetic Priming’ hypothesis in the thread above. If you are interested in my suggestion that this mechanism can explain precocious religiosity, please see the article that I recently published on Michael Blume’s blog ‘Biology of Religion’. Use the direct link below.

    http://www.scilogs.eu/en/blog/biology-of-religion/2011-03-24/the-genetic-priming-of-religiosity-guest-post-by-john-jacob-lyons?sms_ss=facebook&at_xt=4d8bc0721c26ed03%2C0

    Reply
  18. Hello Konrad,

    You said: “I am superstitious. Just like everyone else”

    AND, YOU ARE WRONG!

    While superstitious as a child, I have not been so for MANY years.

    Next, I hope you and or anyone who wants to will e-mail me at:

    religionsucks@webtv.net

    So I can forward you the email I just sent to the yo yo says we Atheists need a religion to teach us morals.

    Thanks for your time.

    Neil C. Reinhardt

    Reply
    • I’m afraid that even written in capitals, a statement of your beliefs is not more convincing than the years of research that I and others have carried out. What I believe you mean is that you seek to avoid superstitious beliefs once you recognise them as such. I do much the same. However, the very same psychological mechanisms that are responsible for people all arounf the world accepting superstitions also work within you and me. Recognising the capacity for holding such beliefs, sometimes without realising they are superstitions, is essential to being onguard against them.

      Reply

  19. Neil C. Reinhardt

    July 31, 2012

    No, I said exactly what I mean. Just becase you may not agree with it means nothing as you are not me.

    And you can take all your years of reseach and put them where your head must be, It is where the sun does not shine and you wipe it with toilet paper!

    Reply
  20. Interesting…:)

    I wrote an article some time ago somewhat reluctantly admitting that I have my superstitions and suggesting that others do as well. Just came upon your name and blog and, for the moment, thought I’d mention I’d been here.

    (Mine is not available at this time, so their is no intent to promote it as a result of this comment)

    Reply
1 Trackback For This Post
  1. Burton on the psychology of voting « Just Another Deisidaimon

    [...] on the psychology of voting Ken suggested that I look at Robert Burton’s book On Being Certain, and it definitely sounds like something [...]

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