What’s this blog about?

My aim in this blog is to discuss and document research – both my own and that of others that I come across – on the nature of superstition.

The approach taken is that superstitious beliefs, rather than being a reflection of the reality of any paranormal claims, are a natural phenomenon and should be understood in terms of human psychology. This is a working assumption and, like all other assumptions that people make, it is both necessary, if we are to progress with any activity, and fallible.

My own particular background is in philosophy and it is the tools that philosophy has given me that I primarily depend upon in my research, i.e. critical thinking, intellectual precision and, hopefully, a measure of openness to novel approaches to problems that have proved intransigent thus far. At the same time, I am happy to allow that philosophy alone will not teach anyone much about superstition: empirical research is absolutely vital and plays a role that is no less fundamental in coming to grips with what superstition is. For this reason, I like to read what people working in various disciplines, be it history or psychology, have had to say about superstition.

Also, I approach the issue from the direction of looking at the nature of rationality – superstition being perhaps the most infamous example of what is seen as humans failing to be rational. Given such an approach, superstition is of interest as it shows something of how human reasoning works by showing how it fails to work. In particular, it is of interest to me as I think that rationality, not just human rationality but any rationality at all, must be understood to be inherently limited or, to use Herbert Simon’s term, bounded. In that context, the study of superstition becomes the study of the bounds of reason.

In this blog I will want to develop some of my ideas by putting them down ‘on paper’ as well as recording information about books, conferences and whatever else is relevant to the serious study of superstition as well as of interest to myself and others working in this interdisciplinary area.

6 Responses “What’s this blog about?” →
  1. Implicit in your definition of all that is to be studied, that is, “superstition”, is the assumption that all non-provable phenomenon are false, and that all processes non-definable by Physics are false. It could be that all knowledge not definable by reproducable experiments in a physical realm are false or maybe not. There are some personal experiences that can not be documented but are persuasive to an individual as to the veracity of a phenomena. I practiced exercizes in forming images and empathy. My sister was going on vacation and I said to her to not tell me anything about her plans. While she was traveling, I formed images in meditation. I saw a hanging that I thought was not really a hanging. I saw her husband being shot…. and many other things which I’m not going to take the time to detail now…To make a long story short: she went to a magic show in Las Vegas where a magician pretended to be hung but survived and her husband participated in a hollywood movie for tourists where he dressed as a cowboy and was shot. This is just a small sample of what I saw but my point is that although I know of the veracity of what I “remotely viewed”, I can not convince anyone that it is not “superstition”. It is possible that psychic phenomenon are not “sukperstiion” in every case. Beginning with a forgone conclusion can not add to either side of the issue. It is similar to the prejudice against “primitive” people: sometimes the herbal cures that they have found in the rain forest are utter nonsense, but occasionally they have discovered through their “superstition” a drug that is really useful. Their theory of operation may be totally wrong but there might be an underlining real substance.

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  2. One of the interesting things about superstitious beliefs is how emotionally compelling they are to those who have them – this is certainly something that I have personally found to be the case: on numerous occasions I felt almost compelled to hold beliefs I knew to be incorrect. Our inability to appreciate coincidence and tendency to identify patterns where none exist play an important role in the formation of ‘spontaneous’ superstitions such as the one that you describe, however. We are quickly coming to understand the process at work here.

    The example of herbal remedies is very different in that it is essentially a socially transmitted belief about the efficacy of certain practices. Indeed, you are quite right to point out that such traditions do at times include effective elements – making the study of such traditional cures using modern pharmacological means a research project that is quite possibly worthwhile. Of course, such a project has to discount for the effects of the placebo effect – both in terms of being more sceptical towards herbal remedies for symptoms which are known to be highly susceptible to it such as the subjective feeling of pain and in terms of running proper double-blind tests on remedies that appear promising. A further problem is that due to their very different lifestyles native peoples have historically tended to suffer from very different illnesses from those that plague the developed and developing world. Finally, the ‘traditional’ element of traditional medicine should not be overstated given that it appears that most superstitions tend to have relatively short life-spans.

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  3. Bart Swiatczak

    March 1, 2008

    I believe that being superstitious about something has nothing to do with being right or wrong about a causal relationship. It is rather a matter of justification why this causal relationship holds.
    Someone may believe for example that eating poisoned food can save him from a disease. We can say that the person is superstitious if he believes that there are some disease-protective ghosts in the food which pass into his body. If however the person claims that there are antigens in the food which will induce antibodies production in his own immune system, then the person is rational.
    ————————————————————-
    Here are two other examples:
    1) Superstitious person: “Number “13” is unlucky to me because there is something misterious about this number”.
    Non-supersitious person: “Number “13” is unlucky to me because there is a stupid tradition of believing that nr 13 is unlucky and when I go to work on 13th of every month my boss, my wife and lover are all in bad mood and they are all bad to me”.
    2) Superstitious person: “Holy water can heal me because it was taken from a holy lake”.
    Non-superstitious person: “Holy water can heal me because I believe it and growing evidence from psychoneuroimmunology demonstrates that there is a link between the nervous system and the immune system. It looks that a person can modulate immune response to some degree by his own state of mind. For example studies of cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway show that the activity of the vagus nerve which regulates the inflammatory response can be potentially modulated by biofeedback, conditioning, meditation, hypnosis or acupuncture” [compare: Tracey, The inflammatory reflex, vol. 420, Nature 2002].
    ————————————————————-
    I also think that we should never say that resarchers who produce false results, believe in these resuts and propagate them are supersitious. They are just wrong but not superstitiuos.
    Ciao

    Reply
  4. I love my superstitions .. aw come on, can’t I keep ‘em? :D

    Reply
2 Trackbacks For This Post
  1. Truth, superstition and explanation « Just Another Deisidaimon

    [...] I believe that being superstitious about something has nothing to do with being right or wrong about… [...]

  2. Notional Slurry » links for 2009-03-13

    [...] What’s this blog about? « Just Another Deisidaimon "Also, I approach the issue from the direction of looking at the nature of rationality – superstition being perhaps the most infamous example of what is seen as humans failing to be rational. Given such an approach, superstition is of interest as it shows something of how human reasoning works by showing how it fails to work. In particular, it is of interest to me as I think that rationality, not just human rationality but any rationality at all, must be understood to be inherently limited or, to use Herbert Simon’s term, bounded. In that context, the study of superstition becomes the study of the bounds of reason." (tags: rationalism philosophy-of-science philosophy blog research Nudge pragmatism naturalism models heuristics) [...]

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