Abstract of the APRU talk

Posted on January 27, 2007

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I’ve written up the abstract for the APRU talk on the 6th of February:

In a Mirror, Darkly: Does superstition reflect rationality?

Superstition and rationality have traditionally been seen as mutually antithetical. However, understanding superstition as the opposite of rationality does not explain why, despite centuries of philosophical and scientific efforts, superstitious beliefs are widespread in modern societies. Indeed, Aristotles’ optimistic definition of humans as rational animals has to be weighted against the apparently ubiquitous human susceptibility to superstitions.

Thankfully, a possible explanation for the persistence and ubiquity of superstitious tendencies exists which, if correct, would avoid the nihilist conclusion that humans are actually irrational. The vital step is to forsake the view of rationality as moving us towards some ideally rational state: instead, seeing it as a biological trait which evolves from an initial state of total ignorance. Given an inherently bounded rationality, it comes to be possible to see how reason and superstition may coexist in human beings. Indeed, a fascinating possibility appears. Considering the limited nature and evolutionary history of cognitive abilities it becomes possible to contemplate the prospect that superstition – rather than being the antithesis of our reasoning capabilities – is actually their by-product. One way to empirically examine this thesis would be to attempt to identify connections between individual cognitive illusions and individual superstitions. Were this possible, the ubiquity and persistence of superstition would, in effect, be shown to be a function of our bounded rationality.

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