Defining superstition: Believing in Magic

Posted on May 15, 2007


Meno’s Paradox of Inquiry is described as follows in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

If you know the answer to the question you are asking, then nothing can be learned by asking. If you do not know the answer, then you cannot recognize a correct answer even if it is given to you. Therefore, one cannot learn anything by asking questions.

A similarly paradoxical situation can be described for definitions using the example of superstition. If you know which beliefs are superstitious, you can give an accurate definition but don’t need it. If you do not know which beliefs are superstitious you wouldn’t know a good definition even if it were given to you. Therefore, one cannot learn anything by giving definitions.

Of course, the paradox is not one that actually has the force it might seem to. However, it does mean that even though trying to give definitions and to operationalise concepts is part of the process of coming to understand phenomena, it always goes hand in hand with the other aspects of research so that definitions are no more than attempts at coming to grips with what we are studying. Thus, the inadequacies in our definitions are indicative of the inadequacies in our understanding. This is definitely the case with superstition.

Stuart Vyse’s Believing in Magic has become a classic introduction to the psychology of superstition and I have been using it in my own classes. Vyse is quite honest about the difficulties with defining superstition and the definition he opts for is a good example, despite his good efforts. Vyse accepts (on page 19) a definition of superstition proposed by Judd Marmor: beliefs or practices groundless in themselves and inconsistent with the degree of enlightenment reached by the community to which one belongs.

It is worthwhile examining the definition in detail.

The first point to be made is that Vyse wishes to talk about beliefs and practices. This makes very good sense as when dealing with superstition one seems to necessarily be dealing with both beliefs and practices. Skinner, in his famous experiments on the ‘superstition’ of the pigeon would seem to have gone as far toward having superstitious practices without beliefs as it is possible and that seems to have more to do with Skinner’s own behaviourist beliefs than with the cognitive processes within the pigeon that caused it to engage in apparent ritual. At the same time, it does not seem to make much sense to talk about superstitious beliefs that do not, at least potentially, lead to any practices. Practice and belief seem to be closely related to each other when dealing with superstition. Indeed, that is partly what makes superstition so interesting to me, given my pragmatist approach to beliefs. The problem with Vyse’s definition is that it says nothing about what the relationship between superstitious beliefs and superstitious practices is supposed to be.

The second element of the definition is that we are dealing with something that, in itself, is groundless. This is a point that appears in many definitions of superstition and, again, appears to be aimed at something that is right. After all, a big part of what makes superstitions troublesome is that people believe in them without (or even contrary to) satisfactory evidence – another way of put this point. Unfortunately, just like the first element in the definition, this is also very hard to express properly. Most importantly, it seems too harsh to say that superstitions are groundless. People who think they own lucky items do so on the basis of something like hasty inductions that often ignore counterexamples. While such reasoning provides only very weak and evidently fallible support, similar ways of reasoning lie behind many of the beliefs we have that are not generally thought to be superstitious. To give one example, I can just think back to the post on evidence-based medicine. People reason hastily and, usually, get away with it. Indeed, due to the extra effort required, in many cases it would be irrational for them to try and reason more carefully. We can not distinguish superstitions by calling them ‘groundless’ as a lot of normal beliefs are actually just as ‘groundless’. What is less important, but still interesting, is the idea that these beliefs are groundless in themselves. I take this added specification to be meant to open the way for an analysis of superstition within social practices that, as a whole, make good sense. I am not sure to what degree that is the case but I am happy to give the benefit of the doubt here.

So much for the first half of the definition. The second half seems to me even less clear than the first. After all, what is meant to be ‘the degree of enlightenment’ that one’s community is supposed to have reached? What terms is it supposed to be measured in? Technological achievement, advancement of human rights, familiarity with the works of Voltaire? I jest, but the problem is very real. I have no wish to deny the basic idea but I question its utility in a definition. How do you operationalise ‘the degree of enlightenment’? Even if one could get past the problems with determining what that is, as well as what one’s community is, there is a further more fundamental problem, however. Vyse thinks it a good thing that this definition places superstition “in its social context”. He gives the example of alchemy which, he claims, is now irrational but was not so in tenth century Persia. But, then, what are we to make of the fact that the examples of superstitious behaviour Theophrastus gave 2300 years ago are so similar to those we would give today? Vyse’s claims about alchemy seem to be too hasty. Not that a modern day alchemist wouldn’t be a quack but that, I would argue, the elements of alchemy which are superstitious have remained recognisably so, whatever their cultural context. What has changed is the acceptance of superstition within a broadly understood scientific context. The particular example of the alchemist belief in the ability to turn base metals into gold was never superstition – even though particular explanations for how it might be achieved were – it was simply false. Indeed, modern particle science has come to the point where we are able to do what the alchemists dreamed of, the problem being that the amounts of gold produced are worth far less than the energy needed to affect the change. Perhaps, my arguments are not enough to show that Vyse is wrong to want to give superstition a cultural dimension. They do seem enough to justify being in two minds about how much of a role that dimension should have.

Although I am not happy with Vyse’s definition it does raise a number of the issues that need to be taken into consideration when dealing with superstition: the relation between beliefs and practices, the question of evidence and the relation to the social context. Certainly, I have no better definition ready up my sleeve. But, then, that only shows how much work remains to be done.