Bananas and Pascal

Posted on June 10, 2007

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When people ask me whether I have any superstitions I usually reply that while there are none of which I am aware, for the simple reason that if I were aware of them I would try to eliminate them, I am also sure that there must be ones about which I am not aware of – something like the unexamined beliefs which are mentioned in the previous entry.

The example I give of just such a belief that I once had concerns bananas. Until a couple of years ago I had the peculiar belief that one should not eat the ends of bananas as green snakes bite these ends while the bananas hang on the tree so they may be poisoned. The only behaviour that this belief caused was that I would not eat the ends of bananas at the eat away from the stalk. The immediate reason why I believed it was that my grandmother had the same practice and passed the explanation on to me when I was little. Obviously, when I took the time one day to consider the belief I realised how nonsensical it was and ceased to believe it.

A couple of points can be raised using this example, however.

The first is the question of whether it was properly speaking a superstitious belief. The problem, it seems to me, is that while the explanation is nonsensical it does not rely on any supernatural elements. I certainly did not get the feeling that ‘green snakes’ were biting the bananas for anything other than a natural reason. While it is hard to know what to make of this point by itself it does lead us to the question of the relationship between superstition and the supernatural, which is something that I have been thinking about at length.

The second point is more significant. The definitions of superstition I have come across generally fail to consider a point that Vyse raises in his Believing in Magic on the basis of work done by Malinowski – superstition seems to thrive in risky environments. The example Vyse gives is that, in baseball, batters have lots of superstitious practices while fielders do not – the first activity also being far riskier in game terms. The general idea that may be thought to sit behind this is that the prevalence of superstition may be linked to some sort of cost-benefit analysis, much like in Pascal’s Wager. Pascal essentially claimed that it makes good rational sense to believe in God as the cost is relatively small while the possible benefit is infinitely large. In the case of the bananas, the cost of not eating banana ends is miniscule compared to the benefit of not being poisoned.

On this theory, superstitious practices become akin to buying lottery tickets – one recognises that the chance of winning is small but given the size of the winnings it may seem rational to make the purchase. Likewise, many people who have superstitious practices claim that they are doing what they do ‘Just in case.’ They may not be sure the practice helps but it costs little to engage in it compared to the possible benefit. Of course, such an explanation of superstitions can not be complete for much the same reason as the misidentified cause explanation or the prescientific theory explanation. There are many practices which are also engaged in ‘just in case’ but which are not superstitions it would seem – buying lottery tickets being one. One may try to argue that the difference is that in the case of superstitions the actual chance of getting the benefit is zero. But then there are also lotteries which cheat the ticket buyers and this does not make them superstitious. Whatever the details, this line of thought adds another possible explanation – superstitions are the result of miscalculating the cost-benefit ratio of the practice. What is certain is that superstition and uncertainty are linked and the explanation given for why this is the case is not necessarily the only one that is possible.

None of which explains why the snakes were green.

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