Science, superstition and the supernatural

Posted on June 21, 2007


Dale Martin, in Inventing Superstition, argues that the notion of superstition predates that of the supernatural. This is an interesting point, assuming he is right. On page 12 he has a very interesting passage regarding the current situation:

Importantly, the way people argue about the issue tells us much about what superstition is in the modern world. If the arthritic man with a copper bracelet on his wrist wants to convince me that he is not thereby superstitious, he will probably offer some kind of account, using as much scientific-sounding language as he can muster, that explains how the known properties of copper interact with the known mechanisms of arthritis, and if possible he will interpret all those properties and mechanisms as ones recognised, at least in appearance, by modern physics, chemistry, or biology. He will not likely invoke a category of demonic possession or sympathetic magic. He may end up sounding like a chemist, but he will not likely sound like an exorcist – if, that is, he relly wants to defend his ractice against the charge of superstition. In other words, the definition of “superstition” in the modern world is parasitic on whatever is taken to be “scientific.” “Superstition” is the “other” to “science.”

The interesting thing about what Martin says here is that he is assuming that the explanations are, at least sometimes, post hoc. While the suggestion seems to be that we would be more likely to believe a claim with a scientific-sounding explanation it also seems to be suggested that the person with the copper bracelet believes it to be effective on other grounds – probably (misinterpreted) personal experience – and is merely picking the explanation that we will find more amenable. As Martin points to, if the first-person explanation for a superstitious belief is post hoc then the link to supernatural claims is also post hoc. This, of course, runs counter to what I said about the superstition/supernatural link earlier, which is why it is very interesting to me. In addition, I believe that work has been done in psychology on whether explanations are post hoc.