The book’s introduction – a draft

Posted on November 22, 2007

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I am currently writing the introduction to my book. I expect that it will change several times before I finish – counterintuitively, the introduction is usually the last part of a text that I finalise – but, at this point, I am thinking of starting with an example of spontaneous superstition that I mentioned on the blog previously. Here are the first few paragraphs of the current draft:

My daughter Julia saw her first hedgehog not long before her third birthday. It was a warm summer evening and she had been put into the car for the drive home wearing only her pyjamas when she saw the hedgehog snuffling around next to a fence. She was so taken by it that we sat and waited while she watched the little fellow go about his business. One evening a few days later she insisted that she be dressed again in her pyjamas for the drive home and was most disappointed when the hedgehog did not reappear despite her efforts.

The story makes us smile at the simple-minded, child’s-eye view of the world it seems to reveal. Yet, we should consider it in light of two facts. By the time they are my daughter’s age, most children – my daughter included – have learned how to navigate within the physical and social realms. They are capable of communicating in one or more languages. They have the fine motor control and understanding of how solid objects behave necessary to erect towers made of building blocks. They understand a broad range of social relations well enough to play out complex social scenarios with their dolls. All this in just three years: to the continuing amazement not just of their parents but also of the developmental psychologists who study them. At the same time, in the years to come my daughter is likely to form numerous similar superstitious beliefs both spontaneously and as a result of social learning. While the example with the hedgehog may look childish, adults are also susceptible to superstitious beliefs: At least prima facie, my daughter’s actions do not look so different from those of an adult who refuses to cross a black cat’s path. In other words, if we laugh at children we should by rights also laugh at ourselves.

When we consider actions such as my daughter’s, we find ourselves asking a number of questions. Was her hope that wearing pyjamas for the drive would mean the hedgehog’s return an example of a spontaneous superstition? Was she irrational to act the way she did? Why did she think that the pyjamas might be relevant to seeing the hedgehog? Was the way she reached this conclusion different from the way she has come to understand so much of her world so quickly? The answers to such questions that this book will put forward will, I hope, have significant implications for how we view superstition. More importantly, however, they will also have implications for how we should understand rationality.

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