The fixation of superstitious beliefs

Posted on February 5, 2008


NOTE (June 2nd, 2009): This entry has been getting a lot of visitors form the Philippines every June. I would be very interested to find out why. So, if you know, please write in the comments what the reason is for this annual visitation. I should also add that I have now put a longer version of this article on this blog.

Here is a rough summary of some of the ideas that have been tumbling around in my head. It’s what you get if you mix Bronisław Malinowski with Charles Peirce and Kevin Laland:

Superstitions can be understood as a way of fixing beliefs – in the face of an on-going lack of control – by involving effectively untestable explanations. The explanations are untestable only in part due to their content: related social attitudes and available empirical capabilities also play a vital role. Importantly, untestability does not entail the lack of meaning but, rather, frees the meaning to be determined by the actual function of the practices related to the claim. This is particularly the case with religious practices, which differ from superstitious ones in that their effectiveness is also untestable. Science, as Haack suggests, is contrasted by its attitude to evidence and the focus on extending empirical capabilities. The scientific attitude trumps the alternatives in so far as an accurate comparison requires that the scientific attitude be adopted.


Bronisław Malinowski, in his ground-breaking 1925 essay “Magic, science and religion”, argues for an interesting correlation between uncertainty and superstition. The correlation is explained using a comparison between two types of fishing undertaken by the Trobriand islanders (Malinowski 1925: 31):

It is most significant that in the lagoon fishing, where man can rely completely upon his knowledge and skill, magic does not exist, while in the open-sea fishing, full of danger and uncertainty, there is extensive magical ritual to secure safety and good results.

For someone who’s been exposed to Peirce this is reminiscent of the remarks that Peirce makes in “The fixation of belief” where he writes (Peirce 1877):

The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry, though it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation.

Clearly, the comparison isn’t quite right. Peirce is talking about what occasions inquiry. Malinowski, however, is considering the conditions in which that inquiry seems to lead to prima facie irrational beliefs. None-the-less, both identify uncertainty/doubt as the common factor. It appears that Peirce is considering a broader range of situations as leading to “doubt” than the range Malinowski would see as causing “uncertainty”. That this is the case becomes clear when we consider the kinds of examples Peirce gives: not knowing which coins to use to make a small payment, being one. This leaves, however, the question of when the inquiry occasioned by what Peirce calls doubt leads to superstitious beliefs. The significant point in Malinowski’s account is that he identifies uncertainty with lack of control (not a state usually connected to fishing for change, if one pardons the pun). In other words, Malinowski thinks that it is situations in which we can not obtain control over some significant aspect of our environment that occasion superstition-prone inquiry. It is this connection between lack of control and superstitious beliefs, as well as the vital role that practices play in superstitions, that makes them really quite an interesting case for pragmatists to look at. Superstition becomes even more noteworthy when it is considered as a way of looking at the world that is an alternative to the scientific outlook.


Peirce’s pragmatic maxim has remained highly controversial. However, there is a far less controversial and related claim that I would like to make use of: the degree to which an untestable hypothesis is taken up by people can not be due to its truth or falsehood. Keeping this corollary in mind will help us consider characteristic differences between superstition, religion, everyday knowledge and science. In the case of superstition we are normally dealing with practices aimed at practical, testable goals, such as coming back with ‘a good catch’. At the same time, the stereotypical explanation for why the superstitious practices are supposed to work is effectively untestable. So, to continue the example, a woman’s success in obtaining a desirable husband might be explained in terms of the luck brought about by finding a four-leaf clover. Of course, it will be objected that people do test superstitious explanations, and find them lacking. I am well aware of this and will get back to what is meant by ‘effectively untestable’ later. For the moment, it is useful to compare the situation with stereotypical religious practices, such as celebrating mass. Here, the function the practice is supposed to have is typically described in untestable terms, such as ‘communing with God’. Of course, the way in which this is supposedly achieved is also not subject to testing. There are examples of religious practices where the goals are practical and testable, such as intercessory prayer; but these, I would argue, are superstitious in nature and should be differentiated from the more usual religious practices. Considered in these terms, it can be seen that superstitious practices are placed somewhat between religious and everyday practices such as shopping or, in the case of the Trobrianders, lagoon fishing. In the case of such everyday practices the goals are practical, just as in superstitions, but the explanations given for the effectiveness of the practices are phrased solely in everyday terms subject to empirical evaluation. Indeed, in such cases, explanations often play a particularly minor role and typically must be constructed post hoc when called for, not being required for normal functioning.

The remaining category to be considered is science. In the case of science, analysis in terms of practices and the explanations for their success seems the least natural. Still, the comparison is striking. While far from practical, scientific practices – if we understand experimentation in such terms – have the provision of evidence as a focal point. At the same time, scientific explanations might be given in terms that are originally hard to test, but the obtaining of evidence is seen as vital. Thus, in a recent book discussing the developments in evolutionary accounts of human behaviour, Laland and Brown (2002: 234) write the following:

Ultimately memetics will stand or fall on whether it generates empirical research. Meme advocates must accept that, unless they devise a rigorous methodology for doing memetics, methods that instigate a valid research programme involving testing as well as generating hypotheses, then memetics will never be a science.

Of course, as evidenced by Peirce’s pragmatic maxim, the focus on empirical evidence as science’s calling card is hardly novel. However, in traditional formulations – even Peirce’s maxim – the focus is on the propositions put forward. The Laland and Brown quote points toward two other considerations that are, if anything, more important in determining whether a claim is testable. The first is, to use Susan Haack’s (2007) term, ‘the integrity of science’; the second is science’s continuous development of novel methodology. Examining each in turn helps to cast in sharp relief the question of the relationship between science and, among other things, superstition, as well as shining light on the ethics of belief.


Durkheim argued that magic and religion can be distinguished from other human practices as they concern dealings with items or entities that have been deemed sacred. While the accuracy of the distinction has been questioned to a certain degree, its relevance to the question of testability of claims is remarkable when we consider Durkheim’s words (1912: 40):

Sacred things are those things protected and isolated by prohibitions; profane things are those things to which such prohibitions apply and which must keep their distance from what is sacred.

And it is very hard to test something one should keep a respectful distance from. Just this kind of strategy is often used by claimants to supernatural powers who fail to produce them when challenged by the magician James Randi. They claim that their powers are such that they will not display themselves while under sceptical scrutiny. In other words, even if sacredness is not a necessary attribute of entities that play a vital role in religion or superstition, it is certainly a trait that comes in most useful when religious or superstitious claims are threatened by the spotlight of empirical investigation. For those who are not willing to cross the socially constructed empirical limits, the claims become effectively untestable even if, otherwise, the means to test them exist. The contrast between this and “the epistemological values of evidence-sharing and respect for evidence” that Haack (2007: 10) identifies as central to science could not be starker. A vital aspect of the difference is its, at least partly, institutional character. This can probably be seen in the degree to which scientists are far more willing to accept religious or superstitious claims when these do not fall into the purview of their professional practice, as well as in the degree to which people in general are more willing to voice reservations about religious beliefs outside of the public sphere. In the case of science, the values are institutionalised in such mechanisms as blind peer review and the insistence on the reproducibility of results. In the case of religion, the corresponding institutional role is played by social and even legal penalties for failing to appropriately treat objects or claims deemed sacred. Perhaps surprisingly, such legal penalties persist even in some Western societies in the form of legislation that specifically punishes those who offend others’ religious sensibilities.


As Haack (2003: 300) has observed:

… what is epistemologically valuable about the natural sciences is not simply the vast body of knowledge they have accumulated about the world and how it works, but also the way they have expanded and refined human cognitive capacities, overcome human cognitive limitations, and amplified our capacity to inquire effectively.

In saying that “scientific inquiry is continuous with everyday empirical inquiry – only more so” Haack (2003: 94) is putting forward a position that is very much in tune with Herbert Simon’s (1972) view of human rationality as bounded and constituted by heuristics. Science, on this view, gains its effectiveness not from having a separate ‘Scientific Method’ but by building upon the existing human heuristics – the everyday means we use to gain knowledge about the world – through adding to them new heuristics such as double-blind testing. On Simon’s view it is hardly surprising that scientific heuristics often have very constrained applicability: all reasoning is ecological, depending – explicitly or implicitly – upon substantive assumptions regarding the subject to which the heuristics are applied. It is just such heuristics that Laland and Brown are, therefore, talking about when they advocate that memeticists must “devise a rigorous methodology for doing memetics.”

This open-ended aspect of scientific methodology has a vital implication for the particularly popular view exemplified by Gould’s (1999) “non-overlapping magisteria”. The view that science and religion do not come into real conflict because they deal with different kinds of claims assumes, among other things, that science has a particular ‘magisterium’. In effect, the view assumes that science is essentially closed. This might be the case were there such a thing as the Scientific Method. However, given that the methods used by science are only an extension of the normal empirical methods used by everyone, and that scientific progress consists in part in extending them further, the God of the non-overlapping magisterium ends up looking very much like the rightly infamous God of the Gaps. Still, it is possible to ‘rescue’ something from the wreck of Gould’s view – the question being whether what remains would be enough to satisfy the most ardent beachcomber.


David Sloan Wilson (2002) takes Durkheim’s view of social function as being the essential property of religion and updates it by arguing that religion should be seen as a group-level evolutionary adaptation in that it helps groups to maintain coherence and, in effect, to replace intra-group competition with inter-group competition. In discussing a particular, potentially religious, superstition Wilson (2002: 24) makes a significant observation:

Virtually any misfortune can be used as “evidence” of a previous transgression. Immunity from disproof might seem like a weakness from a narrowly scientific perspective, but it can be a strength for a social system designed to regulate human behaviour.

The degree to which religious or superstitious beliefs are not subject to empirical evaluation isn’t significant only because it protects them from being shown to be false. It also ‘frees’ them up to serve functions other than those a literal reading might suggest. Beliefs that are not testable will still vary in their success in the population but their success will not be related to their truth or falsity. Instead, it will be either related to the actual function they are put to or – on the meme’s-eye view that Susan Blackmore (1999) among others proposes – the function they put us to. Significantly, our awareness of the actual function such beliefs and practices serve need not be any more relevant than the ‘opinions’ held by fruit flies. It may be, for example, that by propagating superstitions others have told us we are, actually, communicating our willingness to trust their authority, as Craig Palmer (1989) suggests.

This insight allows us to come back to Peirce’s pragmatic maxim. It is not that untestable claims, such as are made by religion and superstition, are meaningless, as might be held given some criterion of verifiability. Rather, their practical meaning does not come from their propositional content but, if anything, from the function they play in determining human behaviour quite independently of their truth value. Also, the beliefs come to be fixed, but not by any of the relatively individualist and cognitive methods Peirce considered. So, in a sense, believers are right to say that they are being misunderstood when scientists ask for evidence that the communion wafer has undergone transubstantiation. By interpreting the statements in cognitive terms the scientists are, in effect, missing what it is that such statements mean. But, then, if this view is correct, the believers probably don’t actually know the meaning of their own statements either.


What can one say about the relative value of beliefs that are rigorously tested on the basis of a literal interpretation of their content and those that are protected against possible counter-evidence to allow them to serve non-cognitive functions? In short, is it better to be superstitious or to take up a scientific view of the world? In truth, this is never an either/or proposition. As has already been noted, the standards of evidence are only partly internalised by scientists, so that many of them espouse religious or superstitious beliefs. Despite the Enlightenment idea that reason will drive out superstition, the situation isn’t likely to change fundamentally in the future. Due to the nature of our rationality as characterised by Simon, we will only ever subject subsets of our beliefs to rigorous examination. Still, it is possible to ask whether particular religious or superstitious beliefs are harmful or, perhaps, helpful – whether Wilson or Blackmore are right. The sting lies in the realisation that to do this effectively we must be willing to investigate the question with the integrity and methods that science epitomises. Eschewing evidence, religious believers might say that religion is superior. But they can’t possibly mean it.


Blackmore, Susan (1999) The Meme Machine Oxford: Oxford University Press

Durkheim, Emile (1912) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001

Gould, Steven Jay (1999) Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life New York: W.W. Horton

Haack, Susan (2003) Defending Science – Within Reason Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books

Haack, Susan (2007) “The integrity of science: What it means, why it matters” Etica e Investigacao nas Ciencias da Vida – Actas do 10° Seminario do CNECV: 9-28

Laland, Kevin and Gillian Brown (2002) Sense & Nonsense Oxford: Oxford University Press

Malinowski, Bronisław (1925) “Magic, science and religion” in Magic, Science and Religion and other essays Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland 1992

Palmer, Craig (1989) “The Ritual Taboos of Fishermen” Mast 2.1: 59-68

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1877) “The fixation of belief” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877): 1-15

Simon, Herbert (1972) “Theories of Bounded Rationality” in C.B. McGuire and R. Radner (eds.) Decision and Organization Amsterdam: North-Holland: 161-76

Wilson, David Sloan (2002) Darwin’s Cathedral Chicago: University of Chicago Press