Truth, superstition and explanation

Posted on March 1, 2008


Bart Swiatczak wrote in a comment:

I believe that being superstitious about something has nothing to do with being right or wrong about a causal relationship. It is rather a matter of justification why this causal relationship holds.

I think that Bart and I are basically in agreement – the often used definition of superstition as “false causal claim” seems to me woefully simplistic. Indeed, I have stated as much on a couple of occasions. I also agree that the difference between a scientific and a superstitious belief lies in the kind of justification that is given for the purported causal relationship – the point being that I think superstitious justifications or, as I more often call them, explanations tend to be expressed in terms which are not subject to empirical testing (for reasons internal as well as external to the content of the explanations). What is more this ‘freedom’ from testing plays an important role in allowing superstitions to play various functions not essentially linked to the content of the beliefs. The two examples Bart gives nicely illustrate the significance of the explanations offered and I hope that he will not mind if I use them in the future. A possible conclusion to draw from this view of superstition is that being wrong is a relatively small problem with a belief – not being subject to testing is at least potentially a much more significant problem. In other words, it would be great if superstitions were just false (not that they would then be superstitions).