Fixation in Teorema

Posted on June 12, 2009


The long version of “Fixation of superstitious beliefs” should be coming out in Teorema relatively soon. It develops the ideas contained in the short version that I put on this blog a while ago. I’m linking to a draft version of the long article in pdf format:

My aim in this paper is to sketch a broadly Peircean account of religious and superstitious beliefs.

I begin by examining the relationship between Malinowski’s view that superstitions arise in circumstances in which people experience a lack of control and Peirce’s view that it is doubt that leads to inquiry. Taken together, the views suggest that superstitions arise in situations in which doubt cannot be readily assuaged. Instead of continuing to alter the beliefs, superstitions act to protect them from counterevidence.

This is done in three different ways. Firstly, the content of the beliefs can be such as to minimise the opportunity for testing. Secondly, social attitudes can be such as to make testing unlikely. And, thirdly, the methods available for testing can be constrained. Both religious and superstitious beliefs make use of the full range of these mechanisms, the contrast class being provided by scientific beliefs for which maximum testability is sought.

The untestability of religious and superstitious beliefs does not render them meaningless, however. This is because they still remain capable of motivating human behaviour. Indeed, once empirical considerations are guarded against it is this non-cognitive role of beliefs that determines whether they become generally accepted. This role can be understood in terms of the adaptive function the beliefs come to have. Investigation of this role, however, will undermine it. What is more, a comparison of the actual desirability of religious beliefs with scientific ones requires that a scientific attitude be taken.