The Science of Superstitions

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By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science."

Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, 1931

The debate between realism and anti-realism is, at least, a century old. Does Science describe the real world - or are its theories true only within a certain conceptual framework? Is science only instrumental or empirically adequate or is there more to it than that?

The current - mythological - image of scientific enquiry is as follows:

Without resorting to reality, one can, given infinite time and resources, produce all conceivable theories. One of these theories is bound to be the "truth". To decide among them, scientists conduct experiments and compare their results to predictions yielded by the theories. A theory is falsified when one or more of its predictions fails. No amount of positive results - i.e., outcomes that confirm the theory's predictions - can "prove right" a theory. Theories can only be proven false by that great arbiter, reality.

Jose Ortega y Gasset said (in an unrelated exchange) that all ideas stem from pre-rational beliefs. William James concurred by saying that accepting a truth often requires an act of will which goes beyond facts and into the realm of feelings. Maybe so, but there is little doubt today that beliefs are somehow involved in the formation of many scientific ideas, if not of the very endeavor of Science. After all, Science is a human activity and humans always believe that things exist (=are true) or could be true.

A distinction is traditionally made between believing in something's existence, truth, value of appropriateness (this is the way that it ought to be) - and believing that something. The latter is a propositional attitude: we think that something, we wish that something, we feel that something and we believe that something. Believing in A and believing that A - are different.

It is reasonable to assume that belief is a limited affair. Few of us would tend to believe in contradictions and falsehoods. Catholic theologians talk about explicit belief (in something which is known to the believer to be true) versus implicit one (in the known consequences of something whose truth cannot be known). Truly, we believe in the probability of something (we, thus, express an opinion) - or in its certain existence (truth).

All humans believe in the existence of connections or relationships between things. This is not something which can be proven or proven false (to use Popper's test). That things consistently follow each other does not prove they are related in any objective, "real", manner - except in our minds. This belief in some order (if we define order as permanent relations between separate physical or abstract entities) permeates both Science and Superstition. They both believe that there must be - and is - a connection between things out there.

Science limits itself and believes that only certain entities inter-relate within well defined conceptual frames (called theories). Not everything has the potential to connect to everything else. Entities are discriminated, differentiated, classified and assimilated in worldviews in accordance with the types of connections that they forge with each other.

Moreover, Science believes that it has a set of very effective tools to diagnose, distinguish, observe and describe these relationships. It proves its point by issuing highly accurate predictions based on the relationships discerned through the use of said tools. Science (mostly) claims that these connections are "true" in the sense that they are certain - not probable.

The cycle of formulation, prediction and falsification (or proof) is the core of the human scientific activity. Alleged connections that cannot be captured in these nets of reasoning are cast out either as "hypothetical" or as "false". In other words: Science defines "relations between entities" as "relations between entities which have been established and tested using the scientific apparatus and arsenal of tools". This, admittedly, is a very cyclical argument, as close to tautology as it gets.

Superstition is a much simpler matter: everything is connected to everything in ways unbeknown to us. We can only witness the results of these subterranean currents and deduce the existence of such currents from the observable flotsam. The planets influence our lives, dry coffee sediments contain information about the future, black cats portend disasters, certain dates are propitious, certain numbers are to be avoided. The world is unsafe because it can never be fathomed. But the fact that we - limited as we are - cannot learn about a hidden connection - should not imply that it does not exist.

Science believes in two categories of relationships between entities (physical and abstract alike). The one is the category of direct links - the other that of links through a third entity. In the first case, A and B are seen to be directly related. In the second case, there is no apparent link between A and B, but a third entity, C could well provide such a connection (for instance, if A and B are parts of C or are separately, but concurrently somehow influenced by it).

Each of these two categories is divided to three subcategories: causal relationships, functional relationships and correlative relationship.

A and B will be said to be causally related if A precedes B, B never occurs if A does not precede it and always occurs after A occurs. To the discerning eye, this would seem to be a relationship of correlation ("whenever A happens B happens") and this is true. Causation is subsumed by a the 1.0 correlation relationship category. In other words: it is a private case of the more general case of correlation.

A and B are functionally related if B can be predicted by assuming A but we have no way of establishing the truth value of A. The latter is a postulate or axiom. The time dependent Schrödinger Equation is a postulate (cannot be derived, it is only reasonable). Still, it is the dynamic laws underlying wave mechanics, an integral part of quantum mechanics, the most accurate scientific theory that we have. An unproved, non-derivable equation is related functionally to a host of exceedingly precise statements about the real world (observed experimental results).

A and B are correlated if A explains a considerable part of the existence or the nature of B. It is then clear that A and B are related. Evolution has equipped us with highly developed correlation mechanisms because they are efficient in insuring survival. To see a tiger and to associate the awesome sight with a sound is very useful.

Still, we cannot state with any modicum of certainty that we possess all the conceivable tools for the detection, description, analysis and utilization of relations between entities. Put differently: we cannot say that there are no connections that escape the tight nets that we cast in order to capture them. We cannot, for instance, say with any degree of certainty that there are no hyper-structures which would provide new, surprising insights into the interconnectedness of objects in the real world or in our mind. We cannot even say that the epistemological structures with which we were endowed are final or satisfactory. We do not know enough about knowing.

Consider the cases of Non-Aristotelian logic formalisms, Non-Euclidean geometries, Newtonian Mechanics and non classical physical theories (the relativity theories and, more so, quantum mechanics and its various interpretations). All of them revealed to us connections which we could not have imagined prior to their appearance. All of them created new tools for the capture of interconnectivity and inter-relatedness. All of them suggested one kind or the other of mental hyper-structures in which new links between entities (hitherto considered disparate) could be established.

So far, so good for superstitions. Today's superstition could well become tomorrow's Science given the right theoretical developments. The source of the clash lies elsewhere, in the insistence of superstitions upon a causal relation.

The general structure of a superstition is: A is caused by B. The causation propagates through unknown (one or more) mechanisms. These mechanisms are unidentified (empirically) or unidentifiable (in principle). For instance, al the mechanisms of causal propagation which are somehow connected to divine powers can never, in principle, be understood (because the true nature of divinity is sealed to human understanding).

Thus, superstitions incorporate mechanisms of action which are, either, unknown to Science – or are impossible to know, as far as Science goes. All the "action-at-a-distance" mechanisms are of the latter type (unknowable). Parapsychological mechanisms are more of the first kind (unknown).

The philosophical argument behind superstitions is pretty straightforward and appealing. Perhaps this is the source of their appeal. It goes as follows:

If something can be thought of (=is possible) and is not known (=proven or observed) yet - it is most probably due to the shortcomings of Science and not because it does not exist.

Some of these propositions can be easily attacked. For instance: we can think about contradictions and falsehoods but (apart from a form of mental representation) no one will claim that they exist in reality or that they are possible. These statements, though, apply very well to entities, the existence of which has yet to be disproved (=not known as false, or whose truth value is uncertain) and to improbable (though possible) things. It is in these formal logical niches that superstition thrives.

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Appendix - Interview granted by Sam Vaknin to Adam Anderson

1. Do you believe that superstitions have affected American culture? And if so, how?


A. In its treatment of nature, Western culture is based on realism and rationalism and purports to be devoid of superstitions. Granted, many Westerners - perhaps the majority - are still into esoteric practices, such as Astrology. But the official culture and its bearers - scientists, for instance - disavow such throwbacks to a darker past.


Today, superstitions are less concerned with the physical Universe and more with human affairs. Political falsities - such as anti-Semitism - supplanted magic and alchemy. Fantastic beliefs permeate the fields of economics, sociology, and psychology, for instance. The effects of progressive taxation, the usefulness of social welfare, the role of the media, the objectivity of science, the mechanism of democracy, and the function of psychotherapy - are six examples of such groundless fables.


Indeed, one oft-neglected aspect of superstitions is their pernicious economic cost. Irrational action carries a price tag. It is impossible to optimize one's economic activity by making the right decisions and then acting on them in a society or culture permeated by the occult. Esotericism skews the proper allocation of scarce resources.


2. Are there any superstitions that exist today that you believe could become facts tomorrow, or that you believe have more fact than fiction hidden in them?


A. Superstitions stem from one of these four premises:

As long as our knowledge is imperfect (asymptotic to the truth), everything is possible. As Arthur Clark, the British scientist and renowned author of science fiction, said: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".


Still, regardless of how "magical" it becomes, positive science is increasingly challenged by the esoteric. The emergence of pseudo-science is the sad outcome of the blurring of contemporary distinctions between physics and metaphysics. Modern science borders on speculation and attempts, to its disadvantage, to tackle questions that once were the exclusive preserve of religion or philosophy. The scientific method is ill-built to cope with such quests and is inferior to the tools developed over centuries by philosophers, theologians, and mystics.


Moreover, scientists often confuse language of representation with meaning and knowledge represented. That a discipline of knowledge uses quantitative methods and the symbol system of mathematics does not make it a science. The phrase "social sciences" is an oxymoron - and it misleads the layman into thinking that science is not that different to literature, religion, astrology, numerology, or other esoteric "systems".


The emergence of "relative", New Age, and politically correct philosophies rendered science merely one option among many. Knowledge, people believe, can be gleaned either directly (mysticism and spirituality) or indirectly (scientific practice). Both paths are equivalent and equipotent. Who is to say that science is superior to other "bodies of wisdom"? Self-interested scientific chauvinism is out - indiscriminate "pluralism" is in.


3. I have found one definition of the word "superstition" that states that it is "a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation." What is your opinion about said definition?


A. It describes what motivates people to adopt superstitions - ignorance and fear of the unknown. Superstitions are, indeed, a "false conception of causation" which inevitably leads to "trust in magic". the only part I disagree with is the trust in chance. Superstitions are organizing principles. They serve as alternatives to other worldviews, such as religion or science. Superstitions seek to replace chance with an "explanation" replete with the power to predict future events and establish chains of causes and effects.


4. Many people believe that superstitions were created to simply teach a lesson, like the old superstition that "the girl that takes the last cookie will be an old maid" was made to teach little girls manners. Do you think that all superstitions derive from some lesson trying to be taught that today's society has simply forgotten or cannot connect to anymore?


A. Jose Ortega y Gasset said (in an unrelated exchange) that all ideas stem from pre-rational beliefs. William James concurred by saying that accepting a truth often requires an act of will which goes beyond facts and into the realm of feelings. Superstitions permeate our world. Some superstitions are intended to convey useful lessons, others form a part of the process of socialization, yet others are abused by various elites to control the masses. But most of them are there to comfort us by proffering "instant" causal explanations and by rendering our Universe more meaningful.


5. Do you believe that superstitions change with the changes in culture?

A. The content of superstitions and the metaphors we use change from culture to culture - but not the underlying shock and awe that yielded them in the first place. Man feels dwarfed in a Cosmos beyond his comprehension. He seeks meaning, direction, safety, and guidance. Superstitions purport to provide all these the easy way. To be superstitious one does not to study or to toil. Superstitions are readily accessible and unequivocal. In troubled times, they are an irresistible proposition.

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