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Does superstition reflect rationality? Konrad Talmont-Kaminski In a Mirror, Darkly.

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Presentation on theme: "Does superstition reflect rationality? Konrad Talmont-Kaminski In a Mirror, Darkly."— Presentation transcript:

1 Does superstition reflect rationality? Konrad Talmont-Kaminski In a Mirror, Darkly

2 The very model of irrationality A superstitious person –Begins the day with a ritual –Avoids crossing the path of a weasel –Looks for meaning in dreams –Will not stand on a grave –Treats some days of the month as special –Spits to protect himself against evil spirits Theophrastus Characters (370 - circa 285 B.C.)

3 Whats changed in 2300 years? Richard Wiseman, Hertfordshire (2003) –Knocking on wood74% –Crossing fingers65% –Not walking under ladders50% Gallup, US (2001) – ESP41% – Haunted houses37% – Telepathy31% – Any one of 10 listed beliefs73%

4 More data CBOS, Poland (2006) – Signs of the zodiac30% – Lucky objects26% – Unlucky days24%

5 Ubiquitous superstition Superstitious beliefs are highly resistant to – scientific advances – philosophical argumentation – cultural progress Superstitiousness has not been eliminated by evolution Superstitiousness is still (nearly) universal, both as –tendency to accept superstitious beliefs –actual holding of superstitious beliefs

6 The irrational animal Aristotle – Man is a rational animal Bertrand Russell Unpopular Essays –It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.

7 Two problematic questions Why is superstition so hard to get rid of? Are human beings actually irrational? The questions appear difficult because were viewing superstition in terms of the traditional opposition between rationality and superstition

8 The traditional opposition Superstitions –Paradigm of irrationality Ancient Greek philosophers Enlightenment philosophers –Emblematic of backwardness and ignorance Rationality –Regulative Ideal –Understood in non-physicalist terms –Consisting of universal principles On this view tenacity of superstition facing rational criticism suggests humans profoundly irrational Traditional view of rationality known to be problematic since David Hume

9 A natural phenomenon Naturalising rationality –Placing reason in its evolutionary context (Konrad Lorenz) Moving away from ignorance Pragmatic considerations central –Bounded rationality (Herbert Simon) Bounded epistemic/cognitive abilities Rational methods applicable in limited epistemic contexts Naturalising superstitions –Superstition understood as an evolved trait –Closely related to Dennetts project of understanding religious beliefs as a natural phenomenon

10 Evolutionary explanation Evolution gives a range of mechanisms for explaining the persistence of superstitions –Adaptive value –By-product Lacking adaptive value Linked to an adaptive trait Superstitions do not have to be all explained using the same mechanisms Thesis: (Some) superstitions are the by-product of our limited cognitive capabilities –To explain, necessary to discuss cognitive illusions

11 Perceptual / cognitive illusions Perceptual illusions –Caused by applying general heuristics in inappropriate contexts –Evidence for how our perceptual processes work –A by-product of perceptual heuristics Cognitive illusions –Caused by applying general heuristics in inappropriate contexts –Evidence for how our cognitive processes work –A by-product of cognitive heuristics –Possible explanation for (some) superstitions Good excuse to present some interesting examples

12 Perceptual illusions - examples page.html


14 Cognitive illusions - examples Think of a city in northern Europe that lies directly north of the tip of the Italian boot. London has a population of (very roughly) 10 million people. Imagine theres a disease which 10 thousand Londoners have. Youve just had the test for it and it came back positive. What is the percentage chance youre actually sick if the test has a 5 % false positive chance?

15 What do illusions tell us? Kahnemann/Tversky –Cognitive illusions show humans irrational –View leads to exactly the same problems as with superstitious beliefs –Assumes deductive validity is the standard for rationality Gigerenzer –Cognitive illusions show how humans reason –Understands rationality in pragmatic/ecological terms –Investigates the effectiveness of cognitive heuristics in the contexts in which they are usually applied

16 Example of heuristic use Krakow / Warsaw Torun / Zielona Gora Lublin / Lodz Warsaw / Kolobrzeg Zielona Gora / Krakow Torun / Kolobrzeg Warsaw Torun Lodz Warsaw Krakow Torun Random guessing should give 3 correct answers on average Recognition heuristic used: If Ive heard of it, it is probably bigger A very effective heuristic given the structure of the data (ecological rationality) Studied by Gigerenzer Counterintuitive effect – less knowledge leads to better results

17 Research project Could (some) superstitions be due to cognitive illusions? –Explains the persistence of superstition Superstition is caused by the misapplication of generally effective heuristics –Explains the ubiquity of superstition Same basic set of heuristics used by all people Need to identify the relationship between individual superstitions and individual cognitive illusions One of the research aims for the fellowship at the Konrad Lorenz Institute

18 Conclusions Superstition –May turn out to be a by-product of rational thinking –Can not be eliminated –Can be partially counteracted by making people aware of The heuristics they use The limitations of these heuristics Alternative heuristics The limitations of those heuristics –The sciences do some of this

19 Thank you

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