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Superstition as Science

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Presentation on theme: "Superstition as Science"— Presentation transcript:

1 Superstition as Science
Konrad Talmont-Kaminski UMCS & KLI

2 First-footing It is lucky when a tall man walks into a house first in the New Year Is this a scientific hypothesis? Why not? Is it something about the hypothesis? Is it something about our attitudes? Is it something about how it was reached?

3 Outline Elements of superstitions Superstition, magic & religion
3 different views of superstition Superstition as science What is the difference? Empirical limits Conclusions

4 Elements of superstitions
Superstitious beliefs Superstitious practices The link between them

5 Elements of a superstition
Superstitious belief ‘Action’ Crossing fingers Can be just an event – Friday 13th ‘Effect’ Potentially desirable or undesirable event Connection Causation/conjuration or prediction/divination Explanation Luck No natural explanation Supernatural explanation

6 Elements of a superstition
Superstitious practice Taking or avoiding the ‘action’ Avoiding black cats Success uncertain Function Manifest To avoid or bring about the ‘effect’ Latent Can be very different First-footing again Predicting or causing?

7 Elements of a superstition
The link between beliefs and practices Generally problematic Focussing on practices Skinner’s behaviourism Beliefs secondary Focussing on beliefs Superstition satisfying internal needs Practices secondary

8 Superstition, magic & religion
Magic & superstition Religion & superstition

9 Superstition, magic & religion
E. Durkheim 1912 Sacred vs. profane Religion Social function Magic Individual function D. S. Wilson 2002 Evolutionary explanation of religion Social function as group-selection

10 Superstition, magic & religion
Magic & superstition Magic Traditional societies Superstition Modern society Relation? Different phenomena Same phenomenon / different contexts Education and superstition (Jahoda 1969) Jumper example

11 Superstition, magic & religion
Religion & superstition Deisidaimonia Misplaced fear of daimons Theophrastus, circa 300 BC Superstition is false religion Worship of demons Aquinas, circa 1250 AD Atheist generalisation All religion is false Therefore, superstition is all religion Can differentiate religion & superstition Some religious practices superstitious Intercessory prayer

12 3 views of superstition Superstition as fantasy
Superstition as rhetoric Superstition as science

13 3 views of superstition Superstition as fantasy
Attempted retreat from threatening/ uncontrollable reality Anxiety-reduction (Malinowski 1925) Retaining feeling of control (Case et all 2004) “The man under the sway of impotent fury or dominated by thwarted hate spontaneously clenches his fists and carries out imaginary thrusts at his enemy, muttering imprecations, casting words of hatred and anger against him.” – Malinowski “Magic, Science, and Religion”

14 3 views of superstition Superstition as rhetoric
Attempted communication Use of language to induce motion in things (Burke 1969) Costly signalling (Tambiah 1990) Accepting authority (Palmer 1989) “By communicating acceptance of a supernatural claim one is communicating a willingness to accept the speaker’s influence unskeptically.” - Palmer “The ritual taboos of fishermen”

15 3 views of superstition Superstition as science
Attempt to understand/control the world Primitive science (Frazer 1890) Adventitious reinforcement (Skinner 1947) Biased cognitive heuristics (Rozin & Nemeroff 1980) “Magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.” - Frazer, Golden Bough

16 Superstition as science?
Question of focus Primitive science Adventitious reinforcement Biased cognitive heuristics

17 Superstition as science?
Question of focus Superstitious beliefs vs. scientific beliefs Superstitious methods vs. scientific methods Both options incomplete Would ‘superstitious’ beliefs be scientific if arrived at scientifically? Could they be arrived at scientifically? Is there such a thing as ‘magical thinking’? Or is it that thinking sometimes leads to magical beliefs?

18 Superstition as science?
Primitive science Tylor 1871, Frazer 1890, Levy-Bruhl 1910 Superstition identified with primitive societies/minds Science identified with modern societies/minds Progress seen as directed ‘evolution’ Enlightenment / Intellectualist position Rationality expels superstition

19 Superstition as science?
Adventitious reinforcement B.F. Skinner 1947, S. Vyse 1997 Superstition in a pigeon Skinner box Operant conditioning Independent reinforcement schedule ‘Superstitious behaviour’ “Operant conditioning is not just for rats and pigeons” - Vyse

20 Superstition as science?
Adventitious reinforcement Matrix task 4 x 4 matrix Move dot from top left to bottom right Task: Find out when points are gained Points awarded randomly Numerous theories put forward Similar situations Malfunctioning light switch Conditioning as basis for understanding science?

21 Superstition as science?
Biased cognitive heuristics Domain-specific Generally effective Systematically biased Heuristics and biases (Kahneman & Tversky 1974) Bounded rationality (H. Simon 1972) Scientific methods as heuristics (W. Wimsatt 2007) Contagion heuristic Rozin & Nemeroff 1980

22 What is the difference? Truth & empirical adequacy
Natural vs. supernatural Sacred vs. profane

23 What is the difference? Truth & empirical adequacy
Superstitions as false causal beliefs Often used definition Many false causal beliefs, some scientific Superstitions not just false but (known to be) empirically inadequate Scientific beliefs rejected due to empirical inadequacy Can not equate Newton’s physics with his astrology Is ‘onto something’ But superstitious beliefs ‘look different’

24 What is the difference? Natural vs. supernatural
Superstitions as supernatural claims Problems Vague concept Circularity? Distinction much later than category Correlation between superstitious and pseudoscientific beliefs Succubi become aliens Post hoc explanations Is ‘onto something’

25 What is the difference? Sacred vs. profane Durkheim
Explaining a cognitive category in terms of a social phenomenon? Is ‘onto something’ But, again, superstitions ‘look different’

26 Empirical limits van Fraassen Observability & superstitions
Observability & functions Agnosticism about explanations

27 Empirical limits B. van Fraassen The Scientific Image 1980
Limits of observability Actual empirical limitations Ability to discern small objects Limits change over time Agnosticism about unobservable claims Challenging scientific attitudes Observable/detectable distinction Distinction generally rejected Is anything unobservable? Significance of social attitudes

28 Empirical limits Observability & superstitions
How observable are superstitious claims? Connections between ‘actions’ and ‘events’ Observable as correlations Explanations for the connections The claims hard to observe Attitudes object to observation Render superstitious explanations effectively unobservable ‘Superempirical’ rather than supernatural

29 Empirical limits Observability and functions
Manifest and latent function Manifest function requires observability Religious connections unobservable Latent (social) function more important In superstitions only explanations unobservable Scientists aim to make explanations observable A vital difference

30 Empirical limits Agnosticism about explanations
Scientific explanations? Scientists take realist view of explanations Pursue evidence for their truth Agnosticism not justified Superstitious explanations Explanations in practically untestable terms Testing of explanations discouraged Agnosticism is not enough Agnosticism about explanations is not scientific

31 Conclusions Similarities Differences Methods: Use of heuristics
Beliefs: Often hard to test explanations put forward Differences Methods: Development of new heuristics Beliefs: A realist attitude to explanations leading to pursuit of testing

Thank you

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