Wrestling with superstitionFebruary 12, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Happy Darwin Day, everybody! Continuing with Jayman’s comments on the “healing” of Bernadette McKenzie, we come to his second point.
(2) The term “superstition” does not help move the discussion forward because it is subjective and pejorative. You believe Bernadette’s belief in a miraculous cure is an example of superstition because she explains her cure by ascribing it to a purported cause that cannot be connected to the cure, even in theory. But a theoretical connection between God and the cure can be made. For example, she could posit that God disconnected some tissue attachments that had been stretching her spinal cord. Moreover, even scientists will ascribe a purported cause to an event when they can’t show an actual connection between the two. One need only think of dark matter. The fact is that if one waited for proof that X existed before considering evidence pointing to X’s existence one could never acquire any knowledge. It is a double standard on your part to call Bernadette superstitious while not holding others, including yourself, to the same standard.
I am not using the term “superstition” subjectively, and have taken care to specify the exact, objective criteria by which I declare that this or that proposed explanation can be shown to be merely superstitious. As for the term itself being pejorative, I’ve tried to avoid that, but to a certain degree it’s inescapable. Experience has shown that appealing to magical causes is unhelpful, contributes nothing to our actual understanding, and never proves correct once the actual causes are known. If someone feels embarrassed when they’re caught making superstitious appeals, it’s not because I’m insulting them, it’s because reality has made it too obvious that superstition is silly.
One of the chief differences between science and superstition, besides verifiability, is that a scientific explanation contributes useful knowledge, and superstition does not. Jayman claims that you can make a theoretical connection between God and Bernadette’s cure by proposing that God disconnected the tissues that had been stretching her spinal cord. Yes, but how? What technique would He have used? Surgeons would like to know that, so they can apply the same treatment to other sufferers. But we don’t know how, and in fact even if the tissue attachments were loosened, we wouldn’t know that God did it, because there’s no verifiable or even describable connection between the spiritual Being and the physical changes. Jayman is, once again, merely ascribing a physical phenomenon to a magical cause. He’s being a bit more detailed (and speculative) about what the physical nature of the cure itself might be, but that just shuffles the gap around without making it any smaller. There’s still no verifiable or describable connection to any particular deity.
Jayman brings up a good point, though, and one that’s worth exploring: how is it that science can discover previously unknown causes, if it’s superstitious to attribute things to an unknown causes The answer is twofold. First, science does propose “unknown” causes, but only as possible and preliminary questions to be asked—not as final answers. Second, science does not regard the mere attribution as sufficient to explain the phenomenon. A scientific explanation has to do two things: it has to specify the cause in sufficient detail that we can work out what real-world consequences would result from that cause in operation, and then we have to be able to look at the real world and find those consequences, above and beyond finding the original phenomenon we’re trying to explain.
Dark matter is unfortunately a poor example, because it’s still in the preliminary hypothesis stage. Scientists have calculated the amount of detectable matter, and it’s insufficient to account for the organization and movement of all the celestial bodies that can be observed. One possibility is that there is more matter out there, but we don’t know what it is. It’s “dark” in the sense that we can’t observe it and therefore don’t know much about it. This makes dark matter a question, not an answer, and that’s why modern researchers are so interested in it.
Despite that caveat, the connection between dark matter and the rest of the universe is both describable and verifiable: gravitational attraction. Matter has mass, and mass has gravity, and gravity attracts one mass to another. In the case of dark matter, the connection between the hypothetical cause and the observed effect is the whole reason for inferring the existence of the dark matter. But dark matter would necessarily have other consequences as well, which means we ought to be able to find other evidence of dark matter besides the phenomenon we are trying to explain. And that’s what researchers are looking for now.
A better example of science vs. superstition would be evolution. The scientific explanation for variation among animals and species is that it is the consequence of natural variation in DNA-based genetic information and developmental processes, as filtered by the differential reproductive success of individual organisms with different characteristics (or more simply, variation plus natural selection). At every step of the explanation, the mechanisms are specified in sufficient detail that we can work out what the real-world consequences would be: common genetic flaws traceable back to a common ancestor, taxonomies that naturally resolve themselves into nested hierarchies, adaptation of homologous structures, and so on.
Contrast this with Intelligent Design “theory,” which merely attributes the differences to an indescribable design process with no clear or verifiable connection either to the organisms themselves, or to the mechanisms by which they are produced. Evolutionary theory produces useful knowledge by explaining the processes of variation and adaptation in ways we can exploit to combat disease, or produce better agricultural products, or even predict/prevent birth defects. ID offers us none of that; it’s purely a superstitious attribution to an unknown Designer who magically poofs creatures into existence with characteristics that, coincidentally, happen to be exactly the characteristics that would result from evolutionary processes in action.
So my approach is not a double standard. Quite the contrary, I want to hold all the arguments to the same standard. I want to insist that ID not be accepted as a valid scientific answer until it can spell out all the specific mechanisms in as much specific detail and with as many specific, predictable consequences, as evolutionary theory does. And, fair’s fair, I’ll even call it superstition when and if skeptics and atheists appeal to some invisible, indetectable, magical cause, in the absence of any verifiable connection to the effect they’re trying to explain.
Meanwhile, it is still superstitious (and silly) to claim to have explained something just because we’ve attributed it to some indetectable magical cause with no verifiable or describable connection to the thing we’re trying to explain. This should be pejorative, and we should be embarrassed to resort to such naive rationalizations, because they’re neither knowledge nor truth.