Wrestling with superstition

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.

 
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Posted in Science, Superstition, Unapologetics. 24 Comments »

24 Responses to “Wrestling with superstition”

  1. Keri Says:

    I’m loving this “series”… Thanks for answering so eloquently and logically.

  2. Inquisitive Raven Says:

    What makes dark matter not a superstition is that having posited its, scientists don’t just sit back and go “That must be it.” They go, “Assume this is true, what follows?” Having worked through the logical consequences, they then go and look for evidence. Sometimes, they even find it. While we’re at it, there was a connection between the hypothesized cause and the observed effect: gravity. They were looking for something that had gravitational effects, but didn’t otherwise interact with normal matter.

  3. Jayman Says:

    Deacon Duncan, it would be more fruitful to point out errors in logic or reasoning and be done with it. No need to mess around with a term that is often merely used by group A to put down group B for having different beliefs.

    Anyone can continually ask how A caused B and B caused C and so on and eventually stump the person they are questioning. I’m sure you’re well aware of this when it comes to evolution and gaps in the fossil record (we simply don’t know the full tree of life). Whether we are dealing with natural or supernatural causes there will always be gaps where we are uncertain how A caused B. The fact that this happens is not sufficient to disregard A, whether A is natural or supernatural.

    The real issue is how we go about discovering previously unknown causes. I’ll give my own thought processes regarding an event in my life. I don’t expect the skeptics here to believe me but maybe some can actually appreciate that my thought processes are not so different from theirs. I won’t go into more detail than necessary as it was a personal experience. Save the stock responses about hallucinations and mental illness as I’m sure as anyone can be that that is not the explanation.

    One night I prayed to God and perceived receiving a message from God containing information about future events. I did not immediately conclude that God must have spoken to me. I realized that if God really did speak to me the events in the message would have to come true. They did come true. The same basic prayer/message scenario played out multiple times, with the message always confirmed later. The most parsimonious explanation seems to be that God sent me those messages.

    Yesterday you mentioned the FISH acronym: fantasy, intuition, superstition, and hearsay. Supposedly this could explain all miracle stories. I’m sure it wasn’t fantasy. It wasn’t intuition because the contents of the message were beyond human abilities in predicting the future. It wasn’t superstition because I followed all the steps you ascribe to science. Obviously it wasn’t hearsay since I experienced it.

    Moving away from my personal experiences, it’s possible to posit theories involving the supernatural/paranormal and to test them. It’s just that it’s much more complicated than testing, say, gravity, since you would have to create theories about numerous personal beings who won’t follow strict rules (just as humans behavior generally doesn’t follow strict rules).

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    Jayman, you say, “Save the stock responses..”

    How about, “You’re a fuckin’ liar!”, is THAT a stock response to your lies?

  5. Jayman Says:

    Definitely a stock response. Rational argument is thrown out the door (e.g., proving I’m a liar), to be replaced with mere assertion and insult.

  6. pboyfloyd Says:

    Okay, Jayman, give us an instance of where your communication with God was necessary, if you like.

    If you’re thinking of typing out a, ‘you wouldn’t believe me’ type response, don’t bother and let’s just ‘say’ you did.

  7. Jayman Says:

    Whether you believe the events I described actually happened or not, I hope you can at least see that a supernatural explanation can be non-superstitious.

  8. pboyfloyd Says:

    Well, no, Jayman.

    Because you couch your experiences in terms of God who necessarilly ‘stands over us’!(or at least you in these vague ‘cases’ that you allude to.)

    Superstition literally means ‘a standing over’, doesn’t it?

  9. Jayman Says:

    pboyfloyd, you’re referring to the etymology of the word, not the meaning of the word. Regardless DD has defined superstition in his post and that’s what I’m referring to.

  10. Arthur Says:

    I mean this in the most non-combative possible way…

    Your phrasing (“One night I prayed to God…”) appears to indicate a pre-existing belief. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that you might be leaping to an unwarranted conclusion about the source of the message? Or that the source—even if it identifies itself explicitly to you—might be being less than perfectly honest about its identity? Is it possible that, if you’d been raised in a different culture, you might attribute the messages to a different source? Is it possible that the messages come from multiple sources (is this what you mean when you mention a theory having to accommodate “numerous personal beings”)?

    If you feel that the source’s identity has been made explicit, then: have your beliefs changed at all, or were your pre-existing beliefs more or less confirmed? In particular, do the messages convey any specific doctrinal or denominational information (I assume out of hand that at least two Abrahamic options were unambiguously eliminated)? It’s really not my intent to be a smart-ass—the word “God” means different things to different people. But if the source of these messages identified itself to you explicitly, without regard to your own affiliation—and assuming for the moment that it’s being honest with you—then that seems to me like a lot of useful information, if only for you.

    As genuinely curious as I am about your answers, I have to confess that I don’t think they matter much all by themselves. You neither gain nor lose plausibility if, instead of “I just know it was God,” you say “God identified Himself to me clearly, and He is Coptic Orthodox,” or something. Now, if a whole bunch of people started reporting the same detailed messages (and if we could establish that it wasn’t a cabal, which I’m sure is more easily said than done), then we might have a research opportunity. The more people, and the more details, the better (and lots of bonus funding for the successful predicting of future events).

    Part of the problem is that there’s a communal element to the basic scientific principles of reasoning—principles for which you and I appear to share an appreciation—which a definitively personal sort of experience cannot accommodate. Never mind the repeatability of experiments; the idea of a Real World Out There, to which we all have access, is axiomatic to science. Don’t get me wrong—your experience may be entirely genuine. The trouble is that it’s still hearsay to everyone who isn’t you (I can well imagine having such a powerfully persuasive experience, but I can’t imagine sincerely persuading anyone else by telling them about it). The scientific impulse, then, is to connect the phenomenon to the wider world, and this, for better or for worse, usually leads straight to neurology, or psychology, or something equally unsatisfying to the religiously minded.

    Speaking of which, the more fundamental problem is this: the idea that a collection of ancient writings, heavily edited by many different people over a long period of time, should constitute the revealed word of the Creator—notwithstanding that its many devotees have never, in its existence, stopped disagreeing with each other over the things it says—offends all the other principles of reasoning that you and I appear to share. I read Francis Collin’s whole href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Language_of_God:_A_Scientist_Presents_Evidence_for_Belief”>book waiting for him to connect those dots. Surely, I thought, someone so wedded to science, who came to religion late-ish in life (and evangelical Christianity, no less), and whose book is oh-by-the-way subtitled “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”—surely he would have something to say on the subject of miracles, or intercessory prayer, or the nature of the Trinity, or anything at all that makes him not a deist. But I came away with the distinct impression that science and the Gospels occupy two carefully isolated compartments in his brain, and I get the feeling that this is not an unusual arrangement.

    Sorry, this turned into a bit of a tangent. It’s past my bedtime.

  11. Arthur Says:

    My damn link didn’t work. It’s purple, though. More experiments!

  12. pboyfloyd Says:

    Come on, Jayman, you say, “One night I prayed to God and perceived receiving a message from God containing information about future events.”

    Now let’s not get all, ‘whereas’s and ‘party of the first part’ about this.

    You say that God answered your prayer with a foretelling of the future, yes?

    You claim that you yourself were doubtful, yes?

    Now you’re ‘down to’ bickering over Duncan’s and my interpretation of the word ‘superstition’?

    If you’re going to ‘crack that door’, I don’t suppose that you are willing to let us imagine that you asked for the winning lottery numbers, are you?

    Are you not willing to give us the bare facts then? I mean you are ‘sounding’ like a hostile witness here.

  13. pboyfloyd Says:

    Okay Arthur.. try this.

    Click on ‘View’ up there^^^, then click on Source.

    Then ‘search’ for this:- We already know how this will end!

    Copy/paste this, and replace the link with YOUR link and YOUR ‘words’.

    (Shit, this better work)

  14. Arthur Says:

    Sorry about this… I was drinking a lot of Mountain Dew and talking to myself.

  15. Arthur Says:

    Oh, that’s so very cool.

  16. Arthur Says:

    Oh, and Francis Collin’s book is here.

  17. Jayman Says:

    Arthur, the source provided an explicit identification but one can never be absolutely sure the identification was honest. My belief in a loving and powerful God was confirmed. There was no information that would favor one Christian denomination over another. I fully realize the personal nature of the experience and understand why others, especially people who don’t know me, would be skeptical.

    I have not read Collins’ book so I can’t comment directly. I will merely mention that science uncovers a small slice of reality. It simply won’t provide much insight into the Trinity or the Gospels. If you want to study the Gospels you would use other tools (e.g., textual criticism, source criticism, historical criticism). The similarity between science and these other disciplines is that they want to explain all the existing data with the most parsimonious theory. On the plus side, religious texts are accessible to all if you want to put in the work.

  18. Jayman Says:

    pboyfloyd, if you can’t raise your level of discourse I’m probably going to stop responding to you.

    Now let’s not get all, ‘whereas’s and ‘party of the first part’ about this.

    I have no idea what this means.

    You say that God answered your prayer with a foretelling of the future, yes?

    He gave me messages about the future. It was not a question and answer session if that’s what you have in mind.

    You claim that you yourself were doubtful, yes?

    Initially I was doubtful but not later.

    Now you’re ‘down to’ bickering over Duncan’s and my interpretation of the word ’superstition’?

    I used DD’s definition in my first comment to this post so there was no bickering there. I merely pointed out that you don’t know the difference between the etymology and the meaning of the word. It appeared that you brought up the etymology to bicker.

    If you’re going to ‘crack that door’, I don’t suppose that you are willing to let us imagine that you asked for the winning lottery numbers, are you?

    You can imagine whatever you want. He told me what he wanted to tell me not what I wanted to hear.

    Are you not willing to give us the bare facts then? I mean you are ’sounding’ like a hostile witness here.

    I already gave the bare facts. I’m not going to waste my time elaborating with someone who thinks I’m a “fucking liar” (I’m being hostile?).

  19. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman said:

    “If you want to study the Gospels you would use other tools (e.g., textual criticism, source criticism, historical criticism). ”

    Why can’t I use a science, such as archaeology, or computers to analyze textual information in a statistical fashion?

    Archaeology has been quite effective lately in providing objective evidence that much of the history in the Bible is incorrect. Would you ignore these results if they conflict with your beliefs? Move the goalposts, as has often been claimed in these discussions?

    I agree that science uncovers a small slice of reality. Are you implying that religious beliefs also reveals the attributes of the natural world? Or would you agree that science has given us much better knowledge about reality than the Bible, for example?

    Jayman, you also said:
    “My belief in a loving and powerful God was confirmed”

    This seems to fly in the face of the Problem of Evil. Forgive me if I note that better philosophers than all of us have grappled with this dilemma and failed miserably.

  20. pboyfloyd Says:

    Jayman, you said, “I hope you can at least see that a supernatural explanation can be non-superstitious.”

    But believing that supernatural events can take place is being superstitious.

    I think that we can all see that your story about God foretelling future events is vague and doesn’t even have to be true to make your point that alleged supernatural events and superstitions are different.

    Since it is, I thought, obvious that skeptics would conclude that you are not telling the truth, I was just asking you if calling you a liar was a ‘stock response’.

    Gee, Jayman, it turns out that you demand respect for the vaguest of stories which might have just been a ‘tool’ to try to differentiate superstitious from supernatural.

    How much more respect you yourself give to your Holy Scriptures I can only imagine.

    But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Do you have so much respect for your Scriptures that you could just invent a ‘future foretelling’ story to demonstrate that supernatural is not the same as superstitious.

    I was interested to see if you would elaborate on the ‘foretelling’ story or if you’d turn anything I said back to the idea that you had made your point and I was becoming less worth talking to.

    What a tangled web we weave…

  21. Jayman Says:

    R. C. Moore:

    Why can’t I use a science, such as archaeology, or computers to analyze textual information in a statistical fashion?

    I fully support archaeology and the statistical analysis of texts. It’s just that they aren’t going to answer many of the questions people have about the Bible.

    Archaeology has been quite effective lately in providing objective evidence that much of the history in the Bible is incorrect. Would you ignore these results if they conflict with your beliefs? Move the goalposts, as has often been claimed in these discussions?

    I don’t ignore archaeological results that conflict with the Bible. I am not of the opinion that the Bible is accurate in all matters of history.

    Are you implying that religious beliefs also reveals the attributes of the natural world? Or would you agree that science has given us much better knowledge about reality than the Bible, for example?

    I don’t think the Bible’s intent is to give scientific facts about the world. Science is our best tool for finding scientific facts. The tool you use to find knowledge depends on the kind of knowledge you are after.

    This seems to fly in the face of the Problem of Evil. Forgive me if I note that better philosophers than all of us have grappled with this dilemma and failed miserably.

    I’m aware of the tension. I make no claim to be able to explain all life’s mysteries.

  22. Jayman Says:

    pboyfloyd:

    But believing that supernatural events can take place is being superstitious.

    Not according to the definition DD was using, which is the only definition I was interested in.

    I think that we can all see that your story about God foretelling future events is vague and doesn’t even have to be true to make your point that alleged supernatural events and superstitions are different.

    You do realize you could say the same thing about any such story, don’t you? If you told a story about a science experiment to show that natural explanations are not always superstitious I could object that your story was not detailed enough and doesn’t need to be true for you to prove your point.

    But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Do you have so much respect for your Scriptures that you could just invent a ‘future foretelling’ story to demonstrate that supernatural is not the same as superstitious.

    Why would I invent such a story when I could have just picked a story from the Scriptures that would demonstrate the same point? Any of the numerous prophecies from the Bible could be used in a similar fashion.

    I was interested to see if you would elaborate on the ‘foretelling’ story or if you’d turn anything I said back to the idea that you had made your point and I was becoming less worth talking to.

    I elaborated some for Arthur, but I see no point rewarding the rude or wasting time typing things out when you would simply dismiss anything I wrote as a lie. If you were truly interested in more details you shot yourself in the foot.

  23. pboyfloyd Says:

    LMAO, Jayman!

    So, I take it that you’ve never actually heard of a “context”?

    That’s TWICE you’ve ‘analysed’ my comments and chided me for not !00% agreeing with Duncan’s definition of ‘superstition’.

    I don’t care if Duncan defines ‘superstition’ as ‘an empty jam jar’, I’m saying that it means any mumbo-jumbo having to do with ‘magical beings from the Realm of B’lief’ STANDING OVER US!

    Now I know this, you know this and I know that you know this, so come on Jayman, quit dancing around and tell us what God ‘imparted’ to ‘special you’.(AHAHAHAhahaha!)

    WTF was SO freekin’ important that God HIMSELF had to give you a ‘head’s up’?

    I racked my brains trying to think of something, anything that couldn’t be sloughed off as a typical ‘Aha!’ moment, a hunch, intuition, a feeling.

    I was thinking, “This is going to be GREAT! Maybe we’ll get to hear what God sounds like, you know, does HE really speak like James Mason as Eddy Izzard imagines?”

    And you know, maybe I’m just stumped, maybe you could’ve given us a plausible reason why GOD would (what’s the word?) BOTHER(?) to tell you about future events.

    The universe would be just as pointless if it were choked full of magical beings as if we were all alone, don’t you think, really?

  24. » Superstition and science Evangelical Realism Says:

    [...] enough, Jayman continues to object to my use of the term “superstition.” Deacon Duncan, it would be more fruitful to point [...]