Superstition and science

Understandably enough, Jayman continues to object to my use of the term “superstition.”

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.

I quite understand, and am more than a little sympathetic. I am not using the term “superstition” out of a lazy desire to merely put anybody down. Rather, I am compelled to use the term precisely because it does refer to a practice that constitutes erroneous reasoning. I need to be able to say that it is fallacious “to claim to have found the cause of X when all you have really done is to attribute X to Y, via some kind of magical version of cause and effect, without showing any demonstrable or even describable connection between X and Y.” And I need to be able to express that idea—everything between the quote marks—concisely. The term “superstition” simply seems the most appropriate choice. If someone would care to suggest an alternative term that would express this idea more clearly, I’d use that. But I don’t know of any right off hand.

Jayman continues:

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.

He’s referring to our earlier discussion, in which I pointed out that superstition fails to tell us anything about how, say, God would have cured Bernadette’s tethered spinal cord. Jayman’s reply is that we can guess that, say, He might have done it by disconnecting the tissue attachments that were pulling on the spinal cord. But notice, he’s still not describing what God actually did. Yes, disconnecting the attachments would indeed have the natural effect of relieving her symptoms. But what does that have to do with God? What is it that God would have actually done, to produce the disconnection?

The part that’s superstitious is the part that asserts a connection between the effects we observe (the relief of Bernadette’s symptoms) and whatever magic God is supposed to have used to produce those effects. This isn’t a question of endlessly moving the goalposts, as in Michael Behe’s famous demand that evolutionists provide every single individual organism involved in the evolution of the flagellum. This isn’t a case where there’s an ever-increasing body of verifiable, empirical evidence that’s being countered with an ever growing demand for still higher standards. This is a case where there is no evidence connecting God to the effects that are being attributed to Him, and no meaningful, verifiable specification of what that connection would consist of even if it did exist.

In the case of Michael Behe, for instance, you can describe how evolution could produce the flagellum by co-opting the structures of an early version of a Type-III Secretory System, and in fact a lot of work has been done in the decades since Darwin’s Black Box was first published that show how the ordinary, natural operation of evolutionary mechanisms would indeed produce structures that appear to be irreducibly complex, and that also show a number of real-world examples of species with simpler precursors to structures and systems that Behe describes as irreducible. That’s why Behe has to keep moving the goalposts. If he doesn’t, the rising tide of evidence will swamp them.

Conversely, in the case of Bernadette’s healing, the only thing that’s moving is Jayman’s specification of precisely where the miracle would allegedly have taken place. Were the tissue attachments disconnected? (That is, after all, what the surgeons were trying to do via the surgeries.) Or were her symptoms just mysteriously relieved, without actually changing the underlying condition? We don’t know at this point, but regardless of where the miracle allegedly happened, there’s nothing we can say, even theoretically, about how God would have been involved in producing the effects we can observe. It is God’s black box, not Darwin’s, and it’s a consistent blind spot. Whenever you try to describe exactly how God could or would be connected, you lose the ability to describe what this connection would be, beyond a simple, magical poof.

Now, granted, science has a few blind spots of its own. We don’t know exactly what causes gravity, for example. We can observe it. We can measure it. We can predict how it will operate in various circumstances. But we don’t know what really causes it, except that Einstein’s work seems to show some sort of connection with the curvature of spacetime.

The difference between science and superstition, however, is that when we don’t know what causes gravity, we don’t say, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster causes gravity.” That would be superstitious, you see—attributing an observed effect to some magical cause without being able to demonstrate or describe the connection between the two. (But isn’t it easier and just as accurate to say simply, “That would be superstitious”?)

So no, it’s not moving the goal posts to point out that superstitious explanations always fail to demonstrate any actual connection between the cause they propose and the effect they’re trying to explain. Nor is it a Beggar’s Argument, where you keep asking for more until the other person can no longer meet your demands. The same gap, between God and the “miraculous” effect, is always there and always in the same place. You can make the “miracle” jump around by asserting different consequences of the miracle, but the gap between God and the first observable consequence is always there. And the same goes for any other superstitious attribution (lucky rabbits feet, black cats, spilled salt, etc).

And yes, I do understand that it’s rather insulting to hear the term “superstitious” applied to one’s conclusions. It’s insulting, because we know it’s a logical fallacy to do what superstition does. If the shoe fits, however, then the shoe fits. We can either stop attributing things to God unless and until we can actually demonstrate the connection we claim exists between the two, or we can admit that our attributions are indeed superstitious. I’m not using the term arbitrarily; I’m applying it specifically to cases where the situation matches the definition precisely. And as long as people keep on attributing things to God superstitiously, I’m going to keep on calling it what it is.

Nor do I believe that we ought to substitute some more palatable term, some euphemism that implies it’s perfectly ok to indulge yourself in this kind of illogical and self-deceptive reasoning. I once read that the term “moron” was intended as a kinder, gentler alternative to the term “idiot,” but quickly acquired its own negative connotations because stupid really is stupid. It’s the same way with superstition: the problem is not that the term is insulting, the problem is that the practice is worthless and misleading.

Superstitious is what superstitious does. I say we should all call it superstition, and abstain from practicing it. Agreed?

 
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Posted in Unapologetics. 21 Comments »

21 Responses to “Superstition and science”

  1. Chigliakus Says:

    …as in Michael Behe’s famous demand that evolutionists provide every single individual organism involved in the evolution of the flagellum.

    organelle?

  2. R. C. Moore Says:

    Jayman asks the logic and reason be used, rather that using the perjorative label “superstitious”, but when someone invokes supernatural causes, no logic or reason is possible! For any logical argument to succeed, a basis, or first principle needs to be agreed upon. That is impossible in the case of the supernatural, because the basis is always subjective.

    The supernatural is a conclusion to be reached after all natural causes have been exhausted. Science has not been in this position for a very long time. The supernatural is not a starting point, a given by which all natural causes must measure themselves.

  3. Airor Says:

    At least the Flying Spaghetti Monster “touches us with his noodley appendage” to get things done. God as far as I can tell is just a disembodied mind. The only way God can act is through intent, the same way our minds cause our bodies to move. Even though modern educated people understand that the mind is an abstract projection of a working healthy brain, theists must reject the idea of physical minds to even believe in God. For them, we ‘magically’ cause our bodies to move, and God’s “body” is the entire universe which he can magically manipulate by will alone. They don’t see the magical gap because in their eyes that is how they themselves act, and therefore it is completely normal.

  4. cl Says:

    R. C. Moore,

    In this case I agree strongly with you:

    For any logical argument to succeed, a basis, or first principle needs to be agreed upon. That is impossible in the case of the supernatural, because the basis is always subjective.

    Although I’m not an atheist, I am fairly convinced that it is impossible for a genuinely successful ontological argument to exist. The best any believer or atheist can do is present a case attempting to justify why they believe what they believe.

    An astute mind can work wonders and any logical argument can be responded to. Is there a logical equivalent of Pi? An argument that cannot be further distilled?

  5. Jayman Says:

    DD, it would be nice to abstain from practicing superstition but it appears impossible to do so under your definition unless we are willing to give up any claim to having knowledge. The alleged differences between science and superstition do not stand up to scrutiny. Here are some simple chains of cause and effect for the examples we have been discussing:

    Answered prayer:
    1) Human prays to God for cure
    2) God hears prayer and decides to cure human
    3) ?
    4) Human is cured

    Apparition:
    1) ?
    2) Virgin Mary enters physical universe
    3) Light from Virgin Mary enters observer’s eyes
    4) Observer perceives Virgin Mary

    Evolution:
    1) ?
    2) Organism A
    3) ?
    4) Organism B

    Gravity:
    1) Curvature of space-time
    2) ?
    3) Gravity

    Your criteria for superstition, if valid, should separate the first two examples from the last two examples. But this does not happen. None of the examples have a fully demonstrable or describable connection between cause and effect. In other words, we always have a gap (and it’s not always in the same place). None of the examples are without some evidence linking cause and effect.

    Our disagreement appears to not be over superstition, but over what constitutes sufficient evidence to believe a proposition.

    Airor, theists often speak of God’s mind, arm, or finger. You shouldn’t take anthropomorphisms too literally.

  6. cl Says:

    Jayman / DD,

    I would also raise the following problem: DD accuses one of superstition for attributing an unknown to God, yet DD attributes an unknown to coincidence under the same evidentiary misgivings. How is that any different?

  7. Chigliakus Says:

    That’s just laughable.

    Answered prayer:
    1) Human prays to God for cure
    2) God hears prayer and decides to cure human [not supported by evidence]
    3) [superstition attribution happens here as explained by DD above]
    4) Human is cured [problematic as well as explained by DD's deconstruction of the Bernadette case presented by you]

    Evolution:
    1) [this appears to be implied abiogenesis, which is a strawman since abiogenesis is not part of evolutionary theory]
    2) Organism A
    3) [3a) Sexual separation of group a from group b of Organism A]
    [3b) mutation + natural selection]
    [3c) group b no longer able to reproduce with group a]
    4) group b is now Organism B

    We’ve seen the above in the wild, look up ring species.

  8. rgz Says:

    No, the cases are not the same because God’s and Gravity’s standing in their theory are very different.

    The key is:
    Gravity does not cause objects to fall, objects fall, that’s Gravity.

    Gravity is the name of the phenomenon, the force of gravity is an abstraction to predict how we will observe the phenomenon under theoretical circumstances.

    The analogous to Gravity in Bernadette’s case would be Tissuedisconnectivity, this way we can say, as with Gravity, that Tissuedisconnectivity does not disconnect tissues, tissues disconnect, that’s Tissuedisconnectivity.

    Unnecessarily attributing Tissuedisconnectivity to an arbitrary agent is the jump, and it is superstitious.

    DD is not attributing it to a coincidence, he is just not attributing to anything, that’s like saying bald is a hair color.
    The reason its so easy to

  9. Jayman Says:

    Chigliakus, I’m dealing with the theories not the evidence for specific cases. As I stated before, I don’t think superstition is the issue, the amount and quality of the evidence is the issue. You seem to confirm this by attacking the evidence for answered prayer and adding evidence for evolution. We can quibble over the details in each example (they were obviously quite simple) but the fact remains we always have gaps in our theories and we can never fully demonstrate or describe the connection between cause and effect. If that makes theories about the supernatural superstitious then it must make theories about the natural superstitious as well.

    rgz, none of the examples are identical to each other. The point is that there should be criteria that clearly mark out the first two examples as superstitious and the last two examples as not superstitious. You seem to suggest that assigning a cause to an arbitrary agent is superstitious. The problem is that the agent in the first two examples is not arbitrary. A healing cure is attributed to God because God was prayed to. An apparition of the Virgin Mary is attributed to the Virgin Mary because that’s who was seen.

  10. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    The issue, Jayman, is that there is no way for you to make a connection between your god and a disconnected spinal cord. There is no way for you to test to see if your god had anything, there are no experiments to be done, there is no hypothesis to falsify. Scientists do not say “evolution did it” and then go about their business; they look for what it is that evolved, they look to see what sort of selective pressures could have caused such changes, they look for what genes may have been shuffled or lost. If you attribute something to a deity, there’s noplace else to go. There are no more investigations to be had, and you’ve closed the door. You’ve made an assertion that can’t strictly speaking be disproven, but is so similar to an inconceivably huge quantity of similarly non-disprovable assertions which fail to describe or explain a single thing that outside observers can immediately see its worthlessness. These assertions, also, have in the course of human history INVARIABLY turned out to be incorrect.

    Therein lies the difference. Science involves iterative investigation and improvement, while religion stagnates because it doesn’t (and can’t) explain a thing. In the 2,000 years it’s existed, your religion has become LESS adept at explaining phenomena, while science has become exponentially better at describing the hows and whys of the world in far less time. If you don’t see the difference, there’s not much else I can do for you.

  11. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    Oh, and, because I can’t seem to edit my post:

    “We can quibble over the details in each example (they were obviously quite simple) but the fact remains we always have gaps in our theories and we can never fully demonstrate or describe the connection between cause and effect.”

    You need to DEMONSTRATE that this is the case. You gave examples that were quickly and thoroughly demolished with nary a thought, but I challenge you to find solid, practiced, honed scientific theory that has such gaps in it.

  12. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    Sorry for the spam, keep meaning to go to bed, but never seem to manage it.

    “A healing cure is attributed to God because God was prayed to. An apparition of the Virgin Mary is attributed to the Virgin Mary because that’s who was seen.”

    People in India, presumably, pray to several hindu gods when their relatives fall ill. I assume that you would not consider this solid evidence for the existence of those gods.

    As I’m sure you know, if I pray to a milk bottle that I will do well on a test, and then I do well on that test, it is NOT valid to say that the milk bottle caused me to do well.

    As for the Virgin Mary, why attribute an image to the person making the image? I trust you don’t think Darwin responsible for http://www.boingboing.net/darwin.head.11.11.copy.jpg ? Why is Mary any different, is she supposed to have superhero powers?

  13. pevo Says:

    Jayman Says:
    March 5, 2009 at 12:34 am

    Chigliakus, I’m dealing with the theories not the evidence for specific cases. As I stated before, I don’t think superstition is the issue, the amount and quality of the evidence is the issue. You seem to confirm this by attacking the evidence for answered prayer and adding evidence for evolution. We can quibble over the details in each example (they were obviously quite simple) but the fact remains we always have gaps in our theories and we can never fully demonstrate or describe the connection between cause and effect. If that makes theories about the supernatural superstitious then it must make theories about the natural superstitious as well.

    me: I agree, there are always gaps. Always assumptions. The difference is in how we approach those gaps. Science posits a model that covers the gaps, then tests the model by seeing if future data complies and if the predictions of the model turn out to be true. Faith makes no such tests and no such predictions.

    You are correct that the models are never perfectly explanatory and accurate. But they do get better and have been getting better for quite a long time.

    The theory of evolution explains both the speciation we do see and allows us to compatibly suggest what could have been in the gaps we have no direct evidence of. If at any point we find data that shows the model to be incorrect, we change the model.

    Faith does not do this.

    What exactly is the model you are proposing for faith healing? God heals all those who ask for it? God heals all those who are not sinners? God heals some, but there is no way to know who or when or why? That last one is not much of a model. It allows for zero additional comprehension of the world we live in. If there is nothing to be predicted by or explained by the model, then it is not useful. It does not meet the standards of being ‘knowledge’. Anyway, I need to know the details of the model you are suggesting so that we can discuss it rationally.

  14. rgz Says:

    WOW That IS Darwin! I’ll set up an altar and start praying!

    But really, the fact that no readily evident connection can be made with God (in Bernatette’s case) does not mean you can’t form an hypotheses, it just means that your hypotheses is extremely weak, it’s based on a sample of 1 individual for God’s (that is Darwin’s) sake.

    But you alleged cause for the phenomenon does not exist in isolation, supernatural causes have been proved reliably unreliable. Whatever this God you mean must be a new one.

  15. cl Says:

    pevo,

    To me it seems you’re trying to compare apples and oranges here. Don’t you see an inherent paradox in demanding a model for miraculous healings? Certainly I can empathize with a science-lover’s desire to have a model for everything, but should everything in life be approached via the scientific method?

  16. pevo Says:

    cl,
    “To me it seems you’re trying to compare apples and oranges here. Don’t you see an inherent paradox in demanding a model for miraculous healings?”
    Well, no. I question the foundation for believing in miracles at all. My claim is that it is unreasonable to believe in something without attempting to model it and test the model. You certainly still can believe in it, its just not reasonable.

    “Certainly I can empathize with a science-lover’s desire to have a model for everything, but should everything in life be approached via the scientific method?”
    Everything? Hm… not exactly. Art, for example, doesn’t really need to. I am primarily only concerned when it comes to matters of public policy. I have no problem with you believing what you want as long as it does not restrict me. The moment it does, I expect and deserve the basis for that restriction to be scientific in nature.

    So, if you want to believe in faith healing, ok. But if it can not be demonstrated to work, it would be unjust to outlaw conventional medicine regardless of the number of people who had faith.

    More to the point, it was Jayman who was comparing apples to oranges by suggesting the scientific theory of evolution was on equal footing to the very non-scientific hypothesis of miraculous healing. Yes, they are similar in that they both have gaps of evidence. But the approaches are so vastly different, the two can not be considered equivalent in terms of ‘knowledge’ of the real world.

  17. cl Says:

    pevo,

    My claim is that it is unreasonable to believe in something without attempting to model it and test the model.

    That’s certainly a valid and warranted approach, in science. But if we extend this logic to all claims, it becomes unreasonable to believe we’re hungry.

    I have no problem with you believing what you want as long as it does not restrict me.

    That’s pretty much how I see it, too.

    But if it can not be demonstrated to work, it would be unjust to outlaw conventional medicine regardless of the number of people who had faith.

    Certainly. Even if it could be scientifically proven, it would still be unjust to outlaw conventional medicine. People deserve choice.

    I guess my real gripe is with the idea that we can develop a model for testing things like faith healing and miracles. That is the idea which seems counterproductive to me. For example, how might we screen for confounders of “spontaneous regression” and “placebo effect” if we are discussing faith healing? I’ve not heard a convincing answer from a skeptic to that question yet.

  18. Jayman Says:

    ThatOtherGuy, I think we’re largely talking past each other. I am commenting on theories and the definition of superstition. I am trying to show that theories about the supernatural are not necessarily superstitious. Many of your comments look like an attempt to differentiate science from non-science, which is a different subject. I’ll try to respond only to those parts of your comments that I think are relevant to the claims I was making.

    The issue, Jayman, is that there is no way for you to make a connection between your god and a disconnected spinal cord.

    Can you expand on this statement? Why is there no way to make a connection between God and a cure? Or is it that the connection would not be scientific?

    You need to DEMONSTRATE that this is the case. You gave examples that were quickly and thoroughly demolished with nary a thought, but I challenge you to find solid, practiced, honed scientific theory that has such gaps in it.

    DD agreed that there are gaps in our knowledge so I felt no need to demonstrate that is the case. I’m not restricting myself to honed scientific theories nor gaps of a certain size or number. If gaps in a theory make it superstitious then every theory, scientific or otherwise, that has a gap should be called superstitious. If that is not acceptable then different criteria for superstition need to be found.

    If you want to show me that there are no gaps in our knowledge, you can start by providing a list of your ancestors going back to the common ancestor of all life on earth. Please do not skip a single generation (let alone species) as that would be a gap in knowledge. Just names and dates in list form will be fine to start (I won’t make you tell me how the first lifeform came into being or what mutations and selection pressures effected each generation).

    People in India, presumably, pray to several hindu gods when their relatives fall ill. I assume that you would not consider this solid evidence for the existence of those gods.

    I would not consider the people in question to necessarily be superstitious. A discussion over what evidence is required to believe something is a different discussion.

    As for the Virgin Mary, why attribute an image to the person making the image? I trust you don’t think Darwin responsible for http://www.boingboing.net/darwin.head.11.11.copy.jpg ? Why is Mary any different, is she supposed to have superhero powers?

    My point is that Mary is not different and I’m not dealing with mere images of people. If it is not superstitious to believe you saw Charles Darwin because you perceived that you saw Charles Darwin then it is not superstitious to believe you saw Mary because you perceived that you saw Mary. You may object that you require more evidence to believe that you saw Mary than to believe you saw Darwin (assume he was still alive for the moment). That’s fine, but you are no longer arguing about whether it is superstitious (i.e., based on no evidence or discernible connection).

  19. Jayman Says:

    pevo, I’m currently arguing that theories about the supernatural are not necessarily superstitious. I am not proposing detailed models (for miracles or natural phenomena). I agree with you that different theories will have different levels of evidence in their favor and that some theories are more useful than others.

    But I wonder if you are unnecessarily restricting yourself to scientific theories/models. What about an historical theory/model? Is telling someone what happened in the past not useful?

    Also, what happens if a prediction from a model involves a random element? For example, perhaps I can’t predict who will be miraculously healed but I can predict that some people will be cured and no natural explanation for that cure will be found. Or, again for example, perhaps I can tell you that a specific faith healer can heal 50% of the patients who visit him but I can’t tell you which ones those will be beforehand (something like this can happen with traditional medicine).

  20. pevo Says:

    cl,

    me: My claim is that it is unreasonable to believe in something without attempting to model it and test the model.

    cl: That’s certainly a valid and warranted approach, in science. But if we extend this logic to all claims, it becomes unreasonable to believe we’re hungry.

    me: well, using the scientific method is equivalent to being reasonable. So, your comment is like saying ‘being reasonable is certainly valid and warranted, when being reasonable.’ So, yeah, of course. No, I do not believe it is unreasonable to believe we experience hunger. The model is something similar to: “there is a feeling we all experience when we lack sufficient fuel that is sated when we eat” And then we test that model by, say, not eating and seeing if that brings on hunger. We can note that animals are motivated to eat regularly and if food is withheld they will make greater and greater attempts to eat. Its a very testable model.

    cl: I guess my real gripe is with the idea that we can develop a model for testing things like faith healing and miracles. That is the idea which seems counterproductive to me. For example, how might we screen for confounders of “spontaneous regression” and “placebo effect” if we are discussing faith healing? I’ve not heard a convincing answer from a skeptic to that question yet.

    me: How is it counterproductive? If something exists, it should be observable. How else can you claim existence? Why can’t faith healing be tested like any other form of healing? Screening for placebo effect is just a matter of having a control group. The details of that group depend on the details of how faith healing is supposed to work. Spontaneous regression could be screened out by making sure the person healed remains healed over the long term.

    If your claim is that some healing occurs through ‘supernatural’ means and is therefore untestable, well, that’s exactly the superstition that DD was suggesting.

    Again, you can certainly believe that. But it would not be a reasonable claim.

  21. pevo Says:

    Jayman,

    Jayman: But I wonder if you are unnecessarily restricting yourself to scientific theories/models. What about an historical theory/model? Is telling someone what happened in the past not useful?

    Me: Why do you suggest historical models can’t be scientific models? I would hope that any employed historical model was based on existing historical data. Very similar to a physical model, if any new data were uncovered, the historical model would be updated/revised to incorporate the new data. So, similar to scientific physical theories, the scientific historical model is always changing and converging on what actually happened. I’ll grant you, again, that no model is ever perfect. We can only every hope to include data that we have access to. But this works very very well. Yes, being aware of the past is very helpful.

    Jayman: Also, what happens if a prediction from a model involves a random element?

    me: Perfectly acceptable. Testing such a model requires multiple runs and a statistical analysis of the results instead of inspection of any single run.

    Jayman: for example, perhaps I can tell you that a specific faith healer can heal 50% of the patients who visit him but I can’t tell you which ones those will be beforehand (something like this can happen with traditional medicine).

    Me: That would be very interesting. To test this, I would split, randomly, half the patients that were going to the faith healer off and send them to conventional doctors (or no doctor at all) so that I can verify that they were all sick to start with. Assuming they were, and I’ll even throw in that conventional doctors always fail to heal them: In the interest of trying to understand, I would inspect what the faith healer is actually doing. Lets say its just a ‘laying on of hands and a prayer.’ I could test for geography (is it the air here? the earth?), for the healer (is he the *only* one who can do this), for amount of faith of the patients. In the end, if it was just having faith as best as I could test, well, then I would believe you. And I would have to change a number of other models I use to try to understand the world. However, it *is* testable. And if you don’t give a model for me to test, then there is nothing to believe in either.

    Jayman: perhaps I can’t predict who will be miraculously healed but I can predict that some people will be cured and no natural explanation for that cure will be found.

    me: Hmm. Well, as you yourself say, that is a prediction and not a model. If you mean to say, as a model suggestion, ‘No natural explanation will be found for some cures.’ Then I already agree with you. Sometimes people get better and we don’t know why, and there are enough other sick ppl around that we don’t spend resources trying to track it down. Note, however, this is *not* the same as ‘No natural explanation *can* be found for some cures.’ This is equivalent to saying the supernatural exists. Anything observable is natural, so the supernatural can not be observed. If it can not be observed, how can you *reasonably* claim it exists? Of course, I can’t prove it doesn’t, like any imagined thing. But science, thus reason, deals only with the observable.