February 15, 2005
Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall


In answer to you, Katherine:

When you believe in things,
That you don't understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way.

OK, OK, that's a crap answer. The real answer, so far as I can see, is that people like to think they understand the world around them. Science doesn't (and doesn't claim to) answer all questions, and understanding many of Science's answers is hard work. Both of these things make people uncomfortable.

Superstition offers easy answers. It's all bollocks, but it's easy. That's what people want.

Posted to Apropos of nothing by Simon Brunning at February 15, 2005 12:52 PM

Like horoscopes (and religion too) if you ask me.
All coping mechanisms.

Posted by: Darren on February 15, 2005 01:40 PM

Horoscopes and religion *are* superstitions.

Posted by: Simon Brunning on February 15, 2005 01:55 PM

I'll agree with you re horoscopes and generic 'superstition', although I am still mystified by the prevalence of them among people that I had really thought were similar-ish to me in outlook on life. Can't say I agree with you on religion, at least some of them.

A C Grayling (brainy philosophy columnist type) was saying in a book I was reading that in his view religions were originally attempts to explain the universe before science got on the scene and that therefore now we have science we should be giving up religion.

The massive problem as far as I can see is that science doesn't even begin to explain everything. We know a lot, to be sure, but everything I ever read about science shows me not how much we know but how much we don't. We fool ourselves if we think that science can, should or ever will give us 'the answer'.

In this context of 'explaining the way the world works' I personally have a lot more time for a some of the eastern religions/philosophies, since they formulate rules and offer conclusions based on empirical experience and long held thought (even if not 'proven' in the western scientific sense of the word) rather than (like the monotheistic religions) setting up an all powerful being, with the conclusion as to the nature and purpose of reality being 'because'.

Anyway - I'm going to steal this for my own blog, you subject stealer you.

Posted by: Katherine on February 15, 2005 02:02 PM

Science doesn't claim to explain everything. But what it does explain, it explains fairly reliably. (Science-the-body-of-knowledge *is* wrong occasionally, because science-the-methodology is performed by human beings. But not often - more often when science is accused of being wrong it's actually merely incomplete. Science-the-methodology is the most dependable way of generating knowledge that there has ever been.)

Religion *does* claim to explain everything, but it's *all* *just* *made* *up*. Eastern, Western, it's all the same. It's not even remotely 'proven' - it's just believed.

I'll stick to science, thank you.

Posted by: Simon Brunning on February 15, 2005 02:17 PM

The Buddha told us to test everything for ourselves and *not* to take anything on board because of the fame of the teacher, the teaching, how it works for somebody else etc. This was one of the reasons I felt drawn towards it.

Kalama Sutra

"Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching. Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words. Rely not on theory, but on experience.Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do
not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

- the Buddha

Posted by: Sujatin on February 15, 2005 03:19 PM

But you *can't* test everything for yourself. You've been on a plane, Mum, but I'll bet you've never verified aerodynamics, or any of the other countless technologies involved in keeping the thing in the air. You take medicine that's been tested for safety and efficacy by other people, not by you.

You can't discover the whole world by yourself. You *have* to trust authorities. Question is, do you trust those authorities that tell that it just *is* such and such a way, or those authorities who have used a tried, tested and transparent methodology for generating real knowledge?

Posted by: Simon Brunning on February 15, 2005 04:59 PM

It's surely not as black and white as that Simon. Some religious authorities do not say 'it is this way' but explain why they think it is and on what basis. Much of that will not be 'scientific' in the sense that we understand it, partly because much of this is dealing with stuff that science has barely even scratched the surface of. An example; the study of consciousness - science has barely even begun. We have no clear pictureof which brain cells do what and how they do it. The studies I have seen reported make it abundently clear that much of the scientific 'knowledge' we have on this subject is as much guesswork, theory and extrapolation as anything else.

Certain religions/philosophies, on the other hand, can and do show people how to develop and change your consciousness to allow you to control certain aspects of your body and mind. Meditation is a perfect example. There haven't been any double blind tests on that - does that make it false? Does that make it untrue? No - it has been true and useful for millions of people over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Science cannot explain that right now and won't be able to for some time to come. So does that make meditation useless? I would argue not.

Because science explains some things better than philosophy or religion and even shows some of the things previously believed to be untrue, I do not think that makes the whole lot of it b*llocks. That really would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Posted by: Katherine on February 15, 2005 05:50 PM

That science doesn't explain everything *yet* isn't a weakness, as far as I'm concerned. It explains what it *knows* it can, and admits to what it can't. Science isn't finished yet...

Consciousness may in fact be a special case. It may be impossible for us to gain a real understanding of ourselves, in that same way that a formal systems cannot define itself. I'd recommend Douglas Hofstadter's "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" for more on this.

Meditation seems to work well for a lot of people, it's true. (Though it does bugger all for me. We had an RSI trainer in yesterday, and she did a 'relaxation' exercise with us. It just made me tense - I *hate* sensory deprivation.) Science can't explain why - but as I said, that's not a problem for me.

But meditation isn't the same thing as religion. Just because science can't explain consciousness, it doesn't mean that I'm willing to take the word of some bloke in a funny robe about it.

If religion really contained truth, why are there so many of them, all with a *different* truth?

Science doesn't explain everything, but religion doesn't explain anything at all.

Posted by: Simon Brunning on February 16, 2005 09:52 AM

I wasn't saying that 'religion' contains 'truth', merely that just because something has not been proven or understood in the modern scientific sense of the word does not necessarily mean that it is not the case. Science does not create reality and not understanding something does not negate its existence.

I was trying earlier to draw a distinction between monotheistic religions that claim as their basis that 'God made it all'. I don't think that really answers anything. Some of the eastern philosophies/religions (whatever you want to call them) try to present a case for life and living that does not rely on a capricious prime mover and there are things there that I personally think I can learn from. I used meditation as an example because it has come out of various systems of thought that you are characterising as 'superstitions'. Whether you call them religions, philosophies or small pink pigs is neither here nor there - they can have useful things to say about areas that science is lost with and may always be lost.

I am not saying that any one religion holds 'the truth' (if such a thing exists, which I happen to think it doesn't) any more than science holds 'the truth'. Just that characterising all non-science as superstitious and made up is to ignore the fact that many of those clever people in times gone by that might nowadays be peering into the structure of our universe were the ones thinking about these things and that to throw all of it away without any kind of examination rather limits our sources of knowledge.

There is the occasional nugget of gold in them thar hills, and the fact that they have not been found with seismographic and geological surveys does not make them any less golden.

Posted by: Katherine on February 16, 2005 10:52 AM

I see religion and philosopy as distinct, too. Religion is totally empty for me. Philosopy, though, can be very important. It enables you to frame and investigate questions that are meaningless in scientific terms; things like "what is the moral way to behave". Whether it's possible to *answer* such questions is another matter altogether.

I must admit to being a real Westerner philosopically speaking, though. Eastern philosopy is a bit 'touchy-feeley' for me, and I get turned right off by the word 'spirit'.

Posted by: Simon Brunning on February 16, 2005 02:10 PM

What does superstitious mean well it means for eg people believe that walking under a ladder is bad luck.Well heres the real meaning a belief or an action that is not based on reason or evidence.

Belinda Cen Age 12

Posted by: Belinda Cen on March 28, 2006 06:30 AM
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