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On Superstition

The Enlightenment era—regarded, at least in popular historical accounts, as the philosophical successor to Renaissance humanism and reformed Protestant ideology—is often said to have heralded the rise of modernity. In the same vein, the very idea of Western thought has come to be defined by this ‘golden age’ of scientific rationality, representative democracy, and early capitalism. In this time of cataclysmic social and political change, many public thinkers aimed to change the narrative concerning the past. With Gibbon’s condemnation of Medieval Europe as a ‘dark age’ came the rejection of social tradition, both conceptually and in practice. This culminated in the French Revolution of 1789, during which public officials characterised the legal, religious, and administrative norms of the Ancien Régime as superstitious and outdated. Today, many of our commonly-held moral and metaphysical intuitions can be tied back to the influence of the Enlightenment, for better or for worse. Indeed, they have become internalised; revering the scientific mentality and rejecting that which we regard as superstitious is part of our nature. Knowledge is assumed to emanate from the ‘facts’ of a situation, derived from some hidden scientific process. We have given ourselves to a perpetual revolution of thought—untethered from pre-Enlightenment conceptions of reality, we are pushed to update our beliefs according to the most recent trends in scientific and social discourse. Modernity looks one step ahead, and it definitely doesn’t look back.

We are, however, still human. We evolved to hunt, gather, and co-exist with familiar people in small tribal communities. The rational, universalist, globalist framework offered by the Enlightenment is at odds with 200,000 years of direct ancestral experience—one in which our so-called ‘irrationalities’ enabled us to survive, develop culture, and explore every corner of the earth. Despite this, we should avoid falling into the trap of conflating an ‘ought’ with an ‘is’; we can still reach for higher ideals, even though our thoughts and behaviours operate within this evolutionarily-optimised framework.

But we have to be honest with ourselves.

Humanity is intrinsically superstitious. Our actions are guided by habit and ritualism, even if we would prefer to believe that they emerge from an untainted scientific source. We apply heuristics to every element of our lives. Instead of evaluating every situation as if it were entirely new, we utilise a complex web of priors to inform ourselves on the state of reality. These heuristics enable us to make fast judgements—if someone looks young, or old, or male, or female, I will assume these facts of their existence. Could I be wrong? Of course. But in scrutinising everything, I’d achieve nothing, and probably also develop a serious anxiety disorder (which sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).

The same is true of some superstitions. For instance, I will never know for sure if walking underneath a ladder will cause me to experience back luck in the future. However, by avoiding it, I also avoid the risks that come with walking underneath precariously-balanced objects. In this sense, superstitions are heuristics which come from a completely irrational, and perhaps even supernatural, understanding of causality. But in many cases, they still act as useful and benign priors, proven by the fact that people have been applying them for hundreds of years. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t harmful superstitions that ought to be questioned. Enlightenment thinking, however, would invite us to question and reject them because of their irrationality—not because they guide immoral action. Good behaviour is not the same thing as scientifically-informed behaviour. This is the most important point I want to make in this article, and we’ll be coming back to it in a bit.

First, let’s speak briefly about the events of the past year, and how they fall within the context of superstition. Throughout the Covid pandemic, we have been asked to take on an entirely new set of behavioural heuristics. Many of them have been perfectly sensible. In normal flu seasons of yore, actions like hand-washing, staying home when ill, and avoiding large gatherings have all helped limit viral transmission. This past year, we have also been forced to adopt some new behavioural norms, which ranged from the moderately reasonable to the absolutely laughable. During the notorious (and, for some of us, glorious) ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme of 2020, restaurants offered huge discounts to anyone willing to dine-in. As the government reminded us repeatedly of the dangers of a ‘deadly virus’, we were nonetheless asked—in rhetoric resembling wartime calls-to-action—to give back to our local economies in this way. But there was a catch: we had to abide by ‘Covid rules.’ This included donning a mask while walking through a restaurant, but being able to take it off the moment everyone was seated. Never mind the fact that Covid—a disease talked about in the gravest terms possible—doesn’t know the difference between walking and sitting in a confined indoor space. This Covid measure, and others like it, are examples of pure ritualism. They are seemingly informed by some higher imperative, but the causality surrounding them is murky.

The superstitiousness that Enlightenment thinkers tried to excise from the fabric of social reality lives on. Despite their best efforts, we cling to irrational priors, albeit in a fundamentally different way. The superstitions of our ancestors did not necessitate much causal justification; ‘bad luck’ was a good enough reason to avoid doing something. Now, in the wake of the Enlightenment, we form hunches on the basis that they are underpinned by fact-based reasoning. We still have superstitions—the difference lies in how we appraise them. In our age of modernist rationality, failing to conform to a ‘scientifically-supported’ superstition means that you are wilfully ignorant, uneducated, or evil. You might even be all three.

As a scientist, I believe strongly in the value of evidence. I think that incorporating empirically-derived knowledge into our decision-making processes is a good thing. The problem with evidence-based thinking is that it cannot deal with unknown unknowns. Old-fashioned heuristics, despite their flaws, readily acknowledge the limits of human knowledge and imagination. It’s the difference between “we don’t know why, but this seems to work,” and “these are the facts, which might help us build something that works.” But that’s the thing—we never know, for sure, if we’re building something that will work in the ways we expect. Most importantly, evidence gives us no information concerning the morality of our actions. Just because something uses scientific evidence to achieve a result doesn’t mean that the result, or the process by which it is achieved, makes the world better.

The previous point may sound painfully obvious, but history has demonstrated otherwise. Science greatly augments humanity’s ability to exert influence over the world. We must apply the power of evidence responsibly, limiting our actions according to sound moral principles and time-tested heuristics. Scientists are human—they act with the same intentions, biases, and superstitions as the rest of us. Putting your intrinsically-held moral beliefs into the hands of a scientist is akin to letting a total stranger to guide your decisions. Another person can give you information, but ultimately, it’s your call. Difficult choices have to be made, and evidence isn’t going to change that.

There is no ‘prize’ for being the most rational person alive. Being a good person, and building a good society, should carry its own intrinsic benefits. Many Conservatives pride themselves on knowing that humans cannot be ruled according to top-down, Soviet-style scientism. To them, I say: practice what you preach. We will always cling to superstition, in one way or another. To have good heuristics, we need to combine evidence—the golden calf of the Enlightenment—with an earnest recognition of the ways that our knowledge is limited.


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