Thursday, April 05, 2007

How stupid is superstition?

I was sitting in a bar last night having a beer. It’s been raining a lot here for the last couple of days and so the umbrellas are out in force. So there I was, having a beer and a chat and some guy opened his umbrella up inside the bar!!! So what, who cares right? Apparently plenty of people do. Puh-lease!

It started with one lady objecting and mentioning that it’s bad luck. “Oh, right, I forgot” says the umbrella man. I’m sorry, but I just can’t let this sort of bullshit pass. So I didn’t.

I asked both of them at once “Are you serious?”

“Yes” said the woman.

“You can’t be too careful” said the man.

Well apparently they can’t be too careless when it comes to their thinking and before I’d said anything more the incredulous smile on my face seemed to spark a debate between a few people in the bar along the lines of “Well, the universe is a mysterious place” and “My auntie’s friends brother once walked under a ladder and immediately had his head bitten off by a kangaroo blah blah blah”. Ok, I made the kangaroo bit up, but the point is people believe in these superstitions and had anecdotal evidence from distant, unconfirmed sources to back it up. In other words, otherwise ordinary people had outrageous beliefs, truly ridiculous in nature, that they were prepared to defend with absolutely no coherent reason to do so.

Good, because I’m prepared to attack them.

The origins of the umbrella are a little complicated. On the one hand its origin is claimed to be in China approximately 1,700 years ago but it’s close relative, the parasol, is depicted in Assyrian, Persian, Egyptian and Greek art pre-dating this (by as much as 2000 years) and it seems odd to imagine that no one ever stood under one when it rained. But regardless of exactly how old the umbrella is it is certainly no more than a few thousand years old. Young Earth Christians may therefore have a work around for what I am about to say. The rest of the at least partially sane people on this planet do not.

I asked the people how old they thought the umbrella was. Everybody seemed to be pretty content that it was maybe one or two thousand years old and two people even opted for China as the origin. So I asked “OK, so we can agree that the umbrella has been around for a few thousand years at most right?”, and we were all agreed.

“How old is the universe?” I asked.

“About 15 million years old” said one.

“No, it’s about 15 billion” said another.

Whatever! I didn’t want to get redirected into a discussion of the age of the universe and so I just asked if we could agree that the universe was vastly more ancient than the umbrella. Nobody had a problem with this.

“So, is the umbrella somehow special?” I asked, “I mean, when it was invented and the first one built did it’s shape or function somehow magically connect it to the universe in a way that the invention of the spoon did not, for example?”

Silence.

“Or did the rules of the universe suddenly change upon the invention of the umbrella so that opening one up inside a room suddenly became some sort of magical remote control to influence the universe so that it then wanted to hurt who ever had opened it?”

More silence and then an “I don’t know why it works but you shouldn’t do it anyway”.

“Yes, unless you lightly salt a black cat whilst walking backwards under a ladder to protect yourself with a rabbits foot in your anus” I said and I finished my beer.

The moral of this story is that superstitions are fucking stupid. If you really think the universe works that way then you are not only mad but arguably certifiable. The intensity of the ignorance and the inability to think critically required to believe that the universe is affected in such a deterministic fashion by recent inventions, and recent life forms (black cats, rabbits and their feet, etc), with no causal mechanism whatsoever is so mind numbingly vacuous it really is incredible that anybody remains ignorant enough to believe such crap.

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6 comments:

Louie said...

The moral of that story is you should take up drinking tinnies at home...

Hell IS other people...

BEAJ said...

I think we are prewired to be superstitious. In other words, we have to fight off the irrationality of it.
I finally stopped worrying about whether I moved at a critical time while watching sports on TV, or whether the proximity of where I was sitting would affect the outcome.

Totally irrational behavior, but even the most hardened Atheists may have a superstitious quirk or two...probably not you though.

BDE said...

Superstition is a strange human characteristic but some human superstitions may be well founded.

For example, with regards to walking under ladders. The odds of a ladder falling on you while walking under it may are very slight but are infinitely greater than the odds of the ladder falling on you if you don't walk under it.

Similarly, our science cannot explain everything we perceive and as such some "black box" activities may be going on in the background that we don't know about. Perhaps the act of opening the umbrella has some causal relationship with "bad luck" that we don't fully grasp.

Jews and Muslims don't eat pork because of religious reasons. However, eating pork before refrigeration and modern sanitation was dangerous due to disease etc. Jews and Muslims from the Middle Ages had no idea about the connection yet were likely better off not eating pork.

That being said, I am not superstitious.

BDE

BEAJ said...

You've been tagged, I am sorry to say.

Gary McGath said...

People manage to form compartments of irrationality which don't affect their daily lives. Anyone who thinks "the universe" works according to superstitions is mad, yes. But not everyone who holds a bizarre belief applies it to the whole universe.

In my experience, though, these people will act embarrassed when you challenge their superstitions. Maybe the official endorsement of superstitions such as "Liquids on airplanes are bad luck" as government policy has made them more confident about asserting such nonsense?

chooseDoubt said...

Louie, very good point, but I already tried extended periods of solitude and after a while I just figured I might as well try and take what joy I can get from the company of others.


BEAJ, I think we are prewired to be superstitious in the same way that we are prewired to draw the wrong conclusion some of the time. Superstition is just another classification of equivocation and surprisingly easy to tain ourselves out of. I'm not aware of any supersition left in me but I'll admit there used to be. Sorry not to have got round to the tag yet - and thanks for it - I've been a bit busy but will get onto it later.


BDE, some superstitions do turn out to have a correlation to real life benefits but the explanatory mechanism is still vacuous and ignorant. If I throw a hundred darts at a dart board with my eyes closed and one of them hits the bulls eye it doesn't mean I'm a good shot. There's no room left for superstition even if it was occasionally lucky in the past. Science rules.

Gary, absolutely right, people compartmentalise and governments are no strangers to pushing questionable wisdom. At some point we have to make an educated guess. Supersitions, like astrology and umbrellas, require an uneducated guess because a minimal level of readily available education is more than adequate to crush them. The liquids ban is only there, rightly or wrongly, because of tolerance of other superstition (religion) which is equally vulnerable to a little education.