What is it that keeps superstitions going in the face of our increasing knowledge about the world?

There is no easy, let alone absolute, way of telling the difference between a true belief and a false or superstitious one. In order to be able to label a belief a superstition, one would have to be able to define clearly what kind of belief would not be a superstition; or, for that matter, to call something abnormal, one would have to be quite sure what sort of thing would be normal.

However, people are very ready to insist on these distinctions and they tend to do so on the grounds of what seems to me a very mistaken notion. They think that one can distinguish between true and superstitious beliefs in terms of the method by which the beliefs have been arrived at. There is a correct method, it is alleged, and there are incorrect methods. If the correct method is followed, then the belief it leads to must be a true belief. When pressed such people cite “observation” and/or “reason” as the characteristics of a correct method. Both observation and reason are very woolly terms. If one wants to observe, one first has to know what one wants to observe. And then one has to make sure that the observation is not a hallucination, and so forth. There is no finality in “observation”. The method of reason is equally woolly. People differ very widely on what they suppose to be “rational” and in the end it boils down to little more than the invitation: “Be reasonable, think as I do!”

The moment we dismiss the naive notions of observation and/or reason, the notion of “correct” method involves one in a circularity. In order to decide which method would be a correct method of arriving at a true belief about the real world, one would have to know quite a lot as to what that real world is really like. Without such knowledge, there can be no telling what method would be the correct one. But it is precisely our ignorance of that real world and of what it is like that leads us to the search for the correct method.

The history of science provides countless examples of the absence of a correct method. Even a cursory examination of the “method” used by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin or Einstein will show that they had no real method at all. The most recent and best documented example is the history of the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.

There was Rosalind Franklin who tried to avoid all adventure and kept making X-ray pictures of DNA, putting her trust in old Francis Bacon, that heaps and heaps of these pictures would ultimately yield knowledge of the molecular structure of the substance X-rayed. And all the while, there were Crick and Watson, wildly speculating and inventing haphazardly and making informed guesses and using Rosalind Franklin’s X-rays merely to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses.

What makes us think, in the absence of a correct method, that the conclusions of all these people were not superstitions, is the fact that once they had made their discoveries, these discoveries have failed to be falsified. We owe this paramount insight into and understanding of the growth of knowledge to Karl Popper, whose classic book on the subject was first published in Vienna in 1935.

Since there is no correct method, there is no absolute distinction between a true belief and a superstition. At best, we can tell the difference after the discovery or the proposal of a solution has been made. A superstition, after it has been put forward, is either falsified or it is couched in the first place in such a form that nothing whatever could ever falsify it.

A true belief, on the other hand, is, at best, considered true because, although we know what would have to be the case for it to be false, it has so far not yet been falsified. A true belief is only provisionally and hypothetically true and is, for this reason, not absolutely different from a superstition.


Unfortunately this lack of an absolute difference between superstition and true belief has been exploited by a host of contemporary philosophers — the so-called postmodern or post-structuralist philosophers (Feyerabend, Rorty, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, to mention the most famous ones) — who relish telling us that we might just as well hold any belief we like, that there is no difference at all between superstition and true belief, no difference between science and fiction, and that people who claim their superstitions to be “science” are nothing but arrogant imperialists who use their power to ram their superstitions down their victims’ throats.

These “thinkers” maintain that “science” is nothing but the mythology of Western people. They sum all this up by saying that all beliefs, including those we call scientific beliefs, are social constructions and that their chief purpose is not to understand the world, but to act as ideologies which legitimise the exploitation and oppression of minorities, other races, or, in general, of whatever people we dislike. Bigoted heterosexuals construct beliefs which legitimise the persecution of homosexuals, male chauvinists construct beliefs to validate the oppression of women, and so forth.

In New Zealand we have to be specially wary of these postmodern “thinkers” because if we follow them we will end up believing that there is no difference between the myth of Kupe and the theory of Continental Drift. In the so-called minds of these postmodern “thinkers” the theory of Continental Drift is nothing but a belief employed by Europeans to put down people who believe that the North Island was fished up from the bottom of the ocean by Maui.

In spite of the faddishness of these so-called thinkers, who are now riding on a wave of popular acclaim because they make any group with the weirdest superstitions feel “culturally safe”, there is a very hard way of telling the relative, though never the absolute, difference between a superstition and a true belief. The more a belief coheres with other beliefs, the more scientific it is likely to be. The less it coheres and the more parochial it is, the less scientific it is likely to be.

By this standard, the concept of, for example, “Maori Science” (a course of which is part of the curriculum at Victoria University in Wellington!) is a contradiction in terms. If it is parochially Maori, it can, by definition, not be science; and if it is science, it cannot be specific to Maori. This is not to say that Maori had no science, but such science should be called “science among the Maori” not “Maori Science”. People who think of “Maori Science” ought to be reminded of the genocidal mischief caused in the middle of our century in Europe by the notion of “German (i.e., non-Jewish) Physics”.

A belief which claims to be scientific must always be open to criticism, and can never be shielded from criticism on the grounds that it ought to be respected because it is culturally ensconced in an ethnic group. The real obstacle to the progression of scientific knowledge, therefore, is not the absence of a correct method of finding it, but the demand that certain beliefs ought to be exempt from criticism on the grounds of cultural safety.

Superstitions which are parochial, however, do fulfill a social function. They function as charters of societies and hold those societies together as cooperating units and promote solidarity. This is, of course, more true of tribal or primitive societies than of modern, urban and industrial societies. In primitive societies we get the almost paradoxical situation in which a parochial superstitious belief is socially, though not cognitively, more efficient than a non-parochial, scientific belief.

Social Climate

The reason for this seeming paradox is quite easy to grasp. A society has to have boundaries and exclude lots of people. A parochial superstition is more likely to function well as such an exclusion principle than a more scientific belief which coheres with lots and lots of other beliefs.

A scientific belief can never function as an exclusion and boundary-defining principle. There is only one truth, but there are at least as many false beliefs as there are societies. One society could form itself around the belief that insects have nine legs; another, around the principle that insects have ten legs, and so forth. The society which, on the other hand, consists of people who believe that insects have six legs would include just about everybody. The true belief about insects could never be used as a boundary defining principle.

By the standards of evolution, one would expect that societies based on subscription to false belief would not last long, because they might waste their energy praying for rain rather than digging trenches for irrigation. But here again we come across another seeming paradox. The society based on the belief that rain comes from prayer is likely to be a society with strong social bonds and a good feeling of solidarity. That solidarity will make it more able to fend for itself and to compensate for its lack of true knowledge. It may lack food because prayer does not bring rain, but it will make a solid fighting force which can rob food from other people.

Parochial, false beliefs are not a good adaptation to the environment, but they are obliquely or indirectly adaptive because they are a good cement for the formation of the solidarity of robber gangs which can help themselves to food by other means. Such superstition-based societies have great staying power even though they are not good adaptations to the environment. Hence myths and superstitions are not likely ever to die out. Faith-healing may not be a cure for cancer, but it makes a good support group for cancer patients. Table-rapping may not be a suitable form of communicating with departed spirits, but it does make for conviviality.

For further discussion see two books by Peter Münz: Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge, London, Routledge, 1985; Philosophical Darwinism, London, Routledge, 1993; and the following papers: “Popper’s Contribution to the 20th Century”, New Zealand Science Review, 48, 1991; “What is Postmodern, Anyway?” Philosophy and Literature, 16, 1992; “Anne Salmond’s `Two Worlds’ in Postmodern Fancy Dress”, New Zealand Journal of History, forthcoming, 1994.

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