About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, June 07, 2012
In defense of superstition?
These are interesting times for a philosopher. More and more economists want to tell us what to value and how much, and psychologists want to tell us what we should value and why — almost makes you want to become a neuro-economist! Take economics for instance. As Michael Sandel has argued in his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, economics textbooks used to define their subject matter more or less this way: “the world of prices, wages, interest rates, stocks and bonds, banks and credit, taxes and expenditure.” More recently, however, economists have abandoned themselves to much broader statements, such as: “There is no mystery to what an ‘economy’ is. An economy is just a group of people interacting with one another as they go about their lives.” [Both quotes from Sandel, referencing actual economics textbooks; pp. 205-206]
As Sandel argues, this means that at least some economists see their sphere of influence expanded to the totality of human interactions and the principles that underlie it. Even though they deny it, economists therefore are embedding moral values into market considerations. While Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (co-authors of the wildly successful, if questionable, Freakonomics) say that “[Economics] simply doesn’t traffic in morality. Morality represents the way we would like the world to work, and economics represents how it actually does work” [quoted in Sandel, p. 213], this is simply not the case: talking about markets in this broader sense simply cannot be done without talking about ethics.
Sandel does an excellent job at deconstructing the current “markets are better at everything” craze, and clearly shows why there are some things that money cannot buy, and others that it shouldn’t be allowed to, thereby reclaiming space for moral philosophy at the high table of our conversation about what kind of world we want and how best to get there.
But this post isn’t about Sandel or Levitt and Dubner. It’s about an analogous trend from the cognitive sciences.* This trend has manifested itself in a variety of topics that we have touched upon repeatedly at Rationally Speaking, such as the denial of human volition (“free will”), the denial of the existence of consciousness, the rejection of morality itself, and even the recent conclusion by some physicists that the world isn’t made of things, but only of relations (relations between what, one would immediately want to ask?). A recent New York Times article captured this trend under the general label of “Can’t-Help-Yourself-Books,” but another piece in the same paper actually argued that we can help ourselves, and that one way to do it is to reject the stigma about superstition.
The piece in question is by Matthew Hutson, author of the forthcoming "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane" (note the number 7 in the title, it’s a magical one...) One such “law,” according to Hutson, is that “people tend to put stock in: the idea that ‘luck is in your hands,’” i.e. that we can causally affect the universe by way of simple behaviors, such as rituals, or the sort of things we wear.
Indeed, Hutson cites research showing that said “law” of superstition works, in a sense. Not because knocking on wood really pushes away bad luck (whatever that would be), or because praying to higher powers will keep you safe from a terrorist attack. Instead, what happens is that people who, say, play golf with balls they have been told are “lucky” outperform players who have been given just regular balls (which, of course, are actually no different from the lucky ones).Or consider the case of Israeli secular women who cope better — in terms of stress and self-confidence — with the possibility of a suicide bomber compared to women who didn’t pray.
This is, of course, a type of placebo effect, which is also well known to work, within very restricted limits. And in fact it is precisely the analogy with placebos in medicine that I want to explore a bit further to understand why I have a problem with encouraging people to be superstitious.
To begin with, there actually is evidence that the way superstition works is precisely analogous to the placebo effect. Research carried out by Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler of the University of Cologne (and which is detailed in my forthcoming Answers for Aristotle) did confirm a measurable effect of “lucky” vs. regular balls on people trying to accomplish a particular task. But their elegantly designed set of experiments was able to dissect the causal links underlying the way superstition worked, and the moral of the story is that the causal chain looks something like this:
You believe in superstition; You engage in superstitious behavior; This increases your level of self-confidence ; This in turns causes you to persist longer at the task; You are therefore more likely to succeed, other things being equal.
In other words, it is persistence at the task that is the active causal link, everything else is window dressing. Now, surely we can encourage people to persist at a task without having to invent fables, yes?
A related issue is that — again as in the case of placebos — the positive effects of superstitious behavior are likely to be limited, which brings up the question of whether it is worthwhile, simply in terms of practical value, to encourage false beliefs in exchange for a small return. Such encouragement becomes even more problematic because of another, closely related issue, which Hutson acknowledges in the NYT article: “[this] isn’t to say magical thinking has no downside. At its worst, it can lead to obsession, fatalism or psychosis.” Right, just like taking homeopathic “medicine” when one is affected by cancer can (and will) lead to one’s death. Not to mention that people actually hold a number of superstitious beliefs that actually make their lives worse (just ask any fundamentalist Christian who thinks he is going to hell just because he has “impure” thoughts about women — talk about stress!).
But, Hutson argues, “without [superstition], the existential angst of realizing we’re just impermanent clusters of molecules with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us.” I beg to differ. I know plenty of people who are not overwhelmed at all by the realization of the fact that we are, as Monty Python famously put it, “standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving at nine hundred miles an hour, that’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned, a sun that is the source of all our power.”
How do non-superstitious people do it? Many, I would guess, simply don’t pay much attention to the big questions in life, because they are busy coping with much more immediate problems here on earth. For some, the consolations of philosophy are a good defense, though of course there is meaning in family, friendships, one’s contribution to society, and so forth. And there are martinis and Prozac, if everything else fails (the latter two, though, do have their side effects).
Hutson tells us that research shows that even skeptics are superstitious: “One study found that a group of seemingly rational Princeton students nonetheless believed that they had influenced the Super Bowl just by watching it on TV. We are all mystics, to a degree.” Well, that bit didn’t impress me. Obviously the “seemingly rational” Princeton students were not particularly good examples of skeptics, unless they were playing a trick on the experimenters (that’s the problem with using undergraduates for psychology studies: they are cheap, but they are prone to pranks, and they may be able to figure out what the researchers want, acting out accordingly).
Hutson’s second law of magic — just to give you another taste — is the belief that everything happens for a reason, i.e. belief in destiny. This particular superstition is supposed to help to give (a false) meaning to our lives, because it makes it possible to weave together a coherent narrative about who we are and were we are going. But all human beings — superstitious or not — engage in narrative construction about their lives, to the point that we are better understood as the story telling and rationalizing (as opposed to rational) animal. And these narratives can take a variety of forms, many of which do not rely on the idea of destiny at all (moreover, even decidedly non-superstitious people can believe in destiny, just ask my fellow skeptics who don’t believe in free will).
Hutson concludes that “to believe in magic — as, on some deep level, we all do — does not make you stupid, ignorant or crazy. It makes you human.” Well, that it certainly does, but one of the things that also makes us human is our constant striving for bettering ourselves, sharpening our tools to understand (and, to an extent, control) the world in which we live. Which brings me to the last objection I have to the glorification of superstition: it is ethically questionable, to say the least.
Generally speaking, we do not think that lying is a good thing. I’m not making a Kantian argument here: if the Nazis are knocking at your door searching for the Jew you are hiding in your basement, by all means go ahead and lie to the bastards. I am, instead, taking a Sandel-like virtue ethics approach according to which lying — except under extreme circumstances — is an indication of a bad character. If it’s bad to lie to other people, it is at least as bad to lie to yourself (not an oxymoron, contra what some may think), which is what you do when you indulge in superstitious thinking.
This is an old chestnut of moral philosophy, famously described by Robert Nozick in his essay on the Experience Machine (and made far more famous by the blue/red pill scene in The Matrix). If we find it acceptable to lie to ourselves in order to make our life more bearable, or even downright pleasant, why not hook us up permanently to a pleasure machine (here is an example of one), take the blue pill, or simply take a variety of drugs already available on the market? If you think that these analogies are a bit over the top, just remember Marx’s (not Groucho) comment about religion being the opium of the masses (and incidentally a great means of control in the hands of governments and “spiritual” leaders).
So life is such that you won’t always win at golf, and the Middle East really is a place where you could be blown up by some fanatic (who, incidentally, is extremely superstitious). Well, perhaps your focus would better be directed toward solving these problems (practice with your putter, or work toward peace in the Middle East) rather than lulling yourself by means of a fantasy world. There are movies for that, and The Matrix is a pretty decent one.
* I have noticed for a while now that the early 21st century seems to be characterized by a trend of individual disciplines clamoring to expand their role, aspiring to a totalizing vision of things, or at least a vision where they play a prominent role. Physicists, of course, have been trying for a while to come up with a “theory of everything” (which wouldn’t be any such thing by a long shot, even if it succeeded); some evolutionary biologists want to expand Darwinism to every possible nook and cranny of the human experience, and look pretty silly while trying; neuroscientists are beginning to tell us everything that is relevant to understanding the human condition; and economists think their discipline deals with nothing less than the universal principles of human interactions. What the hell?