View Full Version : What is superstition?

2005-Nov-12, 07:35 PM
I've been seeing this word here a lot, and I'm puzzled as to what it means. It gets used in a lot of contexts, about a lot of things, and seems to be a fairly relative concept.

I was trolling though the British Museum yesterday and I noticed a line concerning ancient Greek medicine; that it was "a mixture of science and superstition." This made little sense to me, as clearly the scientific method didn't exist in any real way when Greek medicine was invented, and it seemed to me that the medicine that worked ("science") was discovered by the same minds and in the same fashion as the medicine that didn't ("superstition"), so where does one become the other? Alechemy is superstition, and yet the alchemists managed to discover phosphorous, antimony and any number of alloys. Again, when does the superstition become the science?

I'm reminded of all those old witches' plants (poppies, mandrakes, willow bark) that the superstitious masses had been taking for years, only for scientists to realise in the 19th century that they actually had medicinal properties. Put them in pills, call them morphine, atropine and aspirin and suddenly they're not superstitious anymore. It's a bit like Terry Pratchett's definition of discovery: simply living on an isolated island for a hundred generations doesn't qualify as discovering it; your land has to be seen by someone who matters.

Perhaps it is in the discoveries made, but in the mindset of the discoverer. Science is in many ways a state of mind. However, if superstition is defined in this context as "unscientific thinking" then where does that leave the study of unprovable concepts such as ethics, love, or truth? Even science has these brick walls; at some point we may come across a series of equations that unite the theories of quantum and relativistic physics into a nice, comfortable whole. But we will never be able to prove that the equation is an accurate picture of reality, because we only have one universe and no way to conduct experiment. If such equations are devised, accepting them will be a matter of faith, rather than reason. When would that become superstition?

2005-Nov-12, 10:04 PM
Hmmm, I'm surprised no one has posted to this yet.

The difference between superstition and science is this:

Yes, sometimes superstition gets it correct. However, a lot of superstitious developments were not tested. They say, "This works, because it does"

Science, on the other hand, seeks to understand why. With "why", there are other developments that come about instead of just, "It simply works".

You learn how to use it more efficiently, through concentration, or to use it safely, through dilution. You learn how to mix and match things and see what happens, possibly getting a better and more useful mix. As well, when you learn "why" to the utmost, then you can ask, "How can we recreate it"?

Science is about experimentation. Superstition is about, "It works."

That's my take on it, at least.

Ken G
2005-Nov-12, 10:10 PM
I think that's giving superstition too much credit, actually. To me, superstition is the belief in causality where none exists. Either there is no evidence for the causality, or plain common sense indicates there is no causal connection, yet it is believed anyway. Thus the only sense to which superstition "works" is entirely coincidental, like a gambler claiming that it "works" to blow on the dice. Not every time of course, and yes they have lost more often than they've won, but blowing has kept them from losing even more than they would have otherwise. Hasn't it? Science involves actually checking the belief, when the belief comes with testable consequences. This is also the difference between superstition and religion, in my view-- if the belief has no objectively testable consequences, it's religion. If it has testable consequences that falsify the belief, it's superstition. And if it has testable consequences that validate the belief, it's science.