The Superstition of the Science of Superstition

A colleague of mine recently sent me an article from the Atlantic entitled "The Science of Superstition", which appears to be a précis  of a book by the same name. This article claims to do something that very badly needs to be done here in the buckle of the Bible-Belt: Open our eyes to the dangers of the superstition and magical thinking that cloud our everyday lives and judgements.

However, I will admit that my first reaction to this article is one of minor disdain, as if the author is quite naive about all of the assumptions he is making about "the way things really are", and the fact that there are myriads of PhDs in every field of research who would question his basic assumptions. There are many, in fact, who might call his assumptions mere "superstitions" made without reference to empirical observation, nor without reference to the background assumptions that make science itself work.

For instance, the author assumes that the idea of putting a "hex" on someone or asking for a miraculous sign of judgment is the same kind of thing as attributing agency and motive (i.e. Purpose) to Ultimate Reality. It is one thing to assume that words or curses or hexes or prayers can BREAK the laws of nature in "miraculous" acts. That is indeed magical. It is quite another thing to think that conscious beings-- whether humans or gods-- could use their agency and intellect to work with the laws of nature to produce certain results. That is in fact technology. It does not have to be that miracles are violations of natural laws (ala Hume). It could very well be that what we call miracles are either (a) hoaxes or (b) technology we don't understand yet.

So there is a difference between magical thinking and technological thinking. And if one believes in God, it is perfectly coherent to think of God's activities in the world in a technological way rather than a magical way.

But this gets to the biggest methodological assumption that seems to dominate the article: Namely that God simply is not real and thus all claims to ultimate purpose are not real. We know this is the way it is, right? We are educated Western elites. No scientist has found God in the test tube, or God in outer space, or God in the particle collider. So belief in God MUST be a relic of a bygone age that we have grown beyond, right? It must be mere "superstition" (cue ominous music).

Well, there is a small army of credentialed world-renowned scientists who would reject this assumption. People like Francis Collins who headed the human genome project, or quantum physicist John Polkinghorne who is also an Anglican priest. These are just two of dozens of credentialed PhD scientists who are still alive who I could name (if I was in my library looking at my books). But you get the point.

Granted, God does NOT appear in the test tube, the telescope, or the particle collider. But there are background assumptions to the scientific method where God could be said to appear. When one takes into account the background assumptions that make scientific investigation work, you start to get a list of attributes that strongly resemble a description of God. For instance:

Existence: First of all, there is the assumption that a world external to the observer actually exists, and that all real things in that world share a certain common trait, namely being. All beings share in the common trait of Being. But what is the quality of Being that grounds the existence of all real things? Is Being itself Real? And if it is Real and it gives existence to all else, wouldn't "God" be a reasonable name for this category of Being?

Rationality: Secondly, science assumes that Reality is rational. It can be known and understood and studied because it has an inherently rational structure that can be described in terms of logic and mathematics. From the phenomena of evolution, to chemistry, to quantum physics, there appears to be a Fabric of Rationality into which all phenomena are woven, and which must exist for the rational discipline of science (and the scientific method) to work. An alternate title for such a Fabric of universal rationality might be "The Mind of God" (as was used by Einstein) or even God itself.

Uniformity: Third, science assumes a uniformity and universality to the rational laws that it describes. It is assumed that the way things are yesterday will be the way they are today and tomorrow. It is assumed that our observations of distant galaxies will abide by the same physical constants as our region of spacetime. So, there is an assumption that Reality is uniform, constant, and universal. If we were to give an alternate title to that which holds the Universe together in a Uniform way, could that title not be God?

Causality: Finally, so great an agnostic philosopher as David Hume noted the deep contradictions in asserting that causality is an observable entity or property of the universe. We assume causality, we do not observe it. Correlation does not imply causality. Suffice it to say, in order to gain a robust sense of causality, one must assume that Reality is constructed in such a way that causality is real. But from whence does this assumption arise? Since it cannot be gained by merely physical observation, it must be imported from a metaphysical order. And another name for such a Metaphysical order of causality is God.

So, we come to see that behind the research study, the microscope, the test tube, the telescope and the particle collider there is some sort of Being that is Universal, Uniform, Rational, and Causal to the whole order of beings. Sounds a great deal like how many theists might describe God.

So, when "MIT educated scientists" (note the implicit appeal to authority!) flinch when they ask God to curse them, or instinctively attribute purpose to natural phenomena, or correlate "God" and "real" when writing about death, perhaps it is NOT magical thinking. Perhaps it IS because they are subconsciously thinking WITH THE GRAIN of the Universe. Perhaps it is the assumption that God is not real that is thinking against the grain of reality.

And perhaps the reason why attributing purpose and rationality to things is "more adaptive" is because they are a clue to the way things truly are. Even if we assumed the most pragmatic theory of truth-- that what is true IS what works-- this would be a sign that purpose, rationality, causality and even God are somehow true facets of reality.

And finally, I would be remiss to not note this: If there is no such thing as purpose or rationality as a fabric which holds the universe together, then our observations of purpose and rationality in humans are equally as illusory. Because if the mechanistic universe assumed in the article is true, then humans are not magically immune to the nature of this universe by some secular miracle. We too are fully determined biological machines who only operate according to deterministic feedback loops. We are not free, nor conscious, nor rational, nor purposive in an ultimate sense. We only FEEL like we are. We are thereby reduced to merely machines, and deprived of any true moral agency or metaphysical value. And this idea could only bode doom for the idea of human rights and a thousand other humanistic values we take for granted.

I think there is a valid way to critique "magical thinking", and there is a more effective way to distinguish between "superstition" and "science" and "religion". And in fact, I think we are in dire need to make these distinctions. It is the only way to save true religion from fundamentalist religious adherents on one side, and fundamentalist secularists on the other side. But that way of critique in not found in this article. If you are interested in a more robust and rational way to look at this issue, I heartily recommend the opening chapters of Eric Reitan's book "Is God a Delusion?"

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.