A psychological study (Skinner ’48) showed that pigeons developed superstitions when food was released to them at random intervals. They ended up perfoming any number of actions that they were doing when the food was released in the belief that they had some sort of control over the process. Tellingly, it took a lot more ‘failures’ to stop the behaviours than ‘successes’to create them.
The internet has brought access to the world’s accumulated knowledge into the home, and we should be witnessing a dismantling of the superstitions that we’d built in harder, more ignorant times. Sadly, we are physiologically flawed and must make real efforts to overcome our inherent tendency to cling to comfortable fallacies. Logic seldom triumphs over emotion and belief.
One of our peculiarities is to search for an eternal and all-powerful father figure. Children at around 4 become resigned to their own limitations, and clutch to authority figures in their life doling out justice on their behalf. They will inform liberally on the actions of others that they judge to be ‘bad’ and recommend appropriate punishments. If something goes wrong, it is to these shining knights that they rush to. But even they fall short eventually.
The idea that we alone stamp our notions of ‘right and wrong’ onto an uncaring universe whose sublime size and timescales dwarf us and everything we’ll ever do into insignificance isn’t a particularly pleasant one. It does liberate our actions if we do not hide from this reality behind fantasies. Nietzsche announced the death of God, the concept underpinning our societies and moral codes, over a century ago. Our shared ethics and beliefs have yet to unravel however, and it seems that religious uptake is actually rising.
Simultaneously, unproven and unprovable discourse continues to billow forth from individuals worldwide to the general acceptance of ostensibly educated audiences. Most of this is harmless; but all of it should be refuted. Here’s the grain of sand that initiated this post;
‘The Pillow Book: put a book by, or about, one of your mentors, or the subject you are interested in, under your pillow. Occultists and energy practitoners believe that everything resonates with energy and information. To them words are actually living things and by sleeping with the book under your pillow you can absorb, contact, mingle with the energy and information in that book.’
I would love to believe that this is true. It would certainly make studying somewhat easier. But I don’t have any faith that I would perfom any better in an objective test on the book’s information, even if I slept with it under my pillow for a decade.
Likewise I have the same disdain for homeopathy treatments that use water which supposedly retains a ‘memory’ of a highly diluted active ingredient; which is often found in greater concentrations in tap water. Expensive and repeatedly proved to be no more effective than a placebo in controlled, unbiased tests, we see the same ‘pigeons’, pecking and flapping, for a miracle that will not happen.
It could be argued that beliefs should be in someway sacred if they are useful to the person who harbours them. Some of the strongest, most content people that I know put their faith in something that only faith can stand for. Likewise, perhaps if anecdotal evidence shows repeatedly that an unexplainable practice is valuable it should be left alone for those whom it benefits.
This is weakness and selfishness. Beliefs held by the individual should be routed up and examined by the society wherever they are found. If there is substance in them, then they should be probed and adopted, upheaving and superceding previously established ‘facts’ if necessary. ‘Science’ should not be immune either, tinged as it occasionally is with funding concerns and political bias.
The comfort of the individual should be seen only from the ship of society. We are all too easily lulled into believing the ‘saving lie’. The Dark Ages are as close as allowing the prevailing discourse to become poisoned with prevarication. We must not fall into the trap of giving equal value to comforting, popular ideas based on nothing but ‘faith’ as the horrible, minority-held truths uncovered by individuals searching for verifiable facts. It is truth that will drive us forward; and it is lies that will drag us back.