Note: This poorly written post is currently slated for heavy revision or deletion. Read at your own risk.
According to Wikipedia:
Superstition is a credulous belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge.
That definition is suspiciously similar to another word: Religion. But that is the subject of another blog.
Humans are in general, superstitious. This seems to be true in all major cultures, regardless of background or location. How could humans, in all corners of the world, independently develop a universal concept of no practical use?
Two words: Pattern Recognition.
Think about it. If your cavemates keep getting munched on every time they wander into the woods at night with two shiny eyes and a growl in the distance, you’d learn to recognize the pattern pretty fast, or get removed from the gene pool. Selective pressure, basic evolution. The caveman that recognizes the pattern might also be afraid of any two reflective items, which might lead to fewer munching opportunities but avoid being munched on. As long as the benefits outweigh the downside it is a fair trade.
Recognizing patterns becomes more and more ingrained into the brain as humans evolve, as they become more intelligent. Or alas, as it seems nowadays, less and less intelligent.
I predict we will eventually have brains so large we will have to evolve extra arms to hold the head in place while we cruise around in our Segway hovercrafts, that is, if we don’t destroy ourselves before then.
My theory is that we have not been contacted by aliens because all civilizations eventually self-destruct by nuclear annihilation, not over lack of resources but over who has a better imaginary friend. It is the completion of an evolution cycle – extinction through self destruction. It is God’s crude sense of humor, since he allegedly works in mysterious ways. Humans on earth seem well on their way to this endgame – but enough of me being pessimistic; this is about superstition and pattern recognition.
Pattern recognition by itself is not intelligence, but an association skill. It provides information but not knowledge. Most people interpret the information based on preconceptions and biases (they see what they want to see). Knowledge, on the other hand, comes from unbiased critical analysis of the information.
For example, say, someone sees a bearded Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich.
Someone with a preconceived notion will think that his deity of choice has, after countless sandwiches, voluntarily chosen an unlikely edible medium to manifest himself for an unspecified reason, and that he is blessed and he has pleased his deity. The believer has made up his mind, and there is very little anyone can do to convince this person to think otherwise, and it would be unwise to try.
A more critical look would realize that for this to be true, there are many unverifiable conditions that would also have to be true, such as:
1. The pattern so out of the ordinary that it is highly unlikely to be randomly occurring.
2. The pattern is not caused by other means (imprint on grill, other events).
3. The pattern is clearly a likeness of a bearded person.
4. Jesus is real and was a bearded person of middle-eastern descent.
5. The person knows *for certain* what Jesus looked like, and the pattern bears unmistakable resemblance to that image, and not a random middle-eastern male.
6. Jesus being a supernatural being, possesses human-like intents (which in itself is contradictory if he were omnipotent).
7. Jesus, with his human-like intent, decides to suddenly manifest himself to a single person through imperfect means. Keep in mind that a “decision” is a shortcoming of a non-omniscient being, and an imperfect method implies an imperfect decision process.
8. The person believes that, by recognizing this as Jesus, he is somehow blessed or affected, and is “special”. This implies that Jesus plays favorites, another human shortcoming.
9. The person believes that Jesus would be “pleased” by his acknowledgement, which is projecting human emotion on an alleged superhuman deity. Keep in mind that emotion is a human shortcoming: it is a reaction to an external event not previously known. An omnipotent being would supposedly know everything and have no need for joy or anger. If you already know what has happened, is happening, and will happen, would you feel one way or the other? No. It makes no difference either way since it is already long known.
Of course, to the person that believes that Jesus is talking to him, none of this really matters, no matter how absurd the circumstance. It makes him feel good and special and less hopeless. It gives him 15 minutes of fame. Questioning the premises is offending his religion and belief, which for some unknown reason is considered not politically correct.
It is mostly true that ignorance is bliss. However it is sad when mass ignorance turns into mass delusion, and pursuit of truth and knowledge is looked down upon and considered impolite or improper. Sure, one will not make many friends by reasoning away someone’s ignorance, however collectively as a society, rationality should not be discouraged in favor of superstition.
Superstition is part accumulation of unexamined and unverified patterns, and part imagination gone awry. In general the more authoritative a society, the more superstition thrives. It comes in many forms: folk lores, unproven remedies, (ahem) religion, chain letters, bioenergy fields, crystal power, rituals, you name it.
Many scams rely on, and exploit superstition. The most successful scams and convincing lies have a few common ingredients. There are verifiable snippets of truth mixed in, so by association (pattern recognition) one assumes that the entire deal is real. There are usually some coincidences (again, pattern recognition) to strengthen the claim. There are usually lots of personal anecdotes with touching stories that feed on human empathy (more pattern recognition). Sometimes there are a few buzzwords or theories that the layperson cannot verify thrown in. Occasionally conspiracy theory is cited to imply oppressed legitimacy. Let’s face it, if you have a kid with an uncurable disease, and find an official looking site on the internet claiming to use a new, breakthrough stem cell therapy utilizing quantum theory nanotechnology (that cannot be done in the US because big pharma wants to suppress this and sell more drugs), and have 100 stories (real or not) of miraculously-cured kids running around, who wouldn’t sell a kidney or two to pay for a mere *chance* at a cure?
Will gathering 100,000 “like” clicks, forwarding sob stories or folding 10,000 paper cranes really help that allegedly sick orphan? Not really, but it makes the participants feel good, and maybe that is justification enough. It’s mental masturbation for the participants, and either a misguided effort or perhaps even a sick joke for the initiator.
Being superstitious is not a crime. It is kind of like living in the Matrix. For some it is just fine, but I find reality far more interesting. Pointing out the absurdities is also quite entertaining I must say.
It is a pity that critical thinking skills are not explicitly taught in science classes, and scientific experts’ opinions often take back seat to politically correct nonsense. Unfortunately that is reality. So my politically incorrect prediction is that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, hopefully well past our lifetimes, mankind will self-destruct, likely over a dispute regarding which collectively imagined god with anthropomorphized characteristics and shortcomings is imagined to have better superpowers; in other words, whose imaginary friend is more powerful. I am relatively certain that this will happen well before we evolve extra arms to hold up our oversized heads.