Superstition

This is the third installment of a series of posts on magic. (The first two are here and here.)

Last time, I argued that magic (you know, the pentagrams-and-incense kind of magic, not the sawing-ladies-in-half kind), however outré it may seem, is actually a part of our everyday experience: you’re soaking in it. Or, as the Insane Clown Posse would say,

big icp

For those that need one, an explanation.

And to make this point, I wrote a little story about Ivy, who used augury to answer an important question about the direction of her life. At the end I suggested that Ivy would probably not tell many people about her moment of personal revelation and indeed might eventually forget about it entirely. But at the time, the revelation would carry real weight.

I came up with this example when explaining to a friend what I wanted to do in my next book. Maybe something like what I have described in Ivy’s story has never happened to you, but my friend — a major intellectual presence in my field and a hard-headed, no-nonsense kind of person — clearly knew what I was talking about.

I got to the end of my story and said to my friend, so, imagine that, at that moment you made your decision, a little rationalist demon appeared on your shoulder and said “wait, what are you doing? How could you make such an important decision on the basis of chance? What possible relationship could there be between the flight of crows are whether or not to dump your boyfriend? Explain yourself!” To which my friend replied, sometimes I wish I could kill that little demon.

I thought this was an interesting response. It suggests three things:

1. The rationalist demon wins just about every time: sooner or later, we know we’ll have report to him and account for ourselves.

2. The demon’s presence is unwelcome and his authority over us is a burden.

3. The demon’s point of view is not even useful in the kind of situation I have described.

I take no. 3 for granted. I have written a lot in the last couple of years about the ways that calculative rationality cannot account for aesthetic and existential experience, and how our dogged attempts to reduce experience along some quantified scale constitute a kind of barbarism. The meaning of Ivy’s experience doesn’t have anything to do with whatever it is our demon is going on about. Although perhaps I will need to make that argument at greater length elsewhere. We’ll see. But for now, I want to spend more time on nos. 1 and 2.

Regarding no. 1: Rationalism (that is, causal reasoning based on the known workings of the physical universe)* is the regulating background idea by which educated persons in our society judge the value of any particular notion or proposition. This is true even of the most bigoted of religious fundamentalists. It is often and rightly said that fundamentalism is an essentially modern phenomenon. On some level, fundamentalists know just as well as anyone else that their religious ideas are imperiled or outright falsified by rationalism. Fundamentalists don’t seem to care much what science has to say about their beliefs, but I would suggest that fundamentalists are the ones who care the most. They just refuse to meet science half-way. Their response to skeptical modernity is not that of the liberal churchman, for whom biblical tales are metaphors and scripture represents knowledge of a different order from that of science. This schema of different but non-competing knowledges is Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria.” Fundamentalists cannot accept two-ness in knowledge, though. For them, there can only be one truth.

And if their truth cannot be proven, demonstrated, or otherwise handled with the tools of rationalism, then they will place all their energy into belief. Belief is what fundamentalists use to sustain an idea in the face of rational disproof. Belief is a practice. One doesn’t simply believe in something for all time: belief is something you need to renew constantly through spiritual practices (prayer, fasting, etc.) and through participation in a community of fellow believers. The more of a headwind your belief faces, the more vigorously you will have to paddle. Fundamentalists are as dogmatic, humorless, unimaginative, and ruthless as they are because they are having to work very hard indeed to sustain their beliefs. Their beliefs are ridiculous in precise proportion to the energy with which they are maintained in the face of opposition. And the force of opposition is what sustains them in their belief. Like Tertullian, they believe because it is absurd. Their belief is the flip side of rationalist unbelief.

And they are confirmed in their desperate mission of belief because of no. 2: they experience the demands of modern rationalism as a burden. But here I should stop calling them “them”: this is something we all have in common. Rationalism too relies on a belief that must be practiced and which demands a certain cost of human energy.

It is not easy to live in a disenchanted universe. In fact, the systematic post-Enlightenment denial of intelligence, agency, and meaning in the affairs of the universe has proven toxic to human life. I have written a certain amount about this myself, and in doing so I have only added a couple of drops to the vast ocean of writing that identifies rational disenchantment as the cognitive signature of modernity and also its curse. From this point of view, religious fundamentalists and hardcore scientific rationalists of the Dawkins variety are both the damaged children of modernity. Both groups face the same yawning chasm of meaninglessness, but the one puts all its energy into negating it and the other into identifying with it.

But there remains a certain symmetry between these groups. Robert Anton Wilson writes in his preface to Cosmic Trigger I (a widely-read and entertaining late-20th-century occult narrative) that, while he has received a lot of great fan mail over the years,

not all the mail I have received about this book has been intelligent and thoughtful. I have received several quite nutty and unintentionally funny poison-pen letters from two groups of dogmatists — Fundamentalist Christians and Fundamentalist Materialists.

The Fundamentalist Christians have told me that I am a slave of Satan and should have the demons expelled with an exorcism. The Fundamentalist Materialists inform me that I am a liar, charlatan, fraud and scoundrel. Aside from this minor difference, the letters are astoundingly similar. Both groups share the same crusading zeal and the same total lack of humor, charity and common human decency.

These intolerable cults have served to confirm me in my agnosticism by presenting further evidence to support my contention that when dogma enters the brain, all intellectual activity ceases. [RAW, Cosmic Trigger I, viii-ix.]

wilson-cosmic-trigger-ii-new-falcon

Portrait of Robert Anton Wilson as a skinny, naked Louis CK about to go onstage and do some prop comedy.

Elsewhere in the same passage, Wilson paraphrases the last paragraph in his best-known epigram, “belief is the death of intelligence.”

One thing both groups have in common is their tendency to refuse calling their point of view a belief. A good number of Christians refuse even to acknowledge that Christianity is a religion: if a religion can be any one of the many competing ways of understanding the divine, then Christianity cannot be the same kind of thing, because it alone is true. Or else Christianity is the only religion and the others are . . . uh, well, call them something else. My local Half-Price Books shelves Christian books in the section marked “religion” and everything else (Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, etc.) in “Metaphysical.” If you inhabit this worldview, you might not even acknowledge that your belief is a belief at all, much less (as I have argued earlier) a belief you have to practice and sustain in the face of your own rational doubts — the demon that sits forever on your shoulder.

Scientific rationalists say almost the exact same thing: I don’t “believe” in science, I know science to be true.** I used to say this exact thing myself. But you cannot keep belief entirely out of the picture. At the beginning of his Principles of Psychology, William James writes about the scope of his work and describes intention towards a goal (“the pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment”) as the hallmark of mental life, commenting that the question of intelligence and purpose is central to “the deepest of all philosophic problems:”

Is the Kosmos an expression of intelligence rational in its inward nature, or a brute external fact pure and simple? If we find ourselves, in contemplating it, unable to banish the impression that it is a realm of final purposes, that it exists for the sake of something, we place intelligence at the heart of it and have a religion. If, on the contrary, in surveying its irremediable flux, we can think of the present only as so much mere mechanical sprouting from the past, occurring with no reference to the future, we are atheists and materialists.

This philosophic conflict animates the quarrel between Darwinian scientists and the proponents of “intelligent design,” though I don’t want to spend any time on that, because this post is already long enough and I don’t want to get distracted from my point, which is, as I say, that you cannot keep belief entirely out of the picture. And the decision to interpret the world as having or not having final purposes is itself a matter of belief. It is not, and cannot be, a scientific proposition. It is a metaphysical idea, a statement about the universe that permits scientific thinking, not itself a statement that can be proved or disproved through scientific (empirical, experimental, repeatable, falsifiable) means. To think you can purge metaphysics from any philosophical system is to dream the impossible logico-mathematical dream of a “set of all sets,” the unshakable logical foundation whose propositions include themselves.

What I am saying is, to arrive at science, you need a bit of belief. However, since scientific rationalism cannot find a place for belief, belief is denied and repressed. It doesn’t go away, though, but goes underground, where it becomes the shadow side of scientism. Remember what I said about the shadow in my last post? “Write a list of everything you dislike most in others. Congratulations, you have just described the part of yourself you don’t like and can’t acknowledge.” Well, then.

So as I wrote earlier, fundamentalist rationalism, like religious fundamentalism, relies on a belief that must be practiced and that demands a constant output of human energy. Each fundamentalism is the shadow of the other: the shadow side of religious fundamentalism is doubt, and the shadow side of rationalist fundamentalism is belief. Most of us, probably, are not fundamentalists of either kind. But whether one is from a religious background or a scientific-atheist background or a nothing-in-particular background, any half-educated person in the modern West will still have that little rationalist demon resting on her shoulder almost all the time, monitoring her thoughts and telling her whether her thoughts are acceptable to the ruling dispensation. A religious person and a secular person will react differently to that demon, but the demon will be there all the same. And either way, that demon will stand over their experience.

We normally associate the word “superstition” with the sort of magical thinking that Ivy entertains in my little hypothetical scenario. But consider the etymology of “superstition”: it comes from a Latin root that means “to stand over.” Superstition is a kind of thinking in which a received idea stands over one’s present experience. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Really? Did you test that hypothesis? How many mothers with broken backs have you met? Your experience almost certainly contradicts the saying. But if, contrary to your own experience, you jump over the crack anyway, you are letting something you’ve heard, a little rhyme jingling in your ear, stand over your own experience. You don’t really pay attention to your experience; you make your experience fit the received idea. Superstitions are hard to uproot because they monitor and remap our reality as it unfolds. Whatever happens to us that doesn’t fit the script is shuffled off to that mental folder marked “awkward/inconvenient.”

Actual scientists are rightly irritated by the superstitious mishandling of scientific concepts in the popular press — for example, when they hear people say “science tells us,” as if science is some monolithic and unquestionable Vatican-like authority, or when they encounter the rebadged phrenology passed off as neuroscience, a.k.a. neurobollocks, that has gone hand-in-hand with the mindfulness fad. But that’s not really my point. I call superstition anything that stands over our experience and insists that we discount it for an idea we must take on faith or authority. And from this point of view, the rationalist demon that would tell Ivy not to pay attention to her own emotional experience is a figure of superstitious dread.

So am I saying, like my friend, that we should kill that little demon? No. Because magic is nothing if not an excellent way of bargaining with demons. But that subject will have to wait for another time. For now, I will simply say that while Robert Anton Wilson called belief “the death of intelligence,” he also acknowledged that he was no more able to transcend it than anyone else. How he dealt with belief, though, says much about how magical thinking works, and what it might have to offer scholars in the humanities.

*[added several days later] To split hairs: “causal reasoning based on the known workings of the physical universe” is rationality, whereas rationalism is the belief (yes, belief — read the whole post) that this style of reasoning is the sole means of establishing truth.

**Notice how often those who go along with the assumptions of scientific rationalism without thinking all that much about them — for example, the clever fellows who do the highly-entertaining Cracked Podcast — will say “I believe in science.” If you called them on it they’d probably backpedal, but this is a case of an offhand vernacular expression being the more accurate (or at least the more honest) one.

 

 

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Superstition

  1. JDJPlocher says:

    This series of posts and thought is great. Great enough, in fact, that I’m momentarily wishing myself back into the musicology biz to badger you about them at a conference. I look forward to the book!

  2. philphord says:

    Glad you”re enjoying them! I’m having fun writing them.

  3. Pingback: You’re soaking in it, part 1 | Dial M for Musicology

  4. Pingback: Demons | Dial M for Musicology

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