Reason and Superstition

Ralph Noyes
Magonia 32, March 1988

It was characteristic of Magonia to open its twentieth anniversary conference on Walpurgis Day, the first of May. Not Walpurgisnacht, be it noted, that terrible eve of May when witches are abroad, but in the clear light of day. And it was daylight that prevailed. We were conducted on a tour of reason by such torchbearers for sanity and commonsense as Roger Sandell, Peter Rogerson, Michael Goss and Hilary Evans.

Hardly a stone was left unturned in the graveyard of our superstitions. I departed on the Monday swept clear of cobwebs, purged of terror, as Aristotle might have put it. It had been a purgisfest against unreason. And yet I left uneasy…

I was sufficiently uneasy, in fact, to look up “superstition” in several dictionaries and to consider whether I now believed in anything at all except the brute facts of an utterly deterministic world in which knuckles get barked, bills must be paid, natural selection pursues its dreadful course and the Sun always rises. I even went to the lengths of re-reading David Hume on miracles.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines superstition as “credulity regarding the supernatural, irrational fear of the unknown or mysterious, misdirected reverence; a religion or practice or particular opinion based on such tendencles”. David Hume, I reminded myself, defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature”, adding that “we may establish it as a maxim that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle…”

My unease mounted. I was not reassured. It seemed to me that the Oxford lexicographers had begged all the important questions. What is 'the supernatural'? When is a fear 'irrational'? What do we mean by “misdirected’”? Who are the arbiters in these matters. CSICOP? The Society for Psychical Research? The Central Electricity Generating Board? Mrs Thatcher? Commonsense? The BBC? But I recalled that a prominent member of CSICOP is on record as saying that he would disbelieve in psychokinesis even if demonstrated before his eyes and would seek to withdraw the research grant of any scientist who showed him. As for miracles, I recall that David Hume, writing in 1747, would have been obliged on his own principles to reject the testimony of millions for the frequent apparition of Terry Wogan in dimly lit living-rooms at a time of day when common folk grow prone to superstition.

I also recalled that several members of the Magonia conference audience, myself included, took leave to doubt that we were always wrong to fear the unknown or mysterious. It seemed to some of us quite rational to be superstitious, in the dictionary sense, of nuclear power stations, overhead, power lines, new pesticides, the irradiation of food, genetic engineering, bank statements prepared by mainframe computers and almost anything said on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government by Mr Bernard Ingham.

It seemed to some of us that the rapid spread of alarming folk-tales in all these matters would not be only a pleasure for the folk but a rational duty on behalf of the sensible man. One of us went so far as to suggest that paranoia should be the normal stance of the concerned citizen, but I think we agreed lines must be drawn somewhere and that states of psychosis should be avoided wherever possible. I have, indeed, since heard through the friend of a friend that paranoia can bring you out in boils; and he has, for this reason, given up reading Quest.

Let us give three cheers for David Hume, “a violation of the laws of nature” - any such thing should be treated as harshly as a parking offence

So lines must be drawn somewhere… But the dictionary does not help us… Nor can we look to David Hume or CSICOP for the guidance we clearly need… I found myself forced back to first principles, obliged to grope my way towards home-spun conclusions. I now offer the readers of Magonia the outcome of my researches – nay, I insist that they should have them, subject only to such deletions in the remainder of this text as the Editor may care to make in the interests of good taste, government objections to the revelations of a former official, or perhaps even brevity.

Let us leave out of the definition of superstition anything to do with fear: fears may be rational until proved otherwise. Let us abandon once and for all the absurd term ‘supernatural’: all that occurs in nature, everything that happens is in this sense ‘natural’, the only issue for sensible men is the evidence of it having happened. Let us set ‘misdirected reverence’ to one side: reverence is a frame of mind to be valued in a world much governed by narrower objectives, and the question of where it should be directed is a matter for honest debate (to the 28-week foetus, for example? Or to the gir1 who is carrying it? To the Brazilian rain-forest? Or to the widows and pensioners who have invested in Reed International?). I offer as the only workable definition of superstition: “persistence in a belief in the face of contrary evidence”.
As for miracles, let us give three cheers for David Hume: in no circumstances can we be expected to put up with “a violation of the laws of nature”; any such thing should be treated as harshly as a parking offence. But let us also remember that we may not quite yet have exhausted our knowledge of the laws of nature. Let us recall that round about 1880 Lord Kelvin seriously considered that the intake of student physicists to Imperial College should be tapered off on the grounds that physics was now well understood and that only a few loose ends remained to be tidied up. Before the end of the century occult and mysterious rays had fogged the photographic places of Monsieur Becquerell, and Herr Einstein was on the point of demonstrating that the classical mechanics of Newton were a hopeless guide to the behaviour of physical systems operating in conditions not foreseen in the seventeenth century.

Lord Kelvin had somewhat put his foot in it. Members of CSICOP sometimes look similarly placed. So let us harbour any fear, belief or reverence that we wish, provided that we are ready to abandon it in the face of contrary evidence. let us call no man superstitious until he declines to accept the facts. And let us agree that miracles do not occur and that the supernatural does not exist. Here are some applications of this view.

At its inception astrology was far from being a superstition. It identified a number of irregularities in the heavens and properly linked several of them with events on earth (the flooding of the Nile; the growth of crops). In the absence of other information about an ever-dangerous world it was rational of the astrologers to hope that other correspondences could be expected. Astrology only became superstitious (on the definition suggested above) when men had accepted the heliocentric hypothesis and recognised that the constellations were mere artifacts of observation.

Alchemy was irretrievably superstitious from the start. It never came near to yielding the hoped-for results (transmutation of base metals; rejuvenation of the elderly), but the foolish old gentlemen never allowed this to discourage them from having another go or from inventing fantastical excuses for failure (moon in the wrong quarter; too much sulphur; not enough heat; insufficient sympathy from the wife).

Chemistry was never superstitious – even when it was wrong! It was rational of the early chemists to postulate a mysterious ‘phlogiston’ which some substances contained and which they gave up on burning. Experimentation seemed to support this view. It was their willingness to abandon this guess when Priestly and Lavoisier demonstrated that combustion depended upon adding a mysterious something to the burning material (oxygen) which marks the chemists as non-superstitious.

Members of CSICOP are superstitious in maintaining that psychokinesis is an impossibility. The evidence to the contrary has been overwhelming for more than a decade.

(Readers of Magonia have only to refer to pages 1 to 9 of vol. 55, no. 810 of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research or to the article on ‘Engineering Anomalies’ in vol. 1, no. 1 of the Journal of Scientific Exploration to satisfy themselves on this matter. It was not unreasonable of CSICOP a while ago to doubt the existence of psychokinetic effects in view of the extreme difficulties which lie in the way of explaining them. It is superstitious of them to adhere to their simple faith in nineteenth century determinism in the face of the evidence now available – and downright obscurantist to decline to examine the published papers.

It is superstitious to touch wood. I confess that I used to do so. But I have tested the matter by risky experimentation in the other direction and can now report that it seems safe to forgo this precaution. (Anyway, I hope so… )

It is endlessly enjoyable to read the eloquent and scholarly essays given us by Peter Rogerson, Roger Sandell and Michael Goss on the reasons for which we tend to give our credulity to haunted houses, to cast an uneasy glance at the prophecies of Nostradamus and to look behind us for the maniac on the platform. I never fail to learn something from them, my reason is always fortified. But I reserve the right to draw their attention to any case of a haunting which seems authenticated beyond reasonable doubt and to sue for damages if pushed onto the railway line by anybody whatsoever. (I might even reserve on Nostradamus but find him – fortunately – beyond comprehension).

It seems germane to end this article with a quotation from Francis Bacon. “There is”, he said, “a superstition in avoiding superstition.” I have a friend, for example, who makes a point of walking under ladders. One day something will fall on him.

Steuart Campbell replied to this in Magonia 33