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Sunday, March 27, 2011

What is Superstition? Why Does It Matter?

… a superstition is nothing other than a supposed natural correlation that is supported solely by convention and is unverified by controlled observation. --Stephen C. Pepper, Ethics, (1960) p. 55.
Is Pepper right? His attempt at defining a superstition seems to be an improvement over our everyday notion, which goes something like this:
If you and I both believe or disbelieve something, then it’s an example -- we assume -- of knowledge.
If I believe something you don’t, then that is an example of your ignorance.
But if I don’t believe something that you do, then that is an example of your superstition.
Nonetheless, there is less to Pepper’s definition than meets the eye; it raises several questions:
1. Who is doing the supposing? Doesn’t that matter?
2. How can we tell if the supposition is “supported solely by convention” ?
3. Need we verify everything “by controlled observation”?
Here are some beliefs we are not likely to dismiss as mere superstition, if superstition at all:
A. Ice feels cold.
B. The language you are reading this essay in is English.
C. What you see with your own eyes is not 100% illusion or hallucination.
Have you ever remarked, "I suppose that ice is cold"? Do you have to carry out a series of “controlled observations” to justify believing A or B or C above as something other than superstition?

If I have persuaded you that Pepper hasn't got it quite right, and if you still think it is an important matter to distinguish between knowledge and superstition (After all, which should we teach our children?), then see Questionable Assumptions in Social Decision Making


Cordially
--- EGR