Saturday, November 08, 2008

The arc of knowing


A new collection of scholarly essays from the journal Past and Present (published by Oxford University Press) considers the notion of superstition across the ages and in contemporary cultures around the globe. If there is a lesson to be drawn from the book it is this: Everyone knows what superstition is, and it's always what someone else believes.

Voltaire, wrote this about superstition: "A Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly wrong. The archbishop of Canterbury claims that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians levy the same reproach against his Grace of Canterbury, and are in their turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of men in the eyes of other Christians."

I have written as much here and here and here.

The word "superstition" comes from the Latin verb superstare, "to stand upon or over." It is is about the best word we have for looking down our noses on those who believe something other than what we believe ourselves. The Romans, who gave us the word, knew exactly what they meant by it; a superstition was anything strange and foreign to the Romans.

Post-Enlightenment rationalists commonly use the word to mean "any irrational, groundless practice or belief founded on fear or ignorance." What is clear is that by any definition superstition is as rampant in the world today as at any time and place in history.

There is a diagram in the Oxford book, in an essay by Alan Knight on superstition in Mexico from colonial times to the present, that I reproduce here. The author is concerned with categories of knowledge in a culture dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. As you can see from the diagram, categories of belief run from infallibly true dogma, through officially sanctioned popular magic (cult of the saints), to harmless folk customs, to black magic and pagan religious practices, to rank religious heresies that must be vigorously suppressed.

It strikes me that the same sort of Venn diagram could be usefully applied to a discussion of superstition at any time and place.

For example, for our own time, in place of "Catholicism," put "orthodox science." For "cult of the saints" substitute, say, "alternative or complementary medicine." For harmless "superstition," "astrology" will serve nicely. For "diabolism" we require something that threatens the practice and promulgation of orthodoxy; how about "intelligent design"? For a heresy that undermines the entire fabric of science and raises the hackles of scientific dogmatists, insert "young Earth creationism."

One might sketch a similar arc of deviation from any reigning orthodoxy. Can science claim to be different -- more reliable -- than other orthodoxies? I think so, as I have indicated in the posts referenced above. But then -- as per Voltaire -- I would, wouldn't I?