In Praise of Superstition

Does the sun go round the earth? The answer I get from my eyes, watching the sun pass across the sky, is that it goes around the earth. Direct experience tells me that we live in a geocentric universe. Science tells me I’m wrong. The facts I witness with my eyes can be explained by a geocentric model, but other facts — the movements of other planets, for example — cannot. We can only understand these with a heliocentric model. What I see with my eyes, the sun going round the earth, is an error, an illusion and therefore, unless I know some science, I will be wrong about the universe.

An enormous number of superstitious ideas, and folk wisdom, have been discredited by science in this way, through rational thought, or through the use of sophisticated tools that provide us with facts with conflict with those which reach the ‘unadorned’ senses or — even more distasteful to the scientific palate — what intuition informs us of. Reality, science has found, is not made up of ‘four elements’ (or four humours), maggots do not spontaneously appear in meat, babies do not magically appear in wombs, aliens haven’t contacted us, angels do not exist and the moon is just the moon.

Coming back to the sun though. When we see it moving over a stationary earth, science invites us to think. This is, essentially, the creed: until you think, you are mistaken. Only a fool would deny the validity of science (meaning its use-value), and the demonstrable fact of heliocentrism but, I put it to you, only an idiot believes that intellectual reasoning is more real, and therefore more intelligent, than sensory awareness and direct intuition.

Folk wisdom and superstition are wrong, it is true; but only by one standard, that of science. This standard is, in its own sphere, correct. When we abstract objects from the context, represent them as ideas, relate those ideas to each other in theories which we test against ‘experience’ (how abstracted objects behave) — in short, when we do the activity known as ‘science’ — what our senses tell us is, indeed, ‘error’, a misleading and fictive distraction.

But why can’t we have both? What’s wrong with astrology and astronomy? Palmistry and chaos theory? Gods (for adults) and — for children — superhero films? We don’t use architecture to prove that music is wrong; why must we use accounting to rule out the I-ching?

Intelligent scientists don’t have a problem with this. It’s followers of the religion of scientism who object. Scientism — the belief that the abstract and abstracting mind can reveal reality — asserts that the scientific method can explain everything. Love, death, the origins of the universe, the nature of consciousness, the source of creativity and the quality of the context — all these things can be reduced to abstract elements and understood through experiment-tested systems and theories. Anyone with who has lived a full, sensate life, outside of institutions; anyone with any real honesty, who has faced and attempted to solve his or her deepest problems through thought; anyone with actual intelligence, capable of perceiving qualities that the abstract mind cannot grasp; such people1 know that scientism is absurd nonsense, unable to answer any questions which actually mean anything to us, such as (as Tolstoy’s said), how we are to live and what we are to do. They cannot, of course, scientifically prove scientism is nonsense, any more than they, or anyone else, can prove that time does, or does not exist. They are addressing a reality which is, in a sense, inimical to proof, abstraction, cause and effect.

What ‘caused’ the universe? How can you prove it? What is its nature? What ‘causes’ consciousness? How can you prove it? What is its nature? What ‘causes’ all the cells in the developing body to know where they have to go? How can you prove it? What are their nature? What ‘causes’ my character? How can you prove it? What is its nature? The answers that science provides are, to an extent, interesting and occasionally useful, but compared to those provided by great art, great myth, folk wisdom and so-called superstition, they are besides the point.

Take astrology. Astrology is regularly brushed aside by rationalists, with much laughter, as being totally preposterous.2 ‘How can one twelfth of the entire planet all have the same fate! How can the stars influence our personalities! Hohoho you would say that, you’re a Capricorn!’ This is, more or less the limit of ‘educated’ understanding of astrology. Almost nobody who laughs at it has taken the time to understand it, the system it presents, which is, actually, extraordinarily sophisticated and subtle. (Both Karl Sagan and Paul Feyerabend defended astrology against the crude attacks made against it. Neither of them believed it had any validity, but both refused to endorse the crude authoritarian scientism upon which criticism is nearly always based). As far as I know there isn’t a single modern system of character analysis which holds a candle to the elegance and utility of that presented by Astrology, a repository of centuries, even millennia, of direct observation and folk wisdom.

This word — folk — by the way, is one of the subtler reasons why astrology, tea-leaf readings, tarot and so on are scoffed at by the greater-than-folk scientists. The bourgeoisie, from which the standard scientist emerges and for whom he speaks — direct their feelings of class antagonism to secondary effects — uncouth behaviour, poor hygiene, disinclination to alienating employment, misplaced apostrophes and an interest in esoterica. The middle-class priest feels that she hates the poor, but because her fine-tuned taste tells her that it is best not to say this — or anything else — directly, she prefers to turn her nose up at the habits and interests of her inferiors.

Returning to astrology, the chief means by which it is dismissed is the principle tool of science; causality. It is, of course, factually true that the planets and stars are very unlikely to causally influence our lives; but that’s not the point, because astrology, like all occult practices, does not rest on causal foundations. Astrology is more like palmistry than astronomy. Palmistry, like graphology and the I-Ching are based on the idea that one’s personality, or state of mind, is indivisible from one’s physical state or ‘situation’. I express myself in the shape and contours of my hand, in the light of my eyes, in my gait, physiognomy and so on; and all of these can be ‘read’ to determine what kind of person I am, or how I am feeling. In fact everyone does this, and believes in doing it, to some extent. Anyone who is sensitive and discerning can get, for example, a very good idea of who I am from the way I walk, the shape of my nose, the timbre of my voice and my writing style.3

Science objects to the details. That such and such a line on the palm means this, that Venus in Aries means that, that x configuration of coin tosses means some such other thing… all this is quite rightly absurd to science. But, again, it is besides the point. People who are interested in occult practices are not concerned with such factual details. They are endeavouring to focus on the part in order to reveal, or gain some insight into the non-factual character or quality of, the whole — that which thought, scientific or otherwise, can never penetrate. The mechanism by which one’s ascendant or moon makes you into the kind of person you are is irrelevant. The point is to attend to the moment you were born, and to read it, to feel it out.

It is this — the general non-causal approach to reality — that rational, humanist critics of occult practices refuse to see. This isn’t to say that reading tea-leaves or crow’s entrails works, certainly not like a theodolite works, or that someone with a Gemini ascendant must have humane features and a quick mind;4 and I’m certainly not saying that the Catholic mass or the absurdities of Tibetan Buddhist ritual make sense. Many times they not only do not make sense, or are flat out wrong, but are psychological prisons of the first order, irrelevant self-oriented means to defer engagement with the simplicity of merely existing and the means by which frauds and hucksters gain control over ordinary people. Obsessive interest in reincarnation, ascended masters, spirit animals, chakras, enneagrams and alchemy is a sure sign that someone is avoiding a reality that is both accessible and impenetrable to the scientific mind. What I am saying is that superstitions are very often believed in order to, first of all, express, and enjoy, a commitment to a qualitative reality which does not, ultimately, make rational cause-and-effect sense — which expresses qualitative realities that literal language cannot express. Taking myths literally, and either worshipping them as the literal truth or dismissing them as literal nonsense, is a sure sign of a basic lack of intelligence. Secondly, people are superstitious because their superstitions contain, amidst their flagrant absurdities, folk wisdom which is useful.

Someone who understands astrology very well, for example, who understands that we have a surface personality (ascendant), basic character (sun sign) and inner ‘sleeping’ self (moon sign), along with various other elements and characteristics which can each be flavoured by one of the twelve signs, each of which is a unique combination of active and passive (or masculine and feminine), cardinal, mutable and fixed, and earth, fire, water and air, has an excellent system by which to think and talk about the character of their fellows. If I, for example, were to check your sun sign, moon sign and ascendant and the position of various planets, I would have a subtle and very specific flavour of who you are. It might be factually wrong, but I would then meet you, and adapt this to how you actually are, and in adapting, I would learn an immense amount about you.

‘Oh but people interested in astrology do not adapt their ideas,’ you might say. And there, you might be right. But neither do people interested in scientism. The former refuse to see that the earth goes round the sun; the latter that the sun goes round the earth.

A Postscript on Superstitious Health

I am scientific, because I am not insane; but only up to a point. Science, once again, is founded on an apprehension of law like causal properties of reality which one can only deny by being, for good or ill, a complete lunatic. Nobody who ‘rejects science’ seriously tries to fly or ever believes that a magician really did saw a woman in half, for obvious reasons. Science informs me that my body has a certain form, operates in a certain way and, notwithstanding the provisionality of its conclusions, I pay attention. When I have a headache I assume there is a cause, I look for it, and I try to solve it as a scientist would. If there is no solution, or if I need to work, I will take an aspirin or a paracetamol which (although these are drugs extracted from plants which we intuitively, and in a sense ‘non-scientifically’ learnt to use to deal with pain) are delivered to us and vouchsafed for us today by the rational machine, and, personally, I’m find with that.

What I’m going the long way around saying is that my scientific mind has a healthy scepticism towards alternative therapies, and I often listen to my scientific mind, for the same reason that all sane people do. But. But. Putting aside the fact that, as I’ve just said the roots of medicine do go back to an instinctive experience of the natural world, putting aside the truth that subjectivity and objectivity dissolve into a strange place where, rationally, very weird things happen and putting aside the fact that I personally have seen some remarkable results from acupuncture and reflexology, I would like to remind any hard rationalists here that all medical scientists now accept, to some degree or another, that the human mind has extraordinary power over the body, as evidenced by the almost miraculous power of placebos.

Therefore. I choose to believe5 that the distilled water I drink is ‘detoxing’ me. I choose to believe that the massage I am having is easing out ‘stress’. I choose to believe that the Bowen Technique will cure my back. I choose to believe that a healer ‘giving me light’ can cure my warts. And I choose to believe that living free of fear transforms my soul into a diamond body of perfect health. I am well aware that some or all of these things might be nonsense and that they cannot be proved. I am certainly alert to charlatans — and there are many — in the world of natural healing, I don’t believe any of this can bring me any ‘spiritual’ benefits and I do not hesitate to go to a doctor to get a broken bone fixed or take a high-tec test to see if I have glaucoma or rub on some voltarol if I’ve got an agonising muscle strain. But what’s the cost of living in a world where magical cures are possible? As long as its tempered with intelligent scepticism; nothing. And what’s the reward? Well, I feel healthier through my beliefs, I am healthier for the feeling and I live in a world which is stranger and interesting than that of rationalists.

Notes

  1. and, needless to say, there are many scientists among them
  2. Preposterous: from Latin praeposterus reversed, absurd (from prae before + posterus coming after).
  3. Meaning the way I write, not the things I say.
  4. Check though, find out the ascendants of a thousand people and get to know them, you might be surprised. I often am.
  5. Elsewhere in my work I am quite down on ‘belief’ — this kind though is the entirely harmless species, not far different to ‘I believe it’s going to rain’.