In Praise of Superstition

Superstition is rooted in a much deeper and more sensitive layer of the psyche than scepticism.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Does the sun go round the earth? The answer I get from my senses, watching it pass across the sky, is that it does. Direct, irrational, experience tells me that the universe revolves around a flat earth, but rational science tells me I’m wrong. The facts I witness with my eyes can be explained by a geocentric model of the heavens, but other factsthe movements of other planets, for examplecannot. We can only understand these with a heliocentric model of planetary motion. 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, like all the millions of people who existed before the Renaissance, be completely wrong about the universe.

Most superstitious folk wisdom has now been discredited by science in this way, through rational thinking, or through the use of sophisticated tools that provide us with facts which conflict with qualities which reach the ‘unadorned’ senses oreven more distasteful to the scientific palatewhich intuition informs us of. Reality, science has found, is not made up of four ‘elements’ (or ‘humours’), maggots do not spontaneously appear in meat, babies do not magically appear in wombs, semen is not secreted from the spine, aliens haven’t contacted us, angels do not exist and the sun is just the sun, it’s not the Eye of Horus.

When we see the sun moving over a stationary earth, science invites us to think. This is, essentially, the creed: until you think, you are mistaken. But what are we thinking of? The mind does not present us with what is actually ‘out there’, but with its own representation of the objective universe. This representation must refer to something real, something which ‘fits’ it, or nothing would make sense and rabbits really could be pulled from hats. The mind, in other words, is accurate, and therefore it is useful; but it is not true. What the mind displays for us is not the universe in itself, which the rational mind can no more touch than a man in a spacesuit can touch a butterfly. All it can experience is its own projection.

By thinking about the projected universe we can make our interpretation of it more and more usefulmore and more factually accuratebut we can never get any closer to the truth of reality, what it actually is, by studying the indirect image of it that the self presents to us. For this we need to directly experience the universe, from within, which is only possible by experiencing my piece of the universe, the clod I call my body, from within. Such an experience does not and cannot reveal more facts, nor does it enable us to manipulate reality more effectively; it’s not in the least bit useful (or emotional). What inner experience reveals is quality, or meaning.

This meaning cannot be expressed literally, to the satisfaction of the mind, which can only deal in literal facts and, crucially, their causal relation to each other. The matrix of facticity and causality the mind brings to experience is the bedrock of the activity we call ‘scientific enquiry’. One gathers the facts, one proposes theories about how these facts are causally linked to each other, one tests the theories and one discovers how things work in the projected universe. This is how we know for as good as sure that the blood is pumped round the body by the heart, that the air is full of nitrogen atoms and that the earth goes round the sun.

Science, however, cannot tell us what anything is, only how it behaves. It can never tell us what blood is, what the air is or what the sun is. The common idea that we know what the sun is because we know what elements comprise it, or when and why it is likely to burn itself out, or because we have a concept ‘sun’ that we all rationally understand, is actually far more unreasonable than the now discredited idea that the sun goes round the earth. At least, for the latter idea, we have some evidence and, crucially, can find some actual meaning. We can find no evidence, whatsoever, to demonstrate that what our rational minds inform us of the sun is what it actually is. That what my eyes see conflicts with the evidence of thought almost certainly, of course, rules in the favour of science, but that the consciously apprehended meaning of the sun, its unbelievable living strangeness, conflicts with the absolute absence of any value in science, rules in the favour of superstition.

What this means is that both science and superstition are, to the degree they confine themselves to their proper domains, true and, to the degree they leave those domains, false. Evidentially, when we accurately think about the sun, it is wrong to say that it literally orbits a flat earth or that it is literally a fiery god riding a chariot across the sky. Meaningfully, when we actually experience the sun, it is just as wrong to say that it is literally a ball of hot plasma, heated to incandescence by nuclear fusion reactions in its core. In both cases literality is taking representation to be that which it is representing. The word we use for this is idolatry, the worship of idols, or images; in the case of literalist superstition, idolatrous gods and in the case of literalist science, idolatrous facts.1 The two groups, clinging to their slice of a limited, literal pie, then set upon each other in order to justify their claim. The superstition of science scoffs at the superstition of faith, and vice versa.2

This does not mean that myths are literally true, nor does it mean that, ritual, say ‘a ceremony of the sun’, can literally affect how the sun behaves or ‘looks upon us’, nor does it mean that augurypalm-reading, for examplegives us the slightest insight into the facts of our lives or into what causes them, which is, of course ludicrous. Hyperion, Surya and Amaterasu do not literally exists, a luminous spheroid of plasma doesn’t care if we offer sacrifices to it and the fact that this same spheroid appears to be in this or that constellation has no causal influence over one twelfth of the population of the earth. Superstition, to the degree it keeps to its proper domain, does not and cannot reveal any literal facts, it expresses the timeless, causeless context and, through myth, ritual and augury, it reorients us towards that context.

The hyper-rationalist would have it that human beings were, for hundreds of thousands of years, hopelessly deluded. Their gods were foolish fairy tales, their rituals ridiculous, their augury useless. The ‘man of science’ is unable to grasp that the mythic divinity of nature is not, for primal people, a literal thing, but a non-literal experience. When primal man looks at the sun, he doesn’t see a flaming Titan, he experiences a unique, ineffable quality, which manifests as a dreamlike vision of the Titan, just as it manifests as a ball of fire. (In the same way, words, such as ‘inspiration’, manifest certain qualities in the psyche, such as ‘inhaling the spirit’, at the same time as they manifest physical facts, such as literal breathing.3)

Primal people are perfectly able to see the literal aspect of the world and to rationally think about it. Pre-civilised people, like modern hunter-gatherers, were capable of extraordinary feats of technical understanding, involving the same kind of factual-causal planning and reasoning we use today to build bridges and analyse ice cores. The builders of Stonehenge for example, who dragged rocks weighing twenty-five tonnes across fifty kilometres of undulating land, in order to position them in a precise alignment with the movement of the sun, did not allow their mythic conception of that sun to interfere with their rational engineering. They understood that although the two conceptions had the same sourcein this case the sunthey manifested as both non-literal myth and literal science.

Similarly, when primal man performs a ritual, to bless his spear so that it performs better in the hunt, or to harmonise the social order with the celestial order, or to appeal to the benevolence of the sun, so that it warms the earth he has worked, he does not do so in order to causally influence the universe. Causality here is a metaphor for a change in his representation of that universe which he now experiences differently, charged with meaning. This is not a subjective alteration of his feelings, but an actual change in manifest reality, now oriented towards a living mystery which he is better able to integrate into his activities.

And when primal man performs an act of augury, when he gazes at a palm, or peers into the heavens, or inspects the entrails of a jackal, he is not looking for a causal explanation of what has or will happen, but seeks to divine the character of the whole moment through its part. A spread of symbolic forms (such as we might find in runes or tarot cards) presents a character or atmosphere which, combined with that of the querent and with my interaction with him or her, manifests meaning, and, with it, a sense of the past and future of he or she who consults the oracle. Not in a crude literal sense, rather in the same way that when I look into someone’s eyes I get a sense of their character and what kind of life they have led and will lead, or similar to how the more sensitive among us take an instinctive meter-reading of the room and intuitively gauge what might happen here.

Consider astrology, regularly brushed aside by rationalists, with much laughter, as being totally preposterous. ‘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 both perceptive and subtle, a repository of centuries, even millennia, of direct observation of human character. The elegant map of the self it presents is not supposed to be a rational system, with factual-causal predictive power, but a symbolic form into which non-literal enquiry into the other can be directed. (We might note here that both Carl Sagan and Paul Feyerabend defended astrology against the crude attacks made against it. Neither of them believed it had any literal validity, but both refused to endorse the crude authoritarian scientism upon which it is discounted, upon which, in fact, criticism of folk wisdom is always based.)

This wordfolkis a clue to one of the subtler reasons why astrology, tea-leaf readings, tarot and so on are scoffed at by the bourgeois scientific establishment. The bourgeoisie, from which the standard scientist emerges and for whom he speaks, always direct their feelings of class antagonism to secondary effectsuncouth behaviour, poor hygiene, disinclination to alienating employment and misplaced apostrophes. The middle-class priest feels, in her bowels, that she detests the poor, but because her fine-tuned taste tells her that it would be crass to say thisor anything else for that matterdirectly, she prefers to turn her nose up at the habits and interests of her social inferiors. This is one reason why she scoffs at myth, ritual and augury, why the bourgeois religious priest persecutes them as satanic and why the bourgeois rational priest dismisses them as ‘pseudoscience’.

Myth, ritual and augury are not, properly speaking, pseudosciences, because they don’t pretend to be rational. Not so psychology and economics, which certainly do pretend to be scientific, but are anything but, founded as they are on the groundless assumption that the human mind and human society can be reduced to factual-causal laws and, consequently, that it is possible to create an objective, falsifiable, ‘science’ of human culture or ‘science’ of consciousness. If this doesn’t strike you as outrageous charlatanism on a monumental scale, take a look how a world that is run and managed by psychologists and economistsourshas turned out.

Myth, ritual and augury are arts and, as such, are as distinct from science as woman is from man. In a loving relationship both men and women find, to their great pleasure and amazement, that they are both manifestations of a common source, but, in the world, they have their own sphere, or domain, of meaning and influence that only the dishonest and the insane conflate under the religious-scientific rubric of literalism. In this sense the assumption that science and superstition are really playing the same ponderous game, which of course science always wins, is no different to the pulping of manhood and womanhood into a postmodern mash, the shattering of the barrier between the public and the private and the removal of all forms of distinction between, say, the civilised world and pre-civilised society, or between humans and animals.

Literalist accounts of superstition are beside the point; but this does not mean that myth, ritual and augury are necessarily true, any more than science is. Many times they not only do not make any kind of sense, literal or otherwise, 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 are all a sure sign that someone is avoiding a reality that is literally accessibleone reason that the literal lives of such people are so frequently shambolicand here, of course, science is of peerless value. The dry, hollow, pointless wasteland of fundamentalist scientism suddenly blooms into staunch reason when it confronts the priest who informs us that his Bible, Torah or Koran is literally God’s word, or the mystic who explains how crystals actually dispel bad spirits, or the trans-rights activist who declares that womanhood is really a state of mind, or the postmodern theorist who writes that ‘what distinguishes anonymity from what we talk about as jouissancenamely, what is regulated by lawis a geometry’,4 or the conspiracy theorist who ‘proves’ to us that the earth is really flat, or that the collapse of civilisation is a liberal hoax, or that all the evil in the world is caused by the Rothschilds. Then the light of literalist rationality blows away superstitious literalism like a torch evaporates shadows.

The problem is that nothing but light creates a desert. Nothing can actually live under the scrutinising stare of the scientific mind. It’s fine to criticise priests and postmodernists who claim the status of light for their obscurantism, but to enter the darkness with a lamp destroys it and blind us. We can no more see the truth of existence with ‘enlightened’ science than we can take in the night with a torch, which shrinks our vision to a single, obsessive and entirely artificial circle.

The truth and purpose of superstition is not to illuminate the terrain, but to take it in, to express, and enjoy, a commitment to an obscure reality which does not, ultimately, make rational, ‘visible’, cause-and-effect sense. Taking superstitions 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, common to both the second-rate spiritualist and the second-rate scientist. The credulous spiritualist and the lumbering scientist see only what appears to them in representation, magical or rational as the case may be, and can see no further. As T.H. Huxley put it, ‘anyone who is practically acquainted with scientific work is aware that those who refuse to go beyond fact rarely get as far as fact’. This quote, from a dyed-in-the-wool rationalist, could just easily apply to ‘mythic work’, ‘ritual work’ or ‘augury work’.

Human beings are inherently superstitious, because we are inherently conscious, and consciousness is inherently irrational. Through commitment to a meaningful way of life, one that admits of qualities which facts can never reach, we speak of gods and lay-lines and moon signs and hexagrams, and we bless each other and prostrate ourselves before the mountain and throw yarrow stalks and burn sage and dance in concentric rings and drink the mushroom blood of the forest goddess and speak to the fire-breathing ram. We then conceptualise all of this in systems of conceptual ‘storage’ which contain the folk wisdom of a culture; the kind of insights that Carl Jung discovered in alchemy and the I-ching, for example. As ego overwhelms consciousness, so such systems overwhelm the men and women who make them and become not fluid expressions of the ineffable or songs to bind us to each other and to the universe, but conceptual prisons. The stone upon which man engraved his culture is now engraving him.5 He then finds himself believing in the literal truth of his religion, or his science, unable to see its metaphorical value, because metaphor—the enemy of all literalists—guides him back to what different things have in common. A man who can see through the illusions of superstition and science, while holding to the truth of both, who ‘puts his trust in god, but keeps his powder dry,’ is happy and effective. The superstitious literalist is ineffective, for he cannot see that the earth goes round the sun. The rational literalist is unhappy, for he cannot see that the sun goes round the earth.

This is an extract from my new collection of essays, Ad Radicem.

Notes

  1. Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances.
  2. James Anthony Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects.
  3. Owen Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning.
  4. Lacan, 1975. See Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense.
  5. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality.