Superstitions

So a week ago, Friday the 13th came and went around the world. To many it would have been an ordinary day, whilst others may have almost feared it. I have heard about some folk not wanting to even get out of bed, for fear of something ‘bad’ happening to them. Many of us have our own ways, our own peculiarities, perhaps eccentricities, even foibles. Incidentally, the latter word can also mean the part of a sword blade from the middle to the point.

In fact a superstition is defined as any belief or practice considered to be irrational or supernatural, attributed to fate or magic, perceived supernatural influence or fear of that which is unknown. It is commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, amulets, astrology, fortune-telling, spirits and certain paranormal entities, more particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific and apparently unrelated prior events. Equally the word ‘superstition’ is often used to refer to a religion not practiced by the majority of a given society, regardless of whether the prevailing religion contains alleged superstitions or not. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines superstition as ‘a religious belief or practice considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance; excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural’, as well as ‘a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief’. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines superstition as ‘the belief that particular events happen in a way that cannot be explained by reason or science; the belief that particular events bring good or bad luck’. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, it is ‘a false conception about causation or belief or practice emanating from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance amounts to superstition’. Meanwhile, the Cambridge Dictionary denotes superstition as ‘a belief that is connected with old ideas about magic etc., without grounding in human reason or scientific knowledge’. The dictionary cites Cambridge English Corpus contextually in that the term ‘superstition’ might define controversial beliefs, the practice of confessional opponents or the beliefs of the ignorant masses as superstitious. Different authors have attempted to categorise different superstitions and one even gave time a category, noting the observances of various ones such as dog days, Egyptian days (which, in Europe during the Middle Ages, were certain days of the year held to be unlucky), year prognoses and lunar timings, also where signs might constitute significances like particular animal behaviours, such as the call of birds, neighing of horses or sighting of comets, as well as dreams. But identifying something as a ‘superstition’ is considered by many as somewhat pejorative or seen with contempt and these items are commonly referred to as folklore. Webster’s ‘The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions’ points out that whilst many superstitions are related with religion, people have been carrying individual subjective perceptions against one another and people of one belief are likely to call people of another belief superstitious. Constantine regarded paganism as a superstition, whilst on the other hand Tacitus regarded Christianity as pernicious superstition. Both Paul the Apostle and Martin Luther (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546) perceived any thing that was not centred on Christ to be superstitious. Whilst the formation of the Latin word ‘superstition’ is clear, from the verb ‘super-stare’, i.e. to stand over, stand upon, to survive, its original intended sense is less clear. It can be interpreted as ‘standing over a thing in amazement or awe’, but other possibilities have been suggested, for example the sense of excess, such as over-scrupulousness or over-ceremoniousness in the performing of religious rites, or else the survival of old, irrational religious habits. The earliest known use of the word as a noun is found in written works by Plautus, Ennius and later by Pliny, with the meaning of ‘art of divination’. From its use in the Classical Latin of Livy and Ovid it is used in the pejorative sense that it holds today in relation to an excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief, as opposed to the proper and reasonable awe of the gods. However Cicero derived the term from ‘superstitiosi’, literally ‘those who are left over’, meaning survivors or descendants, connecting it to excessive anxiety of parents in hoping that their children would survive them to perform their necessary funerary rites.

Greek and Roman polytheists (those with the belief in multiple deities who are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses along with their own religious sects and rituals) modelled their relations with the gods on political and social terms and scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. Such fear of the gods was what the Romans considered to be the meaning of superstition. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church considers superstition sinful in the sense that it denotes ‘a perverse excess of religion’ as a demonstrated lack of trust in divine providence and in violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism is therefore a defence against the accusation that Catholic doctrine is superstitious. In 1948 a behavioural psychologist published an article in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, whilst others also displayed a variety of different behaviours. He believed these behaviours were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons’ actions, so the psychologist believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans. That was his considered opinion. But some people seem to believe that superstitions influence events by changing the likelihood of currently possible outcomes rather than by creating new possible outcomes. In sporting events, for example, a lucky ritual or object is thought to increase the chance that an athlete will perform at the peak of their ability, rather than increasing their overall ability at that sport. There are some people who tend to attribute events to supernatural causes most often under two circumstances. In the first instance they are more likely to attribute an event to a superstitious cause if it is unlikely than if it is likely. In other words, the more surprising the event, the more likely it is to evoke a supernatural explanation. This is believed to stem from an ‘affected’ motivation – a basic desire to exert control over one’s environment. When no natural cause can explain a situation, attributing an event to a superstitious cause may give people some sense of control and ability to predict what will happen in their environment. In the second, people are more likely to attribute an event to a superstitious cause if it is negative than positive. This is called ‘negative agency bias’, for example in American baseball, the Boston Red Sox fans attributed the failure of their team to win the world series for 86 years to the ‘curse of the bambino’, an alleged curse placed on the team for trading a professional baseball player named Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees so that the team owner could fund a Broadway musical. When the Red Sox finally won the world series in 2004 however, the team’s success was attributed to the team’s skill and the rebuilding effort of the new owner and general manager. As you might expect, people are more likely to perceive their computer to act according to its own intentions when it malfunctions than when it functions properly. However, according to various analysts who study consumer behaviour superstitions are employed as a heuristic tool and as a result these can influence a variety of consumer behaviours. These analysts say that, after taking into account a set of antecedents, trait superstitions are predictive of a wide variety of consumer beliefs, like beliefs in astrology or in common negative superstitions, for example the fear of black cats. Additionally, a general proneness to be superstitious may lead to an enduring temperament to gamble, to participate in promotional games, invest in stocks, to forward superstitious e‐mails, keep good‐luck charms and exhibit sports fan regalia. But superstition can also be found in politics, as the Ancient Greek historian Polybius wrote in his work “The Histories” where he used the word ‘superstition’, explaining that in Ancient Rome such beliefs maintained the cohesion of the Roman Empire, operating as it did as a means of controlling the masses, in particular to achieve both political and mundane ends.

Boston Red Sox.

In the Classical era, the existence of gods was actively debated amongst both philosophers and theologians and consequently opposition to superstition arose. The poem ‘De Rerum Natura’, written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius further developed the opposition to superstition. Cicero’s work ‘De Natura Deorum’ also had a great influence on the development of the modern concept of superstition as well as the word itself. Whereas Cicero distinguished ‘superstitio’ and ‘religio’, Lucretius used only the word ‘religio’. That is because for Cicero, ’superstitio’ meant excessive fear of the gods as he believed that only superstition, and not religion, should be abolished. In fact the Roman Empire also made laws condemning those who excited excessive religious fear in others. During the Middle Ages, the idea of God’s influence on the world’s events went mostly undisputed. Trials by ordeal were quite frequent, even though King Frederick II (1194 – 1250 AD) was the first king who explicitly outlawed trials by ordeal as they were considered to be irrational. The rediscovery of lost classical works and scientific advancement led to a steadily increasing disbelief in superstition and a new, more rationalistic view was beginning to be seen. In addition, opposition to superstition was central to the Age of Enlightenment. In fact, most superstitions arose over the course of many centuries and were rooted in regional and historical circumstances, such as religious beliefs or the natural environment. For instance geckos were at one time believed to be of medicinal value in many Asian countries, whilst in China (and in other countries now) the belief of Feng Shui is said to have a negative effect on different places, for example that a room in the northwest corner of a house may have very bad energy. Similarly, the number 8 is thought to be a lucky number in China, so that it is more common than any other number in the Chinese housing market. Equally there are certain phrases, in particular plays, which are considered to bring bad luck, for example it is said that a coven of witches objected to William Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on that well-known Scottish play. Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Prior to a performance, some actors will say “break a leg” in the hope that this will ward off any unlucky events. But there are some equally and quite reasonable actions which at first seem without much foundation. At one time, many children were forced to use their right hands for writing, mainly as a prejudice against the awkwardness of left-handed writing and the prevalence of ‘right-handed’ utensils. Happily, left-handedness is more accepted nowadays, which is all to the good for me personally! But many years ago when greeting someone, the task of shaking hands was done with the right hand because back then a great many swordsmen had their sword on the left side of their waist because they were right-handed, so it was easy for them to draw their sword. But by shaking hands with the right hand it showed openness and trust towards the person they were greeting, not hostility. It is fascinating how these actions have their historical connections, rather than simply thought of as superstition.

This week… an interesting tale.
The following is an actual question given on a University of Washington chemistry mid-term paper. The answer given by one student was considered so ‘profound’ that the professor shared it with colleagues via the Internet, which is of course why we now have the pleasure of enjoying it as well.

Bonus Question:
Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?
Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle’s Law (gas cools down when it expands and heats up when it is compressed) or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:

“First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

As for how many souls are entering Hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there is more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell.

With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added.

This gives two possibilities:
1) If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.
2) If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over. So which is it?

If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year, “…that it will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you”, and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having an affair with her, then #2 above cannot be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and will not freeze over.”

This student received the only “A”.

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