Thursday 16 January 2014

The Science of Superstition and the Supernatural.

As we head towards the Chinese New Year, I have been thinking a lot about superstition, the supernatural and how it rules our lives, if at all. 

I personally don't believe in either and subscribe to the world of the rational.  Unless it has a solid scientific base, I'm just not interested. Of course, I know science cannot explain everything, but it can in most cases, through a process of logical progression.  Just because something can’t be explained today doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.
Superstition, on the other hand, relies totally on an emotive belief system and a reliance on some form of ritual-based practice to comply.

Individual styled superstitions such as, putting your left sock on before the right, tying up the right shoe lace first etc, are quite common.  Sports people are especially prone to this.  What seemed to have worked for one winning game turns into a ritual that must continue to maintain the supposed streak of good luck. Even if all facts point elsewhere, it becomes an ingrained habit unable to be broken. Psychology has a name for this behaviour, Intermittent Reinforcement.  Suffice to say it's worth having a read about.

There is wider form of superstition the group/social phenomena that is taught through traditional "Old wives tales" folklore. Good examples are: never walk under a ladder, it will bring you bad luck; a black cat crossing your path brings bad luck, be careful on friday the 13th; never sweep the floor on the first day of Chinese New Year or otherwise, you'll sweep away good fortune. 

Notice two very powerful underlying themes at work here; no one wants to be unlucky and everyone wants to become wealthy.   Predicting the future as long as it has positive connotations has great appeal to the masses. 

Not much to hang your intellectual hat on here I fear.  Where do these examples come from? No one really knows or cares, but the idea of following a set of simplistic rules to bring the desired results is very enticing to most. 

Now I pose a question. Are we all inherently superstitious or is it conditioned through early childhood?

In my case, my parents did not, as far as I remember adhered to any superstitious behaviour, but I am sure I learnt a lot of the “Old Wives Tales” through my mother. Other members of the family I think have developed their own ideas but to be honest I am only speculating as we have never talked about it.

I suspect the answer is a bit of both. Early man needed to explain the meaning of what was around him.  Superstitions and the supernatural help give reasons for the unexplainable and gave direction for future outcomes.  Science in that age  could not help, so emotive explanations flourished.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition were one has to complete a set of tasks in a ritualist way or feel uncomfortable and in extreme situations suffer severe anxiety.  Sound familiar?  I am not advocating that OCD is linked to most acts of superstition but what about those who  take it to extremes - maybe.  Lots of interesting reading on the subject can be easily found. 

This leads me to the subject of the supernatural.  The supernatural and religion are closely linked and I don’t think many people would disagree.  But superstition and the supernatural and by its association, religion is another story. Most main stream religions are hostile to the idea of linking the two together.  I am not going to go into the reasons here, (material objects vs deities) there is plenty of information on the Internet, but I personally think they are splitting hairs. Both rely on a belief system that is not and cannot be tested by scientific scrutiny.

Do you believe in ghosts?  A question that most people are asked during the course of their lives.  Most of us hate the idea of there being nothing after death.  That’s one of the reasons religion plays an important part in a lot of people's lives. So what form does “life“ after death take? No one really knows, but early man obviously imagined himself after death being delivered to a divine place to reside in or otherwise wondering around the earth for no apparent reason - lost souls so to speak.

This is the classic ghost.  Haunting because of some misdeed during life or seeking revenge on another. 

Having lived in Asia for sometime I have heard many stories of people seeing and interacting with ghosts; each similar in detail with the central character always being terrified of the experience. 

Never in my 57 years of being on this planet have I seen a ghost.  Why? I simply don’t believe in them.  People who do believe get all the sightings.  Funny, hey?

I’ll try to illustrate what I mean. The other night I was semi-dozing off when through the mist of my early dream I thought  I saw a monstrous rat standing on the window pane next to the bed.  I was startled at first and sat up immediately to observe it but of course, it wasn’t there.  Did it scurry away when it knew I was conscious?  I don’t think so, for I heard nothing and I would have because of a pile of stacked up old cardboard boxes graced the ground below the window. We frequently hear rodents scurrying around there in the middle of the night. Ghost Rat maybe?  Rat revenge?

Alas reality is not so exciting.  A dream me thinks. 

You see for the previous week, we had been catching rats in set traps, so the subject was fair and squarely on my mind.  Entering sleep, my mind in its quest to explain the shadows formed an impression of a rat. ( It hasn't returned since!)

Now, if I was a believer in the supernatural I would have probably read a lot more into what I saw.  The rat ghost could be a symbol or sign of impending problems or perhaps an old foe returning to create great mischief etc etc.  The interpretation would all depend on my original state of mind and / or  traditional background.  

Whatever one has been exposed to when young is a powerful force throughout life. If our parents believed in something and instilled that belief in us at a young age, then the chances are it will stay with us for the rest of our lives.  Even if completely irrational, as an adult we may still not be able to shake the strong imprinted messages that lie deep within our minds.  Our brains have been hardwired from a very early age.

There are many activities like Chinese New Year that are steeped in tradition that involves elements of superstition. Is there any harm involved? I think not.  Just lots of people having fun and trying to keep the old ways alive for another year. 

So there you have it.  I’ve just thrown a pinch of salt over my left shoulder and tapped the wooden desk three times and  with an ounce of luck,  I’ll see you next time. 

Footnote: Since the 1920’s, rewards from numerous scientific bodies have been offered for any one who could demonstrate under controlled laboratory conditions a paranormal or supernatural event.  Needless to say, the money is still in the bank.

Casper....who else?

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