Superstitious by Nature

Monday, April 06, 2009

Bruce Hood, director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the experimental psychology department at the University of Bristol and author of SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable, says our brains are wired to believe in the supernatural. Bruce Hood will be speaking tonight at 7pm the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street. For more information and tickets, click here.


Bruce Hood

Comments [31]

Ed Helmrich from Larchmont, NY

Superstition is to be avoided. But faith is reasonable. Reason can't find the truths of faith, which are supernatural, but it points to faith. Reason and faith are two hands that work together.

Apr. 07 2009 08:45 AM
DM from New York

Psi phenomena was mentioned but not discussed in the program (as ESP). Psi phenomena has been demonstrated with well controlled studies, including the famous Ganzfeld experiments, and a meta-analysis by Daryl Bem has shown that the 'positive' results in studies is highly unlikely to be due to error or noise.

If psi phenomena is 'real' by nature of its statistical significance, then other phenomena should be subjected to the same standards of evidence. Belief in the 'supernatural' should be contingent upon its validity. Nothing should be beyond investigation. Faith can be considered antithetical to science, the search for truth. Before you believe, you should think.

Apr. 06 2009 05:01 PM
David from New York City

I am saying that that phenomena is rooted in science. Just a science that needs to be explored and expanded. My point is that it isn't untill changes or if you will advances in technologies that the ability to measure and explain the phenomena grows. If the phenomena is dismissed as the ephemara of our brain or minds is that the most rigorous way to explore it's nature?
I'd also like to rexamine the assumption that only the enlightemnt era science way of defining and catoragizing knowledge is correct. The reference to Miamondese reasoning is a perfect example. I would argue that scientest do not argue they know what is only what they can demonstrate and reproduce. Hence by definition entire relms of facts are up to interpertation, reinterprtation etc

Apr. 06 2009 02:14 PM
gaetano catelli from manhattan

Urso 2002, please get back to me if there are any reports of the Taliban doing pre-fontal lobotomies or electroshock "therapy" on people who happen to persistently feel depressed.

where is the *indpendent* scientific evidence that the claimed "discoveries" of "psychology" are any less "superstitious" than the claimed "revelations" of tradtional religions?

Apr. 06 2009 12:33 PM
Bill from New York

David, the doctor recognizes the phenomena you're referring to as exactly that: phenomena. The difference is that his explanation for them is rooted in science, whereas yours is not. The lesson in the repositioning of the sun and the earth by Copernicus and Galileo is a scientific one, as it shows how science is a constant process of discovery driven by rigorous observation, reassessment, and revision, not a fixed system believers like to claim to be analogous to their own. Of course, religions change over time just like scientific theories! But where that's to science's credit, it reflects poorly on religion's many definite truth claims.

Apr. 06 2009 12:04 PM
Amy from Manhattan

A friend of mine says she knows someone who challenges atheists by offering to buy their souls. "Why not? If there's no God & your soul doesn't exist, why not make a quick $100?" (or whatever he offers). Last I heard, he never got any takers. Personally, I'm not sure belief in God necessarily implies belief in the soul or vice versa, but it's interesting.

Also, I think things like knocking on wood & crossing our fingers are often done more for social purposes than out of actual belief. I'd bet more people do these things in front of other people, to show them support ("I'm crossing my fingers for you") or our own need for confidence ("see, I'm knocking wood") than do them when we're by ourselves. I'd be very interested to know if anyone's studied this.

Apr. 06 2009 11:42 AM
David from New York City

Before the invention of the telescope and its use by Galileo it was rational to belive that the Sun revolved around the Earth. One observed the phenomena of the sun rising on one horizon and setting on the opposite one. And that was all that there was. So up until Galileo *did* the sun revolve around the earth? Like a quantum event, did the mere observation of the Sun's shadow or however
Galileo figured it out (it escapes me now) create the event of the Sun at the center of the solar system?
All the phenomena Dr. Hood dismisses are experienced phenomena, and there cause, effect etc. Can and should be researched, not dismissed. As for studies confirming the existence of many "supernatural" phenomena, google Rupert Sheldrake.

Apr. 06 2009 11:33 AM
Sally Campbell from Upper West Side

Your explanation of why the human mind needs to believe in the supernatural is very interesting.

I am a Quaker and try not to be superstitious or illogical (astrology seems particularly unscientific to me) but I do believe that, if we take the time to listen, there is a loving spirit that is available to every single human being.

Quakers are called practical mystics and arrange our worship as a time for waiting in stillness together and then telling what we feel we are led to share. It is often hard to tell where the deepest part of oneself ends and the transcendent Spirit begins, but this method allows for as many interpretations as there are people in the room.

Since we form small communities, we get to practice our love with each other in the real world and we help each other discern whether our callings are consistent with the testimonies such as peace, simplicity and equality that Quakers have been developing for 350 years.

So I would say that human minds have evolved (been created) to be alive to the possibility of something beyond the physical realm, because there is something there. Just as someone who doesn't turn on their radio may not believe there are broadcasts, so those who don't turn on and tune in will find it hard to believe that The Dear One is speaking to them.

Usually I get small nudges, and openings but twice I did receive direct messages in words in my heart. One was "All is for joy" the other was "work with me". I also feel I receive songs from the silence when I patiently listen them into being. I sometimes call this my "air radio".

Apr. 06 2009 11:26 AM
Bill from New York

Scientists betray a bias employing the term "supernatural" while you get to declare that bias a "superstition"? Science is the first to admit that there is only what is, not more or less, and the first to admit that there is much we don't yet know and far far more we never will, but what science doesn't do, or at least goes to great lengths to guard against, is showing a bias for things for which there is no proof whatsoever. It is no superstitious to say there's no evidentiary basis for this or that belief, it is rather the standard by which a belief is determiend to be a superstition. Etymologically it "stands above" which is exactly where things "supernatural" stand in relation to nature: outside of it and therefore literally nowhere but in your head. As far as we know.

Apr. 06 2009 11:20 AM
Yvonne from Brooklyn, New York

As an atheist who has had personal experience with telepathy, I question that "telepathy" is being equated with "supernatural".

Your guest lumps very different things together as if they were the same. There is a lot about life, nature and our own bodies/ brains that we do not yet understand but this does not mean that that these are not natural processes. Police have long used psychics.
There has been a lot of documentation that these phenomenon exists ... there just is not yet an OFFICIAL explanation as to how and why.

That some were burned at the stake for believing that the world was not flat is an extreme form of this same kind of thinking. That the world is round (never mind "black holes") was at one time "unbelievable". To equate everything that one does not yet believe as superstition is, to me, another kind of superstition in the magical power of the known for sure.

Nothing would ever be discovered if everyone thought like your guest.

Apr. 06 2009 11:18 AM
Bill from New York

Really? I think one needs little to no faith to know there's no good reason to believe that G-d or God or some or any number of gods exist. It's a matter of "faith" that none of these exist only in so far it's a matter of faith that there are nor have ever been unicorns. That there is a tradition of belief in unicorns absent evidence conforms to a familiar pattern called Myth, and we have reasonable positions available to us to hold regarding myths. That does not mean, of course, that were proof of unicorns to emerge that those "faithful" in their non-existence wouldn't change their tune. That's what distinguishes their belief from that of believers: for the atheist, agnosticism goes without saying.

Apr. 06 2009 11:09 AM
Josh from New York Cty

We perpetuate religious beliefs and superstitions by passing them down to our children as soon as possible. We could just as easily teach children that it's ok not to have answers to everything and that it's better to have no answer to an unknown than to deceive yourself with false answers. very insidious.

Apr. 06 2009 11:09 AM
hjs from 11211


Apr. 06 2009 11:09 AM
David from New York City

The greatest superstition I know is the "scientific" belief that there is no supernatural relm. Indeed that workd super-natural includeds the bias in its very structure. Nothing can be super or above nature. It can be man made, but man is a product of nature as is everything we make at some point.
Contrary to Bruce Hood's declaration, there are plenty of studies that show people do have a sense of being watched from behind. Perhaps it is the superstion of there being no possibilties beyond Newtonian physics that cause Mr. Hood to reject these studies;

Apr. 06 2009 11:03 AM
Brian Reynolds from Red Bank

I really don't see atheism and superstitious beliefs as incongruent. There's lots of space in between what man knows and the need for God.

Apr. 06 2009 11:01 AM
mozo from nyc

Great last phone call. I'm going to filch some pidgeon guts and see what the market will do this week.

Apr. 06 2009 11:01 AM
Elaine from Baltimore MD

I am a rationalist Orthodox Jew who is not at all superstitious. I know many Orthodox Jewish scientists who believe the same.
Please read the Rambam (Maimonides) for a very logical POV.
One cannot "prove" that G-d does NOT exist nor can one prove a negative. I think you need more faith to believe that G-d does NOT exist.

Apr. 06 2009 10:59 AM
Carl from NYC

We have only to look at how much science has learned over the past 50 years to feel confident that science will learn more about much that we don't know about now.

The "weirdness" attested to by physicists also suggests that important and fundamental things in the structure of the universe seem now to us to be irrational (as relativity or quantum mechanics might have seemed prior to their irrefutable demonstration).

Because we don't know about the things we will learn in the future doesn't mean they don't exist.

Apr. 06 2009 10:59 AM
Mike from Manhattan

What about animal communications?

Apr. 06 2009 10:57 AM
Robert from NYC

I'm suspicious that I have to feel good because I'm in good company because I'm suspicious about some things! What does that even mean?

Apr. 06 2009 10:56 AM
Carlos P. from New York City

The overriding principle of existence is "BALANCE", so for any amount of "intellect" in the world, there will be an equal amount of "superstition". I am an atheist, and try to not live with any superstition in my life. Somewhere a radical fundamentalist balances my existence.

Apr. 06 2009 10:56 AM
bk from nyc

when I was a teenager I grew more & more depressed & hopeless. It occurred to me that there was no longer any reason to be superstisious & tied to habits that clearly meant nothing. I gave them up & at least felt liberated.

Apr. 06 2009 10:55 AM
Bill from New York

I bet atheists are more likely than the religious to admit to the irrationality of beliefs that, upon analysis, can be shown to proceed from a kind of supernatural thinking, and to forswear that belief or habit, esp. when it can also be shown to have undue consequence for others.

Apr. 06 2009 10:54 AM
Liz from Midtown NYC

Ever heard of "rabbit, rabbit?" On the first of each month, the first thing you are supposed to say that day is "rabbit, rabbit" for good luck that month. It's tough to remember sometimes as you're waking up, but I try to say it each month and I get a little nervous during the months I forget.

Apr. 06 2009 10:53 AM
hjs from 11211

it's just mind over matter, if u truly believe in something u can give it strength.

Apr. 06 2009 10:53 AM
birder from brooklyn

i'm an atheist that will not walk under ladders, knocks on wood, and will never open an umbrella inside.

Apr. 06 2009 10:51 AM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

Who said homo sapiens are rational beings because we have to deal with the "real" world?? We think therefore we make stuff up.

Apr. 06 2009 10:50 AM
Tony from San Jose, CA

Or believing in god. I don't see much difference between the tooth fairy and Jesus Christs. Both are imaginary friends.

Apr. 06 2009 10:47 AM
David Aronowitz from Riverdale

We have crossed the 21st century - we are not living in a stone age - where things cannot be explained.

I find it ridiculous - the superstitious, ghost, withdoctor, hypnotize, speak to the dead - only feeble mind believe in those - and especially those losers who could not make it to medical school turned in psycho-loser.

I have a bridge for sale!

Apr. 06 2009 10:01 AM

gaetano, defending the taliban argument of killing one's daughter because the local "cleric" asked don't fly in New Yawk CITAY.

Apr. 06 2009 09:48 AM
gaetano catelli from manhattan

belief that "psychology" has made science-based "dsicoveries" (as opposed to common sense folk wisdom) about the mind of man is every bit as faith-based (ie, lacking in confirmation by independent researchers) as more traditional mythologiies.

however, the traditional faiths have positively transformed the lives of many, many times as often as has "psychology".

further, clerics of traditional faiths don't have legal standing to do an end-run around the 1st Amendment by influencing juries in criminal cases as "expert witnesses" about events to which they were not an actual witness, nor to civilly commit offenders who have already served their sentence based upon forecasts of the offender's future behavior, whereas "psychologists" do.

Apr. 06 2009 08:43 AM

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