Friday, November 13, 2009

What Is Superstition?

Between it being Friday the 13th and the Stevie Wonder kick I've been on all week, let's ask about superstition. Surely it's more than the line "when you believe in things you don't understand" because we can have reasonable beliefs about things we don't understand. I don't understand the triggering mechanism for the airbags in my car, but I have a reasonable belief that they will work if I need them. So, what is superstition, then?

Let's use some of the most superstitious people around as a case study, athletes. Four examples:

1) A soccer player always wears a particular pair of socks for big matches because he believes that they are lucky and wearing them increases the likelihood his team will win.

2) A devout Catholic baseball player always crosses himself before batting believing that the act will please God and make it more likely that God will look down and smile upon his efforts to get a hit.

3) A football player finds that in the several games this season, whenever he puts on his left shoe first, he has played well and whenever he has put on his right shoe first, the team has played badly. So, not believing it has an effect, but just to be sure, he puts on his left shoe first.

4) A lacrosse goalie who would later become a philosophy professor would always engage in a ritual in the last few seconds before every game by facing the goal and tapping the inside of all the poles of the goal with the back of his stick, turning around and reaching back for the right pole, then then left, spinning his stick while doing a deep knee bend, stretching his neck to the left, then the right, then running out and greeting his defensemen -- right, crease, then left. He has a naturalistic explanation about getting a feel for the goal he was defending, focusing his mind, and creating a bond with his teammates, but knows that he might play well whether he does this or not.

So, it seems pretty clear that #1 is a case of superstitious belief. Is #2? It is certainly religious, but is it also superstitious? Is #3 also superstitious if there isn't a complete acceptance of the potential superstition, but action in accord with it? How about #4? Does the existence of a naturalistic explanation mitigate its superstitious nature?

And, of course, any excuse to hear Stevie covering Stevie: