Thursday, December 21, 2006

What’s the post-doc about?

It so happens that my post-doc, assuming it happens, will have quite a bit to do with this blog. It will not be concerned with religion but it will mean that I spend time looking at something that is to some degree related to religion and which I have mentioned numerous times on this blog, i.e. superstition. The persistent survival of superstition is something that, once you look at it, is quite hard to explain. Science has been the norm for rationality for a couple of hundred years by now and yet superstition is still pretty much ubiquitous in even the most enlightened societies. And, if that were not enough, it is something of an enigma how superstition appeared in the first place given that human beings, including their minds, are the result of evolutionary processes that, it would seem, should get rid of what appears to be a maladaptation.

Clearly, for superstition to be as persistent as it is, it is probably fairly deeply tied in with some core aspects of human nature. As such, the evolutionary level appears to be the right place to look for at least part of the explanation. The thing about evolutionary development, however, is that it is highly opportunistic, complexly interrelated and that it proceeds only step by step. Thus, an organism’s developmental pathways and behaviour might tightly constrain the mutations that could be successfully propagated leading to a Byzantine end result where a much simpler design would seem to be preferred. A good example of this is the back-end-forward placement of the light-sensitive cells in the eye, with the sensing layer buried beneath the tangle of optic nerves instead of lying on top of them, thus avoiding the need for a blind spot where the nerves leave the eye. In the case of superstition the point is that the complexity of evolution leaves plenty of odd loop-holes which are quite capable of explaining why superstition should persist, indeed why it might be very difficult to get rid of.

One such possibility, the one that I will be investigating, is that superstition is a by-product. In other words, that while it, itself, was not selected for by evolution, it is in some way produced by something which was selected for. In particular, I suspect that superstition is a necessary by-product of rationality. This may seem like a highly counterintuitive idea at first since rationality and superstition are most often seen s mirror opposites but, that, I believe only shows that the notion of rationality with which we work is false. Being able to understand superstition as a by-product would, in effect, be evidence for that claim. So, the work on superstition is a continuation of the work I have been doing on understanding rationality as a natural phenomenon. Of course, saying that the notion of rationality which is customary is inadequate does not constitute a theory of rationality. So, while developing some of my own ideas I will be turning to the work of others whose accounts of rationality are more capable of accommodating superstition as a fairly universal human characteristic while not denying that humans are rational beings. One such idea is that of bounded rationality developed first by Herbert Simon. This approach toward rationality has been developed further by Gerd Gigerenzer in the context of his work of understanding how humans reason using simple but effective heuristics. His work on heuristics, on the other hand, is based on the work by Kahnemann and Tversky. Gigerenzer, however, unlike Kahnemann/Tversky and many others, does not draw the negative conclusions drawn by them regarding human abilities but, instead, shows how effective they are under normal conditions.

In effect, Gigerenzer’s work provides me with one possible framework to understand superstition within and it will be my aim to first see to what degree superstition can be fitted into this framework as arising in those circumstances in which some of our heuristics fail in some way. What worries me is that to be able to investigate some of the aspects of this I might have to think about empirical work. The problem is that I do not have a background in empirical work so, if this becomes necessary, will have to seek out quite a lot of help in terms of the practical methodology. Still, I find myself quite keen on the idea of getting to see first hand what scientific methodology looks like, having talked about it for years.

I am still not at all sure how much time I will spend on applying Gigerenzer’s work to these problems and what other possible ideas I will pursue in order to understand superstition. This meant that my application was somewhat vague on the methodology I would pursue. In particular, I think I will have to spend the first few months looking through previous work, starting with Skinner’s work on pigeons, just to familiarise myself properly with the area. Unfortunately, ‘read a lot of articles’ does not sound like much of a methodology in the proposal and this is my main worry regarding how my proposal goes when the scientific board gets to finally look at it in the next few weeks.


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