Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Was superstition invented?

Started reading Inventing Superstition by Dale Martin. It’s about what the ancient Greeks and Romans thought about superstition. Should be quite fascinating to read. I have, however, a few problems with what I’ve read thus far.
The first is that Martin seems to be influenced by the currently popular social constructivism. To a certain degree this is not an issue – he is discussing only what people’s ideas were about superstition, so the question of whether social reality is the ultimate reality or whether there is something like a physical reality that underlies it does not enter into the picture for the most part. However, the problem shows up when the difference between people’s ideas about superstition and the actual phenomenon of superstition becomes important. There, Martin ends up ‘confusing the map with the territory’ and, therefore, can not deal with a question like – Do the similarities and differences in how superstition has been viewed at various times show that there is something real tied to people’s concepts? This question, however, is the very question that interests me (though not Martin, obviously; even though his title suggests a negative answer).
The second problem I have is that Martin does everything to argue against the idea that the ancient philosophers like Aristotle had views which might be deemed scientific, denying the existence of what we would call these days ‘the supernatural’. He gets into real problems here, repeatedly contradicting himself in the space of a few pages. In the end he comes down to roughly saying that the ancient philosophers simply rejected the view of gods as having such negative human characteristics as greed, jealousy and anger while seeing them as forces that acted in general ways in the real world. The problem with this claim is that it is too weak to show that these philosophers did not reject ‘the supernatural’. Their position has, historically, given rise both to Christian religious views through Augustine and the medieval scholastics and, also, the views of Newton and scientists. The difference to a certain degree can be brought down to the question of whether the forces which determine the course the world takes are personal or not. By denying them human foibles, the ancient philosophers were definitely headed in the scientific direction. To be able to judge how far they, themselves, travelled in that direction it would be necessary to understand to what degree they thought of the gods as actual persons. And, the mere fact that they talked of gods does not show them to be theists in any substantive sense. Einstein famously talked of God not playing dice, after all, and he was very much an atheist, using the term only to mean ‘nature’ or ‘the basic forces underlying reality’ and definitely not meaning ‘an actual person of great power’.
Having said this, I still think Martin’s book should be very valuable for me and I look forward to getting further into it.

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