From Superstition and Myth to Scientific Explanations

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have walked the earth anywhere from about 150,000 to 200,000 years. The span in years depends on the definition one uses to classify modern humans. By the way, the term Homo sapiens comes from Latin meaning wise man. Despite the distinction of wise man, human progress was slow in ancient times as compared to the last few centuries. Of course there were some discoveries and innovations through the years. One can imagine the development of stone tools, improved hunting techniques, agricultural advancements and other rudimentary progress. However, humans would only live up to their Latin name when they were able to find explanations for the natural world.

Bad Explanations

The ancients almost certainly desired a better way of life, for themselves and their children. They would have wanted to know more about the world. Why do crops fail? How does disease come about? Is the water safe to drink? In ancient times questions of this kind could not be answered with any degree of certainty. Of course they tried to find adequate answers, but for the most part failed in doing so.

Without the ability to decipher the intricacies of nature, ancient societies often turned to superstition and myth for answers. This method would have provided explanations for a number of mysterious happenings. However, they would have been mostly bad explanations because their approach was flawed from the start. Why were they so prone to such explanations? For starters, without an established scientific method in place, they would have relied on their senses to a large extent. This was probably quite adequate for what could easily be observed. But when it came to the unseen world they were mostly at a loss.

The Birth of Superstition

Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, offers an interesting explanation as to how superstition creeps in the human psyche. It goes something like this: Imagine that you are a Hominid (a distant human ancestor)  living in the African Savanna about 3.5 million years ago and you here a rustle in the grass. Are you better off to assume it’s a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you think it’s a predator and it turns out to be just the wind, then there is no harm done. If you think it’s the wind and it really is a predator, then you may become lunch. Natural selection would have been more likely to select individuals that tended to assume that mysterious noises might be predators. To remain safe in this environment it was best to assume the worst, rather than take the time to investigate.

What is the difference between a dangerous predator and the wind? A predator has intentions, it is looking for food and you may become its target, whereas the wind is an inanimate force. The wind has no concerns for you whatsoever. In the fore mentioned scenario, assuming that mysterious noises have intentions is a survival trait. We are descended from primates which would have been more likely to assume intent, whether it was real or not. And that is just fine for everyday life in the Savanna. It only becomes a problem when this principle is applied to a wider range of unknown phenomenon. When a host of natural occurrences, not well understood, are perceived to have intentions then we have superstition. When these intentions are personified, then they may become part of myth.

A Way Out

We are perhaps hard-wired by evolution to make snap decisions and assumptions in certain situations. However, most of us no longer live with immediate dangers at hand. Science is the best remedy to what ailed our ancient ancestors. We no longer require superstition in our lives, because we now have better explanations (real explanations).

The scientific revolution that swept Europe in the late 1500s to the 1700s is referred to the beginning of modern science. Men like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton and many others led the way to a deeper understanding of nature. From that point on human progress would happen at a much faster rate. The Scientific Method (the catalyst for progress) had at long last been discovered.

The Scientific Method

beakerWhat is the best way to know how something works? A good place to start is with a well thought out question. And then we can proceed in looking for the answer. The scientific method could be described as the process between the question and the answer. Science arrives at answers by observation and experimentation. Scientists can make predictions that nature will behave in a certain way based on observation (known as a hypothesis). Then the experiments will either confirm or disprove the original hypothesis. If the hypothesis is verified then it becomes a theory. The theory is then subjected to analysis by other scientists, and if it holds up, it becomes accepted as scientific knowledge.

The knowledge base is still subject to being altered or expanded on by more complete explanations, but by similar methods in which it was first discovered. The book is never completely closed; however, by now we are far along in the process and many explanations about nature are unlikely to change significantly. Scientific knowledge exists on its own merit, not because of traditions or the word of authorities. In fact, it can be said that there are no scientific authorities.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (better known as the Royal Society) was founded in 1660. It is a fellowship of some of the world’s finest scientists and is perhaps the oldest scientific academy in existence. Its motto reads in Latin Nillius in Verba, translated in English to mean “On the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it.” I would say, don’t blindly trust authority or people of stature and see for yourself.

Progress 

It can be debated as to what constitutes progress, but there can be little doubt that modern science is a significant contributor. In the developed world we live more comfortably than previous generations; with conveniences that ancient societies could not have imagined. This is largely due to the scientific endeavor.

AtomWe now know about microorganisms and their role in disease and infection. We have a greater understanding of weather systems and can reasonably predict their effects. The discovery of electricity has eased our way of life significantly. The unlocking of the atom has made possible a multitude of information technologies. This is but a sample of what scientific discovery means for us.

Beyond the practical aspects we can’t ignore what science offers in terms of explanations. For instance, the ancients did not have a natural explanation for a solar eclipse. Some cultures believed that the sun was being devoured by a celestial dragon or some other creature. It was common for people to join together and bang on pots and pans, and make noise in order to frighten the beasts in the sky. Of course in due time the sunlight would return, reinforcing a false pattern.

We now understand that a solar eclipse is caused by the moon’s position obscuring the sun. No celestial creatures are required for an explanation and no amount for pot banging makes any difference. Today there are numerous things we can know about reality that are mostly taken for granted. However, our experience is greatly enhanced by the efforts of past and present scientists. We truly live in a special time, because for the most part, science has supplanted superstition.

 

References: Best of Michael Shermer Amazing Arguments And Clever Comebacks Part One, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQ8gasKQEWM, May 7, 2014.

David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=folTvNDL08A, Oct 26, 2009.


 

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