Simon is home from his travels, having luckily avoided any disruptions to flights caused by volcano ash and thunder storms. Upon his safe return he commented that the car had “been fine”. He added that he had been going to say so when it had completed its first part of the journey, and delivered him safely to his parents’ house in Dover, but he “didn’t like to tempt fate.”
Now Simon is, by anybody’s standards, a Very Rational Being. His dogged preference for logic and the scientific method have at times been known – how shall I put this – to piss me off. So it always surprises me when he behaves in any way that smacks, however remotely, of superstition. Of course, in his defence, his fear that the journey may not have turned out to be trouble-free did have some grounding in recent experience.
When he picked me up from the airport on my return from England three weeks ago, the car had actually broken down on the journey home. Luckily, it broke down after he had picked me up. Luckily it broke down within a few yards of a slip road that enabled us to coast downhill to a powerless halt off the specially managed N-road, so that we didn’t have to contact the police to arrange to be towed off. Luckily we had breakdown cover included as standard with the car insurance. That whole experience was an entertainment in itself, involving a less-than-chatty dépanneur with an apparent irreverence for the delicate nature of electrical wiring, and an over-talkative taxi driver with a penchant for multitasking, who adjusted the settings on his GPS (on his lap), carried out lengthy mobile phone conversations, and recorded appointments on a dictaphone, whilst one-handed-and half-brainedly driving us the 88 miles home at a cost (to our breakdown service) of 220 euros. (The experience almost made a blog post in its own right, but, well… the moment passed)
As I was texting my son to tell him what had happened, I humorously reflected “that’ll teach me not to walk under ladders”. Just that morning we had enjoyed a long conversation about the stupidity of superstition, brought about by my astonishment (and, it must be said, irritation) at finding a queue of people on a pavement waiting in line to walk around the outside of a window-cleaner’s ladder. I was rushing to catch a bus at the time, and with a snort of derision at the misguided behaviour of my fellow pedestrians, I had jumped the queue by dint of an oh-so-rational dash beneath the Ladder of Doom.
Now here’s the thing. I am by nature superstitious. I have a tendency to believe in all sorts of irrational things, and to call upon the powers of angels, fairies and all manner of deific agents to assist me in my vain-but-intrinsically-human attempt to control my universe. At the same time, I recognize the illusory and unsubstantiated nature of such wrong thinking, and I periodically attempt to give up superstition and Get Real. But it is a hard, hard thing indeed to think outside of the brain with which one has been blessed/cursed. And, whilst transcending the delusional nature of human existence might well be a worthy aim, it seems to me that there are a number of reasons why being a Believer might be Good Thing.
For one thing, if you happen to have something amiss with your health, for which there happens not to be any evidence-based treatment that has clearly demonstrable positive effects on the condition, it is very handy indeed to be the sort of person that can be cured by a placebo. And to be that sort of person requires that you actually believe in something. Either you believe that the pill that you are given contains an active ingredient that is likely to make you better, or you at least believe that the person who is giving it to you knows what they are doing and is giving it to you because there is a good chance that it will help you. There is research all over the place that clearly demonstrates that expectations affect outcomes. Hell, even open placebos seem to work (“Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome“), probably because of the multi-layered subtlety of the belief systems involved.
In fact, even medications that we assume to be ‘real’, and which we take in good faith, on the basis of what we consider to be scientific proof of their efficacy, may very well be no more than placebos in disguise. Eliezer Sobel writes entertainingly about this in his blog, The 99th Monkey, (which I thought I’d share with you because, being about “One man’s spiritual quest—and his continuous and utter failure to find the answers”, it is one of my current favourite things to read).
So, on the one hand, believing in stuff that isn’t evidently, provably real, can nevertheless be a pretty cool thing to do. But on the other hand, the natural human tendencies that enable us to do that cool thing also mean we end up seeing things that aren’t there, and believing all sorts of foolish nonsense, much of which isn’t very helpful to us at all. It is only a small step from the gentle bridleway of superstition to the menacing rock face of the obsessive compulsive disorder or the insidious canyon of dogma. And as one who battles to keep the OCs under control, I frequently wish that I could escape the prison of my unhelpful beliefs.
But alas, it seems that human nature will forever bar me from achieving an objective view of reality. Apart from the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model, there is an even deeper, evolutionary explanation for why people everywhere believe weird shit. Some bright spark (Michael Shermer, actually) has termed it “patternicity” (which I happen to think is a rather neat word, and one which, because of the afore-mentioned interference of the priming effect, I first read as ‘pattern city’). Patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise, which is a tendency favoured by natural selection because, for example, “believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is only the wind does not cost much, but believing that a dangerous predator is the wind may cost an animal its life.”
So, to summarize, it turns out that I believe that the Parking Angel answers my prayers, and creates a perfect space for me in the full car park, because my ancestors’ fear of an unidentified rustle in the grass saved their lives. And it is their damned fault that I am shackled to the pointless belief that there actually is a Meaning to this meaningless noise called Life.
Well, what can I say? I am, after all, only human. Maybe one day, if I stop wasting my time searching for The Meaning of Life, and use it instead to systematically sort the evidence-based wheat from the chaff of nonsensical assumption, I will manage to achieve the triumph of rationality over superstition. Fingers crossed.