Dr. Konrad Talmont-Kaminski (Konrad Lorenz Institute & Marie Curie-Sklodowska University)

In a Mirror, Darkly: Does superstition reflect rationality?

Superstition and rationality have traditionally been seen as mutually antithetical. However, understanding superstition as the opposite of rationality does not explain why, despite centuries of philosophical and scientific efforts, superstitious beliefs are widespread in modern societies. Indeed, Aristotlesí optimistic definition of humans as rational animals has to be weighted against the apparently ubiquitous human susceptibility to superstitions.

Thankfully, a possible explanation for the persistence and ubiquity of superstitious tendencies exists which, if correct, would avoid the nihilist conclusion that humans are actually irrational. The vital step is to give up the view of rationality as moving us towards some ideally rational state: instead seeing it as a biological trait which has been evolving from an initial state of total ignorance. Given an inherently bounded rationality, it comes to be possible to see how reason and superstition may coexist in human beings. Indeed, a fascinating possibility appears. Considering the limited nature and evolutionary history of cognitive abilities it becomes possible to contemplate the prospect that superstition - rather than being the antithesis of our reasoning capabilities - is actually their by-product. One way to empirically examine this thesis is to attempt to identify connections between individual cognitive illusions and individual superstitions. To the degree this is possible, the ubiquity and persistence of superstition can, in effect, be shown to be a function of our bounded rationality.

Lecturer at the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland, and Fellow of the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Vienna, Austria. Studied philosophy as well as history and philosophy of science in Australia and Canada, completing his PhD at Monash University in 2000. Applies naturalist and pragmatist approaches to epistemology, philosophy of science and related areas, focussing especially upon rationality within the evolutionary context. Current projects include examining superstition as a natural cognitive phenomenon (at the KLI), developing a methologically-based naturalist epistemology and working on an account of reference as a pragmatic achievement (with John Collier).