Anatomy of Superstition

I have written about many of my “supernatural” experiences.  When writing those posts, I tried to relate them with the same mind and same eyes I had at the time of the experiences.  Indeed, my memory of the incidents is just as I told them.  But I do not believe in the supernatural.  So how do I explain these events?

Below is naturalistic model of how I understand the components of supernatural experiences.  Mind you, the model below does not explain all of the events, or every aspect of the events — I am very comfortable with “I don’t know!”  And at any time I am excited  to modify my model to better approximate my experiences and those of others.

Over time I will be elaborating on the individual components in the bullets below:

  • Our Worldview:
  • Cognitive Bias: Here is a great, simple, short, visual guide to common cognitive biases which are grouped in one of 4 categories: Social, Memory, Decision-Making and Probablitity/belief.
  • Cognitive Illusions:
  • Sensory Illusions:
<a href=””>Here is a great, simple, short, visual guide</a> to common cognitive biases which are grouped in one of 4 categories: Social, Memory, Decision-Making and Probablitity/belief.


Filed under Cognitive Science, Consciousness

12 responses to “Anatomy of Superstition

  1. If our mind generates voices which are overwhelming and debilitating, we call this “pathology”. But the boundary between normal and pathological is a spectrum and not sharp…

    I think that statement makes it much easier to understand the reasonableness of the naturalistic explanation. As opposed to if the options are polar extremes (“completely insane” vs. “definitely heard the voice of God”). It is easier to understand an experience like that, thinking you heard voices, if it does not need to fit neatly into one of those categories.

    May it also makes sense of why people who believe in regularly hearing the supernatural voice of God do so. If they think they hear something, and they don’t think they have gone insane (they probably have not), then it must be the voice of God.

  2. @ A Time to Rend
    I totally agree! As you know, that has been a major thrust of my blog from the get-go.

  3. I’ve been a reader for a while, and I enjoy your point-of-view. I’m always a bit timid to comment, but as a person who has had ‘paranormal’ experiences throughout her life, I’ve long wondered why it is so important to prove that such experiences *don’t* exist? Or more specifically, why they should be determined to be a pathology of the mind, as opposed to a sort of fleeting relationship to a reality that is not commonly perceived by our limited senses (our “5 Aggregates”, as described in Buddhism)? You can be sure that I ask this in a spirit of conversation, and not with the intention of mud-slinging or even conversion (yous or mine!). ~Pilar

  4. Would you think less of me if I told you that I don’t get it?

    Perhaps I need to read all of the cited posts again.

    But like you, I think there is some sort of reality to those experiences. I think that in many cases it wasn’t in a person’s mind, so to speak. The situation felt real and, therefore, it shouldn’t be dismissed as simply delusions.

    OK, we may think they’re delusions, but unless the person is trying to push religion down our throats, I believe it’s better to be respectful, and to keep our opinion to ourselves, as opposed to rudely dismissing the claim with the delusion argument.

  5. So, how do we know which voices are illusions and which are real? Or, more realistically, which sensations are triggered by externalities and which are driven by some internally generated neural firings.

    If someone tells me that their soul has been touched by God, who am I to tell them that it’s not a ‘real’ experience?

  6. Steve Wiggins

    I like your model, Sabio. I still sit on the fence, however, whether some “supernatural” phenomena are simply realities outside of normal human sense ranges (akin to what dogs smell or hear that we simply can’t pick up on). Of course, I often have trouble deciding what’s really real. I seem to be in the right business for that!

  7. There was a time in my life where I was more prone to what I then considered supernatural experiences. Something changed and I don’t know what. Perhaps I looked behind the curtain and found nothing there, that’s what it felt like at the time. yet, daily I am surrounded by people who still have these experiences. I watch my spiritual friends live their lives and see zero difference in their level of contentment, in fact many of them go through more trials and tribulations than I do. When I was a Christian it was a constant battle to reinforce my God belief, and it tended to be an emotional roller coaster at times. Now I have to reinforce no beliefs in my life, everything is natural and real to me. Maybe this is why I don’t feel like I experience the supernatural anymore, maybe I no longer need to.

  8. Interestingly, SEP just published McGrew’s overview of the various theories about miracles.

    I am virtually certain that people have premonitions of future events, often in great detail. But I don’t think these occurrences are “supernatural”. We just don’t have a scientific explanation yet. So at the moment, I side with Voltaire and Spinoza, in saying that the word “supernatural” is incoherent.

  9. Sorry folks, have been busy. Great comments, thanks !

    @ Mama P :
    Thank you for commenting. I have a couple responses to your honest inquiry:

    (1) Hopefully my posts have shown that I believe people can have inaccurate beliefs and misinterpret experiences without being “PATHOLOGICAL”. Indeed, I think this is the normal human condition. I

    (2) I think the effort to always see behind our self-deception can produce happier inner life and a more prosperous outer life.

    (3) Time and again, much that has been passed off as religious “truth” has been shown to be falsely bolstered up. I feel addressing these issues is am important goal.

    (4) What will remain after careful investigation. I agree, we can’t come to premature conclusions on that, but we can have our suspicions given both the amount of evidence and the amount already debunked.

    I hope that addressed your question.

    @ Lorena :
    I can be respectful in person, but it is OK to doubt amazing claims and look for any shred of evidence or reason without being considered disrespectful, can’t I?

    @ Tom Rees :
    Sorry mate, not sure I understand where you want me to go with your question. Perhaps you are questioning a commenter? But I will take a stab.
    We separate illusions from reality with “Triangulations” — that is what science is. And we can start with the lowest forms of evidence — anecdotal and then shoot for case series then populations studies then controlled studies — and take it as far as we can. Short of actual studies, we can triangulate off of as many possible various perspectives as we can find. But that is the best I can do. What that your question?

    @ Steve Wiggins:
    Wow, great to see ya again (still got that goofy avatar, eh?) 🙂
    Thank you for your compliment. I agree totally about the limits of the senses. But most supernaturalists tell us things that the senses could detect — they actually make empirical claims that have never been verified.
    You are in the right avocation, but another vocation may have served you better. 😉

    @ Mike :
    Great story. “Natural and Real” sounds fantastic to me!

    @ JS Allen :
    Thanks for the link — SEP is fun! It looks like an interesting article, (I only sped-read it). The author proclaims that it is wrong to reject “God” just because one sees no evidence for miracles. And I think he is right. But the definition of “God” then gets whittled down further if there is not evidence of miracles. And what will be left after all the whittling of the other aspects? Perhaps only the unspeakable — the “I am” or existence. Hard to build a theology on that except for the negative theology of the mystics which demands a universalism which I am comfortable with.

    I’d love to see your post on any evidence of people really seeing the future — as in truly tested.

  10. Note to anyone following this thread. I have modified the diagram to incorporate “WorldView” and got rid of Memory since it is one of the cognitive biases. I also touched up my cute ghost PS-montage by coloring some organs!

    My blog is not a journal of my thoughts at any moment but instead a growing organization and systematization of my understandings. Thus I change posts — and usually acknowledges changes in my comments. Readers help me a lot with this — thanks.

  11. Have you come across the essay “The Wounded Prophet?”

    Jung also had quite a bit to say about this kind of thing. As I understand it he saw ‘super natural’ experiences as an irruptions of the unconscious into the conscious. The unconscious, being unknown and unfamiliar, seems like foreign to us, and we interpret it as ‘other’. This creates some dissonance. I’ve had experiences which I would classify in this way.

    Lots of my friends have seen or experienced ghosts and other kinds of supernatural phenomena but I haven’t found anyone who was with someone at the time, that could see or feel exactly what they saw or felt. My feeling is that this points towards subjectivity rather than objectivity.

    Best Wishes

  12. Hello Jayarava,
    Thank you for stopping in.
    In my other posts I have agreed that the unknown can easily be seen coming from within our own minds as you say Jung felt. Jung felt there was some kind of share subconscious also, right? That would not make sense to me however.
    I will read that link later — thank you for it.

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