Superstition, Science, and Chaos


First James Brown, then Gerald Ford, and now Saddam Hussein. At first this post was going to be about their deaths, but everyone is doing that, and I’m not one to follow crowds (unless they’re heading for a shoe sale!). Besides, I became very morbidly curious about this idea / superstition / belief that death comes in threes. It seems a silly concept if taken too literally, I mean how many thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people die each day? But when people say it, they tend to mean in a family or community or (more and more often these days) celebrities, the famous and infamous.

A while back Bert blogged about President Ford’s death, and both Amber and I immediately thought of this “death comes in threes” thing and posted it, wondering who’d be next. Well, we know who was next. So as I’m listening to a very sincere and not a little angry Iraqi saying “Saddam, go to hell!” on the news this morning, I got to thinking about three deaths. Though I could not find (immediately–I get bored with researching some topics, this being one) the origin of the death comes in threes saying, I did find a lot of very interesting information about the number three.

But the most intriguing thing I found was an article entitled “The Science of Superstitions” by Dr. Sam Vatknin. In it, he makes some very interesting distinctions between the motivations (fear, ignorance) of people believing in various superstitions and the science that actually supports many superstitions themselves. I love this, actually, because there is nothing more annoying to my mind than anyone asserting their greater intelligence and enlightenment over another. I’ve seen this with atheists, smugly thinking they’re superior (not online, I mean in real life discussions), and I’ve seen it with certain religions, smugly asserting their special place with their version of God. Now, Vatknin doesn’t even mention the death comes in threes thing, nor do I think that there could possibly be any science to back it up. I ramble. Bear with me.

Because superstitions often rely on a belief in the interconnectedness of all things, as in a Wiccan or other earth- / nature- based religions, they are often dismissed as “pagan” or “old wives [witches] tales.” Maybe they are. Probably they are. To me that doesn’t make them any less (or more) valid. Patterns exist in both science and nature (who thought to separate these? Seems bizarre to me, but hey, I study literature, what do I know?). And where patterns don’t exist, human beings are all too able and ready to impose them. Chaos is anathema to us, so we reign it in, we label it, and whether we give it a superstitious or a scientific label seems secondary to that first impulse, an impulse I would argue is based in fear and ignorance for all of us, scientists and laypeople, superstitious and “rational,” alike.

Maybe we see that in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s execution? The chaos reigning in Iraq has remained, the gruesome order he achieved has long evaporated, and no one knows what to do. Trying to please all of the people all of the time, our own government pleases no one. Chaos still prevails, and instead of dealing with it, our politicians analyze it, label it, organize it into two columns (who’s right, who’s wrong), and then ponder their own findings. Is anyone looking at Iraq as it is now? At all that chaos? Doesn’t seem so to me. But hey, I’m just an old Christian with a neo-pagan streak, right?


The picture above was pilfered from Mavis; she was kind enough to give me permission to use her pics any time I want, and I’m not one to pass up such a deal! Wink.


17 thoughts on “Superstition, Science, and Chaos

  1. Hey Fuzzy,

    Do you know what 3 has always been my favourite number. Whenever anyone asks me to pick a number I always pick 3, so it was interesting to read about the number three in your blog. Thanks Fuz. x

  2. Normally, one wonders after the first bad thing, what the next two things will be. ****shaking my head, no, no, I am not superstitious!*** Gerald Ford was a loss, figuratively speaking, but hey, I am ok with Sadam being third on the list. I was affected more by Princess Diana and Mother Theresa’s deaths, oh and John Wayne. πŸ™‚

  3. Hi there! Thanks for commenting on my blog. You sound like a very interesting person too!!! I liked your blog. Feel free to stop by whenever you want. I’ll keep reading yours if you don’t mind. LOL

  4. To start with your last point first, Chaos IS a science. In recent years the study of chaotic systems has developed some interesting, nay, startling discoveries, best known of which is that in every chaotic system there is an underlying order. It is a rather complex subject, too much so to write more on here. Suggested reading is ‘Chaos’ by James Gleick. In short, in a system of several billion elements (the human race), the occurrence of the deaths of three ‘notable’ names is inevitable. There is nothing superstitious or supernatural about it. Particularly when you take into account that all humans are interconnected. They are a ‘closed’ system.
    While on the subject of interconnectivity: it isn’t the purview of the superstitious, interconnectivity forms one of the fundamentals of the quantum universe (I am tempted to say multiverse, but then we are in the realms of unproven). Perhaps some of the ‘heathen’ belief systems had a better grasp of the bigger picture than first thought (at least in terms of claiming the interconnectivity of all things).
    I read the article by Dr Vatknin with interest, and followed links to some other articles of his. Then I read them again. I suddenly realised that here we have one of those people who you get annoyed by, that talk down to the rest of us, claiming to have the intellectual high-ground. He may have a doctorate, and an incredible command of language, and could probably run rings around me in a discussion, but on repeated reading, he shows himself to be entirely ignorant of what science is and what is seeks to achieve. Science seeks to illuminate and describe the universe, not claim ownership of it. Fundamentally his biggest flaw is to subscribe to the ‘egocentricity’ stream of consciousness, ie thinking that the human race has some privileged place in the universe, that we are somehow ‘special’. It is an old old failing of the human race to follow this line of reasoning. Most humans, Dr Vatknin included, cannot comprehend that the human race is an insignificant part of the huge mechanism called the universe.

  5. Hey Snuggles, my favorite number is 9, and that’s 3 x 3, so I guess that’s pretty cool! But we can’t play that “Guess what number I’m thinking of” game now. 😦 LOL Huggs to you!

    You know whose death got to me, Pris, well, besides Princess Diana’s? It was Ryan White’s. Do you remember him? That kid who got HIV from factor 8 (he had hemophilia) and ended up being a very vocal and strong spokesperson for HIV back when people were really being cruel and even abusive to people who had it. For some reason, when he died, and he was very young, I was so sad. I don’t remember any other deaths around that time, though. Oh, and Elvis. Waaahhhh. Huggs, Pris

    Ninnu, of course I don’t mind; so glad to have you! I’ll pop back ’round to your page, too, now that I’ve found it. Huggs.

  6. Well, Mitch, there’s chaos and there’s chaos and then there’s chaos theory. My first introduction to chaos (well, intellectually speaking, my bedroom at home had always been chaotic in the quotidian sense that I use the term in my last paragraph) was in a literature class on the “Great Books” (here meaning only the “classics,” not really their “greatness” per se). In this class we read Ovid, I with avid interest, and if memory serves Chaos was some sort of nothingness from which the earth was born or sprung; sort of an early form of the “big bang theory.” As interesting as I found this to be, I found mathematical chaos theories that boring. Or maybe that dense and difficult for my non-mathematical brain to digest. Had to google that one, and needn’t have bothered, as you’ve summed it up quite well here. And as for what science is and what it seeks to achieve . . . I’m not entirely sure there’s a consensus on that one, though you do offer an accepted definition or guide.

    I have to revert to what I know, though, so I’ll dig up Mary Shelley (how’s that for morbid imagery?) on science; as you are probably aware, she like many of her time (and ours) was wary of science or more precisely wary of the men who studied, used, and abused it. Science may seek . . . well, it can’t actually seek anything, being a course of thought or a study perpetrated by humans . . . so following your reasoning, as well, science is not “out there”; it’s a tool of mankind. Without our insignificant selves poking into things, we’d not have science at all, I imagine. Unless there’s science without scientists? Not sure about that one. Back to Shelley, so she wrote that lovely book Frankenstein in large part as an indictment of men playing God. Not a trope that has been dropped since, actually. One of the characters in Crichton’s Jurassic Park states at one point of the scientists eagerly spawning dinosaurs (the speaker, interestingly enough, was a chaos theorist), “You were so interested in seeing if you COULD, you didn’t stop to ask if you SHOULD.” Of course then we ramble into ethics, and that’s a whole other ball of wax.

    Dr. Vatknin does what we all do, what you and I are doing, and that is stating as fact his (and our) own beliefs. Nothing wrong with that. And I can just see you chomping at the bit to get back on your fundamentalism soapbox. Smiles. Gosh, what was the point again? Gee, I love this, usually I just have Amber to debate and natter about such things with. What a treat you are, Mitch!

  7. You bring up many good points in this blog! I loved this blog, by the way!

    The continuing separation between religion and science is a subject near and dear to me, especially because the more we learn about our world the more it can be said we can see divine intentions in it. Can it be said chaos even exists? Could chaos only be the term we use when we do not understand the methods or mechanisms behind something? To me, all events have a reason and purpose. In my mind, science and religion compliment each other; however, there are some that want to use scientific understanding to undermine any power that may be higher than the “power” of mankind. Just some thoughts floating around in my brain. :p

    Have a happy new year as well, and may we share many more interesting posts together!

  8. Happy New Year Fuzzy. You brought up some very interesting points regarding chaos. I read something not too long ago about this very subject and now your article has prompted me to go look for it again and read in more in depth. Seems like it said something about creation coming from chaos, thus order was established and then creation got bored with the order and so chaos was given place in the universe again…hmmmm…maybe I have it confused. When I find it and figure it out perhaps I will do a blog on that very subject. See ya!

  9. heh, one of my ID’s on yahoo is order_inchaos, I love that there really is a pattern to everything.
    I am superstitious but only in a perfunctory way…I don’t really believe anything bad is going to happen to me if I don’t salute that magpie, but I do it anyway, just to be on the safe side. Likewise, I don’t walk under signposts or ladders, I touch wood (that’s not a euphemism :P), and I get angsty if I break a mirror.
    You have to figure, these things started out somewhere, legends that have survived for countless centuries. SO i go with it.
    Great blog, by the way. πŸ˜€ Happy nearly Supernatural πŸ˜›

  10. btw, have you read “Godel, Escher and Bach: An eternal golden Braid”? Fantastic book, not exactly a read-all-at-once book, more like read-it-over-a-year book, but wonderful all the same.

  11. Hei Fuzz.

    Interesting blog so tis but as me precious blonde-brain is on well-deserved days off, I won’t push it too hard to get it into the deep discussions on me n everybody else’s points of view on the matter. Even a Blonde is allowed a few days when there is no need to tink, tink… Surely!
    HuGGiz to you from me digni self. Rii xx.

  12. read! I remember that pic of mavis’..gave me the creeps! I have nothing to add to your comments. I agree with the pattern theory totally. Really good read today BBB!

  13. Hi Ceres, and thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words! I think that you are saying something important about how people react to things they don’t understand. And our need to understand and categorize makes for some rather unpleasant clashes between scientists and theologians, for example. I don’t see the need for that because I, like you, don’t see that one thing cancels out the other. That’s just a bit too pat for me. Thanks for your great comments, Huggs to you!

    Oooh, Mavis, you’ve made my day by calling this an “article”! Of course, it’s just another way to say “blog post,” but it sounds so good to me, like I get paid for this sort of thing. As to Chaos coming back due to someone’s boredom . . .I don’t recall reading that in Ovid, but there is as much mythos surrounding chaos as surrounding the earth’s creation itself, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised it someone said that. This idea of replacing order with chaos might be Greco-Roman if it’s seen as a punishment for human and/or godly transgression, but it wouldn’t “fit” their way of thinking that a “creation” got bored, just the gods themselves. Can’t wait to read your blog on chaos, Mavis! Huggs.

    Yay!! Tally’s back. Doing my happy dance (which is not unlike the Snoopy dance, come to think of it). LOL. I’m the same way about superstition and maybe even a little about religion, better to be safe than sorry. Salute a magpie? Must be a Brit thing. I dunno if I even know what a magpie is, I mean, I know it’s some sort of black (I think) bird that likes shiny things from Enid Blyton novels, but other than that, don’t know what it is or if we have them over here just called something else. Not a euphemism. Hehe. Huggs for days, Tally, so glad you’re back. But I guess I’ve established that by now. πŸ™‚

    heee, of course, Rii! No need to feel obligated to comment at all, I just trot out whatever’s knocking about in my noggin’ and if you’re in a “blonde” space, then I can appreciate and respect that!! Huggs to your diggy self.

    LOL, BBB, you just liked it because I named dropped you! Kidding, of course. I’m off to your page NOW. Huggs and love.

  14. Oops, and no, I’ve not read that book, Tally, but I like Escher’s sketches, if it’s that Escher, and Bach’s writings, so it sounds like something I’d get into . . . over the course of year. πŸ™‚

  15. Just did a search in amazon for the book, Tally, and see it’s about Bach, the composer, not that other writer Bach guy . . . have it on order, though. I’ll get back to you in a year or so when I’ve read it. LOL

  16. Judas Priest!
    Must everything have a label?
    Is this a preview of your next blogg that you haven’t written yet?
    Chaos is explained well enough in Jurassic Park by dripping water across your knuckles….
    Science is not a living entity. It is just another tag or label to define our own questioning minds. Nothing more.
    “quothe the raven, never more” tag not what you are but only what you see. Don’t trust what you see because it is incased in chaos.

    What was I saying….getting old and not remembering, that’s chaos!

  17. Yes, Heyman, this was part of my point, our needless scramble to paste labels on everything. I’m not sure what “this” is that you think may be a preview? Confusing.

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