Thursday, 19 May 2011

Our Lady of A-Stump-tion.

Apologies for the brevity of my previous post, but now that I’ve conquered the Manflu (using the traditional remedies of my people; tea, strepsils and Flat 7Up) I can get back in the skepticmobile for a spin around the neighbourhood of superstition and ignorance.

If you’ve ever looked up at the clouds drifting across the sky, you’re sure to have noticed a cloud that looked like something familiar: a rabbit, a dragon, perhaps an iPhone or a piece of fruit. Seeing shapes in the clouds like this is a popular cliché in film and television, often with a foreboding or prophetic element to it. The reason for this is a phenomenon called Apophenia, or as Skeptic Michael Shermer calls it, Patternicity. Humans are pattern seeking animals, it’s one of the many reasons why we survive and adapt to new environments so well. It makes sense that the animal with that’s at least a little bit paranoid and good at finding patters would be a good survivor; if you mistake the stick for a poisonous insect it’s no big deal, but it could cost you your life if you mistake the poisonous insect for a stick.

Speaking with Richard Dawkins in his 2010 documentary, Faith School Menace, Dr. Deborah Kelemen of the Child Cognition Lab in Boston College said that young children have a propensity to offer purpose based explanations for the origin of objects. One of the examples given in the documentary was the posing of the question to young school-children “Why are rocks pointy? Because lots of stuff pilled up over a long time, or so that animals could scratch themselves on them?”. The children typically elected for the purpose driven explanation. For me, that drives home the fact that the oft touted religious assertion “Everything happens for a reason” is genuinely puerile. When you combine this with our natural disposition towards pattern seeking, it’s no wonder that in the past, humans placed such an importance on divination and religion. Astrology, Palm Reading, Phrenology, and other antiquate curiosities are all based on the assertion of meaning or intent in meaningless patterns. The Roman Senate, once the most powerful government in the ancient world, would not sit if their Augurs saw the gods’ disapproval in animal entrails. Our species has such an aptitude for perceiving intention in randomness that it once frightened governments into inaction! Crucial decisions were taken by generals based on the flight path of birds or the position of the planets in the sky at that moment in time. Sheer lunacy!

This unfortunate combination of traits can explain various paranormal phenomena from UFOs, to ghosts, to Martian structures, and to the oh-so-frequent apparition of Biblical figures on toast. The best and most cringe-worthy example of this in recent memory being the Holy Stump of Rathkeale, Country Limerick. Some locals believe that the Virgin Mary and Jesus appeared in the stump of a tree that was being chopped down outside the Parish Church. You’ve honestly got to worry about these peoples’ higher reasoning faculties. The question has to be asked, what is more probable, that omnipotent super-beings and a bimillennigenarian¹ Jewish woman have a penchant for making appearances on burned pancakes and tree stumps or that humans brains are pattern seeking and have a childish disposition towards seeing purpose and intention in random events?

¹ Bi means two, millennial means thousand, and -generian à la octogenarian, an eighty year old. So it’s an obscure but perfectly cromulent word.


  1. Ha ha! Even though I hadn't read that post till now we were discussing exactly the same thing last night about the holy stump. We decided it you see a beard it must be Jesus and if it's beardless it's got to be Mary. Faces on pieces of toast are abstracted enough to be whoever you want.

  2. I really wish that I had waited until this week to do this topic because of this little gem: