[Documents menu] Documents menu

Date: Sun, 16 Jul 1995 21:26:51 -0700 (PDT)
From: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: H 33: ways of viewing Haitian Voodoo
Message-Id: <Pine.SUN.3.91.950716212628.24136T-100000@crl8.crl.com>

Reflections on ways to regard Haitain Voodoo

By Bob Corbett, Spring 1988

One year when I taught my annual Haitian history course I had several of my philosophy students in the course. (I am a philosophy professor by profession.) I knew some of them were interested in epistemology and sociology of knowledge, so I wrote this short piece to describe different ways of looking at Haitian Voodoo.

I believe there are three primary ways of regarding virtually any phenomena we observe or hear about or hear claimed.

  1. Naturally.
  2. Psycho-naturally.
  3. Transcendentally.
I. Let me develop these.
  1. Nature. Some things we regard as behaving according to certain laws of nature. We may or may not personally or even collectively know these laws at the moment, but we still might believe that the phenomenon in question is and is by nature what we believe it to be.

    For example, in present western culture, most of us would regard the coming of spring as a natural phenomenon and believe that trees, flowers, birds, bees, even humans, are following laws of nature which we know much about. Any given one of us might not know much about these laws, but we tend to believe that scientists do, and that the laws exist.

  2. Psycho-natural. Some things we regard as behaving according to certain laws of nature, but are conditioned by how the human being thinks and believes about them. Thus even most physicians believe that an important part of healing is the patient's views of the medicine and physicians. If the patient believes strongly in the physician's ability, or in the efficacy of the medicines being used, that person is likely to be healed more easily than someone who has negative beliefs about either the physician or medicine.
  3. Transcendental. This is a belief that there are forces, powers or beings who/which transcend the natural and human, and which can have causal power in the world. The most common western concept is God, the God of Christianity or Judism. But, even in Christianity there are other spirits, angels and devils, saints and so on. The general belief is that some transcendental beings can and do cause some of the phenomena in our experience.

II. Some comments about these three.

  1. Scientific people like the first category best. The primary reason is that to the extent that a phenomenon is naturally caused, then each of us has the exact same access to investigate it and verification and criticism are much more public and therefore reliable. There is less of the subject, more of the object involved.
  2. However, even the scientific mind has had to come to grips with what is usually seen as the unique characteristic of the human mind. Typically science is divided into social and natural science. The criterion of division is the object of study. Natural objects which can be studied naturally make up natural science. Human subjects, where the human mind might have some effect, make up the objects of social science.
  3. The transcendental is beyond the scientific. The reason for this is that most transcendental claims cannot be criticized or tested. Let me give you two contrasting examples:

    A. Psycho-natural: One says medicine 'x' will cure this disease, 'y'. One gives medicine x to many people with y. If most or very many of them are cured, more than with any other medicine, then we tend to believe that x cures y. And we believe we know this with good reasons.

    B. Transcendental. However, suppose we pray to the god, udu, to cure us of y. Note that udu, like most gods, doesn't have to answer the prayer. Thus the tendency of the believer is to say that if we are cured of y it was udu who did it. But, if we are not cured of y, this does not mean that udu can't cure y, but only that udu didn't choose to.

    Thus evidence is mainly irrelevant to transcendental beliefs.

  4. General comments.

    Karl Popper, one of the most important philosophers of science, has argued that the key difference between science and non-science is precisely the ability to propose concrete tests for the truth or falsity of a hypothesis which can be decided by observation. Thus one says: if I give x to 200 people with y and then, within q # of days, 70% of them recover, then we should believe that x is an important cure for y.

    Note that virtually no such tests exist for transcendental phenomena.