Reason & Superstition

I’ve always enjoyed taking in a good battle between reason and superstition. They’ve been going on regularly now for quite some time, dating at least since Francis Bacon threw down the gauntlet with "Novum Organum" in 1620.

The battles seem never ending and that’s just fine with me since they provide loads of entertainment value, particularly when the waring parties find themselves at the end of their arguments and, surprise, the opposition is not convinced. And even as we sit back and watch the world views flail at each other, we need to be prepared to be enlightened.

Today, we get to see these battles played out in diatribes issued forth in service of Intelligent Design or natural selection, in the occasional news story on psychotic mothers and fathers wed to the faith of Christian Science and the death of their children, in ancient battles between peoples who claim god gave them the land, and in rancid and acrimonious debates over life, death, sex and birth.

I recently came across a writer of fiction who trades in explorations of the intricacies and absurdities of the battle between reason and superstition. James Morrow is hard to nail down. His early work appeared mainly in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazines, but this seemed only the case because the focus of his short stories had no better place to appear, not because they were stories of ray guns, alien worlds or nanotechnology run amok.

His most recent novels, "The Philosopher’s Apprentice" and "The Last Witchfinder" are both satire and social commentary wrapped up inside the ongoing Reason V. Superstition war. And they are terrific books. However, it’s his collection of short stories, "Bible Stories for Adults", that truly makes one laugh out loud as well as feel a pinch of embarrassment for the ugly truths of western civilization we all must live with…and a bit too comfortably at that.

But here’s the point: Having delved into Morrow extensively of late, I’m left thinking about where wine works itself into the battle between superstition and reason; where the myths we winos carry with us are too easily allowed to slide around reason and keep moving.

I think they number in the many…

…that quality in wine is definable and objective
…that terroir comes from the soil
…that wine can be judged with a number assigned by a single person and have meaning
…that the "great wines of the world" are few and far between

…just to begin with.

It strikes me that these and other such issues provoke in winos similar battles that can be described as reason v. superstition. Happily for us wine lovers, the outcome of our disagreement over these and other thorny issues rarely if ever lead to burnings at the stake, volatile school board elections, putting children’s lives at stake or losses in personal autonomy. Instead, they merely lead to another glass of wine and maybe a blog post or two.

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13 Responses

  1. Bradley - July 28, 2008

    Excellent post, Tom. This begins to explain the uneasy feeling I get when someone pontificates about the ‘right’ way to make a wine or the way wine is ‘supposed’ to taste.
    Wine is captivating, in more ways than one.

  2. Steve Heimoff - July 28, 2008

    Tom, as usual a fascinating post! As you point out, there are elements of religious or magical thinking in our attitudes about wine. What I find so interesting is that it’s always been that way, as far back as history goes. Julius Caesar, Popes, Emperors, Kings, moguls and presidents always have had their favorites. To me, this suggests that there’s something over and above mere superstition — that wine speaks to something fundamental in our human souls. Just what that is, I’m not sure.

  3. Tom Wark - July 28, 2008

    It must be true, I think, that issues and ideas must speak to something deep inside ourselves in order for them to rise to the level of “necessarily defensible” and deserving of action.
    The issue of “terroir” in particular is not just something having to do with science vs. superstition. Its a question that can be explored on so many levels that surely our “soul” is one of them.

  4. Morton Leslie - July 28, 2008

    This fight between reason and superstition, logic and spirituality has been going on as long as the historical record. It impacts wine today more than we realize. We see it in “natural law”, an idea that goes back to Aristotle and has been promoted for two millennia by Western religion…the belief that everything has a specified role to play in a grand scheme of things. We assume we can see the true natural purposes of things and assume we can determine what is good and what is bad.
    It’s obvious to us when religions like the Catholic Church use natural law to define morality and label things, like heterosexuality as natural and homosexuality as unnatural. Good and bad invariably follow. It’s less noticed in the secular, Marin County intellectual who believes in a soft, harmonious, and feminine Mother Nature. It underlies how we want to feel about “natural” foods or “natural” fabrics. It draws us to anything labeled “organic” and is why the “biodynamic-ists” aren’t laughed out of the room.
    Fortunately for some of us, who might otherwise be burning at the stake, the Scottish philosopher David Hume stirred the pot by rejecting natural law as a basis for ethical behavior. His point was that human reason is wholly inadequate to make any assumption about the divine, whether through implied reasoning or an observation of nature. Simply put, we can’t say just because something is a certain way, it supposed to be that way. (Note that Hume was tried for heresy.) Darwin followed, arguing that while science can show us evolutionary forces that cause something to be the way it is or the way it was, it does not imply that something is better the way it is, or better the way it once was.
    But in wine, as businessmen, we never let issues like these get in the way of making a buck. Darwin be damned, the money is in spirituality. Science does not sell. So, look at us. We are all non-interventionists letting nature tend the grapes and make the wine…we’re Methode Ancien all the way!
    Someday soon a winemaker will claim that he or she did absolutely nothing whatsoever in the natural winemaking process (besides cashing the paycheck) and we will all flock to have a taste.

  5. Tom Wark - July 28, 2008

    Excellent points, particularly regarding the laugh factor of biodynamic farming.

  6. Arthur - July 28, 2008

    Morton hits the nail on the head.
    This disparity and debate exist solely because there are those who understand the facts (science) underlying wine and its assessment and those consumers who want desperately to preserve a magic-infused fantasy of the stuff.
    I have said on numerous occasions that the perpetuation of this touchy-feely, Heideggerian, zen-like notions of wine and its assessment is based in the desire or people to make money – either by selling wine or by selling subscriptions and advertising on their venue.
    One of the easiest ways to get ahead in the world is to validate people’s beliefs (however erroneous) rather than to challenge them.

  7. Wineguy - July 28, 2008

    As far as “natural” is concerned, I read somewhere (maybe here, for all I know) that vinegar is natural but making wine requires some intervention.

  8. Kathy - July 28, 2008

    Deep issues here. But being from the home of the creationist museum ( that looks a lot like Dominus in Yountville from the freeway, I am concerned that wine/alcohol should be so linked to pleasure without real talking points.
    We are reentering an age of prohibition.
    Anti-alcohol Marin Institute has recently declared that it will stop all other things and only focus on alcohol. France is oddly anti-alcohol and then there are anti-alcohol countries in the Middle East…and when the scientists did the 2001 climate change report, grapes were not included in the studies because of the Muslim scientists on the panel. Interesting this Muslim and Christian mesh.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - July 28, 2008

    You make me proud to be on this blog. Your post is spot-on, especially the Hume philosophy, which I hold dear in my soul–if I have a soul, of course!
    Arthur, I was just having a debate elsewhere about those critics who don’t understand the scientific facts and those consumers who ravenously follow said critics. Being in the science camp, I was shouted down, even by the moderator! One doesn’t mess with perceived notions.
    Wineguy–not really true. Wine is spontaneous and first in line; vinegar comes afterward, but not by much…the winemaker’s task is to keep the stuff in that middle state for as long as possible–that is if the winemaker is an interventionist. I have no idea how a non-interventionist winemaker keeps the stuff in that middle state 😉

  10. Arthur - July 28, 2008

    Sometimes, the accepted wisdom is not very wise….

  11. Morton Leslie - July 28, 2008

    Arthur – Regarding making money by validating their beliefs. A few months ago I was at lunch with a couple vintner buddies and I brought up a project I was thinking about doing. It was basically doing a little pioneering in winemaking that challenged convention. They both tried to talk me out of it. One said to me, “You know what happens to pioneers don’t you? They’re the guys who ended up shot full of arrows!” And I’m embarrassed to say that argument carried the day.

  12. Thomas Pellechia - July 28, 2008

    I have to admit that until I closed my winery, I avoided the arrows too. But now I am free…

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