In a couple of final 2020 Zoom classes with a group of fifth grade students, we played a version of the “Reality Scavenger Hunt,” a game my colleague David Shapiro created. In small groups, the students come up with examples that fit into these five categories:
1. Something that isn’t real but seems to be real
2. Something that is real but seems not to be real
3. Something that has to be real
4. Something that is both real and not real
5. Something that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not real
We then come back together and students offer examples they thought of and the rest of us try to guess in which category they belong. The activity raises questions about what makes something real, whether there are levels of reality, and whether and how we can know whether anything is real.
In one session, a student offered “superstition.” Student guesses ranged from “something that isn’t real but seems to be,” “something that is both real and not real,” and “something that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not real.” We began talking about the nature of superstition. One student suggested that superstition is the opposite of coincidence — if you believe in superstitions, he suggested, you won’t believe in coincidence because you will think everything that happens is a result of something you did or didn’t do.
We talked about what counts as superstition. David Shapiro, who was visiting the class, asked whether it would count as a superstition if he believes that if he wears a particular shirt each time he takes a test, he’ll do well. There was widespread agreement that this would be a superstition. He then asked, “If I believe that if I study hard I will do well on a test, is that a superstition?” No, the students responded, because there is evidence that studying leads to better grades.
But, we wondered, if every time David wears his lucky shirt he does well and when he doesn’t wear it his grades are lower, isn’t that evidence that the shirt leads to doing well on exams? Some students said that it’s still a superstition, because it is not the shirt that is affecting your grades but your confidence that when you wear the shirt, you’ll do well and it is the confidence that helps improve your performance. One student offered a hypothetical: if you lost the shirt and someone claimed to find it and gave it to you, but it was really a different shirt, you would have the same confidence and do just as well as you did with what you thought was your lucky shirt.
In this sense, can superstition be useful? And, if so, are superstitions in some way real?
In another session, the concept in question was “everything.” Some students said that everything is both real and not real, because it includes things that are real, like air, and things that are not, like unicorns. One noted that “everything” is a collection of all things, which includes real things and not real things. I asked if we could imagine everything as one thing, not thinking about the objects that make up everything, but just as everything itself. We wondered whether we could imagine “everything.” A student suggested that perhaps we were all everything, in the sense that we might be as infinite as the universe. He said that he put it in the opposite of category 5 — that is, something that it does matter if it’s real or not.