Monday, March 02, 2009


The Purpose Driven Mind

There's an interesting article in New Scientist (if we can believe them!), entitled "Humans may be primed to believe in creation":

No matter what their religious beliefs, college-educated adults frequently agree with purpose-seeking yet false explanations of natural phenomena - finches diversified in order to survive, for instance.

"The very fact of belief in purpose itself might lead you to favour intelligent design," says Deborah Kelemen, a psychologist at Boston University, who led the study

Kelemen has documented the same kind of erroneous thinking - called promiscuous teleology - in young children. Seven and eight-year olds agree with teleological statements such as "Rocks are jagged so animals can scratch themselves" and "Birds exist to make nice music". These mistakes diminish as kids take more science classes and learn causal explanations for natural events.

This misapprehension is apparently unrelated to religious belief:

People continued to agree with false teleological statements, particularly those that endorsed an Earth intended for life. But non-believers were just as likely to make these errors as religious students, they found.

This is an old problem in evolutionary theory, where even scientists tend to use purposeful language, such as speaking of the survival "strategies" of organisms. Indeed, as I noted before, one of the more ingenious arguments in favor of intelligent design was made by the Duke of Argyll based on this tendency, as recounted by Neal C. Gillespie in his book, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation:

Argyll's primary strategy in his effort to preserve a unity of science and religion by means of the design doctrine was to insist that purposeful teleological language (which scientists, try as they might, seemed unable to avoid) was necessary in carrying on scientific work because a complete scientific explanation must involve the idea of purpose.

Worse, Wallace convinced Darwin to emphasize Herbert Spencer's term "survival of the fittest," at the expense of "natural selection," at least in part because the latter implied a teleological intent on "nature's" part. As we now know, "survival of the fittest" has caused no end of mischief both in the understanding of evolution and in the larger world.

Still, the notion that full-blown creationists are engaged in more childlike thinking than those who accept science would certainly explain a lot ...

I think they're bang on that teleological thinking is more natural to us. That, and essentialism. You've got the makings of a whole bunch of religion all there, ready to go.
Not to mention non-religious woo of all sorts (if religion can be separated from woo).
It strikes me that teleological thinking gives rise to conspiracy theories.

Tom S.
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