And is that the basis of the popularity of creationism? Perhaps, says a new study on human susceptibility to unwarranted teleological explanations of natural phenomena, including that ultimate in teleology - creationism! Dr. Fred Schreiber shares a report from New Scientist on the paper by Kelemen & Rosset, with the following comment:
A similar problem to the one below has been shown in physics students. Quiz them outside of the physics class, they forget Newton and revert to Aristotelian physics. There seem to be intuitive ways of thinking that have evolved to be "good enough" for survival purposes but as scientific explanations are completely wrong. The classic demonstration of this is a set of video interviews at a Harvard graduation. Students and faculty members were asked why do we have seasons and everybody got it wrong. They reverted to intuitive, personal experience physics. - Fred
We are all apparently born with a broad bias for accepting or inventing teleological (purpose-based) explanations for natural phenomena. The perhaps surprising finding of this study is that college education may do little to undo this intuitive inclination for "promiscuous teleology" which remains prevalent even among well-schooled adults! Interestingly, our teleological bias appears to take over most often when we are pressed for time, so that our knowledge of actual causality (established through science and learnt, hopefully, in school) is inhibited under time-pressures! So our first leap towards an explanation may often be a teleological one - and I can see some potential survival benefit of that: fine distinctions between "that leopard is leaping towards me because it wants to eat me" (warranted) and "that rock is tumbling towards me because it wants to crush me" (unwarranted) matter little when the response in either case is to "RUN"!! If we sit down to think about the scenarios (as opposed to experiencing them in real time), and have some knowledge of leopard behavior and gravity, we are perfectly capable of making the distinction between the two, and deducing that the leopard's purpose may indeed be to eat me, while the rock is simply falling with no such purpose. So the trouble (or philosophical muddle) may begin when we blur the distinction and extend the unwarranted teleological explanation into an ultimate one: "someone designed that rock (leopard) to fall (leap) on me in order to kill me" - and place ourselves at the center of all "purpose" in the universe. At what point, and how, do we develop the knowledge-based "inhibitory control" mechanisms to suppress the initial teleological urge and accept a more evidence based rational explanation for phenomena? What strategies might we use to strengthen these inhibitory controls if we are to build a more science-based culture? Something to ponder for us all, esp. those engaged in education...
Deborah Kelemen, Evelyn Rosset (2009). The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults Cognition, 111 (1), 138-143 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.01.001