According to a recent study, there is "evidence for a basic human preference to understand the world in terms of purpose. When faced with an object that supports a plausible function, humans make an immediate but defeasible inference to design, and assume a teleological explanation is warranted."
The authors advance a model of human cognition that starts with "promiscuous teleology" in children, develops with the retreat of teleology resulting from "causal beliefs typically acquired through formal education", but sometimes advancing again with the onset of senility and the impairment of the causal belief system. Thus, teleological explanations are presented as "compelling and pervasive because they reflect an explanatory default."
To support this conceptual model, the authors (psychologists) constructed 10 "why" questions, each with a mechanistic answer and a teleological answer. The 41 participants in the study (including 17 Alzheimer's patients) were asked first about "acceptance" of the various answers, second about their "preferred" answer, and third they were asked to complete a "causal-beliefs task".
As part of their analytical framework, the authors introduced a categorisation of responses received: "warranted items, those that typically warrant teleological explanations (artifacts, biological traits), and unwarranted items, those that typically do not (biological organisms, nonliving natural objects, natural phenomena)". The word "unwarranted" raises many issues with me, because many of us have made design inferences about biological organisms (based on complex specified information), about nonliving natural objects (for example, water), and about natural phenomenon (such as the fine tuning of fundamental constants). Whilst these inferences go far beyond the questions asked of the participants, I cannot help thinking that the chosen analytical methodology has provided an opportunity for bias to be introduced to this research (for more on this, go here). However, based on the questions asked, the authors found that the Alzheimer's patients scored higher on teleological explanations than their healthy peers, suggesting the conclusion outlined above.
A surprise comes with the causal-beliefs tasks. About 66% of the participants identified an impersonal process as the causal agent for "unwarranted" items. The rest mostly invoked God. "But does the tendency to infer design also require an inference to a designer? The current results suggest not." Whatever the authors are measuring (and that is debateable), their work does not endorse the idea that people always see purpose and meaning from within a framework of Theism. An alternative hypothesis is that the reported perceptions involve an anthropocentric view of the world, with 'self' at the centre. This is, of course, a big contrast to Theism, where meaning and purpose is found only in relation to God.
On the positive side, this study could help promote a meaningful debate about what constitutes a legitimate design inference: "Inferring the appropriateness of a teleological explanation from an apparent function, which we call the inference to design, is often quite reasonable." What is needed here is not a pre-emptive judgment about what is warranted design and what is unwarranted, but a recognition that design inferences are evidence-based and probabilistic.
On the negative side, the authors make some wild extrapolations of their thesis to debates about origins. "Finally, the appeal of intelligent-design creationism, ultra-adaptationism in evolutionary biology, and widespread misunderstanding of evolution as a goal-directed process provide further evidence of the human tendency to view the world in terms of design." Space does not permit discussion here of ultra-adaptationism or evolution as a goal-directed process. But to interpret either ID or creationism as psychological phenomena, and in particular argue the persistence of teleology because advocates have not imbibed the "causal beliefs" that education supplies, is a travesty. The discussion of these issues has to be first about the interpretation of evidences. Both ID and creationism are interested in making truth claims, and people who do not understand this rule themselves out of meaningful debate. There are certainly psychological issues (and cultural issues) to address. The authors might make better use of their time by considering how the "Blind Watchmaker" version of evolutionary theory makes people blind to the significance of basic facts (like the evidence for profound limits to variation and the evidences for design in living things based on complex specified information).
Tania Lombrozo, Deborah Kelemen, and Deborah Zaitchik
Psychological Science, 18 (11) 2007, 999-1006
ABSTRACT: Unlike educated adults, young children demonstrate a "promiscuous" tendency to explain objects and phenomena by reference to functions, endorsing what are called teleological explanations. This tendency becomes more selective as children acquire increasingly coherent beliefs about causal mechanisms, but it is unknown whether a widespread preference for teleology is ever truly outgrown. The study reported here investigated this question by examining explanatory judgments in patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD), whose dementia affects the rich causal beliefs adults typically consult in evaluating explanations. The results indicate that unlike healthy adults, AD patients systematically and promiscuously prefer teleological explanations, suggesting that an underlying tendency to construe the world in terms of functions persists throughout life. This finding has broad relevance not only to understanding conceptual impairments in AD, but also to theories of development, learning, and conceptual change. Moreover, this finding sheds light on the intuitive appeal of creationism.
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