It is well known that children favor teleological (purpose-based) explanations for a variety of phenomena. It may be cute to see a child thinking that rocks were made to break or icebergs exist for polar bears; however, it is assumed that adults should outgrow such explanations. The question is: Do They? How ingrained are these ideas? Do such unscientific beliefs explain the wide prevalence of belief in Creation or Intelligent Design or even religion in general? While we certainly don’t know all the answers, a recent study by Kelemen and Rosset sheds some light on the subject (The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults. 2009. Cognition 111:138-143, article kindly supplied by the author).

The authors conducted 2 studies. The first divided 121 students into 3 groups (fast speed, moderate speed, unspeeded) and asked them to read a question and then determine whether the explanation was good (correct) or bad (incorrect). Some of these questions were:

Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil
Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells
Mosses form around rocks to stop soil erosion
Finches diversified in order to survive
Germs mutate to become drug resistant
Parasites multiply to infect the host
The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize
Water condenses to moisten the air
Molecules fuse in order to create matter

As you can see these questions attribute purpose-based (teleological) explanations for natural phenomena. For example, while earthworms evolved to live in the soil and they do provide aeration to the soil, that is not why they tunnel. And while plants do use the sun to photosynthesize, that is not why the sun makes light.

The results for the first study were very interesting. In the authors own words: “When processing is limited by speeded conditions, adults are more likely to endorse scientifically unwarranted teleological explanations of natural phenomena”. In other words, adults, like children, sought purposeful explanations in natural events.

In order to determine whether such explanations were influenced by scientific training or religious beliefs a second study was done with 109 students who were tested on scientific knowledge and asked questions about their religious beliefs. These results showed that “even after completing multiple college level science courses, adults possess scientifically unwarranted teleological explanations of natural phenomena” and this did not correlate with belief in God. In other words, adults have a strong tendency to see purpose where there is no purpose. While this study did not find a correlation with belief in God, one can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a person’s current belief system that causes teleological explanations, but rather the beliefs taught while in childhood? I belief that such a follow-up study would prove interesting.

Of course the Christian might make the case that Paul made: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1: 19-21, NASB). These innate beliefs are there because God placed them there. The more likely explanation is that Paul believed this because we are purpose-seeking animals. It is how we evolved. We want to know why and since we are purpose-driven animals, we make the mistake of attributing purpose to natural events that have no directing purpose.

What is becoming evident is that this tendency runs deep and is not easily replaced. This has implications for scientific education and even for “winning” the battle against non-scientific ideas such as Intelligent Design.

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