Daily Archives: March 5, 2009

What’s The Meaning of Life?

monty-pythons-the-meaning-of-lifeOne of the striking features of the human mind is that we seek reason and purpose for all manner of phenomena. This tendency to see purpose in the world is known as teleological reasoning…. In other words, “What’s it for?”

The trouble is that when we apply such reasoning to the natural world then we fall into the trap of regarding everything as being designed and hence we are susceptible to creationism.

That’s the theory of my friend Deb Kelemen at Boston University. She has just published a paper in “Cognition” where she reports a study where adults had to rate the following sorts of statements as true or false.

• Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil

• Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells

• The Sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesise

• Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates must align

When they were put under rapid time constraints, adults were significantly more inclined to adopt the teleological stance. When they had ample time, they were still more inclined to endorse teleological interpretations, especially those related to the design of the Earth. It did not matter whether they were believers or not.

She also found with colleagues Tania Lombrozo and Deborah Zaitchik similar patterns of intuitive biases in aging populations with Alzheimer’s Disease. I also wonder whether this is related to Dan Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ where humans deliberately anthropomorphize inanimate things simply because it makes it easier for us to interact with the toaster, the car or the computer if we treat them as if they were alive. Maybe, I’ll ask him next week. (Blatant name-drop).

Anyway, these natural ways of interpreting the world suggests that such ways of thinking never really go away but rather, are suppressed. Arguably, such a bias in our reasoning makes creationism that more easy to accept rather than natural selection which is so counter-intuitive to most people.

Provocatively, my colleague Paul Blooms wonders, “It might turn out that if you put Richard Dawkins or Einstein or whomever [to the test], no matter how expert or educated they are, they might still make these mistakes.”

Now that’s a study I would like to see.

Ok… clearly a more academic post coz I have some meetings coming up where I have to be clever but I will get back to describing the underbelly of mankind shortly.


Filed under Research