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

6 responses to “What’s The Meaning of Life?

  1. H Purser

    My favourite is when people say “Those sausages want eating” &c.

  2. poietes

    Anthropomorphizing the car is a bad thing?

    I was just cleaning my coffee maker this morning thinking how wonderful she was and how glad that we had added her to our family, and now you are implying that perhaps my response will not contribute to her making better coffee?

    Hmm . . . must ponder this while I have a discussion with the microwave.

  3. You’re being forced to be clever? Again?

  4. brucehood

    Oh Tricia, I am happier as a plain idiot. Ignorance really is bliss

  5. Good or bad, there’s a lot to be said about the thought process of the human mind. Because we are reasonably secure in our daily existence in first world countries our anthropocentric values differ slightly from lesser fortunate ones. In America, one budgets to combat the worries about how to afford putting the family through school. The third world family might well worry about passing the many “exit” signs on their road of life… and so seek engenious ways to stay alive as the family scrapes the cruel earth for sustanence. If we have a thought about something we find off-putting we seem to automatically engage the gears of reason and go looking for a workable solution. By default, to be agenda driven is to breath.
    We ARE hard wired to be dot-connectors. Anthropods and even birds do it. I find what CERN is doing for science and the search for the order of the Universe entriguing- but for my money we’d be just as far ahead to discovering the origin of the universe by renting “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Universe or Monty Pithon’s – The Meaning of Life. ” ‘Not to be facicious, just highlighting what, for me is a forgone conclusion in the matter.The answer to life through studying the universe in all it’s splender is a complete dead end. All we see,
    (in the direction of up)… is mearly God’s attempt to offer mankind a little ambience in his day to day living environment. His real work came on the sixth day.

  6. Whats your favorite time of day and what do you usually do during it? If youre not free to do what you want, what would you otherwise be doing?

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