Why Are Rocks Pointy?

Pointy rocks at Garden of Gods - mind your bum! (photo Ryan Schwartz)Anyone with a young child in the back of the car on a long journey will be familiar with the incessant questions that they can ask. Sometimes it may just be, “Are we there yet?” but for many, a long road trip can be an ideal opportunity for intellectual torture. My youngest could grind you down into submission after a couple of minutes.. “Why are trees green and not blue? How heavy are clouds and why do they float if they weigh something?” On and on and on and on….after a while you give up the will… “BECAUSE THAT’S JUST THE WAY THEY ARE!!!!”

Don’t get me wrong. After all, I am a scientist who studies children but it is quite clear that children seemed compelled to ask questions and find solutions. Sometimes it can get exasperating. “Because that’s just the way they are” is not a satisfactory answer and if you get suckered into starting to give a causal chain of reasoning such as, “Well, trees are green because of the chlorophyll they use to convert sunlight into energy,” well you know what happens next… On and on and on and on

When we don’t give them answers, children generate their own explanations and from their perspective, everything is the way it is for some purpose. Rocks are pointy to stop animals sitting on them. Trees have leaves to provide shade. This is called teleology – giving a functional reason for things that just happen to be the way they are for non-purposeful reasons. In the natural world there are all manner of things that appear complex and designed for a purpose. But that’s not the way the natural world works. It has no purpose and that’s one reason people find it so difficult to understand evolution through natural selection. Adopting the teleological stance that things have been designed purposefully is the intuitive way to think about the world and that’s one reason why children may be so inclined to creationist stories. Most religions (I don’t know if all) have some creationist account about origins usually in the form of God.

This is the point that my colleague Deb Kelemen at Boston University has made in her research. In fact, she calls it “promiscuous teleology” to reflect the pervasive nature of this way of thinking. You might think that once children are provided with non-teleological explanations than education can eradicate these naïve notions. However, in a paper published earlier this year in the prestigious journal “Cognition” she reports how science-educated adults can revert back to giving teleological explanations when forced to answer questions under time pressure. Is this simply the easiest answer to give? It may well be but my hunch that I give in my book is that we never truly abandon childhood ways of interpreting the world and that we have to work to ignore them. And that takes effort which is why putting someone in the spotlight can get them to think like a child again.

BTW I am also blogging over at t5m. So drop over there if you have a spare moment.


Filed under Research

11 responses to “Why Are Rocks Pointy?

  1. Bruce,
    I love the term promiscuous teleology.

    I think that we humans revert to teleology when explaining complex ideas because it is the easiest and most expeditious manner in which to handle something complex.

    I will never forget a chemistry exam that I took in high school. I was completely unprepared and was slogging my way through the questions when I finally gave up and responded to a why question with the answer “because god wants it that way.”

    My instructor, who was used to my sarcasm by this point in the year, was less than amused. I, however, thought that it was a perfectly rational answer to a question that I found particularly vexing.

    Even then, my cynicism towards religion and facile explanations had begun to rear its ugly head.

  2. Leigh

    Tell mini-Bruce that you will answer his/her questions when he/she can explain why it is that your ideas are being so heinously misrepresented in the media.
    She/he may well surprise you.
    Her/his startling and revolutionary hypothesis that “Rocks are pointy to stop animals sitting on them” certainly surprised me.
    Rocks have evolved defense mechanisms against all bum-toting kind?
    The whole fabric of Geology ‘totters and falls’!

    I vote that mini-Bruce should get a blog too. Just for balance.

    On a serious note, after mulling over your ideas in recent weeks I have discovered myself to be far less rational than I had previously believed. I am shocked, saddened and oddly elated all at once and I must say what a privilege it is to have discovered your work.

    Having said that, I can pretend to be annoyed at you for destroying my comfortable illusions and have at you with such pearlers as “Well maybe everyone else is that way inclined, but not I!”
    if that’s what you’re used to. Alternatively, I can pretend that I haven’t understood your thesis and
    mock you as a ‘mere religious apologist’ too.

    You decide. I’m just happy to help or hinder.

    • brucehood

      Yah… a convert to my thesis…. yes, it is upsetting – in many ways more disturbing than anything that Dawkins, Hitchins or Harris have said. We are not rational – in fact, there is no you. But that should probably be my next book.

      • in fact, there is no you

        The delusion of an atomic self is rather an important delusion, though, wouldn’t you say? I rather intend to persist in this delusion for all intents and purposes, save for the abstract knowledge that it is not true.

        I have not managed to get a hold of your book yet (busy!) but I was extremely disturbed recently when reading Pinker’s The Blank Slate about an experiment with individuals whose brain hemispheres have been severed. Apparently it is possibly then to communicate with each hemisphere separately. The kicker is that the left brain would continue to invent an apparently rational narrative for everything the body did, e.g. if you communicated solely to the right brain a message to stand up, then asked the left brain why he had stood up, he might reply that he was on his way to the vending machine to get a Coke, naturally.

        That pretty much scares the crap out of me. heh…

  3. Bruce
    Despite my comments on my own blog i am enjoying your book immensely, it’s very thought provoking.

    My questions are why cannot there be an intelligence behind creation that uses evolution as a method of creation itself. For example in robotics people are designing robots that will self improve or ‘evolve.’ It seems reasonable that these robots will one day explore their environment, learn, adapt, learn and adapt, and one day reach a level of consciousness where they ask where they came from and who made them. They may not discover this for hundreds of years but during that period the designers still exist.

    While this is a long way off it seems a reasonable way for a designer to think when creating something. Even if it starts with a huge ‘Bang!’

    I am still reading ‘supersense’ and forgive me if the second half of the book answers this but why does reality itself begin to have ‘spiritual’ dimensions after one changes the brain, with dare i say it, psychedelics.

    Richard Strassman’s book ‘The Spirit Molecule’ looks at a scientifically conducted experiments on various people who used dmt and their description of reality included what you would refer to as supernatural. Yet these illusions all had similar descriptions when related, the environment people accessed was alien to science yet under repeated experimentation they returned there. This may just be the natural world and the super part is the bit we cannot perceive with the normal operating system the brain comes with. In the same way bats have the ability to perceive differently than humans because they have different brains and dogs smell out cancers. This is nature not supernatural.

    Haven taken dmt myself i cannot explain with language the effects or experience because there are no terms of reference in the consensus reality, yet if i were to try people would not believe what i have experienced is real. Reality is a shared illusion.

    Direct experience and scientific reason all have limitations when measuring these events. In the end it’s all degrees of perception. I think in many ways science itself is in danger of becoming a religion.

    My son asked a lot of questions about existence and i used the phrase, ‘there are things there are no answers for, yet.’

    I think at the end of the day this kinda is the most honest answer i could give at the time.

    (It will not stop the questions however 🙂

    We are a curious nature and what ever humanity does, it will always attempt to find meaning whereas most other life forms just live happily without it.

    Imagine these artificial constructs are removed from our minds as being real ie the financial system is something we created to help shift money about, it’s not actually real or natural.
    Same as politics and religion. These structures just hold our sense of reality together but they are not necessarily part of nature.

    Is our attachment to them real?
    If they are removed what is left?

    What do we see as being real. Even our identity is not really anything else but a collection of imprinted experiences and conditioning and genetic code.

    My point is science is the same, it’s an evolving idea, a way of perceiving, using the method of repeating experiments to reproduce the same results. This seems quite sensible to me.
    Yet at the end of the day it’s a religion for skeptic people using theoretical concepts.

    If i had not had direct experiences that fall under the realm of beyond what science knows currently then i would not subscribe to any belief at all.

    Here is a link to a paper you may find useful by another great writer and thinker Mr. Howard Bloom. He articulates this better than I can.


    Best wishes and thank you for such a stimulating challenging read.

    ps. I am not a scientist and neither am i attached to the idea of being right so there may well be obvious flaws within this idea which i cannot recognize but feel free to tear it apart.

  4. Arno

    To question number one (“why there cannot be an intelligence behind creation that uses evolution as a method of creation itself”): Occam’s Razor. There could be a creator, but the idea isn’t worth considering scientifically (as of yet) because there is no phenomenon as of yet that relies exclusively on the workings of a creator instead of simple small scale laws. So yes, there can be. But so far, any claim about a designer would just be based on fantasy and not on any realistic claims.
    “Yet at the end of the day it’s a religion for skeptic people using theoretical concepts.” *presses the bullshit button* No. It is an evolving system that relies on measurable data to construct predictions and test these.
    You mention DMT, which is interesting. Keep in mind that DMT is a naturally occurring drug that is also produced by our own brains. Increased production has been observed when people dream and Strassman links DMT to near-death experiences as well. The reason that people have similar visions, might simply be due to the same reason that so many people have similar dreams: a commonly shared physiology and shared evolution based motivations (need to belong, need for control etc).

  5. I’m actually looking forward to when my son gets old enough to start with the endless “why” questioning. Maybe I will change my mind when it actually happens 🙂

    Sometimes my wife will say, “I wonder why X” and inadvertently spur me on to some long-winded explanation. There have actually been times when she says, “Um, I guess I don’t actually care” and I say, “Well, can I please tell you anyway?” heh… Dunno what’s wrong with me, I just like explaining stuff. Maybe my son will break me of that 🙂

    I do have to say, in my interactions with young children so far, they get tired of it before I do. Seriously.

    • brucehood

      Hi James, I am encouraged by your response to my exalt, “there is no YOU”… I will develop this into a serious thesis I (whatever that is) promise

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  8. Grant

    I just asked the two questions on Richard Dawkins’ program (“Why are rocks pointy?” and “Why are lakes still?”) with the answers from the program, to my 6 year old daughter. She spent 2 years in a Catholic elementary school before we moved her to the non-religious public school system. Being a very imaginative child, I expected the designer answer… however, she answered BOTH questions in the opposite.

    I found this interesting.

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