People Prefer Purpose

Plato from Raphael's "The School of Athens"
Back in the fourth century BC, Plato argued that any true explanation for a physical process must be teleological. In other words, Plato thought that the processes occurring in nature are driven by design and purpose, and any proper explanation for such processes must include that design and purpose. While most scientists reject such explanations these days, there has been a bit of a resurgence of this school of thought in recent years. Intelligent design advocates as well as creationists, for example, argue that design-based explanations lead to a better understanding of nature.

While most people think that any teleological approach to nature must assume some sort of Creator or Designer, that’s not necessarily the case. Not long ago, I reviewed a book by Dr. Thomas Nagel. Even though he is an atheist, he argues that any explanation of origins must be teleological in nature. He doesn’t know exactly what such an explanation is, but he argues forcefully that any non-teleological approach will never explain everything we currently understand about science.

Interestingly enough, I ran across a psychological study that seems to indicate that teleological explanations appeal to the “gut instincts” of people. Now I am not a huge fan of psychological studies. There are an enormous number of variables involved in studying how and why people think the way that they do. As a result, I am instinctively skeptical of such studies. However, I thought the results of this one were interesting enough to discuss.

In the study, psychologists from Boston University analyzed how physical scientists, college students, and college graduates judged certain scientific statements. Some of the statements were clearly true, while others were clearly false. Those were the study’s “control” statements. Other statements were essentially true, but they contained teleological wording, such as “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe.” Trees do produce oxygen, but most scientists would not like the implication that they do so for a purpose (so that animals can breathe). Instead, most scientists would say that trees produce oxygen simply as a byproduct of the photosynthesis that they perform for themselves. The fact that the oxygen can then be used by animals is simply a “happy coincidence” that allows ecosystems to work.

The researchers examined how these three groups of people judged the accuracy of such statements under two different scenarios: one in which they were pressed for time, and one in which they had plenty of time. Interestingly enough, when pressed for time, the physical scientists all did fairly well on the “control” statements, but they tended to accept the teleological statements. However, when they had plenty of time, they did roughly the same on the “control” statements, but they tended to reject the teleological statements. In other words, when pressed for time, the scientists didn’t see a problem with explanations that included design and purpose. When they had plenty of time to think about them, however, they tended to reject such statements.1

Interestingly enough, the other two groups (college students and college graduates) produced similar results. They both accepted more of the teleological statements when they were under time constraints. However, even when they had plenty of time, they accepted more of the teleological statements than the physical scientists did when they had plenty of time. The conclusion, then, was that people in general tend to prefer teleological statements, but physical scientists tend to prefer them a bit less than the general population.

In one further test, they compared the responses of the physical scientists to those of humanities scholars. These scholars came from the same universities as the physical scientists, and like the physical scientists, they were all actively publishing in their fields. Surprisingly, there was no difference in the responses of the two groups. They both accepted about the same number of teleological statements when pressed for time, and they both rejected about the same number of teleological statements when they had plenty of time.

Here’s how the authors describe the conclusions of their study:

What this study shows is that even professional physical scientists endorse unwarranted teleological explanations about nature when placed under cognitive processing restrictions. Moreover, although their bias is reduced relative to less schooled populations, their specialized scientific training and substantial knowledge base does no more to ameliorate their unwarranted teleological ideas than an extended humanities education. This suggests that there is a threshold to the conceptual revision of teleological ideas—one that even accomplished physical scientists do not breach. A broad teleological tendency therefore appears to be a robust, resilient, and developmentally enduring feature of the human mind that arises early in life and gets masked rather than replaced, even in those whose scientific expertise and explicit metaphysical commitments seem most likely to counteract it.

In other words, people seem to think according to design and purpose, and even a large amount of scientific training and experience does no more to reduce this preference than a large amount of education in non-scientific fields.

Now like I said, I have no idea how reliable such studies are. However, let’s just assume that this one is correct. What does it indicate? To me, it seems to indicate that a person’s “gut instinct” is to think according to design and purpose. While a lot of education can fight against this tendency, when pressured, even those who have received an enormous amount of education still fall back on that kind of thinking. The authors of the study, of course, say that such thinking is an impediment to the advancement of science. Thus, they view the fight against this “gut instinct” to be an important part of education.

I see the results of this study in a different light. I wonder how much better scientific advancement would be if education didn’t try to fight against such thinking. Since design and purpose seem to be the “default” way we think about nature, we might produce scientists with better insight if we didn’t try to fight it. Of course, since I think design and purpose are inherent in nature, it’s not surprising that I would see it that way!


1. Kelemen, Deborah; Rottman, Joshua; and Seston, Rebecca, “Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as a Cognitive Default,” Journal of Experimental Psychology DOI:10.1037/a0030399, 2012.
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3 thoughts on “People Prefer Purpose”

  1. Man himself needs purpose in his life and I bet this is more important than happiness. Viktor Frankl has a great book about it: Man in search of meaning, about his experience in a WWII concentration camp.

  2. I very much agree “that design-based explanations lead to a better understanding of nature.” Using your Exploring Creation with Biology curriculum I achieved a 98% average, whereas with other secular programs I was LUCKY to get 86%. I find intelligent design much easier to wrap my head around (in comparison to evolution).

    1. I am glad that my course worked so well for you, Evan! I certainly agree that it is much easier to understand biology when you do so in the context of a Designer.

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