Because religious cognition utilizes ordinary cognitive mechanisms, research in virtually every area of cognitive psychology and neuroscience may have implications for the study of religion. It would be difficult, then, to attempt to blog about all of the interesting findings that relate to the study of religion in cognitive science. Since the areas that are most closely related to my own study are those that concern religious concepts (e.g., God concepts) and memory for religious information, most of what I post on the topic will likely come from those areas. However, I want to touch on some other interesting lines of research as well. So, in this post, I'm going to talk about some interesting research being done on young children's tendency to ascribe teleological explanations to natural phenomena, including those for which adults would typically provide natural, non-teleological explanations (e.g., the shapes of rock formations).
Recent research has led to the Promiscuous Teleology theory1, which argues that children tend provide teleological explanations for a broader range of instances than adults, from artificacts, to biological kinds and natural, non-biological kinds such as rock formations and whether phenomena. This tendency results from a further tendency to give purposeful explanations when other types of causal explanations are not obvious, as well as a hair-triggered intentional reasoning mechanism. Researchers have shown that up until about 10 years, an age at which most U.S. children will have received a sufficient amount of science education to provide non-teleological explanations for non-biological natural phenomena, children give teleological explanations for these sorts of phenomena2. When asked what the "function," if there is one, of various properties of the properties of artificats, biological kinds, and non-biological natural kinds, U.S. children younger than ten will readily provide a functional explanation, and prefer functional to physical explanations when given a choice3. Children who are told stories about the origins of natural kinds (biological or non-biological), and later asked to recall those stories, often "reconstruct" them in order to make them fit more teleological explanations (see here). British children have also been shown to have this tendency, though it is not as strong in them as it is in U.S. children, a fact likely due to the differences in religiosity between the the U.S. and the U.K. Children in the United States are more likely to be exposed to design explanations for natural phenomena at an early age than British children are.
If children have a natural tendency to give teleological explanations for natural phenomena, they may also believe that such phenomena were intentionally created by an intelligent designer. And, in fact, U.S. children between the ages of 5 and 11, from both highly religious and non-religious households, will, if given the choice, answer that biological entities were created by God. Only after 11 do the tendencies to believe that God created animals begin to diverge for these two groups4.
In one study5, British children between the ages f 5 and 10 were presented with pictures of items of different kinds6, and asked a series of questions about their origins. The first question was open ended ("Why did the first ever X exist?”). After this question had been asked for each item, the children were asked a second question about each one. This question presented them with a choice between a physical or teleological causal explanation for the origin of the item. Finally, children were asked a design question about each item (e.g., "Did someone or something make the first ever mountain exist or did it just happen?”).
In answer to the first question, children throughout the age group tended to provive a purpose as the explanation for the origins of each type of objects, whether they were artificats, biological kinds, or non-biologicla natural kinds. When they attributed the origins of an item to a causal agent, they were likely to attribute it to a human rather than supernatural agent, for all item types. In answering the second question, children tended to provide functional explanations for each item-type, though for objects about which they may have known the physical causes (e.g., mountains), they were less likely to do so. Older children were also less likely to give functional explanations than younger children. Finally, for the third question, about intelligent design, children were likely to attribute the origns of each item type to an intelligent designer, though this tendency was stronger for artifacts than biological kinds, and biological kinds for non-biological natural kinds. Younger children were also more likely to attribute design than older children, and these British children were slightly less likely to attribute design to natural kinds (biological and non-biological) than American children.
Thus, this study again demonstrates children's tendency to produce teleological explanations for artifacts and natural kinds, though this tendency can be mitigated by knowledge of physical origins, as indicated by its decrease in older children, particularly for objects about which they had knowledge of physical origins. It also indicates that children tend to believe that both artifiacts and natural kinds were disigned by intelligent agents. This tendency was strongest when children spontaneously produced teleological answers to the first, open-ended question (correlations around .8), indicating that when children assing a purpose to something, they also tend to believe that the purpose was the result of intention. Also, as in the previous studies on teleological explanations, British children (who had various religious backgrounds, including Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and non-religious) perceived design slightly less often than U.S. children, a fact likely due to the higher level of religiosity in the United States.
These studies may provide insight into recent surveys showing that about 50% of American adults believe in some form of creationism, and another 20-25% lean that way. There are all sorts of intervening factors between childhood and adulthood that may influence these beliefs, such as increased levels of religious education and indoctrionation, and the high level of religiosity in the United States is certainly a factor. However, the studies demonstrating that children attribute teleological explanations to both artifiacts and natural kinds also show that these explanations are diminished as children get older and gain more scientific knowledge. For instance, in the study on beliefs in intelligent design, children were much more likely to choose functional explanations for the origins of rivers than mountains, when they were given the choice between a functional and physical explanation. The authors attributed this to children's knowledge of volcanoes, and the relationship between mountains and volcanoes. Children did not have similar knowledge of the physical origins of rivers, and therefore, when under uncertainty, were likely to make teleological inferences. Since design inferences seem to be closely related to teleological inferences in children, and teleological inferences are affected by science education, one explanation for the high incidence of design inferences in American adults may be a lack of quality science education. It may be that by adulthood, further scientific knowledge no longer affects firmly-entrenched beliefs in design, as it might have in childhood.
1 Kelemen, D. (1999a). The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children. Cognition, 70, 241-272. 36
36. Kelemen, D. (1999b). Beliefs about purpose: On the origins of teleological thought. In M.
Corballis, & S. Lea (Eds.), The descent of mind: Psychological perspectives on hominid
evolution (pp. 278-294). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2 Kellemen (1999a).
3 Kelemen, D. (1999c). Why are rocks pointy? Children’s preference for teleological explanations of the natural world. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1440-1453.
4 Evans, E. M. (2001). Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of diverse belief systems: Creation versus evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 42, 217-266.
5 Kelemen, D., & DiYanni, C. (In Press). Intuitions about origins: Purpose and intelligent design in children's reasoning about nature. Journal of Cognition and Development.
6 The objects were the following, always given in this order (with the artifacts last): thunderstorm, bird, river, monkey, mountain, flood, boat, hat.