Even scientists look for purpose in nature, study finds

(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers in Boston University's Psychology Department have found that, despite years of scientific training, even professional chemists, geologists, and physicists from major universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Yale cannot escape a deep-seated belief that natural phenomena exist for a purpose.

Although purpose-based "teleological" explanations are often found in religion, such as in creationist accounts of the earth's origins, they are generally discredited in science. When physical scientists have time to ruminate about the reasons why natural objects and events occur, they explicitly reject teleological accounts, instead favoring causal, more mechanical explanations.

However, the study by lead author Deborah Kelemen, associate professor of psychology, and collaborators Joshua Rottman and Rebecca Seston finds that when scientists are required to think under , an underlying tendency to find purpose in nature is revealed. The results provide the strongest evidence yet that the human mind has a robust default preference for purpose-based explanation that persists from early in development.

The study is published online in the October edition of the : General (published by the ).

To test the hypothesis that there is a natural preference for teleological explanations, the researchers asked a group of physical scientists from top-ranked to judge explanations such as "Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe" or "The Earth has an in order to protect it from UV light" under speeded conditions so they had little time to reflect on their answers. Another group of scientists made judgments of the same statements without any time restriction. The researchers found that, despite maintaining high accuracy on control items, scientists who were under time pressure demonstrated greater acceptance of scientifically unwarranted purpose-based explanations than their un-speeded colleagues who generally rejected them. This same pattern of heightened purpose-orientation also held among two control groups—undergraduates and college graduates from the local community in the same age cohort as the scientists—although the scientists' overall endorsement of inaccurate purpose-based explanations was lower by comparison.

In a second test, the researchers found that despite their years of scientific training, chemists, , and physicists showed no less of a purpose bias than English and history professors whose science knowledge was substantially lower.


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Oct 22, 2012
The truth is, People know there is a God and a reason that we are here.

Oct 23, 2012
America has a lot of religion running through the threads of the society, this is not that surprising. It would be interesting to see how it compares to universities around the world, that have been under more secularisation (if such places exist where secularisation has happened enough to be significant).

Oct 23, 2012
'Purpose' does not necessarily mean teleology. 'Utility' is probably a better way to think of natural processes e.g. all selected traits have some utility (or they wouldn't have been selected). But selection does not act *in anticipation* of later utility; that would be erring on the side of teleology.

Oct 28, 2012
Tausch - you seem to be talking about human and natural "purpose" as if they are the same thing. The study was looking at "purpose" as a quality arising from natural causes only.

Life seems to have a purpose - to continue at any cost to the individual organism - but why it does is probably beyond the reach of science. So of course it is rejected by empiricists because they lump all these kinds of unanswerable questions under the domain of gods and religions.

Nov 02, 2012
'Utility' can be retrospective evaluation whereas 'purpose' is more likely to be confined to prescience (depending on the prevailing convention).

For instance you can say that a cell phone is 'useful' without detailing what it might be used for in the future but it would be less common to call it 'purposeful', the latter word implying agency as well prescience...

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