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Design Thinking Is Hardwired in the Human Brain. How Come?

Despite their training, scientists slip almost irresistibly into the habit of ascribing purpose to natural phenomena. Hm, that's interesting.

As Science Daily observes, "Even Professional Scientists Are Compelled to See Purpose in Nature, Psychologists Find." The article describes a test by Boston University's psychology department, in which researchers 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" (emphasis added). We are next told why they are not supposed to do that:

Although purpose-based "teleological" explanations are often found in religion, such as in creationist accounts of 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.
The research team asked leading scientists to judge explanations for phenomena. Some explanations were teleological, such as "The Earth has an ozone layer in order to protect it from UV light." Others were purely mechanistic. The psychologists found that when the scientists were under time pressure, they "demonstrated greater acceptance of scientifically unwarranted purpose-based explanations than their un-speeded colleagues who generally rejected them." The same tendencies were found in undergrad and college graduate control groups.

A second test on English and history professors showed the same "purpose bias," exhibited by the scientists "despite their years of scientific training." The lead author, Deborah Kelemen, was astonished. She offered an explanation that was itself teleological:

"It is quite surprising what these studies show," says Kelemen. "Even though advanced scientific training can reduce acceptance of scientifically inaccurate teleological explanations, it cannot erase a tenacious early-emerging human tendency to find purpose in nature. It seems that our minds may be naturally more geared to religion than science."
There are several problems here. For one, we should have learned by now to be dubious of any studies by evolutionary psychologists, given the recent spate of frauds and retractions. Nature reported recently that even Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has called on scholars in that field to "clean up their act."

Also, the conclusion being offered may not follow from the experimental procedures. Can our actions under pressure really be indicative of innate tendencies? Lucille Ball's method of wrapping candies changed when the conveyor belt was sped up, but that doesn't necessarily point to underlying habits of mind.

Most interesting, though, are the questions begged by this research. One is whether it is even possible to purge teleology from explanation. The very act of explanation is a kind of teleological exercise: ascribing causes to effects. Look at a simple example: why a rock falls to the ground. Scientists laugh at Aristotle's teleological explanation that the ground is where the rock belongs; earth is the rock's place in the natural order. OK, so is our popular way of speaking about gravity today that much better?

The rock falls "because of" the law of gravity, we say, convinced of our superiority in explaining things the modern, scientific way. But the law of gravity merely restates that the rock falls, describing a mathematical relationship between mass, force and distance. When we say a rock falls "because of" gravity, we convey little more than "the rock falls because it falls."

If we argue more vociferously that the explanation lies in the "law" of gravity, then we risk committing the very same teleological faux pas we are supposed to avoid as scientists. What is a law of nature? That's a vexed question in philosophy of science. If we reduce a law of nature to a pattern in experience, we rob it of its law-like nature, leaving us with no explanation for the pattern, nor any justification for its continuance. But if we insist it is a law like a judicial law ("186,000 miles per second: not just a good idea, it's the law!") then we have re-established teleology in scientific explanation, resurrecting the old question, "Who is the lawgiver?"

In short, teleology may be unavoidable in the very art of scientific explanation. We may debate degrees of teleology and the propriety of certain kinds of teleology, but not the requirement to invoke it as we explain things.

Given that humans tend to ascribe purpose to things, how would Darwinian evolutionists explain that? The typical response is that our caveman ancestors didn't understand lightning, disease, and other natural phenomena, so they ascribed powers to an unseen spirit world, which shamans perpetuated in tribal myths. It's taken a long time, but now we have science to lead us out of our childish ways and give us true naturalistic, mechanistic, non-teleological explanations for how the world works.

But if evolution produced that tendency in us, on what basis can a scientist claim that he or she has outgrown it? Can a scientist step out of her evolutionary skin and act like a believer in truth? Can a leopard change its evolutionary spots by an act of the will? It makes no sense to believe that a scientist is capable of overcoming the forces of natural selection on her own mind, unless she believes that the mind has an innate affinity for truth. Notice: that presupposes a purpose for that affinity!

Intelligent design theory comports with purposeful explanations, because it assumes that purpose is real, not imaginary. It doesn't claim that everything happens on purpose, but that life and the universe are products of a purposeful mind. It's no wonder, therefore, that humans have a tendency to give purposeful explanations for things.

Purposeful thinking "goes with the territory" in intelligent design theory, but leaves Darwinian explanations hopelessly muddled. ID advocates should strive to give the most defensible explanations for natural phenomena, whether involving intelligent direction or not. However everyone needs to disabuse himself of the requirement of excluding teleology entirely from scientific explanation.