Saturday, June 02, 2007

Warning: Science Ahead

A Blog Around the Clock has linked to my criticism of Bloom and Weisberg's "Why Do Some People Resist Science?" This led (in the comments) to what I consider a challenge to my brief argument against promiscuous teleology. As regular readers know, I do not consider much of what is posted here to be complete works in themselves, but instead rough drafts of a sort of more complete works, including both published and currently unpublished materials. So, in responding to the challenge, I'd like to give a more complete response to the theory of promiscuous teleology.

The theory of promiscuous telology came about through studies of children in the U.S. and Britain, who were asked to choose between naturalistic and teleological causes for a variety of objects. In both countries, children chose teleological causes i.e. rocks are pointy so that animals can scratch themselves; however, the tendency seemed weaker in British children. The results were interpreted as evidence of an intuitive tendency towards creationism.

Let's begin with the nature of the studies. These kinds of cross-cultural comparisons are questionable for a number of reasons, but I'll stick to what's relevant.

The creators of the study chose the U.S. and Britain because of differences in religiosity between the two countries, believing that this difference was significant enough to determine the difference between nature and nurture. Unfortunately, this assumption was highly flawed.

First, the term "religiosity" and the characteristics to which it refers are fuzzy and subjective. The term would have different connotations for different individuals and societies. Religiosity could refer to regular practice, acceptance of an organized religious doctrine, the depth of one's feelings about religious objects/entities/concepts, etc.

Second, religious affiliations in the UK and the US are very similar, with both being predominantly Christian countries. In the UK, 71.1% identify as Christian. In the U.S., 77% identify as Christian. The remaining parts of the two populations identify with diverse theistic, nontheistic, atheistic, and pantheistic religions and ideologies. Many who consider themselves non-religious retain belief but not organized practice or affiliation with a particular organized religion. Only a very small percentage self-identify as atheists.

We can assume then that the majority of children in both socities have been exposed to ideas about creation, purpose, meaning etc. This could take the form of formal education (Sunday school) or informal instruction (stories told by parents or exposure to religious movies, story books, etc.).

We must also consider the effects of language on thought. Acquiring a particular language also means acquiring a set of concepts about the world and losing any native concepts which cannot be expressed within that language. The English language (the majority language of both countries) and most European languages reflect/create thoughts about cause and effect. "Why" questions have a "because" answer. This relates not only to religion/teleology but also to science/naturalism. Both concern how things came into being, the reason or purpose for their existence. Unfortunately, reason/purpose are so intimately linked in the English language that it would be difficult for a child to distinguish between the two. Compare this to the language of the Piraha where distant causes cannot be discussed, so the concept of distant causes cannot be understood.

It is also interesting to note that while storytelling is a common human tradition, a very strong one in both the UK and U.S., it doesn't exist in the Piraha culture. Does the concept of "making stuff up" partially explain our children's tendencies to create a story about scratching rocks made for animals? How about the adult tendency to tell children made-up stories to explain concepts with which a child is not considered suitably mature enough to cope? It is quite common, after all, for children in Western societies to create stories for themselves, especially when they lack information. It is also quite common for us to tell our children cute little stories about the stork rather than explaining that mommy and daddy had sex.

The Piraha and others like them also pose a challenge to the concept of promiscuous teleology. If this tendency is a human universal, why does it not exist in all human cultures? How do we explain the Piraha's complete lack of creationist concepts or complete lack of concern about how things come into being or why they exist? How do we explain the existence of religions like Jainism that explicitly reject the concept of a created universe in favor of "an eternal universe governed by natural laws and the interplay of its attributes (gunas) and matter (dravya)"? How do we then explain atheism?

A rational examination would require that we explain teleology by comparing it to its absence. In other words, you can't just compare two societies that have strong teleological elements in language and culture. You must also consider societies that lack or reject most or all teleological reasoning/language/storytelling. Do children in these societies provide teleological responses? Any rational assessment must answer that question.

The theory of promiscuous teleology seems to contradict the evidence of non-teleological languages, cultures and religions. It ignores a variety of possible cultural and linguistic factors and alternative explanations. It is also derived from a highly flawed and irrational methodology and depends upon fuzzy, subjective, and potentially irrelevant distinctions. Scientifically and logically, it is invalid.

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