Teleological thinking and understanding the natural world

It’s not just creationists who face impediments understanding reality due to the human tendency to think about processes in terms of goals, intent, purpose.

It turns out actual biology students have many similar misconceptions as well:

For instance, many biology students believe that:

– acquired traits are inherited
– the onset of the human species was predetermined
– evolution implies progress
– living organisms can change according to their needs

Many of these ideas conform to a teleological view of the organic world.

The Role of Teleological Thinking in Learning the Darwinian Model of Evolution, González & Meinardi, 2011.

Thinking of the world in terms of intentions and purposes starts at a young age:

For example, some authors point out that young children show a “promiscuous teleology” according to which the existence of all natural objects (like mountains, rivers and living beings) responds to certain purposes, frequently associated to human needs. This teleological view is then restricted, in teenagers and adults, to living beings only (Kelemen 1999a, b).

And in many people, the development towards a non-teleological understanding of the world seems to stop there: if it’s living, it must have purpose, even if we can, with some careful thought, find our way towards an understanding of life that does not involve purpose (except when it comes to the goal-oriented behaviour of thinking beings).

In the case of theism, such ingrained teleological modes of thought integrate seamlessly with the belief that there is a purpose to everything. Our tendency to see purpose in consistent behavioural patterns confirms this belief, while this belief in turn reinforces the tendency. But even with non-believers, the habit of using teleological phrasing and even thinking in teleological terms is hard to break. The fact that human language has evolved around this teleological mode of thinking, and therefore contains many more opportunities for teleological than non-teleological expression, doesn’t help.

To believers:
– Do you, at times, consider the distinction between “rain falls to reach the ground” and “rain falls due to gravitational attraction”?
– Do you recognize it isn’t always necessary to think about a process in teleological terms?
– Can you provide an example of a process that can, in your view, be expressed in non-teleological terms?

To non-believers:
– Do you recognize this tendency within yourself?
– What efforts do you make to reduce the degree of teleological thought and speach when thinking/speaking of natural processes?
– Are there specific tricks that you apply to remind yourself to consider whether teleological phrasing is redundant or appropriate?
– Are there specific tricks that you use to rephrase teleological expressions in non-teleological form?

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