Who’s In Charge Here?

Edelweiss mit Blüten,Wallis, Schweiz.
© Michael Peuckert

Edelweiss, edelweiss
Every morning you greet me

Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me

(A little exercise in anthropomorphism
from The Sound of Music)

This hierarchy of consciousness we looked at last time — ours is higher than the rest of creation, angels’ is higher than ours, God’s is highest — is an exercise in what philosophy calls teleology:   “the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve.” Teleology is about cause and effect — it looks for design and purpose, and its holy grail is what psychologists call agency:  who or what is causing things we can’t control or explain.

“This agency-detection system is so deeply ingrained that it causes us to attribute agency in all kinds of natural phenomena, such as anger in a thunderclap or voices in the wind, resulting in our universal tendency for anthropomorphism.

“Stewart Guthrie, author of Faces in the Clouds:  A New Theory of Religion, argues that ‘anthropomorphism may best be explained as the result of an attempt to see not what we want to see or what is easy to see, but what is important to see:  what may affect us, for better or worse.’ Because of our powerful anthropomorphic tendency, ‘we search everywhere, involuntarily and unknowingly, for human form and results of human action, and often seem to find them where they do not exist.’”

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

Teleological thinking is a characteristic feature of religious, magical, and supernatural thinking:

“Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, ‘Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs are the best predictors of their perception of purpose in life events’—their tendency ‘to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.”

How American Lost its Mind, The Atlantic (Sept. 2017)

Psychology prof Clay Routledge describes how science debunks teleology, but also acknowledges why it’s a comfortable way of thinking:

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it.

“For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.

“Instead, people latch onto what I call teleological thinking. Teleological thinking is when people perceive phenomena in terms of purpose. When applied to natural phenomena, this type of thinking is generally considered to be flawed because it imposes design where there is no evidence for it.  To impose purpose and design where there is none is what researchers refer to as a teleological error.”

Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World, Clay Routledge (2018)

It’s one thing to recognize “teleological error,” it’s another to resist it — even for those who pride themselves on their rationality:

“Even atheists who reject the supernatural and scientists who are trained not to rely on teleological explanations of the world do, in fact, engage in teleological thinking.

“Many people who reject the supernatural do so through thoughtful reasoning. … However, when these people are making teleological judgments, they are not fully deploying their rational thinking abilities.

“Teleological meaning comes more from an intuitive feeling than it does from a rational decision-making process.”

Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World

Teleological thinking may be understandable, but scientist and medical doctor Paul Singh comes down hard on the side of science as the only way to truly “know” something:

“All scientists know that the methods we use to prove or disprove theories are the only dependable methods of understanding our universe. All other methodologies of learning, while appropriate to employ in situations when science cannot guide us, are inherently flawed. Reasoning alone — even the reasoning of great intellects — is not enough. It must be combined with the scientific method if it is to yield genuine knowledge about the universe.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

After admitting that “evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways,” Singh makes his case that “the use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.”

Next time, we’ll look more into the differences in how science and religion “know” things to be “true.”