Newman University research shows “design thinking” is likely to be an instinctive phenomenon

A new study published in the online edition of Cognition suggests that non-believers and atheists, as well as religious believers, instinctively think there is a creator being or agency behind natural processes.

The research, led by Elisa Järnefelt and co-authored by Caitlin F. Canfield and Deborah Kelemen, explored people’s general tendency to understand that living and non-living natural entities, such as a giraffe or a mountain, are “purposefully made by some being”.

The findings show that even non-religious adults have an increased tendency to assess natural entities as made by a being when they have to rely on automatic reasoning. Also, when considering the types of beings that people may have been endorsing, it was found that non-religious adults often attributed the agency to Nature or to a ‘Gaia’ like being.

This suggests that the idea of nature being purposefully created is partly an automatic or inherent cognitive response, and not solely a consequence of repeated exposure to ‘god talk’ or religious doctrine as part of background culture.

Dr Järnefelt, lead researcher on the programme, explained: “The research was based on online studies where participants were asked to look at pictures of living and non-living natural entities, such as a fish or a hurricane. They were asked to decide whether the entities in the pictures were “purposefully made by some being or not”. Some of the participants had to offer their response very quickly – relying more on instantly formed responses or automatic reasoning – while a second comparison group had more time to reflect on their choices.”

The research team performed three studies in total, with religious and non-religious adults in North America and non-religious adults in Finland. In comparison to the US where religion is more prominent within society, in Finland a non-religious identity is more common and socially accepted, and religion is less prominent in the public sphere.

Dr Järnefelt continued: “Surprisingly, even though religious adults in the first study had a higher tendency to endorse creation, those non-religious adults who had to respond quickly and rely more on automatic reasoning, also showed an increased tendency to identify both living and non-living nature as “purposefully made by some being”. This happened repeatedly both among the North American and Finnish non-religious participants.”

“This finding indicates that non-believers also have a tendency to think that some being has purposefully made things in nature.”

Järnefelt, Canfield and Kelemen also assessed what kinds of explicit beliefs further strengthen this conception of nature. Interestingly, among non-religious participants both in North American and Finnish studies, it was not beliefs in a higher power, or creator God, but beliefs in Nature’s and Earth’s agency – for example, a belief in Nature as a powerful ‘Gaia’ like entity or as an agent that responds to animals’ needs and helps them to survive.

“In Western culture, people do not necessarily see these beliefs as ‘religious’,” Järnefelt continued.  “We often think that religion is just a belief in some kind of higher power, or God or gods. Yet, there is a wider range of conceptions of supernatural or non-human beings, which might be believed to be able to mysteriously originate natural phenomena. This finding shows that, despite an individual’s identity as either religious or non-religious, they might both relate similarly to seeing the natural world as purposefully made.”

The results were not explained merely by non-religious participants’ beliefs in Nature’s agency but instead showed that even those that did not believe in Nature’s agency were, in some cases, likely to choose the purposeful creation of nature when their response time was restricted.

Dr Järnefelt continued: “One of the core conclusions is that both our inherent natural way of thinking about the environment and culturally transmitted explicit beliefs, such as religious or spiritual accounts of natural processes have to be taken into account when forming an explanation about human tendencies.”

Järnefelt’s ongoing research looks into public views on the various conceptions of supernatural entities that people possess, especially when reasoning about the origin of species or life. She is currently conducting research as part of the Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum project at Newman University, UK, where she examines the wide and diverse range of people’s supernatural and natural reasoning related to evolutionary science.

“Our study suggests that people’s ideas of creator God are just one example of the cultural expressions that relate to our spontaneous understanding of nature. You often hear people talking about evolution as an intentional or directed process that creates traits that organisms need for example when we might refer to a human organ as being ‘designed’ for a certain purpose. Rather than a mere metaphor, it is possible that this is yet another expression of people’s instinctive thinking about origins in nature.

“As ‘design thinking’ is potentially an inherent or natural way of thinking, we need to recognize the role this kind of thinking or speaking about evolution might play in the way we teach or communicate science. Understanding people’s natural thought processes or intuitions can help us to more effectively communicate scientific research that does not involve intentional beings, such as the process of natural selection. We need to take into account that ‘design thinking’ is more likely to be the default position of many people regardless of whether they are religious or not.”

“The current findings suggest that talk about, for example, evolution as ‘designing traits that are needed’ may not necessarily offer help in understanding the mechanistic nature of evolutionary processes.”

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