What’s this for? The teleological instinct

We are in Budapest again for April/May 2015. Everyone in the CEU Cognitive Science Department has moved to a splendid 19th century town house close to the CEU main buildings. The Babylab has extended its space, and, no question, it feels and looks like the best in the world. Here’s a conversation we had with Gergely Csibra, director of the Cognitive Development Centre. His incredibly distinguished list of publications has earned him a wide influence. We were having lunch with him  in a typical small Hungarian restaurant in the city centre. After the difficult business of choosing the most typical Hungarian dishes – Rakott krumpli for me and Pörkölt for Chris – our conversation turned towards books we would like to write, and moreover, are committed to write.

UF: So, Gergö, what are your books going to be about?

GC: One of them could be about our propensity for teleological thinking.

UF: Ah – you have been thinking about this for a long time!

GC (lifting the elaborate serviette holder standing on the table): a human being would immediately ask, what is this for?

UF: So?

GC: The point is that only humans would ask this question. All animals are programmed to pursue certain goals, and they are able to select the best means of achieving the goals. But humans can start with the means and then ask about the goal they can achieve.nuts&bolts

CDF: We wonder a lot about purpose and meaning.

GC: We even ask “what’s the meaning of life?”

UF: We keep asking, even if there is no answer.

CDF: We often love the means even more than the goals: look at this amazing tableau from the National Museum which proudly displays the huge variety of bolts made by a factory. We embellish tools and work on them to make them beautiful beyond the merely functional. Also, there is a whole chain of actions that is provoked: we make tools to make tools. We are very inventive about this.

GC: But actually, humans are not very inventive. Innovation is rare. Instead of finding new means to achieve an end we tend to consider the opposite: what can this old object or action be used for?

CDF: Innovation in ends may be rare. But not in finding uses for an object. You can easily find 101 uses for a brick, as required by a well-known psychological test.

GC: People have invented lots of tools that were rubbish. Just occasionally somebody produces something that turns out to be really useful.

UF: Can you imagine individual differences in teleological thinking?

GC: Not really. It’s not a skill, it’s a motivation. Even an obsession.

UF: Lets consider this then: Can you imagine what a person would be like who lacks this motivation?

GC: Interesting… I don’t know.

UF: Would this be the case with severe depression? To depressed people nothing makes sense and they are not interested in making sense either. Life has no meaning.

CDF: A depressed patient lacks motivation for anything. So this is not a good example. We’d have to think a bit more about what kind of pathology could create an absence of this particular lack of curiosity in what things are for.

UF: I wonder. We are also constantly asking questions about the names of things, what’s this cake called, this flower, this bird? Could this be related to theteleological instinct, if I’m allowed to call it that?Budapest Central Market Cakes

GC: It could be. The name may often give a clue to the function or purpose of something. This is because both names and object functions are culturally determined.

UF: Ah – now we come to a key concept in social cognition, culture. Cultural knowledge is built on the expectation that all things have a meaning, and exist to serve a purpose. The serviette holder is for holding serviettes. The serviettes are for protecting my clothes from food being spilled. And here I am trying to tack a very flimsy piece of paper into my skirt. I better be careful because it wouldn’t serve the purpose very well!

CDF: Some people would claim we have an urge to attribute causality. Would you separate causal thinking and teleological thinking?

GC: They’re supposed to be completely different explanations – think of Aristotle’s efficient and final cause -, but often they can be translated into each other. There’s this interesting thing about Darwin: he turned the teleological questions into causal explanations.

CDF: Something like this: Natural selection by fitness creates (causal) the functions that animals have (teleology)?

GC: He attempted to explain how teleological functions are brought about by blind forces of selection.

CDF: I wonder if clever animals using tools have teleological thinking.

GC: Animals use tools for the immediate ends they are motivated to pursue. They never have any lasting interest in the tool. Humans do. They take the tools with them in case they need them again. They even value objects for their potential use in the future. Even if they have no idea what use they could be put to.

CDF: When the bicycle was invented it was at first not a very useful tool to get from one place to another.

UF: We are always asking for the meaning of things, but we are never satisfied by the answers. Perhaps that’s what religion ‘is for’: it’s something that is always ready to satisfy the need to get answers to the big questions, especially giving reasons for terrible suffering – perhaps it’s meant to teach you a lesson; to punish you; or,  to make you a better person.

GC: I don’t think religious behaviour is any more teleological than other behaviour. It’s a drive that is present in very young children long before they are exposed to religion.

UF: What about science? I presume here you don’t ask what something is for, but what made it happen? Science is about causes, not purposes.

CDF: But even scientists, being human, are still highly attracted  teleological thinking.

GC:There are a number of papers by Deborah Kelemen on teleological bias in domains such as biology or religion, and in science.

CDF: There’s an interesting study where she tested physicists in speeded conditions. In this case they were more likely to endorse teleological than causal explanations of natural phenomena. Just like everyone else. To quote from the abstract: ‘Specialization as a scientist does not, in itself, … ameliorate scientifically inaccurate purpose-based theories about the natural world.’

UF: Isn’t this teleological bias helpful for developing technology?

GC: Teleological thinking serves not so much the development of new technology as the learning or understanding of existing technology.

UF: One downside is that there are unforeseen side effects. As you say, tools can often lead to things that were not envisaged before, and not even intended.

GC: Tools allow us to create new options. This is not the case when animals are using tools. Their options are unchanged by the tools.

UF: I look forward to your book. It is such a fruitful idea and we need to relate it to social cognition.

GC: The idea is not new, but I think it has not received as much attention as it deserves. I have thought about this topic for a long time. Whether I will make it a book or just a paper – you will see it in a year’s time.

Image credit: hungariangirl.com: Cakes in Budapest’s Central Market Hall

One thought on “What’s this for? The teleological instinct

  1. I’m wondering if semantic dementia is not a pathology that could be interesting for this discussion. It doesn’t create a ‘lack of curiosity’ regarding the final purpose of things, but its core symptom seems to be the progressive desintegration of conceptual knowledge, which affects the way that patients teleologically explain the objects of the world.

    Maybe teleological thinking is a byproduct of conceptual thinking –that is why we do not know a pathology that affects exclusively teleological thinking.

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