Science on Religion

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Seeing a purpose in nature may reduce fear of death

TeleologyHere’s a question: why is there an ozone layer in Earth’s atmosphere? If you answered “to keep UV rays from harming life,” you're thinking teleologically. Teleology is the idea that there are goals or purposes in everything from the decomposition of soil to the big picture of cosmic destiny. Of course, science generally doesn’t see the world teleologically, because scientists have found that focusing on proximate, mechanical causes is more useful for discovering how things work. But a new study shows that teleological thinking, while not scientific, may serve another function – staving off the fear of death.

For climate scientists, the ozone layer isn’t there to protect us. Instead, it exists simply because O3 molecules naturally rise to a certain stratum of the atmosphere. The fact that we happen to benefit from this arrangement is purely coincidental (although it certainly works out well for us). Similarly, the sun doesn’t shine to make flowers grow – it just shines. This is good for flowers and the bees that depend on them, but the sun would go on shining whether there were flowers or bees or not. It doesn’t care. It doesn’t exist to serve the flowers. It’s just a star.

The same thing could be said of almost any process or phenomenon in nature. There’s no particular reason for anything to be the way it is – except for physical laws. Atom A bashes into atom B, and they fuse, creating molecule C. Asteroid A hits planet E, killing off race of animals D. Afterwards, a new set of animals evolves to replace them. According to the dominant scientific view events are caused by what came before them, not what comes after them. In Aristotle’s terminology, scientific causes are efficient, not final.

But teleological thinking examines events in light of their future purposes. A teleological perspective on the asteroid scenario, for instance, might suggest that there was a reason the asteroid hit the planet – to kill off the old, lumbering animals and make way for the new ones. This explanation makes the asteroid seem like it had a specific purpose, and that everything, even disasters, happens for a reason.

Although teleological reasoning is usually regarded as unscientific, it comes very naturally to humans. Plenty of research has shown that both children and adults prefer teleological explanations for natural phenomena, especially when they’re stressed or only given a short amount of time to consider alternatives. This suggests that teleological thinking is a basic cognitive default for most people.

A well-known psychological concept known as Terror Management Theory argues that, in addition to being the baseline mode for interpreting things that happen in the world, teleological thinking can help people see order and meaning in the cosmos. This sense of meaning can, in turn, help alleviate the fear (or “terror”) that people have of their own deaths. The theory makes intuitive sense – if there’s meaning and purpose behind everything that happens, then surely death has a purpose as well, and thus isn’t quite as terrifying. What's more, assuming that human life has a purpose also seems to stress the importance of subjectivity and the self. This, in turn, may imply that the self continues after death, eliminating the fear of non-existence.

Despite these and other theoretical connections, until recently, no one had actually tested to see whether teleology affects the way people thought about death. Psychologist William E. Davis of Texas A&M University, along with colleagues Jacob Juhl and Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University, rectified this oversight with a recent study in the journal Motivation and Emotion. While previous research had shown that cognitive factors – such as level of inhibitory control or cognitive stress – played a role in how readily people accepted teleological assertions, Davis and his colleagues hypothesized that the terror-management function of teleological thinking would also play a major role. That is, they expected people to think teleologically in order to overcome existential jitters.

The researchers' first study primed half the respondents with a series of teleological statements (e.g., “Mosses form around rocks to stop soil erosion”), which they were then led to believe were correct, scientific explanations. The control group was shown the same series of statements, but wasn’t told whether they were scientifically valid or not. Both groups then completed a series of word completion tasks, in which word fragments could be completed to form words that were either related to death or not. (For example, the fragment COFF_ _ could either be completed as COFFIN or COFFEE.) As the researchers expected, the volunteers who had been primed to accept teleological explanations for natural phenomena produced significantly fewer death-related words in the word completion task than the members of the control group. This result suggested that seeing the natural world as lacking any purpose or goal actually increases people’s thoughts of death.

The second study reversed the order of priming. One group of volunteers was asked to describe their own deaths in detail, while the second group only described an experience of pain. Both groups then filled out a questionnaire that included items such as “Everything happens for a reason” or “There’s a purpose in everything.” As anticipated, the participants who had been primed to think about their own deaths were significantly more likely to agree with the teleological statements. Davis and his colleagues interpreted this to mean that people naturally turn to teleological thinking to soften unpleasant thoughts about death.

The final study was similar to the second, but also included two extra variables to measure whether the connection between death salience and teleological thinking might be due to other factors. First, the researchers measured how fast participants responded to the items about purpose and meaning. Previous research had shown that when people are under time pressure, they tend to revert to quick and easy default modes of reasoning – including, in many cases, teleological thinking. If participants responded positively to teleological statements only when they were answering quickly, that might suggest that it was the cognitive overload, not the need for existential security, driving their answers. Second, participants also filled out a short survey that measured their levels of personal need for structure, in order to see whether people use teleological thinking to boost their sense of structure and order in the world rather than purpose or direction – a subtle distinction, but an important one.

While the time measurement was, in fact, related to levels of teleological thinking – participants tended to agree with teleological statements when they were responding to statements more quickly – this effect didn’t fully explain the connection between death salience and teleological thought, implying that teleological thinking was due to more than simple cognitive shortcutting. And results from the measurement of need for structure showed that it was need for purpose and direction, not for structure, that drove people to agree with teleological statements after being primed to contemplate death.

These three studies appear to show that a sense of purpose and direction helps assuage people’s fear of death. Terror management theory makes the strong claim that a great deal – perhaps even the majority – of human behavior is motivated by the need for security and comfort surrounding the topic of personal mortality. While teleological thinking appears to be a kind of cognitive default, something our minds revert back to when they’re stressed or overloaded, these studies show that it’s also an important tool in the fight against existential angst and insecurity. Even if it's not a scientific way of seeing things, a purposeful world is less psychologically intimidating than a meaningless one – and in a purposeful world, death isn’t such a terror after all.

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