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What is "promiscuous teleology" ?

"The bias to read purpose and design when it does not exist is most obvious in children. If you ask a child what lakes are for, she might say for fish to swim in. What are birds for? To sing.

"Children have been described as “intuitive theists.” Children show what is called promiscuous teleology, a basic preference to understand the world in terms of purpose. This contributes to what we now know about children’s
belief. Children will spontaneously adopt the concept of God and a created world with no adult intervention. At heart we are all born creationists. Disbelief requires effort.

"Our bias to overread purpose and our baseline inability to comprehend the blind, purposeless mechanics of life’s
evolution can make religious belief the path of least resistance. We have an innate need for order in our lives,
and religion fills it."

From: J. Anderson Thomson, Clare Aukofer : "Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith"

Matias 8 July 7

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That sounds rather suspect if you ask me. I’m not sure children would ever come up with creationist ideas on their own, or even the idea of a god of thunder.

Denker Level 7 July 10, 2018

If I string a bunch of words together enough times, I can make anything sound reasonable and rational. The above is filled with statements that purport to be truths but opposite arguments could be made for the opposite opinion just as easily.


We like to ask questions. Children love asking questions. Where do babies come from? Why is Granny dead? We feed them pap because we fear they cannot handle the truth. But what are the questions for? Not just for the sake of conversation, I'm sure. They really want to know. I wonder why. I feel it is part of our evolution, asking questions to understand things better so as to be safer in our environment. Or to do better in our environment, maybe.

The point is that children invent their own little myths they certainly did not get from their parents. Which mom or dad tells their children that "there are monsters under the bed"? Or that oceans exist for fish to swim in?


total b.s. "Children will spontaneously adopt the concept of God and a created world with no adult intervention." Just how will they get that "concept of God?" Why won't they believe that their dog created the universe? That's the problem with people just adopting a premise without any basis. Start with a faulty premise and everything that follows makes perfect sense 🙂 Try this: People have an innate need for freedom from pain. At heart we are all drug addicts that seek relief from pain. Religion is the opiate of the masses so we need religion. If you buy any of that I have some lake bottom property to sell you.

lerlo Level 8 July 8, 2018

Which is the "faulty premise" in the text above? That children come up spontaneously we concepts of "hidden agents". That is known to every scientist who has done research on developmental psychology...
If you don't like the word "god" in the text (I admit that it is not very felicitous) , just replace it by "unseen agent" or something similar

@Matias Pick a faulty premise..."kids spontaneously adopt a concept of god and a created world without adult intervention" It's not possible for them to make up something they no nothing about and wow it's just coincidently what adults believe in and worship. I notice you didnt answer my query as to why they don't think their dog created everything. Faulty premise #2..."At heart we are all born creationists" It's a convenient premise because if it's not true the guy's whole work falls apart. Sorry, but our hearts don't think and since we know that evolution exists then maybe creationism is really the b.s. that it is. There is no proof to back up what all of our hearts tell us and therefore it's a faulty premise.

@lerlo I'm sorry, but I don't like it when people can't write a post without using the word bullshit. That simply is not my style. 😟


Children and Adults both gain belief from those around them. Children are less critical of belief and more open to new ideas, which can be positive or negative depending on the environment they live within.

Our brains are wired to believe those around us, it just makes sense from a survival standpoint.

In order to be an atheist you are either taught it or you step out of the primitive system of belief you have experienced as a child.

If my friend says lions are dangerous, it is very costly to me personally to discard that idea and test it myself.

Recognizing how we think (metacognition) is critical to being able to sort rational ideas from the bullshit.

What you say is correct. But the "promiscuous teleology" is nothing we have to learn as children like "these animals are dangerous" or "these berries are toxic" - this way of thinking is already part of the way our brian is wired, as a natural bias or tendency. It takes an EFFORT to get rid of this bias when you start to think scientifically.

My son is atheist and his wife is a believer, but their five year old son has not been taught about god and Jesus. As yet, he has no god concept.


Children repeat what their parents tell them.

gearl Level 7 July 8, 2018

My grandaughter didn't repeat from her parents the 'monster' in the cupboard or my grandson his 'friend' in the bathroom. The ideas came from somewhere though. Perhaps imagination comes hard-wired rather than acquired.

@Geoffrey51 I was afraid that a monster would come out of the toilet when I flushed it; no one taught this to me, but I was certainly exposed to the idea of monsters. The sound of the toilet scared me: hence, the possibility of a monster. Children try to make sense of things they do not understand by using their imagination. There was something about the cupboard that disturbed your granddaughter; your grandson could have had a dream of a friend in the bathroom--who knows? To equate a god belief with childhood terrors and imaginary friends is a bit of a logical fallacy.


The article is mistaken. Children in non religious cultures don't spontaneously developed a belief in God. As far as the question posed about the lake, the problem lies in the leading nature of the question, not in the response of the child who naturally follows the lead of the adult questioner. The example illustrates the opposite of what is claimed. It is the adult who believes in a purpose that guides to child into thinking that there is indeed such a purpose.

The author does not say that children spontaneously develop the idea of God, but: "Children will spontaneously ADOPT the concept of God and a created world with no adult intervention. At heart we are all born creationists." (My emphasis).

The idea that "someone" created all these animals and plants and mountains... comes naturally, requires only a little nudging, whereas the idea that all this more or less happened by itself without the help of an agent is unnatural and counterintuitive.

@Matias his thesis cannot be proved. Did he interview feral children to come to his conclusion about "without adult intervention?" This is just idle speculating.

@Krish55 No feral children needed, just ordinary children from next door (and some Developmental Psychologists to do the research..). The children invent these pseudo-purposes for themselves, or do you belief that adult teach their children "Lakes exist for fish to swim in" or "Birds exist in order to sing to us"?
They seek purpose everywhere and invent just-so stories just for fun...

@Matias By asking about a purpose, adults are leading the kids to believe that there is purpose. That's a leading question that will lead to a certain type of answer.

@Matias it's one thing to say that everyone, even kids, may wonder about what created things and a big leap to the need to worship whatever created things. Another leap to say that religion is necessary.

@Krish55 Indeed.The questions presume a lake or a bird exist for some purpose. The child would make a response unaware of the presumption and how that presumption forces them into providing purpose to that which has no purpose.

@Krish55 The point is that the notion of teleology (everything exists for a purpose) is not something children have to acquire from their parents. This intuition comes naturally once the little brain starts to process data of the world around. It is like seeing faces in a cloud, another "instinct" we do not have to learn, we just see them out there because we are a pattern-seeking animal. And we intuitively see purpose were there is no purpose.

@Matias I understand what YOU believe about intuition and what the researchers believe. However the experiment does not prove this claim. It's simply that the question is flawed and the research design is flawed. The only thing that would prove that kids have a natural belief in a purpose would be to interview feral children who somehow developed religious beliefs on their own.

@Matias, think about it. The child does not have to be aware of the presumption in the question in order to be influenced by it.


For some seeing patterns where none exist and not seeing patterns where they do is a sign of insanity.

We all see faces in the clouds and patterns in the stars out there. Are we all insane?

@Matias Oh 'God' I hope so. Couldn't bear to be out there in the asylum!

@Matias If you read "The Righteous Mind" it will explain why we see faces in things, but we don't see things in's because we have a reflex to defend ourselves if we see something like that looks like a face and we need to be cognizant in case it really is one and may be necessary.


Great quote. Makes perfect sense when you become involved in the 'imsginary' worlds of our children.


Interesting perspective. No matter what our emotional needs are, that does not explain away our questions about existence in a strange and eerie reality. Despite what many people say, there is some evidence for a higher intelligence—that which I call universal awareness. My emotional needs are interesting, but the fact that I have such needs does not address that evidence or refute the concept in any way. Psychoanalyzing your opponent is not a very good way to persuade people.

And what is this evidence?

@Paul4747 There is all kinds of evidence. It might not be evidence useable in a laboratory, but it is evidence nevertheless.

The opinions of such people as Max Planck and Edwin Schrodinger for example are evidence. The opinion of Carl Sagan is evidence. Expert opinions are evidence.

You’ve got researchers like Dean Radin who have spent their careers amassing evidence for supernormal mental powers. Such powers are evidence for the idea of universal awareness. You’ve got Donald Hoffman, a celebrated cognitive scientist with his Conscious Realism theory, which he supports very well. That is evidence.

The very fact that we exist as consciously aware beings is evidence. The fact that there is life, the enigma of free will, the fact that anything exists at all—all these things are evidence to be pondered.

The evidence might not be persuasive to you, but there is evidence and that evidence is at least suggestive to a lot of intelligent people.

That’s not to say that the question is 100% decided because it isn’t. But if you want to contribute to the discussion—if you want to prove the concept wrong—you’ve got to do more than talk about peoples emotional needs.

"Argument from authority". Opinions are not evidence, only evidence is evidence.

There is evidence for the "intuitive teleology" theory in that human beings throughout all cultures find intention and agency in nature, in inanimate objects which can't possibly have intentions. We appear to have an evolutionary bias toward seeing "something" controlling the environment around us, probably because those who didn't look for danger as successfully were less likely to reproduce. Our brains are hardwired to imagine that everything is alive and has purpose. How many times have you pleaded with your car to start on a cold winter morning? This is all strong, if anecdotal, evidence that humans are set up to believe all things are alive and controlled, even those who know better intellectually. It's instinctive.

As for supernatural or, as you style it, "supernormal" mental powers, you have the wrong end of the stick. I don't need to prove the concept wrong. Someone has to prove the theory right. Prove the phenomena exist in repeatable, falsifiable, verifiable demonstrations. James Randi will be happy to hear all about it.

@Paul4747 Evidence is evidence. Think of a courtroom. You have evidence from experts, circumstantial evidence, eyewitness evidence, etc. You are trying to change the definition of evidence in order to argue for your beliefs.

Argument from authority? It is perfectly reasonable to quote other people. You in fact referred to James Randi. Is it only argument from authority if it’s the other guy doing it? If you want to make the bald-faced declaration that the life work of Dean Radin and many others is phony, then the burden of proof is on YOU sir.

My opinion is that deep conscious awareness of the beauty and majesty of nature along with the overwhelming implications of the mystery of existence lends the keenest of motivation to survive and live well. It’s humanity’s religious impulse, our highest attribute IMO, and that impulse is not lessened or invalidated by the mistakes of religious organizations. It’s not about having answers—no one knows the answers.

@WilliamFleming James Randi is an expert on "supernormal" phenomena, I am not. So far nobody has proved its existence. That's where the burden of proof is. Not to disprove, but to prove it exists.

"The beauty and majesty of nature", like the hymenoptera wasps that paralyze their victims so they can lay eggs which will then hatch into larvae, who feed on the still-living host?

There ARE NO answers. Life evolved this way because life was more successful than the forms that didn't live. Seeking deeper answers than "because it is" is futility. And religion.

@Paul4747 I didn’t say anything about seeking. I’m talking about experiencing, awareness, appreciation, gratitude.


We have an innate need to comprehend, but recognize that there are many, many things that we do not comprehend. That which we do not comprehend we cannot build into our cognitive structures which comprise our understanding of the world -- ergo, the basis for responding effectively to that world.

That is the appeal of religion: It claims to include and explain everything via the myth of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity or group of deities. That gives the false sense of power and understanding by attaching ourselves to those non-existent deities and by joining with the body of true believers to advance the purposes of the deity. Anyone who has not read Erich Fromm's ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM should read it.

The myth of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity or group of deities is quite rare. The spirits or deities in the religious beliefs of most peoples, tribes or cultures are not omni-whatever but quite human with some extra faculties.


Yeah, that's a complete load of bullshit.
We are all born atheists.
Belief in gods must be taught.

@LimitedLight None at all, I'm sure.

@LimitedLight What book are you talking about? J. Anderson Thomson's: "Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith" ? -
Well -- Thomson is a psychiatrist, and the book is recommended by Richard "The God Delusion" Dawkins himself, who wrote the foreword to it..

That's easy to say from our present perspective. The belief in gods was originally to account for gaps in knowledge. It was actually sort of logical to believe that everything had to be made.

Yes, the watchmaker argument is a specious one, and yet it was persuasive given the limits of knowledge at that time.

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