Intelligent Design

Tania Lombrozo and the Puzzle of Design Inferences

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Tania Illusion

Go here for a striking illusion, i.e., to see what happens when these pictures are turned right side up. That’s Tania in the pictures, btw.

OK, so I had titled this entry “Tania Lombrozo, I Love You,” but that was more than a tad over the top (and anyway my heart belongs to this woman forever). Nevertheless I cannot help but feel a surge of intellectual affection — philia — at learning that someone is trying to understand the puzzle of when and why humans infer intelligent design, or more generally, default to teleological modes of explanation, whether correctly or not. (It’s that last bit that should be very useful to design theorists; see below.)

Tania Lombrozo is an assistant professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, with an academic background in both the philosophy of science (Stanford) and cognitive psychology (Harvard). Her new paper, “Inferring design: evidence of a preference for teleological explanations in patients with Alzheimer’s disease,” Psychological Science 18 (Nov 2007):999-1006, presents data about the following:

Unlike educated adults, young children demonstrate a “promiscuous” tendency to explain objects and phenomena by reference to functions, endorsing what are called teleological explanations. This tendency becomes more selective as children acquire increasingly coherent beliefs about causal mechanisms, but it is unknown whether a widespread preference for teleology is ever truly outgrown. The study reported here investigated this question by examining explanatory judgments in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), whose dementia affects the rich causal beliefs adults typically consult in evaluating explanations. The results indicate that unlike healthy adults, AD patients systematically and promiscuously prefer teleological explanations, suggesting that an underlying tendency to construe the world in terms of functions persists throughout life. This finding has broad relevance not only to understanding conceptual impairments in AD, but also to theories of development, learning, and conceptual change. Moreover, this finding sheds light on the intuitive appeal of creationism.

Yeah, I know: Alzheimer’s and creationism — cue the jokesmiths at the Panda’s Thumb.

But Lombrozo points out that teleological or design explanations are often correct: watches do have watchmakers. So what distinguishes erroneous and correct design inferences? Knowing the circumstances under which humans incorrectly infer design may help ID theorists guard against hard-wired teleological bias. Correct (sound) and incorrect (unsound) design inferences are two sides of the same coin. Discovering how we may err in inferring design is essential to knowing when we’ve made such inferences reliably.

Truth-In-Plugging-Someone-Else’s-Work Statement: Tania Lombrozo is NOT herself sympathetic to ID. See this paper.

8 Replies to “Tania Lombrozo and the Puzzle of Design Inferences

  1. 1
    Jasini says:

    Since it’s quite obvious just looking at the pictures that her mouth and eyes are upside down (right side up?) in the first one, I’m not sure what the claim to an illusion is.

  2. 2
    Carl Sachs says:

    I think the illusion is supposed to be that the difference between the two images is less immediately apparent in the upside-down case as in the right side-up case. Perhaps I’m just not very perceptive!

  3. 3
    Apollos says:

    The difference between the pictures right side up is dramatically different.

    When upside down, at first glance it appears nothing is amiss. You have to search a little to discover the differences.

    When right-side up, the modified picture is the stuff of nightmares.

  4. 4
    dacook says:

    It’s long been known (a phrase used when too lazy to look up any references ;)) that babies respond much better to right-side-up faces than any other orientation. Or even to simple symbolic representations of faces, as long as they’re arranged eyes on top, mouth on bottom.

    There must be some sort of hardwire programming. I’m wondering if it’s the same pathway in operation with these pictures. Interesting.
    (I’ve just wasted 15 minutes imagining possible evo-psych reasons for these phenomena. Try it, it’s fun.)

  5. 5
    Paul Nelson says:

    Sorry, everybody, my bad: the pictures of Tania [illustrating how we perceive facial information] are unrelated to her work on design reasoning.

    I just thought the illusion was eye-catching and fun.

  6. 6
    MacT says:

    In their Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2006) paper,
    Lombrozo and colleagues provide a succinct summary of why so many proponents of ID, in all sincerity, do no favors for their position when they fail to recognize why the science community disagrees with them. If you can access it (many libraries, and many friendly academics with direct access, will happily oblige if you ask), it is enlightening, and very much reinforces Paul Nelson’s point regarding the value of deeper knowledge of inferential processes.

    Here’s the concluding paragraph from the Lombrozo et al paper:

    “So what leads some people to accept evolutionary theory and others to reject it? Brem et al. [1] found that students who accepted evolution were exposed to anti-evolution messages as often as creationists, but to pro-evolution messages more often than creationists. They were also more likely than creationists to believe that evolution has no social or moral consequences, positive or negative. Existing data do not provide a definite answer, but they do suggest that beliefs about evolution cannot be regarded in isolation. A proper understanding of evolutionary theory and its consequences requires more than a few lessons in biology. It also requires lessons from philosophy of science about what constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test, and lessons from moral philosophy about the difference between empirical claims and moral claims. Perhaps this is what ought to be taught alongside evolution in America’s public schools.”

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:


    Ah, but the picture shows how well-programmed we are to spot and recognise patterns and deduce inferences from clues.

    Now, why is that so, and why is it that it so often works, relative to evolutionary materialist accounts of the origin of the mind? Does this lead to a reliable mind that we can trust to think logically . . . ?

    GEM of TKI

  8. 8
    MacT says:

    “Does this lead to a reliable mind that we can trust to think logically . . . ?”


    That’s exactly the point Lombrozo and colleagues are making. That is also why we have adopted the scientific method for helping us to arrive at answers to our many questions that we can trust to be correct, even when they are not intuitive to our teleologically-oriented minds.

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