Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture

Workshop 2014 (7 of 11) | Cristine Legare | The Coexistence of Natural and Supernatural Explanations across Cultures and Development

Episode Summary

In both lay and scientific writing, natural explanations (potentially knowable and empirically verifiable phenomena of the physical world) and supernatural explanations (phenomena that violate or operate outside of, or distinct from, the natural world) are often conceptualized in contradictory or incompatible terms. My research has demonstrated that this common assumption is psychologically inaccurate. I propose instead that the same individuals frequently use both natural and supernatural explanations to interpret the very same events. To support this hypothesis, my colleagues and I reviewed converging developmental data on the coexistence of natural and supernatural explanations from diverse cultural contexts in three areas of biological thought: the origin of species, the acquisition of illnesses, and the causes of death (Legare, Evans, Rosengren, & Harris, 2012; Legare & Visala, 2011; Legare & Gelman, 2008). We identified multiple predictable and universal ways in which both kinds of explanations coexist in individual minds at proximate and ultimate levels of analysis. For example, synthetic thinking (i.e., combining two kinds of explanations without integration), integrative thinking (i.e., integrating two kinds of explanations by distinguishing proximate and ultimate causes), and target-dependent thinking (i.e., two kinds of explanations remain distinct and are used to explain different aspects of an event, depending on contextual information) all illustrate different kinds of explanatory coexistence. We also discovered that supernatural explanations often increase, rather than decrease, with age. Reasoning about supernatural phenomena, in short, seems to be an integral and enduring aspect of human cognition, not a transient or ephemeral element of childhood cognition.

Episode Notes

In both lay and scientific writing, natural explanations (potentially knowable and empirically verifiable phenomena of the physical world) and supernatural explanations (phenomena that violate or operate outside of, or distinct from, the natural world) are often conceptualized in contradictory or incompatible terms. My research has demonstrated that this common assumption is psychologically inaccurate. I propose instead that the same individuals frequently use both natural and supernatural explanations to interpret the very same events. To support this hypothesis, my colleagues and I reviewed converging developmental data on the coexistence of natural and supernatural explanations from diverse cultural contexts in three areas of biological thought: the origin of species, the acquisition of illnesses, and the causes of death (Legare, Evans, Rosengren, & Harris, 2012; Legare & Visala, 2011; Legare & Gelman, 2008). We identified multiple predictable and universal ways in which both kinds of explanations coexist in individual minds at proximate and ultimate levels of analysis. For example, synthetic thinking (i.e., combining two kinds of explanations without integration), integrative thinking (i.e., integrating two kinds of explanations by distinguishing proximate and ultimate causes), and target-dependent thinking (i.e., two kinds of explanations remain distinct and are used to explain different aspects of an event, depending on contextual information) all illustrate different kinds of explanatory coexistence. We also discovered that supernatural explanations often increase, rather than decrease, with age. Reasoning about supernatural phenomena, in short, seems to be an integral and enduring aspect of human cognition, not a transient or ephemeral element of childhood cognition.