Changing the way we see the world

My reason for starting this blog, four years ago, was to help people come to terms with what science was saying and going to say about consciousness. What I see is people twisting themselves in knots in order to preserve a conscious mind, thinking and in control, rather than consciousness being a simple, partial and barely accurate awareness. Now I find that it may never be possible to completely lose the naïve psychology that we may be born with.


A paper by Shtulman and Valcarcel (citation below) argues that even though we know that the earth goes around the sun, we still have hidden away the idea that the sun goes around the earth. Their experiment takes a number of statements about astronomy, evolution, fractions, genetics, germs, matter, mechanics, physiology, thermodynamics, and waves, and asks if they are true. (For example, statements could be ‘the moon goes around the earth’, ‘the sun goes around the earth’.) The speed of answering and the accuracy were compared for statements that have the same validity both scientifically and naïvely, and statements were the validity is different. In all the subject categories the answers were slower and less accurate if there was dissonance between the scientific answer and the naïve one. I assume that neuroscience statements would give the same result, based on the ideas of teleological (design and purpose is found in all things) and animistic (all events are the product of animated intention) bias.

They (the findings) are, however, consistent with previous findings regarding the re-emergence of teleological thought and animistic thought under cognitive impairment or cognitive load. And they do not merely replicate those findings; they extend them across multiple domains of knowledge – from the life sciences to the physical sciences to mathematics – and across multiple concepts within those domains. Indeed, the consistency of the effect within and across domains suggests that it is not merely the byproduct of a few particularly resilient intuitions but is rather a domain-general consequence of conceptual restructuring.


So it seems when we learn (or discover) scientific knowledge it must replace naïve concepts. How this is done is probably very important.

Science educators are thus charged with two tasks: not only must they help students learn the correct, scientific theory at hand, but they must also help students unlearn their earlier, less accurate theories. Psychologists who have studied this process – typically termed ‘‘conceptual change’’ – have characterized the transition from naïve theories to scientific theories in several ways. … Common to all characterizations is a commitment to knowledge restructuring, or the conversion of one conceptual system into another by radically altering the structure (and not just the content) of that system. Implicit in the idea of knowledge restructuring is the idea that early modes of thought, once restructured, should no longer be accessible, for the basic constituents of the earlier system are no longer represented.


But this study shows that that naïve system of understanding is still there, in the background, interfering and ready to come to the fore in old age and situations of confusion.


Given the nature of naïve psychology: present very early, very deep and associated with personal identity; it will be very difficult to shake the naïve in order to accept the scientific.

Shtulman, A., & Valcarcel, J. (2012). Scientific knowledge suppresses but does not supplant earlier intuitions Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.04.005

4 thoughts on “Changing the way we see the world

  1. This exposes a very naive conception of truth in my opinion (akin to verificationnism).

    The view that the sun goes around the earth is all but false: it is an accurate and efficient view for someone whose referential is earth. Thinking in terms of the earth going around the sun is not very helpful for optimizing the drying time of my laundry.

    Similarly, I am not sure that anything science could teach us about consciousness could reduce in any sense the validity of what it is, for us, obviously, to be conscious. Rather science can expose the underlying mechanisms of our thinking, yet we’re still “conscious beings, thinking and in control”, and even that is required for making science.

    Replacing alleged obsolete representations by scientific ones is a very bad idea. I would be very embarassed for figuring out where there will be shadow in five minutes if my early mode of thought had been completely replaced by a scientific ones… This idea exposes a poor understanding of the nature of both our common representations and our scientific knowledge.

    The usage of philosophical concepts in this study (teleology and animism) is revealing: these concepts are not dismissed by any scientific results, but a priori dismissed by science’s methodological bias.
    True, the success of scientific method is indicative that these concepts might not be useful and some philosophical arguments support this idea, but it does not mean that they’ve been proved false in any sense, or that anyone should consider they are false (which is a metaphysical assumption. I fear that the study reported here has a strong ideological bias).

    JK: point taken – sort of. As someone once said to me, even after enlightenment, a budhist still has to have a self in ordinary life.

  2. Thank you for a very interesting post. I’m still coming to terms with the possibility that we only think we think but the discrepancy between our scientific and naive understanding interests me greatly, especially it’s so visible in terminology. We still say “sunrise” and “sunset” for example, though I can’t think of a more accurate term. But I still catch myself saying “creatures” instead of much better “animals”, “organisms” etc. We still personify nature and evolution whenever we say it “gave” us a particular feature “in order to” achieve some “goal”. Still, better a slightly mistaken understanding of evolution than creationism and I hope the same will apply to our notion of consciousness.

    In reply to quen tin – for your laundry it doesn’t matter if you think and say the Sun rose, or the Earth rotated, but the distinction is crucial if you want to travel to other planets and even a tiny misunderstanding can be very costly.
    For most intents and purposes Newtonian paradigm of gravity as a force and constant space and time is sufficient. But without the Einsteinian shift that helped us see gravity as a distortion of time-space continuum GPS wouldn’t work for example.
    Same with the early theories of light, electricity, disease, the brain and so on and so on. They were efficient for same very basic things like telling day from night or hanging out laundry, but you couldn’t invent the camera, the light bulb, or the vaccination.

    JK: thanks for comment

  3. In reply to Tom,

    I do not deny the efficiency and accuracy of science, only that we should somehow remove our old ideas. Space engineers use special relativity to conceive satelites and GPS. Structural engineers do not use special relativity, but newtonian physics to conceive buildings.

    I deny that our old ideas are “false”. They are less universal, more local truths, but they are true in the exact same sense that our cutting-edge scientific knowledge is true: because they constitute an efficient basis for succesful action. I can’t think of any other meaning of “true”.

    Regarding consciousness, intentionality and the like… another problem arises: science addresses cognition (including the ‘correlates of consciousness’), not consciousness itself. Consciousness is still a philosophical problem that cannot be addressed empirically (for it is indirectly involved in the definition of “empirically” and the foundations of science).

    P.S. I am not sure what ‘thinking that we think” means, but thinking the converse is an obvious contradiction… It should be “knowing that we think”, no?

    JK:My guess and it is only a guess is (1) we think/do cognitive, perceptional, motor work with our brains (2) the nitty gitty of this thought is not conscious – it is transparent to consciousness (3) the end product (or subproducts of a chain of thought) can be made conscious if that is useful to the whole brain to do so but very little is actually made conscious. Attention and working memory control what is made conscious.
    Consciousness has more in common with memory than with thought. Obviously you have a very different guess. Someday we may know what to put our money on among the many, many guesses.

  4. My guess are actually very similar to yours as far as we are talking about cognitive aspects of consciousness. I am not pretending that we have access to everything our brain does. I would only emphasize more on the active regulatory power of consciousness, as what brings a coherence to the whole organism. Obviously, consciousness is required for me to discuss with you (I don’t speak that coherently during sleepwalk, and I think I could not type on a keyboard), so there is obviously more than just memory and passivity. And of course, science informs us a lot on this cognitive aspect of consciousness.

    Now if we talk about consciousness as phenomenality or existence, that’s another story. Both aspects are certainly related (“consciousness as cognition” is indeed phenomenal), but they are distinct. Maybe the problem is that so many scientist just conflate the two. Viewing phenomenality as a subproduct of cognition is really (bad) metaphysics and not science *at all*.

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