According to the theory of ‘promiscuous teleology’, humans are naturally biased to (mistakenly) construe natural kinds as if they (like artifacts) were intentionally designed ‘for a purpose’ (i.e. clouds are 'for' raining). However, this theory introduces two paradoxes. First, if infants readily distinguish natural kinds from artifacts, as evidence suggests, why do school-aged children erroneously conflate this distinction? Second, if Western scientific education is required to overcome promiscuous teleological reasoning, how can one account for the ecological expertise of non-Western educated, indigenous people? We develop an alternative ‘relational-deictic’ interpretation, proposing that the teleological stance may not index a deep-rooted belief that nature was designed for a purpose, but instead may reflect an appreciation of the perspectival relations among living things and their environments.
A new relational-deictic framework can take into account a rich set of relations and perspectives among natural entities, permitting one to avoid cultural assumptions about the ‘right way’ to conceptualize nature, and identifying the claim for ‘intuitive theism’ as a culturally-infused stance. Kelemen writes that teleological reasoning is a ‘side-effect’ of people's natural inclination to ‘privilege intentional explanation’ and view ‘nature as an intentionally designed artifact.’ The relational-deictic framework outlined here offers a different interpretation: teleological reasoning reflects a tendency to think through perspectival relationships within (socio-ecological) webs of interdependency. On this view, the origins of teleological thinking are social and relational rather than individual and intentional. This has implications for ongoing debates about the primacy of social and relational theories in human development.
The relational-deictic interpretation opens new avenues for research into how people come to understand the natural world and their place within it. Teleological reasoning may not be immature or misguided. Instead, it may reflect young children's ecological perspective-taking abilities and serve as an entry-point for reasoning about socio-ecological systems of living things, rather than reasoning about isolated, abstracted, and essentialized individual kinds