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Consider a thought experiment. If you could choose an ideal belief system for the next generation of intelligent beings — a set of beliefs that enables them to thrive and do good — what would it be?

One way to answer this question is to emphasize beliefs that would help them obtain basic information about the world. These might include a focus on evidence, logic, and chains of cause and effect. Inquiry would be valued, and ignorance or uncertainty avoided.

But this isn’t the only way to answer the question. Another way is to emphasize beliefs to enable people to be good: helpful friends, reliable partners, and benevolent members of society. In this case, beliefs might relate to promoting moral behavior and supporting loved ones. Signaling respect and loyalty would be valued.


While these belief systems emphasize different values, and may at times conflict, in practice people use both at different times. The same person may adopt one set of criteria when thinking about what causes the ebb and flow of tides, and another when considering  what happens to family members after they die.

Questions like this one are explored by the fascinating research of Dr. Tania Lombrozo, a professor in psychology at Princeton University. As project leader of a $549,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, she is investigating the differences in people’s attitudes to wanting or needing an explanation to religious and scientific questions.

She joined us in a recent Speaker Series presentation, where she shares some of her team’s findings from experiments in scientific and religious cognition. She argues that these different ways of thinking allow us to adapt to different needs. “Having different kinds of cognitive capacities that are tailored to different goals,” she says, “is going to allow us to be more flexible thinkers and believers able to navigate a broader range of human concerns.”

Still Curious?

Explore more of the great minds from across the sciences and humanities in our other Speakers Series conversations.