Why are falling projectiles appropriate targets of scientific research, while falling in love is not?

I used to work in a lab studying morality, and when I told people that I studied the cognitive processes that give rise to moral judgment, I usually got strong reactions. Often times, people seemed to suggest that science had no place studying such a sacred topic. My friends who study the psychology of religion experienced the same thing.

What was interesting was that my friends who study processes like vision or memory have not. Morality, religious experience, and love are canonical examples of topics that are often perceived as being beyond the scope of science, and my advisor and I wanted to know why.

In a set of experiments, we asked participants to tell us the extent to which they thought science could ever fully explain a range of psychological phenomena, ranging from low-level perceptual processes, like detecting moving objects, to capacities like falling in love and appreciating art or music. As we expected, they thought science could better explain the former than the latter.

Participants then rated this wide range of mental phenomena on a variety of other dimensions, like the degree to which each phenomenon is unique to humans. In doing so, we were able to identify some of the factors that determine whether a certain topic is perceived as falling within versus beyond the scope of science.

We found that one of the most important factors was the degree to which people felt that they had introspective access to the phenomenon in question. In other words, people felt that science could least explain experiences for which we have a rich, first person perspective, like appreciating a beautiful sunset. However, people also thought that science couldn’t explain things over which they felt that they have conscious will (like acting altruistically) or things that make humans exceptional compared to other species (like having a spiritual experience).

Why did we see these associations? In the case of introspection, it may relate to what researchers have called intuitive dualism: mental processes feel different from more physical ones, so we view the world like little Cartesian dualists. The everyday experience of being conscious may reinforce the idea that something like falling in love can be best known from a first-person perspective, and can’t be explained through science, a third-personal one.

But the relationship with conscious will or human uniqueness might also be reinforced by religion. If a religion teaches people that they possess free will, for example, it might be also narrowing the perceived scope of science when it comes to explaining the human mind. From this perspective, our results begin to shed light on the complicated relationship between science and religion.

Interestingly, we also found that judgments about what science could or could not explain were strongly related to a discomfort with scientific explanations. When the participants in our studies said that something was beyond the scope of science, they usually also indicated that they would be uncomfortable with a scientific explanation for the phenomenon in question.

We conducted this research in a time of great polarization when it comes to the public perception of science. Of course science may not ever be able to explain every aspect of the mind – nor perhaps should it – but when disagreements arise over what science cannot or should not explain, it is important to recognize the complex set of beliefs that give rise to these convictions.

Photo by Neal Fowler