University of Cambridge > > Social Psychology Seminar Series (SPSS) > The Coexistence of Natural and Supernatural Explanations across Cultures and Development

The Coexistence of Natural and Supernatural Explanations across Cultures and Development

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Despite the prevalence of both natural and supernatural reasoning, little is known about the capacity to accommodate and reconcile these two kinds of explanation. Although often conceptualized in contradictory terms, I argue that the common assumption that these explanatory frameworks are incompatible is psychologically inaccurate. I propose instead that the same individuals use both natural and supernatural explanations to interpret the very same events and that there are multiple ways in which both kinds of explanations coexist in individual minds. To support this claim, I will review converging developmental data from cultural contexts ranging from India to Madagascar in three areas of biological thought: the origin of species, illness, and death, with particular emphasis on my research examining how biological and witchcraft explanations for AIDS coexist in South Africa. Contrary to traditional accounts of cognitive development, in which natural explanations are thought to increasingly displace supernatural explanations, I argue that supernatural explanations often increase, rather than decrease with age. By re-casting the classic theoretical tension between natural and supernatural reasoning, I propose a new direction for psychological research, one that acknowledges thinking about supernatural phenomena as an integral and enduring aspect of cognitive development.

This talk is part of the Social Psychology Seminar Series (SPSS) series.

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