What is an intuitive explanation of physics

Why the earth can't be round

For four-year-olds, every thing and every creature has a purpose: Lions are there for the zoo. Stones to throw, clouds to rain. And in every object or living being they suspect a personified will: the table is evil if you look at it

For four-year-olds, every thing and every creature has a purpose: Lions are there for the zoo. Stones to throw, clouds to rain. And in every object or living being they suspect a personified will: the table is bad if you bump into its edge, as is the mosquito that bites you. Those who do not know this childlike way of thinking from their own experience can fall back on numerous studies that have explored the intuitive (also called naive) ideas and concepts of toddlers in recent years. They provided evidence of intuitive concepts in very different areas: on the one hand in physics and mathematics, but also in philosophy, in psychology and even in religion.

"Children's knowledge has long been underestimated," says Friedrich Wilkening, cognitive and developmental psychologist at the University of Zurich. That changed fundamentally with the surprising findings of research with infants and toddlers in the nineties. She showed that as early as a few months, infants not only perceive events in their environment, but that they already have certain concepts about them: For example, they expect, that is to say “know”, that an object will continue to exist even if they do not can see more.

Friedrich Wilkening himself mainly dealt with the ideas of 4 to 12 year old children in the field of physics and mathematics. He was able to show that children understand even difficult concepts such as probability, time and speed. If you ask them, for example, how far a turtle, a guinea pig and a cat have fled from a dog that was just barking, then 4-year-olds placed these animals just as well as older children or adults do - they do understand the relationships between time, space and speed intuitively. “There is an intuitive knowledge of the body - one speaks of 'embodied knowledge' - that is often closer to physical reality than our elaborate thinking,” says the psychologist.

Similar in all cultures

Intuitive ideas about physics and mathematics are of particular interest because children in all cultures and societies experience a physical environment that obeys the same laws. “That is why we can research one of the central questions in psychology here: How do we come to our knowledge of the world?” Explains Friedrich Wilkening. The child's ideas in this area are similar in all cultures. Both where they are correct and where they are wrong, where they do not correspond to the laws of physics.

Such misconceptions, those intuitive ideas that are scientifically wrong, were compiled by developmental psychologist Paul Bloom of Yale University in a recently published review article (Science, Volume 316, p. 996). Bloom believes that false intuitive knowledge is particularly relevant because it undermines the scientifically correct view: "Part of the resistance to certain scientific ideas seems to be a general human phenomenon," says Bloom.

Planes and trains

Such a concept is the idea that even small children have that an object that is not held will fall straight down (“straight down belief”). She is correct when it comes to a plate that falls out of someone's hand. But it fails wherever additional physical forces are involved: "Not only children, but also adults with a good school education think, for example, that a suitcase that falls from an airplane moves vertically towards the earth," says Wilkening. Actually, they ought to know better, because hardly anyone would just get off a fast-moving train like that.

This “straight down belief” also makes it difficult to imagine the earth as a sphere: on the lower side, people fall down. According to Paul Bloom, children can only imagine the earth as a sphere when they are 8 or 9 years old at the earliest, and even adults who know it often have trouble with it. Early intuitive ideas can persist, even in spite of or in addition to the correct concept learned later - Wilkening speaks of a dissociation of knowledge here: “Especially in areas that are not accessible to direct experience, people have to believe in science, often against theirs Intuition - that starts with the shape of the earth or evolution and goes all the way to atomic physics or cosmology. "

What children believe and whom they believe is therefore of great importance, as Paul Bloom explains. Research by developmental psychologist Paul Harris has shown that as early as 4-year-olds try to assess the trustworthiness of a source, for example, that they consider adults to be more trustworthy than children and that they rely on persons of authority. The extent to which children and adults liberate themselves from their intuition and acquire scientifically correct knowledge, for example about the shape of the earth or about evolution, is therefore dependent on whether the intuitive, i.e. H. unscientific view is supported by trustworthy authority figures - as is the case in fundamentalist societies. Paul Bloom considers the tenacious, intuitive ideas in the philosophical, psychological and religious realms to be far more consequential than physically wrong concepts. This includes the idea that everything that happens must have a purpose and a reason. "Because we intuitively and early look for causalities in the physical world, we then do it - by analogy - in all other areas as well: people tend to open up too many causalities," Friedrich Wilkening explains this phenomenon.

In the religious sphere, Paul Bloom calls a concept that is decisive, which he calls "intuitive dualism": Experiments have shown that children distinguish very early between objects that do not act of their own accord (e.g. a ball) and living beings who do that (e.g. a dog). From this they deduce that there is a spirit or a soul that is added to a body (or brain), i.e. exists independently of it. Preschoolers, Bloom explains, will instantly admit that they need their head (i.e. the brain) to do arithmetic. But are you happy about a gift that your little brother likes? - No, the head doesn't do that, something else does. Bloom sees in this intuitive childlike dualism the reason for the tendency of so many people to believe in supernatural phenomena, gods or gods - contrary to all scientific evidence.

Friedrich Wilkening doesn't want to go that far. The idea of ​​a disembodied psyche cannot yet simply be dismissed as unscientific. Research on childlike thinking has shown that the idea of ​​a higher being is also one of the early intuitive concepts of children, regardless of parents and upbringing. But who wanted to decide scientifically whether the child's knowledge was correct or incorrect?