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Wednesday, 13 May 2009 10:00

The Telos Drive - A Neurobiological Basis for Religious Belief

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Dr. Jonathan Pararajasingham is a British-born medical doctor specialising in neurosurgery, currently based at Cambridge University's Neurosurgical Unit in the United Kingdom. In this article, Dr. Pararajasingham, explores why religion is so universal.


The debate on religion has reached a bifurcation. Atheist academics, represented by the public figures of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) have made much progress in providing cogent arguments refuting the God Hypothesis. However, their argument tends to address the metaphysical misunderstandings of the public at large. But what about the sophisticated theologian? There still remain a great number of the academic elite who believe in a personal God it seems. Atheists are fond of quoting the results of the poll taken of the world's scientific elite (namely Britain's Royal Society, and America's National Academy of Sciences) which demonstrated 85% of the NAS and 93% of the FRS were irreligious. However, as physicist Neil De Grasse-Tyson once pointed out at the "Beyond Belief" Symposium in 2006, what about the rest who are believers? Here we have a small portion of highly sophisticated thinkers who continue hold religious beliefs. This coupled with the historical, geographical and cultural universality of religion, requires a deeper explanation.

Telos is a Greek word meaning "end" or "purpose". It is the root of the term "teleology" which is the study of purposiveness as used by philosophers such as Aristotle. The telos drive is a hypothetical neuropsychological construct that I propose exists as a primitive instinct which, like all biological drives, may be modulated by higher cognitive function or environmental influences, and often forms the core of religious faith. This concept seems to provide a logical framework and more coherent perspective when considering the origins of this universal phenomenon known as faith. In order to study the question of why religion is so universal, we must step back and examine the phenomenon of assigning meaning and purpose (i.e. teleology) to the universe and indeed human beings.

A common question which often arises in religious discussion involves that of purpose. "What gives your life meaning?" a theist may feel compelled to ask the non believer. This is traditionally assigned a psychological explanation, where the believer is accused of dealing with his or her irrational hopes and fears with various forms of supernaturalism which cannot ever be explained away empirically and are therefore secure as part of the unknown. But perhaps there is a deeper issue here which leads most people to ask such a question; perhaps a deep seated, primitive telos drive is at work, leading us to overzealous assumptions about meaning and purpose in the world around us.

There are a number of evidence-based theories which lend support to the telos drive hypothesis. Studies by cognitive psychologist Deborah Kelemen have shown an innate predisposition to a teleological worldview, where children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. She found that preschool children (<6) tend to infer purpose in both living and non-living units, such as lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining") respectively. They instinctively provide (and prefer when given the choice) a purposeful explanation over a physical explanation. Primary school children (6-11) were also found to favour teleological explanations rather than physical ones for natural phenomena. When asked about the origin of animals and people, children have a tendency to provide creationist explanations. Adults in contrast preferred physical explanations for the non-biological phenomena, and teleological explanations for the biological. Kelemen has named this innate tendency "promiscuous teleology."

Other evidence supporting such findings include Csibra's study on infants between 9 and 12 months, who "use the principle of rational action not only for the interpretation and prediction of goal-directed actions, but also for making productive inferences about unseen aspects of their context." There seems to be a developmental change from 9 to 12 months of age in the ability to infer hypothetical (unseen) states of affairs in teleological action representations. Tanya Behne's study in Germany on recognition of intentions showed that infants are able to interpret other people's body-movements as goal-oriented and purposeful, concluding that "infants as young as 14 months of age can, in some situations, interpret an adult behaviour as a relevant communicative act done for them." Such research shows how children are prone to both teleo-functional and intelligent design intuitions which are directly interrelated. This implies an inbuilt cognitive purpose-detector as the root cause of a teleological viewpoint.

We can see how this tendency may result from an "intentional reasoning mechanism" which has developed due to increasing complexity of systems found in the environment, and would therefore be useful in prediction of behaviour. The philosopher Daniel Dennett describes a model of consciousness called the intentional system. When looking at a system from the intentional stance, we assume it possesses certain information (beliefs), that it acts in the direction of certain goals (purpose) and that it always follows the most reasonable action relative to the information and goals. Natural selection shapes brains to explain things (animals and artefacts) as having intention, and so we ascribe intentions to things that matter to us. Everything must be subjected to reason i.e. meaning and purpose.

The anthropologist Pascal Boyer has examined the commonalities between religious traditions throughout history. Rather than finding recurring questions on the creation or life after death as one might expect, instead he found that the idea of "unseen agents" in the environment, which specifically have "intentions" as the most consistent belief among religious institutions. This over-emphasis on intentional forces in the environment, whether attributed to nature, ghosts or dead ancestors, is further evidence that purposeful expectations have been present all the way back to ancient peoples, forming the foundation for most if not all religious traditions.

Jeff Hawkins (inventor of Palm Computing), has developed a brain theory called the "memory-prediction framework". The essence of his idea is that the brain is a sophisticated predictor - a mechanism in which hierarchical regions of the brain predict their future input sequences. Such a machine is able to control the behaviour of an organism by responding to future events predicted from past data (stored in its memory). This change in behaviour is what we refer to as "learning". Higher levels of the cortical hierarchy predict the future on a longer time scale, or over a wider range of sensory input (the higher the level, the more intelligent the organism). Lower levels interpret or control limited domains of experience. This feature is present in the neocortex, a large specialised part of the brain unique to humans. This is why lower species do not possess the same level of intelligence as us, since they have not developed a memory-prediction framework.

The memory-prediction framework corresponds with teleo-functional intuition and the intentional stance, in that they have developed to assign purpose to entities so we may predict their intentions or purpose as a survival strategy, working on the assumption they exist. Normally if an intention is seen, we learn and remember this and are thus able to predict during any subsequent similar encounters. The intention or purpose of the universe or existence does not give any tangible feedback, which may lead to irreligiosity. However, if there are cultural influences, psychological predispositions to transcendence, "messages" from God or the cosmos or if the telos drive is simply strong enough, the greater purpose is vindicated and strengthened.


We can illustrate the concept further by developing a broader contextual framework of human nature. We can compare the telos drive to various analogous human instincts, as summarised in the table below:

Human Trait

Biological Drive

Physiological Controls

Short-term Aim

Long-term Aim











Avoiding threats






Resource accumulation








Loss of libido















Mirror neurons

Social cohesion





Serotonin 2A





Such biological drives are so deep-rooted as a result of our evolutionary history, that the characteristics they give rise to become widespread throughout human society. We become slavishly devoted to such drives, allowing every step of our lives to be one closer to their fulfilment. This occurs almost to the point where our free will is questioned, as we semi-consciously hunt for food, sex, money, love and purpose simply for the strong positive emotional "hit" the brain will reward us with subsequently. Food and sex are more obvious necessary biological drives, but other drives such as those which cause us to seek love or purpose are more complex. However, I argue here that these too have primitive drives fuelling our pursuit of them, leading to the universality and social importance of them which have literally shaped human societies throughout the ages, including our very own.

This instinct to find purpose and intention in the world has been exaggerated and thus misdirected. Biological drives are often given an extra boost to ensure the survival advantages are not missed. For example, the sex drive is boosted to the point of promiscuity in order to ensure mating occurs; the love drive is boosted to the point of infatuation or romanticism to ensure rearing and nurture of offspring occurs; the fear drive can misfire towards anything which seemed to act as a threat in the past, producing (often irrational) phobias; the empathy drive can produce irrational altruism within the group to ensure gene survival.

I would argue that the telos drive is no different; it has been boosted so we assume everything is suffused with intention or purpose so that we may predict the behaviour of the world around us, thus staying ahead of the game we call survival. This exaggeration or boost causes us to see purpose within (human purpose) and without (cosmic purpose).

If this is the case, why is there no evidence that there are such levels of purpose? Looking again at other biological drive mechanisms, we can decide objectively what is rational and what is irrational. For example, love can be described as an extremely irrational mind state compared to polyamory (love for multiple partners), which is more logical. Similarly fear drives produce phobias which cannot be validated as rational anxieties. The strength of a hunger drive for sweets and fats, developed when our ancestors needed to hunt for scarce food, does not lead to the conclusion that such wants are rational in times of plenty.

The telos drive is no different; on the one hand it has developed as a logical survival mechanism. Yet the exaggeration has lead to the false impression that there should be self and comic purposes too. It also leads to irrationally assigning intention to inanimate objects. When you trip over a rug for example, you instinctively curse it as if it has intention. Unfortunately, nothing empirical can validate such subjective instincts, however strong they may be.

REDIRECTING THE TELOS DRIVE: Mortal Purpose vs. Divine Purpose

We now have a situation where we recognise we cannot (and should not) eliminate the drive itself, even if in its boosted state it can give rise to irrational thoughts. Rather we can harness the power of the instincts to improve life, happiness and well being. Love is irrational, but life would be impoverished if we eliminate it; rather we use rationality to prevent harmful effects, such as staying with an abusive spouse or expressing suicidal ideation as a result of morbid love. In the same way we may curb our telos drive by accepting there is no rationality in the belief of some absolute divine or objective individual purpose. Rather we may look to ourselves to find a purpose of personal preference, which conduces to us living life to suit our own personalities, interests and strengths, provided we do not encroach or stifle any other human being's life purposes.

So how do we redirect the telos drive from a focus on God to a focus on ourselves as individuals? Perhaps the best way is to simply recognise that redirecting the telos drive is both healthier and essential for the advancement of human civilisation. Mortal purpose for example encourages people to work for world justice, rather than relying on divine justice. It makes us realise that morality needs justification which we must develop through objective, logical systems. Being moral out of intrinsic human goodness is more laudable than being moral because you will get rewarded for it. Religion dictates warped moral laws which make no sense out of their ancient context. God-given laws promote laziness, non-thinking and essentially, immorality.

Mortal purpose encourages selfless philanthropy, rather than selfish concern about reaching heaven or paradise. Knowing we are mortal and have only one life makes us humble in contemplating our own existence, whereas religion encourages an arrogant spiritual narcissism professing that the entire universe was created for us. One-life purpose encourages accumulation of knowledge through education, whereas belief in God encourages only theological knowledge and time-consuming prayer, ritual and worship. Mortal purpose may also encourage individualism, unlike religion which deems you are part of a flock, with one common purpose. Mortal purpose encourages freedom of thought and expression, whereas religion encourages the idea of totalitarianism, where humans as individuals have had no say in the matter of their creation or how they should live their lives. And most importantly, mortal purpose is based on truth, whereas eternal-life is based on unfounded superstitious belief.

For those interested in truth, an alternative purpose should be encouraged to satisfy the telos drive. The alternative to religion need not be a tragic nihilism, or even a sterile scientism, but rather constructs based on reason such as humanism and moral philosophy. Although numbers of non-believers are gradually increasing worldwide, is must be recognised that this change occurs due to an ongoing theist-atheist debate. Misinformation, lack of education and discouragement of free thought leads to ignorance. It is this ignorance which allows religion to flourish. Many atheists are genuinely puzzled by how theists (including knowledgeable intellectuals) believe in the supernatural given what we know in the 21st century, and why they can remain so passionate about something which one can neither prove nor disprove. I feel the answer lies in the telos drive. This intrinsic drive is a need to find meaning and purpose for which religion (given its immense popularity) is perhaps the most powerful construction. Hence we may develop a less cynical approach when addressing theistic beliefs, since they are founded not merely on psychosocial constructs, but an innate biological need - the telos drive.



Dr. Jonathan Pararajasingham is a British-born medical doctor specialising in neurosurgery, currently based at Cambridge University's Neurosurgical Unit in the United Kingdom. Dr Pararajasingham received his primary medical doctorate from London University, and is working on a BA in Religious Studies at Open University, as well as a PhD in brain cancer stem cell research at Cambridge University. His writing tends to focus on the more exotic aspects of functional brain science such as neurotheology and neuroaesthetics, while surgical interests include the semi-experimental fields of psychosurgery and brain-computer interfaces, which he plans to work on as part of a specialisation in the field of functional neurosurgery. Dr Pararajasingham is of Sri-Lanka.



Bloom, P., Weisberg, D.S. 2007. Childhood origins of adult resistance to science - Science. Vol. 316. no. 5827, pp. 996 - 997

Kelemen, D. 2005. Intuitions About Origins: Purpose and Intelligent Design in Children's Reasoning About Nature. Journal of Cognition and Development, Vol. 6, No. 1, Pages 3-31

Dennett, D. 2004. Three kinds of intentional psychology (IP) in Heil, J. - Philosophy of Mind: A guide and anthology, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Hawkins, J. 2004. On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines, New York: Henry Holt.

Evans, E.M. 2001. Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of diverse belief systems: creation versus evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 42(3), 217-266

Behne, T. 2005. One-year-olds comprehend the communicative intentions behind gestures in a hiding game. Developmental Science volume 8 Issue 6 Page 492-499.

Csibrahttp://www.leaonline.com/entityImage/?code=200B?, G. 2003. One-year-old infants use teleological representations of actions productively. Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1, Pages 111-133

Fisher HE, Aron A, Brown LL. 2006. Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 361(1476):2173-86.

(This article was first published on Reasonism.Org on Thursday, 14th of May 2009.)
Last modified on Saturday, 06 August 2011 11:06

1 comment

  • Comment Link Maruli Sunday, 02 September 2012 00:05 posted by Maruli

    I think that the co-evolution of the gullibility to religious beliefs along with human cognition can be explained without the telos drive.

    There is a different explanation due to the arising cognitive dissonance between cognitive control and instinctive urges triggering contradictory behaviors.

    The evolution of human cognition meant the development of conscious empathy, responsibility and consideration resulting in some form of non-religious morality as expressed for example by the philosopher Epicurus in his principle of not harming and not being harmed.

    But all instinctive behavior enabling the survival of the species included the ruthless inflicting of suffering and harm by pregnancy, birth and the slavery of child rearing upon women. Without harm to women, the species would have been long extinct.

    Inventing deities solved this contradiction:
    A deity's alleged responsibility for human suffering frees men to give in to their instinctive urges without feeling guilty for the harm done.
    A deity's alleged compensation in the afterlife for sufferers instigates women to accept the self-harming of having children as a way to earn the reward.

    I have elaborated these thoughts on my blog as
    Harm And The Evolution Of The Gullibility For Religion:


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