Turning Water into Wine

Young Children’s Conception of the Impossible

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
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  • 1 Universidad Tecnológica de Pereira, Colombia
  • 2 Harvard University, USA

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Abstract

Young children judge that violations of ordinary, causal constraints are impossible. Yet children’s religious beliefs typically include the assumption that such violations can occur via divine agency in the form of miracles. We conducted two studies to examine this potential conflict. In Study 1, we invited 5- and 6-year-old Colombian children attending either a secular or a religious school to judge what is and is not possible. Children made their judgments either following a minimal prompt or following a reminder of God’s extraordinary powers. Irrespective of their education, and whether or not they had been reminded of God’s extraordinary powers, children systematically judged violations of ordinary, causal constraints to be impossible. In Study 2, we asked if more extensive reminders of God’s special powers would prompt religious children to say that the impossible can happen. Five- and 6-year-old Colombian children attending either a secular or a religious school were presented with narratives in which the protagonist desired an ordinarily impossible outcome. In half the stories, the protagonist prayed to God for the desired outcome. Irrespective of education and of whether the protagonist prayed, children systematically concluded that the desired outcome would not occur and justified that conclusion by reference to ordinary causal constraints. Nevertheless, in a minority of their replies children did assert that violations of ordinary causality are possible. Overall, irrespective of their religious education, young children judge that events rarely deviate from their natural course; only occasionally do they acknowledge exceptions.

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