Useless Philosophical Babies May 19, 2009Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Ethics, Science.
Tags: Alison Gopnik, child development, evolution and imagination, philosophy and science
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Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik’s recent book, The Philosophical Baby puts the inner lives of babies in a new light. Via Seed Magazine:
One of the things we discovered is that imagination, which we often think of as a special adult ability, is actually in place in very young children, as early as 18 months old. That ability is very closely related to children’s ability to figure out how the world works. Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world.
It has long been a puzzle why the long, resource-depleting developmental period of human beings was an evolutionarily stable strategy.
The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use…if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined. The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.
And we probably shouldn’t be trying to teach calculus to Kindergarteners so no child will be left behind.
Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both.
And don’t let the drooling gibberish fool you.
These techniques show that children can work with very complex statistical information… But when you give kids these complicated sets of relationships and then just ask them to make the machine go or make the machine stop, they do the right things. Although they can’t consciously track how these conditional probabilities work, they are unconsciously taking that information into account. And they do this in the same way that sophisticated Bayesian network machine-learning programs do.
And if you thought kids learned moral behavior from authority figures telling them how to behave, you would be wrong:
Two-and-a-half-year-olds already recognize the difference between moral principles and conventional principles. You can ask them if it would be okay to hit someone at daycare if everyone said it would be okay, versus asking them whether it would be okay to not hang up your coat in the cubby if everyone said it would be okay. These children say it’s never okay to hit someone, but whether or not you have to put your clothes in the cubby could change from daycare to daycare. They already seem to appreciate the difference between the kinds of morality that comes from empathy and the kind that comes from our conventional rules…
A lot of moral psychology has been saying that we have these innate moral instincts, or innate moral grammars. When we look at children, we do see some of these innate moral intuitions, but there is also this tremendous capacity for moral revision. In some ways, I think those are some of the most distinctively human abilities. They give us the ability to say, “Oh wait, the way that we’ve been operating is not working, and that’s wrong.” And this gives us the ability to change those things that are wrong and get to better moral principles than we started out with.
Sorry about that social conservatives—you were wrong about that too.
The implications for philosophy:
Increasingly, modern philosophers say that we can learn about the big questions by looking at science. But science, especially developmental psychology, can also tell us about philosophy; it can tell us about what we start with, what we learn, and what the basic facets of human nature are. The kind of picture you often get from scientifically oriented philosophy is often very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology, with everything innate and genetically determined. But one of the more important things that has come out of developmental work is that there’s also a powerful capacity for change.