Thursday, July 26, 2012

Innatism: good and evil, language, and maths

Quite recently I’ve written a post on tabula rasa. You may probably wonder if there is a theory of mind which would be opposite to tabula rasa theory. The answer is: of course there is – this view is called innatism and claims that not all knowledge comes from experience (John Locke, however, argued that it does). Since, according to innatism theory, mind is not a blank slate there is some knowledge that you are born with. Despite the fact that innatism is not a very popular theory there are various branches of this view; the main difference is usually: what knowledge is innate.

Noam Chomsky
Notions of good and evil is usually considered by innatists to be the part of innate knowledge. Numerous philosophers claimed that you are able to distinguish between good and evil regardless of your background. Descartes stated that some ideas are placed in people’s minds by God (including notions of good and evil). Nevertheless various terrorists are convinced that what they do is actually good (or they think it’s not good but serves a greater good). Think about the recent case of Anders Breivik who killed 69 unarmed adolescents at Utøya island, Norway. He has never had any regrets (or at least didn’t express them publically) of what he did – do you think it is caused by the fact that he is not able to distinguish between good and evil or by his mental illness? Or is a mental illness the result of his not being able to say what is right and what is not?

Kaspar Hauser
Another part of knowledge which is – as claim some innatists – innate is the language skills. The most famous language innatist is probably Noam Chomsky, American philosopher and linguist of Jewish-Russian descent. He claims that every child possesses so called LAD (which stands for Language Acquisition Device) which enables children to learn any human language. It may be true – have you heard of Kaspar Hauser? He was one of the most famous feral children who appeared in the streets of Nuremberg, Germany in 1828 and could not speak German at all (apart from a few sentences and prayers which he had probably learnt by heart). Since Kaspar was still in his teens when he was found (and apparently had some contact with the language) he still possessed LAD and managed to learn the language although he seemed to be intellectually impaired and didn’t want to eat anything else than bread and drank only water. He succeeded to learn the language probably because he did know some German (though his vocabulary was very limited). However, there are some feral children who didn’t manage to learn the language so well, such as Oxana Malaya, Ukrainian girl brought up by dogs and found at the age of eight. She had lots of difficulties with learning a human language which supports the theory of Noam Chomsky that children are born with LAD but lose it with time (that’s why adults find it more difficult to learn languages than children). It proves that Locke’s theory that all knowledge comes from experience is false.

When did you know that 2+2=4? Probably you always knew it. You knew this truth even before you were able to name the numbers. Some innatists believe that mathematical and logical truths are innate as well. As a child you probably couldn’t solve the equation 5786*345 but this equation is still based on other simple rules which are innate (such as two apples per row gives four apples in total). Do you think that some knowledge is innate? Why? Please share your opinions and don’t forget to like our page on Facebook!

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