By the end of this chapter you should be able to:
- Describe blank slate theory and tabula rasa.
- Define cognitive module.
- Explain the role of heritable learning biases in cognitive modules.
- Describe who Jerry Fodor was and what concepts he proposed.
- Define empiricism and its role in modern day science.
- Define nativism and what it evidence it consists of.
John Locke, Tabula Rasa, & Blank Slate Theory
When looking into the subject of blank slate theory, most people first look to John Locke. However, while Locke is most famously associated with blank slate theory and tabula rasa, he was not the creator of either concept. Locke was an observer of nature who focused much of his work on natural philosophy. He spoke about tabula rasa, while never using the term, in two of his written works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Some Thoughts Concerning Education.
Based on the concept of tabula rasa, blank slate theory argues that we are born without any thoughts or opinions already developed.
According to blank slate theory, the mind is completely blank at birth.
From there, education, environment, and experiences – which are external, as well as material and/or immaterial – shape the child’s process of development. This leaves a lasting effect on who they become.
Locke’s work, while speaking to the concept of tabula rasa, also focused on empiricism – which is the antithesis of innateness, and is related closely to blank slate theory –, believing experience shapes ideas. Since everyone’s experiences are unique, different opinions are inevitable.
In John Locke’s view, blank slate theory:
- argued against the concept of hereditary royalty and aristocracy – concepts which had argued that the individuals had an innate higher knowledge.
- argued against slavery – which at the time, was based on the notion that slaves were innately less than others.
- argued for equality of all people – any uniqueness seen among ethnic groups, sexes and individuals were not innate but from experience; Locke believed discrimination based on these qualities was irrational.
Contrasting blank slate theory is the concept of cognitive modules.
Modularity of the Mind: (also known as mental modules and cognitive modules) as described by Jerry Fodor, is a functional cluster of cognitive mechanisms that work together in the low levels of the mind to achieve certain low-level cognitive functions dedicated to information-processing, sensations and automatic motor functions. Modules are fast, sparse of information, not under conscious control, and are specialized to handle one or two specific functions.
For Example: A common system of all cognitive modules is known as Information Encapsulation. Information encapsulation is the idea that a system has restricted access to information that is stored outside of itself. An example of this is the muller-lyer illusion. Even if you know that both lines are the same length, our visual system of our brain that is modulated will still see the lines as different lengths because that system is affected by information encapsulation and thus has no access to the outside information telling us that the lines are in fact the same length.
As a cognitive scientist, Jerry Fodor was a proponent of nativism – a concept opposite of blank slate theory. Rather than agreeing with blank slate theory, Fordor believed that skills and abilities are present in the brain from birth, and that many of them would be impossible without genetic contribution prior to environmental experience.
The Modularity of Mind may have been his most impactful work. Here, he argued for a calculated approach to perceptual systems, which he believed were automatic and quick.
One of Fodor’s main proposals for the mind included mental modules, a concept which states that the function of the brain is determined by its structure. An example of this is the language of thought hypothesis; this hypothesis reasons that the mind includes a logical, mental system that contains symbols, which are comprised of the definitions of words, word-order patterns – for example, in English, a subject often comes before a verb, which is followed by an object (i.e. “the cat chased the mouse”) – and co-occurrence – the high chance that a word or phrase will follow the previous word or phase, based on grammatical rules (i.e. in “the cat chased the mouse,” “chased” requires an object (“the mouse”) and a subject (“the cat”)).
Empiricism & Nativism
Blank slate theory and the concept of cognitive modules can relate to the debate between empiricism and nativism, with blank slate theory being similar to the former, and the concept of cognitive modules being similar to the later.
Empiricism: Is the idea that knowledge comes from experiences via the senses; knowledge is not innate.
Nativism: the way a human being thinks cognitively; knowledge is innate.
The theories have been continuously debated, with many still agreeing with one side over the other.
The Challenges in Empiricism
The “Language instinct” argued by Chomsky with the idea that people are good at learning languages (especially children) and they have some kind of innate knowledge for language when they are born. Which links back to the concept of tabula rasa – how are children able to have this knowledge/ability if they are truly born as blank slates?
Another controversy is that logic is not physical or tangible and cannot really be experienced via the senses, but still remains a concept. However, humans all have different ideas of values and morals, even if everyone has experiences via senses morals all differ and there is controversy around this that morals could be somewhat innate.
The Challenges In Nativism
Hume’s missing shade of blue which is the idea that was introduced where the mind produced an idea without exposure to external stimuli but only internal senses so the existence of empiricism was not present.
The “missing shade of blue” refers to Hume’s claims that a person can be shown various colours except a specific shade of blue.
Here, the person is shown different shades of blue and will be able to picture that shade without ever seeing it before in their mind, providing innate knowledge of it, proving simple ideas are not just from impressions.
On the other hand, birth in the definition should be replaced by conception as that’s when genes get incorporated.
Support for Empiricism
There are different forms of support for empiricism. These include:
- Ockham’s razor states the simplest way to get to an answer is the right way. Empiricism is simple because if more than one person can retrieve the same knowledge via senses it makes that piece of knowledge more likely true.
- Empiricism is used in science as a way to test a theory – eg, Behaviourism: the idea that behaviour is something that is conditioned and learned. Behaviourists use empiricism in their studies by realizing that behaviour must be learned (therefore experienced). “Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence” (Skinner, 1938). Behaviours can be fine tuned by through consequence. (Experiences are made, taken in as behaviour/knowledge, then potentially changed).
Support for Nativism
There are quite a few factors that tend to support nativism, in the sense that:
- Knowledge is considered innate with the linkage of the nature-nurture debate unless it is caused by environmental stressors.
- Feelings are projected outward, rather than inward by our own response to external sources coming from within us.
- Physical geography such as the formation of Earth, plant and animal structures are considered natural.
- Bodily change such as menopause, and adolescence which has the growth of body hair, or genital changes occurs innate.
- We as human beings cannot see mind develop with our bare eyes, the way that we see body develop such as the growing of teeth.
Whatever the side of the debate researchers fall on, one could argue that support and arguments against either side can be found. Blank slate theory and empiricism favour a brain that learns everything post-birth, while cognitive modules, such as heritable learning biases, and nativism argue for a brain that comes preprogrammed with knowledge that is accessed throughout life. This disagreement and attempt to conceptualize the brain continues.
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