When I look at newborn babies, I see their cute little hands and feet roam freely in the air. I can't help but ask, what kind of knowledge exists in this little baby's mind? In the research that I have done because of this question, I have come to the conclusion that we do have some kind of innate structures in our mind. In this paper, I will explain that we do not come out of a total "tabula rasa" state. Rather, we are packed with innate structures in our brains, and they provide us with knowledge. Therefore I must start at the beginning of this study.
The Greeks were the first to understand knowledge, and then others worked from there. Plato is one of the first to look into this question, using Socrates' idea that there is something that has put ideas into people's minds. Then there was Rene Descartes, who looked at the mind, math, and our five senses. Then there was Steven Pinker who studied little children learning complex sentences. Lastly, I will discuss Immanuel Kant's idea that there are things that we have not been told about, but still know. Still, we need to look at Plato first to see what he thought and saw when he looked at the mind.
When Plato looked at the mind, he saw a soul and saw that it was full of knowledge from previous lives carried over by reincarnation. When a person dies and goes into another life, it takes information from the previous life with it. Since the soul is immortal an never dies, it can give information to a person from another life one hundred years in the past, and all a person has to is remember. With the case of the slave boy's knowledge, Socrates states that the only way that the boy could have learned that information was through innate knowledge. As Plato would have put it, even though the slave boy did not know the information in his lifetime, he was nonetheless able to recall information learned from a different life and use it to answer questions he had no idea about:
Soc: ...Attend now to the questions I ask him, and observe whether
he learns of me or only remembers... how many are twice two feet?
Count and tell me.
Boy: Four, Socrates.
Soc: And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like lines equal?
Soc: And how many feet will that be?
Boy: Of eight feet...
Soc: Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now... but then he thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty... (1)
The ideas had to come from the past. Plato thinks that knowledge come from the past lives of a person. When a person needs to know something, all that person has to do is recall the information that he or she wants to know. Due to the time and the knowledge the ancient Greeks had of the human mind, they could not have known about the power it has, nor its incredible capacity. What they were seeing was the mind and its innate structures at work. The knowledge was in there and all the boy was doing was recalling the information when he needed it to solve the problem that was given to him. We are able to see and test the power of the human mind, so the idea that a soul brings the knowledge from another life seems like an outdated idea to modern thought. We do have these innate structures in our head and we see them in the form of imagination in our little children. Every time a child comes up with a new idea and questions with a fire never seen before. It is the innate structure coming out in the child and exploring the new world it is in. People also believe that knowledge comes from our experiencing the world through our five senses.
As Rene Descartes has shown us, our five senses can be fooled, tricking us to believe in something false. We spend a lot of our time dreaming while awake (daydreaming) and dreaming while asleep. Our senses cannot tell the difference, and we are fooled by our own selves:
How often, at night, I've been convinced that I was here, sitting before the fire, wearing my dressing gown, when in fact I was undressed and between the covers of my bed! But now I am looking at this piece of paper with my eyes wide open; the head that I am shaking has not been lulled to sleep; I put my hand out consciously and deliberately and feel. None of this would be as distinct if I were asleep. As if I can't remember having been tricked by similar thoughts while asleep! When I think very carefully about this, I see so plainly that there are no reliable signs by which I can distinguish sleeping from waking that I am stupefied --and my stupor itself suggests that I am asleep! (2)
Though we being fooled by our own five senses does not mean that we cannot believe in what is in our states of being. What is also very important to remember about ourselves is that there are things that remain true in both states of being. In both of our states of being, there is one subject that remains the same: math. As Descartes would say, four plus eight will always equal twelve not matter what state you are in:
For, whether we are awake or asleep, two plus three is always five, and square never has more than four sides. It seems impossible even to such obvious truths of falsity. (3)
As we can see, a person can be tricked by their own senses. When you take away the idea of the senses giving you knowledge, you must have some kind of structure in the brain that is giving a person some kind of innate knowledge. Then there is only one thing left to look at, the one thing that remains the same in both states of being, which is the ability to do math. We can be fooled by our senses and only the ability to do math remains the same in both states of being. What Descartes is saying is that we can be fooled by our physical selves, but how do we get all of this knowledge? We cannot trust the five senses but where, then, do we get this knowledge? What he is saying is that is this the structures of the brain at work. The structures are becoming apparent in dreams because the brain is still active while we are asleep. The information given to us by the structures in our brain is being mixed up with the information that the five senses are sending to us in our dreams. That is why the senses seem to be fooled in both states of being. It was the information that was being mixed up in our brain and not the senses sending us false information. Math is not the only knowledge that might be stored in our brain, either; language is another kind of knowledge that might be in our brain structures as well.
Language skills might be the first knowledge stored in our brain structures. The skill for language is difficult to master. Children will use the skills stored in their structures as if they knew the language for years, yet they will be using the language for the first time. Steven Pinker will show that if you listen to a little child talk, you will notice that the child will use complex "blueprints" in their brains for the complex sentences, and use them correctly most of the time:
Evidence corroborating the claim that the mind contains blueprints for grammatical rules comes once again from the mouths of babies and sucklings. Take the English agreement suffix -s as in 'He walks"... for example, preschooler with the pseudonym Sarah, whose parents only had a high school education, can be seen obeying the English agreement rule, useless though it is, in complex sentences like the following:
When my mother hanges clothes, do you let 'em rinse out in the rain?
Donna teasas all the time and Donna has false teeth.
I know what a big chicken looks like. (4)
People will say she is imitating the parents. For example, maybe she heard her parents talking and use the complex sentences while they spoke to her or around her. Then perhaps she also started to use the complex sentences after learning them from her parents. This is not true, however, because Sarah will also use the agreement rule on sentences when it is not appropriate. She will come up with words not even thought of by her parents. By not following her parents in sentence rules, Pinker says the following:
Just as interestingly, Sarah could not have been simply imitating her parents, memorizing verbs with the -s's pre-attached. Sarah sometimes uttered word forms that she could not have possibly heard from her parents:
When she be's in the kindergarten...
He's a boy so he gots a scary one [costume].
She do's what her mother tell she.
She must, then, have created these forms herself, using an unconscious version of the English agreement rule. The very concept of imitation is suspect to begin with (if children are general imitators, why don't they imitate their parents' habit of sitting quietly in airplanes?), but sentences like these show clearly that language acquisition cannot be explained as a kind of imitation. (5)
While Sarah spoke, she would not imitate her parents. Instead she would use rules in her head telling her what to do. She did not learn the rules at school, and she is not imitating her parents' language skills. She is getting the information from a different source, which are the structures in her brain. If you look at the mind and how it works, you can see how the girl could not come up with the words she was using. As Pinker put it, there are "blueprints" in the brain that gave the child the means to speak with the correct rule. He saw therefore the structures in the brain working to the needs of the child. The mind is a wonderful thing and we still do not even know all of its abilities. We are still wondering what all of this information comes to mean.
Immanuel Kant saw the mind in a way that the structures in it were used on a daily basis. Many saw it as common senses that help us each day. The way proved his point in many ways, but I am going to use his example that "In All Theoretical Science of Reason A PRIORI Judgments are Contained as Principles." This is the knowledge that takes the form of mathematical judgements. With the ideas of math in the structures of the brain, we are able to get the knowledge that we use in our daily lives. First Kant looks at math and how that math comes to us through a priori knowledge:
All mathematical judgments, without exception, are synthetic... that 5 should be added to 7, I have indeed already thought in the concept of a sum = 5+7, but not that this sum is equivalent to the number 12. Arithmetical propositions are therefore always synthetic. This is still more evident if we take larger numbers. For it is then obvious that, however we might turn and twist our concepts, we could never, by the mere analysis of them, and without the aid of intuition, discover what [the number is that] is the sum. (6)
If you think of a math problem and have the made a judgment on the problem the principles of that judgment is the sum. What this is saying is that the structures in our brain are filled with the knowledge that helps us with the concepts of math and the real world around us. What was being seen by Kant are the structures of the brain filling the need for information of math. In this case, it was the concept of "sum" in math problem. The structures of the brain filled in the concept's meaning when no meaning was given or found.
In conclusion, we all of these structures in our brain that are filled with knowledge. They are in use every day of our lives. When the information is needed, the structures fill in the needed information not provided for us. We cannot learn from our world, so we must turn inward and learn from the mind. All we need to know what is what is in us right now.
1) Canter, Norma F. and Klein, Peter L. Ancient Though of Plato and Aristotle. Waltham: Blasidall Publishing, 1969. pp 10-31.
2) Kessler, Gary E. Voices of Wisdom. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1992. p. 271.
3) Kessler, Gary E. Voices of Wisdom. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1992. p. 272.
4) Pinker, Steven The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow, 1994. pp. 43-44.
5) Pinker, Steven The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow, 1994. p. 45.
6) Kant, Immanuel The Critique of Pure Reason. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965. p.53.