Innateness: Born With It?

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Since ancient times philosophers have argued over what amount and type of knowledge we are born with. In the last century, experimental data has given us insight into what can be considered innate, as opposed to learned. Most of the more recent experiments have confirmed what rationalists have said for centuries. These philosophers arguments are fairly concrete, and the scientific data seems to refute responses that have been produced by empiricists throughout history.

The innateness debate started with the same two people as most of western philosophy: Plato and Aristotle. Though they did not argue about innateness as its own issue, their respective writings seem to align them with the two major viewpoints that were yet to develop. In Meno, Plato demonstrates a form of innate ideas, showing how an uneducated slave boy can “recall” information as if from a past life, with no sensory stimulus to trace to it. Conversely, Aristotle’s writings on logic and knowledge acquisition make him the de facto founder of empiricism in this subject of debate. In  Metaphysics, he states that all knowledge is acquired from the senses and the process of logical induction. He claims, much like later empiricists, that the only innate knowledge is this ability to induce based on experience.

These two viewpoints developed into two distinct schools during the enlightenment era: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalists argued for the existence of large amounts of innate knowledge. Whether it is Descartes claiming that knowledge of god is innate since it is not backed by any of the senses, or Leibnitz claiming math is innate based on very similar premises. On the other hand, empiricists argued that only sensory experience and learning can result in knowledge. Locke’s position is summed up by his quote about the mind being a malleable mass of wax, shaped by experience.

In the modern day, the debate has splintered into a spectrum of opinions, still resembling the two schools of rationalism and empiricism. The debate has also crossed into many disciplines, including but not limited to: psychology, biology, cognitive science, and linguistics.

The main school of psychology that has served as a continuation of empiricism is behaviorism. Pavlov, Skinner, Watson, and many others have painted a picture of the mind in which everything is learned through condition. Despite Skinner showing that animals and humans respond to conditioning (About Behaviorism), there has never been a conclusive result that says we truly start with nothing.

Modern rationalists have essentially relegated Skinner’s findings, if not his entire school of psychology, to oversimplification. They have attacked the problem from all sides. Noam Chomsky explains how language acquisition must have a largely innate component. In Recent contributions to the theory of innate ideas, he demonstrates how if seen as an input output device, the output that the mind produces cannot be effectively traced to the minimal input, and therefore a large aspect of the output must be caused by the device itself. Hilary Putnam has tried to refute and trivialize chomsky’s hypothesis, but not very effectively.

One view falling somewhere between behaviorism and rationalism is Piaget’s constructivism. This still claims that we are essentially born with no innate knowledge except for highly primitive sensory concepts. These concepts are built upon in a “bootstrapping” process after which a human has the ability for abstract and conceptual thinking. Piaget seemed to confirm his hypothesis with his early experiments on infants, which showed them to lack object permanence, and other conceptual abilities, up until certain ages. These findings have been refuted in more recent experiments.

Perhaps the most conclusive support for rationalism can be found in the fields studying mental representation and vision. In The Origin Of Concepts  Susan Carey demonstrates the more recent experiments which show extremely young infants to have the ability to sense distinct objects, and have representations of those objects even when they’re not directly in front of them. In Initial Knowledge: Six Suggestions  Elizabeth Spelke also shows that infants understand basic concepts like continuous motion.

In his essay on computational vision, David Marr shows how our visual capabilities suggest a mental structure that is made for quickly turning our visual stimuli into three dimensional representations of physical objects. These representations take distance into account so that they have accurate size estimates, and also build the opposite side of the object so that the representation is truly three dimensional. Marr’s findings seem to have a very biological backing. He compares our vision to that of a fly or a frog, and states that since they don’t need three dimensional representations, their visual processing is a much simpler intake of breaks in the light, and very simple representations of surfaces.

This effective appeal to biology that can also be seen in Modularity of Mind  by Jerry Fodor, as well as Godel, Escher, Bach  by Douglas Hofstadter. Fodor’s entire paper is written about how the mind has specialized units. Just as every animal’s body is modular, with organs and organ systems, all which have different structures meant for different purposes, the mind must also be. In many ways, the mind can be seen as just another part of the body.

Hofstadter’s argument is not dissimilar. He claims that certain structural aspects of the mind are the same in all humans. We have our unique characteristics (personality, specific abilities), but at some level,  wouldn’t our minds have similar structures based simply on the fact that we are one species?

While these straightforward forms of rationalism have all but won the debate with their experimental evidence and constant refutation of empiricism and behaviorism, there is an extreme form of rationalism that is often dismissed as unfounded and unscientific. This is the psychological work of Carl Jung. At first a pupil of Freud himself, Jung became one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His views on innateness were that not only are we born with basic logical and perceptual concepts, but also we are born with a priori knowledge of characters, morals, and life situations. Often called the “Objective psyche” or “collective unconscious”, he claims that it is all due to a backing structure in the mind of every human(What Jung Really Said). Much like Chomsky’s appeal to the similarity of all natural languages, Jung makes an appeal to the commonalities between most if not all mythologies across the world.

The modern debate can be seen as a spectrum with behaviorism as the empiricist extreme, and Jungian archetypes as the rationalist extreme, with constructivism (Piaget) and moderate rationalism (Carey, Spelke, Chomsky, Fodor, Marr, and Hofstadter) in the middle.

The extreme views of either side of the debate seem, to me, to be completely impossible and unfounded, while the more moderate forms give the environment for a much more legitimate analysis. These moderate forms of each school closely resemble the historical viewpoints of rationalist and empiricist thought.

These speculative arguments left no clear winner at the beginning of the modern age. Despite the convincing nature of rationalist argument even all the way back to Plato, there was no experimental evidence one way or another. Many have criticised the argument in Meno because it is easy to say that the questions Socrates asks imply the information he is looking for, giving the slave boy the knowledge himself, through the assumptions that his questions make.


“Soc. — What then ? How many times is this whole [space a J of that a c] ?

Boy. — Four times.

Soc. — But we required that there should be one twice as large. Or do you not recollect ?

Boy. — Certainly.

Soc. — Is then this line [bj, or bl, or m, or dm] from corner to corner [one] cutting each of these spaces [a c, c i, c j, c k] in two ?

Boy.— Yes. Soc. — Are then these four lines [b d, bh, hi, i b] equal, which enclose this space [bbhi] i

Boy. — They are.”(Meno)


In this passage, Socrates is pointing out the mathematical principles for the boy to

confirm or deny.The boy can see what Socrates is drawing in the sand, and therefore the boy is using sense data to arrive at these conclusions, or so the rebuttal goes.

This is an effective argument. Someone studying the classics of philosophy centuries later, during the enlightenment, might find this to be a conclusive argument in support for empiricism. Seemingly innate concepts may possibly be learned through the way they are elicited from someone asking.

This falls in line with what one would read in Aristotle in Metaphysics.

His arguments about knowledge and learning are honestly more convincing than Plato’s. Here’s why: where Plato has an allegorical dialogue that may have not even happened, Aristotle has a systematized break down of how knowledge acquisition happens. But a convincing argument does not trump experimental evidence.

Unfortunately for rationalists, the evidence was yet to be found. So for many centuries, Aristotle would have been the most convincing writer to have weighed in on the subject of innate knowledge. Aristotle’s argument effectively delegitimizes Descartes’s view on the innate knowledge of god:

“But now if because I can draw from my thought the idea of an object, it follows that all I clearly and distinctly apprehend to pertain to this object, does in truth belong to it, may I not from this derive an argument for the existence of God?”(Meditation V)

Any clever Aristotelian empiricist could come along and claim that no one has the concept of god until they are asked about it. They could add that the concept wasn’t known to them until the sensory stimulus of the question gave it to them! It is very much like asking someone if they have ever thought about blue elephants. You could claim that the idea of a blue elephant is not innate, and was given to them when you asked about it. Chomsky would argue that the fact that they could build that representation in their head shows innate knowledge, but Chomsky’s highly convincing rhetoric was unavailable to those in the enlightenment.

Leibnitz kept the rationalist debate going with an argument that seems to trump any empiricist argument of the time:

“The assumption of these ideas slumbering in the mind, these innate ideas , (Leibnitz) regards as necessary in order to understand the nature of the mind..”(New Essays Concerning Human Understanding)

Leibnitz’s claim was that the capacity for mathematical reasoning was truly innate due to it’s universal nature. One may claim it is “learned” that one plus one equals two when asked for the first time, but unlike belief in god, once someone understands the concept of addition, they cannot be convinced that one plus one equals three. Leibniz’s argument stands to this day and, to me, is the most convincing purely rhetorical argument for innate ideas of mathematics.

The modern argument becomes more diverse and requires more elaboration in defense of any one viewpoint. Rationalism has evolved into the fields of linguistics and cognitive science, and empiricism into the psychological schools of behaviorism and constructivism.

The most compelling systematic proof of innate knowledge, outside of experimental data, is probably Noam Chomsky’s very well developed innateness hypothesis. it bears a strange parallel  to Locke’s Quote about the ball of wax, but flipped around to support the rationalist viewpoint: What if we do start as a malleable ball of wax, but all of our minds start with the same basic shape, and the wax has the same physical properties from mind to mind. Then, the starting shape of the wax and it’s limited ability to be shaped differently than the other balls of wax, serve as properties that all mind’s have in common. This is also in agreement with Carey, Spelke, Fodor, Marr, and Hofstadter.

Chomsky works in this direction in the field of linguistics. He proposes a language acquisition “device” In the mind. He likens it to a mechanical device, that takes an input and gives an output:

“To study the substantive issue, we first attempt to determine the nature

of the output in many cases, and then to determine the character of the

function relating input to output.”(Recent Contributions to the Theory of Innate ideas)

From an engineering perspective, the stimuli (input) that we receive cannot effectively explain the vast output that we end up with, in the form of linguistic competency. He also appeals to the commonalities between all languages and all grammars:

“Deep structures seem to be very similar from language to language, and the rules that manipulate and interpret them also seem to be drawn from a very narrow class of conceivable formal operations.”(Recent Contributions to the Theory of Innate ideas)

Disregarding experimental evidence, this is the real proof of innate ideas. These deep structures all convey information in a universal  human format. Everyone who speaks any language comes to understand the atoms and rules of that format. Chomsky’s paper continues as he asserts that if the way in which linguistic concepts are processed by the mind is very similar across the whole human race, then the computational abilities used to process said concepts must be innate. Hilary Putnam tries to refute and trivialize Chomsky in his paper, The Innateness Hyposthesis and Explanatory Models in Linguistics but seems to come up short. The trivialization actually serves as good proof of Chomsky’s correctness.

“So much for a statement of the I.H. If I have left the I.H. vague at

many points, I believe that this is no accident – for the I.H. seems to me

to be essentially and irreparably vague.”(The ‘Innateness Hypothesis’ and Explanatory Models in Linguistics)

Putnam doesn’t understand why the innateness hypothesis is a big deal, and later says that it may just be extremely obvious, and therefore meaningless. I would agree but add that its a big deal because there are still people who don’t believe it, despite its highly obvious nature.

As Chomsky and Putnam imply, behaviorism is easily refuted and can essentially be thrown away as oversimplification. Like in The Big Lebowski  when The Dude tells Walter “You’re not wrong, you’re just an a**hole”, I would love to tell Skinner “You’re not wrong, you’re just completely missing the point.”

That is the main problem with behaviorism. It tries to explain a complex, dynamic system with the overly simple idea that if you reinforce a behavior, it will occur more, and if you punish it, it will occur less. The true discrepancy I find is that if I imagine a hypothetical organism that didn’t behave this way, it comes off as the stupidest sounding form of life imaginable. Anything that doesn’t gravitate toward a positive stimulus and away from a negative one would not have survived the first ten minutes of evolution. Therefore it is highly unlikely that this organism could be around after billions of years. Behaviorism states something so mindlessly mundane, it almost doesn’t deserve to be mentioned despite the fact people still believed and continue to believe it somehow.

If I was a modern empiricist, I would at least subscribe to Piaget’s ideology. Before Spelke and Carey came along, Piaget was the one who had the experimental evidence. His theory is much more plausible, with the distinction being that the sensory primitives he theorizes about are still innate concepts, but are just much simpler than those proposed by rationalists:“All mental life, according to Piaget, is constructed from this initial (primitive) representational repertoire” (The Origin of Concepts).

Unfortunately for constructivists, Elizabeth Spelke and Susan Carey came along with a whole new set of experiments, which are much more conclusive. Carey and Spelke paint a picture of much more innate information than Piaget.

“ Core cognition is articulated in terms of representations that are created by innate perceptual input analyzers. Natural selection has constructed these analyzers specifically for the purpose of representing certain classes of entities in the world, and this ensures that there are causal connections between these real-world entities and the representations of core cognition”(The Origin of Concepts).

With this new information about our innate representations, rationalism has all but beat out any type of empiricism. These experiments on concepts also match up very well with the arguments made by modern rationalists on the subjects of vision, modularity, and biology.

Carey’s description of representations matches up very well with Marr’s theory on the recognition of three dimensional objects. Carey shows that even infants have the ability to tell the difference between distinct objects “Infants innately recognized the correspondence between the visually and tactically specified shapes/textures”(The Origin of Concepts) whereas Marr demonstrates how the computational abilities of vision must be structural aspects of the vision center of the brain: “Desirable as it may be to have vision deliver a completely invariant shape description from an image, it is almost certainly impossible in one step”(Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information) .This  description shows how to have the advanced visual capabilities that humans have, there must be a largely innate computational component in the visual center of the mind.

These arguments are also very much in agreement with Fodorian modularity. The idea behind modularity is that the mind, much like the body, is built of specialized modules. This is a very logical argument. All life as we know it is modular to an extent, and our own bodies are observably modular (organ systems, organs, tissue, cells, etc.), so why would our mind be exempt from this very consistent rule? The key problem I see with modularity is that Fodor himself admits that aspects of cognition may be semi modular, or in between modular and central structures. This does not refute the innateness hypothesis, but it does make Fodor’s writing seem less scientific and more speculatory. Also Fodor’s writing in general is disorganized and hard to follow, ironic for a guy writing about the rigidity of mental structures.

A similar appeal to biological modularity can be found in Godel, Escher, Bach  by Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter makes the comparison between the mind and a custom made map of the United States. Someone is given a “starting map” which has accurate depictions of the physical landscape(mountains, rivers, valleys etc.), and is told to draw in all of the cities, state lines, and major roadways themselves.

“The differences between (one person’s map and the actual USA) are

found in the less frequently traveled route, the cities of smaller size and so on. Notice that this cannot be characterized either as a local or a global isomorphism… there are certain definite, absolute points of reference which will occur on nearly all (maps)” (Godel, Escher, Bach)

In this metaphor, no two maps would come out exactly the same, but they would likely have very many commonalities, including the constant “starting map” but also the locations of many of the larger cities, and more well known state lines. These “points of reference” are the equivalent to innate knowledge and structures, such as modules. All of the people who made the road maps were given the same starting map, just as we are all given a very similarly structured mind. This explains how everyone’s mind can be unique, despite structural similarity.

This appeal to biology can only go so far. Even Hofstadter and Chomsky say that the commonalities between all human minds need to be minimal enough to allow for the diverse spectrum of personalities and mental characteristics that people have. This is, for now, the best way to refute the extreme form of rationalism espoused by Carl Jung. As of now, there doesn’t seem to be a way to prove or disprove the Jungian archetype hypothesis. Honestly, I would love to find out that Shakespeare and Greek mythology are similar because they are made from storylines innately in every person’s head, but it is too much of a stretch. It just seems far fetched that we all have such a dense common core. I believe that the archetypal characters and stories are not within every human mind, but emerge as a novel property of a group of people. That is to say, that these archetypes are seen across so many cultures and mythology’s because given the innate knowledge of every human, these types of stories become the most popular among any group of people. So an infant’s mind does not have the concept of  “hero” built in, but the innate knowledge he does have makes it so that when he is an adult, a story with the hero archetype is more popular among him and his peers. This argument can be used to attempt to also refute the innate language acquisition device, but does not work as well, because language acquisition can be seen on the person scale, whereas archetypes can only be observed consistently in large groups of people.

The one aspect of innate ideas that seems resoundingly left out by the major players is art. Besides Godel, Escher, Bach  and some writings about Pythagoras, I was unable to find literature on the philosophy of art or music that dealt with the seemingly innate proclivities that humans have for specific color combinations, shapes, rhythms and harmonies. It nearly crosses into the territory of archetypes because these commonalities are in opinion, not knowledge. People seem to like diatonic and modal harmony in general, but no one knows it to be the best (Harry Partch certainly didn’t). People prefer 4/4 over 11/8, and blue and orange in contrast, and squares and circles, but this isn’t innate knowledge. Where it does enter the debate is in the common ground between these preferences we have. Most of the successful aspects of art and music throughout history have been inextricably tied to mathematics. For visual art, it is geometry and the fact that different colors have “distances” from each other on the color wheel. But many successful visual artists have ignored these concepts and still succeeded. Very few musicians have thrown out standard meter, and even fewer have strayed away from the 12 note chromatic scale that pythagoras developed, based on very basic ratios in frequency. What makes this truly innate to the human mind is when you map it to emotion. No one is conditioned to think of a major scale as “happy” or a minor scale as “sad” but it seems that almost everyone throughout history can agree on those rudimentary assignments.

Innateness is a broad category of discussion and has been debated for centuries. It seems to be that in the last fifty years, the rationalists have secured a foothold as the leading theory. Indeed, I think time will only give us more concrete empirical data that more or less supports the rationalist viewpoint. Really, it is less compelling than it seems at first because after some investigation, it really is cut and dry. Why would a mind be any different from the rest of a body, or the bodies and minds of other animals? To think that it starts with no evolved innate capabilities is ludicrous and I’m sure the remaining empiricists will be fully refuted and converted very soon.


Works consulted:

Plato, and R. S. Bluck. Meno. Cambridge [Eng.: University, 1961. Web.

Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Santa Fe, NM: Green Lion, 1999. Web.

“Descartes’ Meditations.” Descartes’ Meditations Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Locke, John,. An Essay concerning Human Understanding ; and A Treatise on the Conduct of the Understanding / Complete, in One Volume, with the Author’s Last Additions and Corrections. [Philadelphia]: Published by James Kay, Jun. and Brother, Philadelphia … John I. Kay &, Pittsburgh, 1837. Print.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, K. Gerhardt, and Alfred G. Langley. New Essays concerning Human Understanding,. Chicago [etc.: Open Court Pub., 1916. Print.

Skinner, B. F. About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf; [distributed by Random House, 1974. Print.

Piaget, Jean, and Marjorie Warden. The Language and Thought of the Child. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner &, 1926. Print.

Putnam, Hilary. “The ‘Innateness Hypothesis’ and Explanatory Models in Linguistics”Synthese 17 (1967) 12-22. © D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht-Holland

Chomsky, Noam. “Recent Contributions to the Theory of Innate Ideas.” Synthese 17.1 (1967): 2-11. Print.

Marr, David. Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1982. Print.

Fodor, Jerry A. The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1983. Print.

Carey, Susan. The Origin of Concepts. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic, 1979. Print.

Bennet, E. A. What Jung Really Said. New York: Schocken, 1967. Print.