Are We Born With Knowledge?

by Will Lyon while at the Boston University Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience | One thing I have always struggled with in reading philosophy is the doctrine of Innatism, which holds that the human mind is born with ideas or knowledge. This belief, put forth most notably by Plato as his Theory of Forms and later by Descartes in his Meditations, is currently gaining neuroscientific evidence that could validate the belief that we are born with innate knowledge of our world (Left to right: Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Buddha, Confucius, Averroes).

The predominant belief and assumption about human learning and memory is that we are born as a “blank slate,” and we gain our knowledge and ideas through new experiences and our memory of them. This belief is known as Empiricism and, although dates back to Aristotle, has been supported by many famous philosophers such as John Locke and Francis Bacon. However, a study published in last March’s Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS) may, to an extent, discredit this main theory of knowledge collection. The research, conducted by the Blue Brain Group in Switzerland, explored the remarkable similarities in the neuronal circuitry in the neocortices of all brains. The study, summarized in this article in PNAS, essentially “discovered a synaptic organizing principle that groups neurons in a manner that is common across animals and hence, independent of individual experiences.” This discovery may have huge implications on our understanding of learning, memory, and development. The groups of neurons, or cell assemblies, appear consistently in the Neocortices of animals and are essentially cellular “building blocks”.

In many animals then, it may hold true that learning, perception, and memory are a result of putting these pieces together rather than forming new cell assemblies. According to Dr. Markram, “This could explain why we all share similar perceptions of physical reality, while our memories reflect our individual experience.” This is a remarkable example of the ways in which neuroscience and its research is revolutionizing our understanding of the ways in which we come to know and perceive our universe, while simultaneously answering major philosophical questions. While these findings may go against the incredibly popular empirical view of knowledge, they lend themselves very well to the notion of innate ideas. Plato and Descartes used this general theory to explain human reasoning. Plato believed that the human soul exists eternally, and exists in a “world of forms (or ideas)” before life; all learning is the process of remembering “shadows” of these forms here on Earth. While this idea is still a little out there for me at least (and it may take a little more scientific evidence to support that claim), Descartes’ claims seem very consistent with the Blue Brain Group’s findings.

Descartes proposed that the inborn ideas that we possess are those of geometric truths and all of our intelligence can be accessed through reason. Discussing ideas in his fifth meditation, he states “We come to know them by the power of our own native intelligence, without any sensory experience. All geometrical truths are of this sort — not just the most obvious ones, but all the others, however abstruse they may appear.” Another study supporting this notion is the result of research on “intuitive physics,” or the seeming understanding we possess of the physical behavior of objects in our universe without even thinking about it. In an article summarizing the study, Janese Silvey provides the example that “if a glass of milk falls off a table, a person will try to catch the cup but not the liquid spilling out. That person is reacting rather than consciously thinking about what to do.” The report on the actual experiment, by Susan Hespos and Kristy vanMarle, showed that infants possess expectations that, for example, objects still exist when they are hidden, and are surprised when these expectations are not met (surprise was indicated in the study by a longer looking time). Other experiments were conducted to demonstrate the understanding that infants from 2-5 months old have of cohesive properties, solidity of materials, and other basic physical characteristics of objects. The full report of the findings can be found here.

For me, the best news that comes out of this is that these new findings compromise both the philosophical doctrines of innatism and empiricism, opening up new discussions of exactly what knowledge and learning mean.

Markram’s Study on Synaptic Organization-PNAS

Physics for Infants-WIREs Cognitive Science

Descartes’ Theories of Innate Ideas-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Plato’s Theory of Forms and Thoughts on Innate Ideas-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Infants Understand More Than Thought-Columbia Daily Tribune

New Evidence for Innate Ideas-Blue Brain Group