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From Myths to Mechanisms

How do humans first come to know about---and to knowingly manipulate---objects, causes, words, numbers, colours, actions and minds? In a beautiful myth, Plato (who also asked this question) suggests that the answer is recollection. Before we are born, in another world, we become acquainted with the truth. Then, in falling to earth, we forget everything. But as we grow we are sometimes able to recall part of what we once knew. So it is by recollection that humans come to know about objects, causes, numbers and everything else.


Leibniz explicitly endorses a version of Plato's view.

‘the soul inherently contains the sources of various notions and doctrines which external objects merely rouse up on suitable occasions’

Leibniz (1996, p. 48)

\citep[p.\ 48]{Leibniz:1996bl}
The view is subtler than it seems: we'll return to the subtelties later. [*Actually that isn't in these lectures, but it should be.]
Locke, as you probably know, was an empiricist. Here's his manifesto.

‘Men, barely by the Use of their natural Faculties, may attain to all the Knowledge they have, without the help of any innate Impressions’

Locke 1975 [1689], p. 48

\citep[p.\ 48]{Locke:1975qo}
Spelke is blunt.

‘Developmental science [...]
has shown that both these views
are false’

\citep[p.\ 89]{Spelke:2007hb}.

(Spelke and Kinzler 2007, p. 89)

Spelke doesn't have exactly Locke vs Leibniz in mind here, but rather modern descendants of their views.

[The quote continues ‘humans are endowed neither with a single, general-purpose learning system nor with myriad special-purpose systems and predispositions. Instead, we believe that humans are endowed with a small number of separable systems of core knowledge. New, flexible skills and belief systems build on these core foundations.’]

Spelke's claim may be too bold. As we will see, there is surprisingly little evidence about the conflict between empiricists and nativists. A more cautious claim would be this. when we look at particular cases in detail---for instance, when we look at how humans come to know about colours---we will discover complexities that seem to be incompatible with any one of the stories.