Tag Archives: philosophy

New study provides precisely no evidence whatever for innate ideas

The headline of a recent press release by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne about a recent paper in PNAS (Perin R., Berger T.K., & Markram H: A synaptic organizing principle for cortical neuronal groups, p, 108 (12); link will download a PDF.),  reads “New evidence for innate ideas.” The kind of innate knowledge for which there is supposed to be new evidence is described as follows.

These clusters contain an estimated fifty neurons, on average. The scientists look at them as essential building blocks, which contain in themselves a kind of fundamental, innate knowledge – for example, representations of certain simple workings of the physical world. Acquired knowledge, such as memory, would involve combining these elementary building blocks at a higher level of the system. “This could explain why we all share similar perceptions of physical reality, while our memories reflect our individual experience”, explains Markram.

The “clusters” are “pyramidal neurons in the neocortex,” according to the article. The argument that the way these neurons develop is evidence that there are innate ideas is described.

When the scientists tested in vitro neuronal circuits from different rats, they all presented very similar characteristics. If the circuits had only been formed from the experiences lived by the different animals, the values should have diverged considerably from one individual to the next. Thus, the neuronal connectivity must in some way have been programmed in advance.

The argument is that we should expect different neuron clusters in different rats, because the rats had different experiences as the neurons developed. But what’s seen is that the neuron clusters do not differ from one another.

Hang on. Presumably we all have more or less the same “representations of certain simple workings of the physical world,” because everyone lives in three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension, which always moves in the same direction; and the fundamental physical properties of medium-sized and large objects are the same everywhere. If something really big falls on something really small, the small thing will be crushed. I imagine the same is true for rats. I would think that rats live in a world poorer in diversity than we do. So it should be no surprise that the neurons that develop in response to the “simple workings of the physical world” develop the same in all the rats and probably all (normal) people as well.

The remarks about Locke are false, at least, within the discipline of philosophy. “Since John Lock [sic], about 400 years ago, research into how the brain learns and remembers has been guided by the belief that we start from a clean slate.” This is not true. Kant quite clearly indicated that he believed that there was some knowledge that we could not have learned through the five senses, but that we possess nonetheless. Querying the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy for nativism is a good place to start learning about the veritable flood of work on this subject in many disciplines.

Another point that’s important is that it most certainly does not follow from the claim that a trait is inherited that it is innate. “Innate” is fatally ambiguous, and should probably be retired. Paul Griffiths argues conclusively for this in a paper that’s available online (this links to a PDF file which will be downloaded immediately upon following it.).

J. L. Austin versus Sarah Palin

I think that, in light of last weekend’s shooting, Sarah Palin and other organizations using the language of homicide, assassination, and war bear a significant responsibility, not because they are responsible for the shooting itself, but because much of what they have said implies or in fact directly states that they feel that the shooter is justified in acting as he did and that others should do as he did.

J. L. Austin is well-known for having elaborated the idea of the performative utterance. Acts of speaking and writing are utterances, as are many forms of non-verbal communication. Austin points out that many of our acts of communication are intended to do more than convey information: certain utterances count as actions. Take marriage, for example. When someone says “I do” in response to “Do you take so-and-so to be your lawfully wedded…?”, the consequence is that that person has now entered into a relationship that bears with it certain rights and responsibilities. People who have taken a significant other to whom he or she is not married to an emergency room or clinic will have had experience with this. Promising is another case in which a linguistic exchange of a certain kind implies that each party has a right to have certain expectations.

Campaign posters, rallies, web pages, images, and speeches supposedly expressing a political organization’s point of view are performatives in the sense that they are intended to inform the actions of those who count themselves members of the movement or supporters of a particular person or organization. If someone wants to align him or herself with the movement, he or she must take on certain beliefs, and be committed to taking certain kinds of actions. This includes taking on certain attitudes toward those who disagree.

Now that someone has in fact acted as Palin and other suggested that people ought to, the question can reasonably be posed, did Palin and those others who used the language of war and homicide really mean what they said? Do they believe that literally targeting people who do not share their political views is the correct way of addressing those people? That the best way, and the right way, to create the best government, the best society, is to shoot and kill those who do not share their views about what that society should look like? Palin and others did in fact make statements and other representations that might reasonably interpreted as meaning that they really do think that killing others who disagree is the best and right way to create political change.

I think it’s interesting that this way of looking at things shows clearly that whether the shooter is mentally ill is irrelevant, and so is the issue of whether the posters and other representations of gun violence caused the behavior of the shooter or might cause the behavior of other people. The issue is that certain things were said or otherwise represented, and that these things, if they are taken seriously and literally as expressing the desire that people take certain forms of action, exhibit a disturbing disregard for the kind of free political process that I think we in the United States value so highly. If Palin and others really do mean that people ought to act as they say they should, then the former needs to come out and say yes, we do take responsibility for what we said, as a call to action; and if Palin and others do not think this, they need to take responsibility by saying, no, we made a mistake by expressing the view that we want people to kill those who oppose us, that we were not careful enough in choosing the way in which we want to express how upset we are with health care reform, and whatever else it is that they are upset about.

Palin’s statements after the shooting are confusing. She reverses the sense of “blood libel” by accusing the press of using the term against her. “Blood libel” is an anti-Semetic term. So Palin identifies herself with the persecuted outsider. What it looks like, however, is that she was the one who, before the fact, accused other people, Giffords, for instance, of betraying the nation—a kind of blood libel.

This exhibits what one might call a performative contradiction. She accuses the press of stirring up controversy and sowing dissent. But in doing so, she herself stirs up controversy and dissent. By making the statements she’s making, she shows that she doesn’t really believe them.

I get the sense that some people think that they can say whatever outrageous thing they want to, but then “take it back” or deny that what they said does not in fact mean what it does. This is similar to the “march of progress” diagram used to represent evolution. It’s clearly racist, and also scientifically incorrect, yet its use persists, even among people that ought to know better.