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“How Are We Born Knowing Things?”
“And why does Mommy know everything?” Kid explores innate knowledge thesis at breakfast
Kina has reached the age at which she knows enough to have forgotten how she’s learned all of it. When did she learn about love, or the sun, or Mommy, or how legs work? It’s all a jumble, but she imagines that she must have known something when she was born—the alternative is inconceivable.
When we visited Kina’s cousin Otis for the second time, back in February, he was lolling around on his stomach, staring at various high-contrast cards that his parents had laid out around him, transfixed. His eyes worked fine, I explained to Kina, but he couldn’t make sense of anything other than patterns. He was still so young that faces were mostly meaningless abstractions.
As Kina asks this question of us, it occurs to me that I assume we know nothing at all when we’re born, but I suppose we are familiar with something at the moment when we come out—the concept of safety, and its sudden absence. We know heartbeats, probably. We know what it feels like to be held.
Do we know more? WHAT DOES SCIENCE TELL US?
Well, it’s like 9:30 at night and Laurea is out having dinner, so I found exactly one paper on this: Hespos, S. J., & vanMarle, K. (2011). Physics for infants: characterizing the origins of knowledge about objects, substances, and number. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 3(1), 19–27.doi:10.1002/wcs.157
In this paper, it is suggested that infants perceive the world according to certain core principles that are validated and refined over time, including the following:
The solidity and continuity of objects—infants know objects do not blink in and out of existence and they expect that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, or pass through one another.
Objects and cohesion—infants expect single objects to move together, while relative motions specify distinct objects.
Objects and property change—infants have expectations that objects should not surreptitiously change size, shape, pattern, or color.
Together with similar conclusions about substances, infants appear to develop more sophisticated and intersecting understandings of these principles over time. By the time we are two months old, we already have initial concepts about continuity, cohesion, and change properties.
But why, Kina asks?
Brains, say I, at 9:49 at night.
We know these things because our ancestors knew these things, or were incentivized to know these things. It’s probably good to know that the tiger you saw back there is still there, even though it’s hiding behind a tree, etc. What we believe we know about physics is in some part based on what it means that we are here at all. We have evolved to understand the relative interaction of matter and light in a fashion conveniently designed to keep us, our predecessors, and our predecessors’ predecessors alive and thriving.
In other words, we’re born knowing things because they were whispered to us in the formation of our minds. We understand light because it was thrust upon us. We understand the arrangement of that light and darkness in patterns because we need to. We understand that those patterns correspond, often, to objects that have meaning. We understand that some of those objects are like us—people. We know each others’ eyes and touch. We know that the people around us remain the same, mostly, for a while. We know that water flows as a stream, then separates and forms droplets, and comes together again. We know the sound of our parents’ voices and how they are distinct from the voices of others. We know the sound of our own voice, and what it means to be alone. We know hunger. We know solace.
The rest of it we are taught, but in a language that emerges from those same building blocks. We need it taught to us that way because we have no other means of understanding it. Each thing we know stands on the shoulders of something else we know. This is like that. This is the opposite of that. These are different forms of that, and on and on.
Legs are part of your body—a single thing that is you, a person, but just a part of it, and they move, but as one with you. The sun is light and warmth, unchanging; it hides in the night, but it does not ever go away. Mommy is, like you, a person, and she is always with you, but she is separate from you; like the sun, she goes away and returns and is all light and warmth. She is continuous and real and singular. Love is the feeling you have when you see her, the first thing you knew when you met. Love is one of the most innate of all the things you know. It follows only awe.
Awe is what I feel when I look at you. I knew that, too, when you were born.