From the Minds of Babies

07 October 2011


Imagine what it’s like to be a newborn baby.  For months, you’ve been all alone in this warm and cozy womb -- your every need catered to.  Then suddenly, out of the blue, you’re thrust into a chaotic world, filled with strange new sights and sounds -- and people …  lots of people  … big people.  They’re doing all sorts of things that you have no idea about.  And all you can do is lie there, looking helpless, cute, and dumb.  Fortunately,  babies are a lot smarter than they look.  They get their bearings in the world very quickly.   Before you know it, these helpless creatures are speaking a language, and having deep insights into the causal structure of the physical world and the moral structure of the social world.  Which raises the question:  Just how do babies manage to learn so much, so quickly and effortlessly.

There are at least two possible answers to that question, John.  One is that babies are so good at figuring things out, because we’re so good at teaching them things. 

That was basically the empiricist view in philosophy and the behaviorist view in psychology.  This view supposes that a baby’s mind starts out as a tabula rasa – a blank slate that has nothing written on it.  This view grants that babies have an inborn capacity to learn from experience, but it insists that until they actually acquire some experience they won’t know anything.  So babies really are born dumb, and our jobs as parents and teachers is to help arrange the kid’s experience so that all of the right things and none of the wrong things are written onto that blank slate.

A second possibility is that although babies appear to be good at learning, they really don’t need to learn much of anything, because they come into the world already knowing a lot more than we think.  That’s the nativist view.  There's a very long tradition of nativist thinking in philosophy and a somewhat shorter, but still robust tradition of it in psychology, and especially linguistics.       So babies are born smart. Think of how effortlessly a kid acquires her first language – not by sitting in boring language classes, reading confusing grammar books, and memorizing long vocabulary lists.  We just talk to them.  And before you know it, they're talking back. 

The speed and reliability with which kids acquire their first language convinces a lot of people that children aren’t blank slates after all.  Kids seem to come specially equipped for picking up language – as if they had the basic structure of language hard-wired into their brains right from the start, with their only real problem being to figure out which particular language is being spoken. 

The theory of Nativism is attractive, but it can also get pretty extreme.  The philosopher Jerry Fodor – an arch nativist if there ever was one -- is famous for arguing that pretty much all concepts are innate.  In his view, the only thing a kid really has to learn is which specific words the people around her use to express which of the concepts she already has – as  if a baby already knows a lot of physics and mathematics or biology – but just lacks the words to express what it knows...  That seems implausible.

But it also doesn’t seem right to say that babies are just blank slates either.  There’s clearly a lot going on in babies’ minds right from the start -- much more than empiricists and behaviorists ever imagined.  So to figure out exactly what’s inside the minds of babies, we need to move beyond the realm of pure philosophy.  We need the help of somebody who doesn’t just think about babies and their brains, but actually digs around in the hidden reaches of the infant mind.  That would be our guest, renowned developmental psychologist, Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby:  What Children’s Minds Tell us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life.

By the way, this episode was recorded in front of live audience at the Marsh Theater.  We’ll be back at the Marsh this Sunday,  October 9th,  to record two new episodes.    You can find out more here.   Mention the code "friends" and you can get your tickets at a 50% discount.  It's going to be a great show.  We've got two well-known and well-spoken guests line-up and the discussion will be lively.  If you've never been to one of our live shows at the Marsh, you are in for a real treat.  We put on show that at involves a lot more than just recording the radio broadcast.   Merle Kessler and his partner in crime, Joshua Raul  Broady will sing specially composed comedic songs.  Our Roving Philosophical Reporter,  Caitlin Esch,  exploits the possibilities of a live, on stage performance, to turn her typical audio pieces into multi-media treats for both the eyes and the ears.   And you get to mingle and meet with the whole crew up close and personal.  Plus, you can be part of the show too.   So why not come to the Mission and check us out tomorrow.  There are still tickets available.   

See you there!

Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash

Comments (4)

mirugai's picture


Saturday, October 15, 2011 -- 5:00 PM


How far can parents go in teaching their children to obey the view, and learn the consequences of, the parents? ideas? And how far can parents go to prevent their children from following any other idea or practice? Who should say?
Beatings, circumcision, withholding medical treatment, teaching religion or atheism; alcohol, sexual, punishment, drug use, guns, driving, military service?
What is the age of maturity when the child gets to make its own decisions? And what indicia other than arbitrary chronological age might better lead to informed behavior in areas like voting, driving, military service? Philosophers are the only trained ?line-drawers? on issues like these.

Guest's picture


Sunday, October 16, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

From the minds of babies

From the minds of babies comes the words gaga gugu,
Which I find as intellectual as the words: quarks, leptons and bozons,and the speed of light; the occupation of others' countries, and the promise of "change"; angels, devils, heaven and hell, and the gods all coming from our most learned scientists, politicians and clergymen.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 26, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I think this article brings

I think this article brings up a very politically incorrect thought. If babies are in fact born with this much mental capacity, and in fact are not just absorbing but active learners and explorers of their world right from birth, is this something that just "turns on" at birth, or is it something that in fact is developing and occurring prior to birth? If the latter, which I suspect is the truth (and as Ken's opening post implies), what must this, in justice, say about abortion? Is abortion then not in fact killing an active, intelligent, exploring mind?

Guest's picture


Friday, October 28, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I remember things: a soul

I remember things: a soul-crushing earache before age five and the coping behavior I exhibited in the presence of parents who were helpless in relieving my pain; running down a path to get to an outhouse, falling and cutting my left palm on a hickory nut hull---the scar still quite visible today, in my sixty-third year; pets---a duck; a rabbit; a groundhog; a turkey---no dogs, cats, hampsters, etc. I had a most unusual childhood---quirky, one might say. Clearly, babies are intellectual sponges-soaking up ideas and notions as soon as their consciousness (there's that word again) permits. Covert learning begins before we draw our first breath---overt learning, immediately thereafter, continuing until, when?---when we, as individuals, decide otherwise.
Goodnight, then. And good luck.