From the Minds of Babies

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What is it

Consciousness, morality, meaning and truth have perplexed and puzzled generations upon generations of philosophers. But could it be that we have been looking in all the wrong places to solve these imponderable mysteries? Could the minds of babies hold the key to philosophical progress? John and Ken are joined by renowned developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, for a program recorded in front of a live audience at the Marsh theatre in San Francisco.

Listening Notes

Babies learn remarkably quickly.  How do they get from knowing nothing to knowing so much?  John and Ken introduce us to two theories of knowledge acquisition: 1) the empiricist philosophy of the child as a tabula rasa, embraced by behavioral psychologists, and 2) the nativist view that babies are born with a lot of knowledge already and that they simply lack the appropriate terminology.  Both stances have merit, but neither seems accurate on its own—at least John and Ken aren’t convinced.  They’re joined by Alison Gopnik live at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco to discuss how infants can grow up to be brilliant philosophers—or even just functioning people.

Gopnik explains how she became interested in infants, and what psychology and philosophy have in common.  From there she moves to the question, “What, if anything, can philosophers learn from infants?”  Gopnik begins by giving examples from her research in which babies unconsciously use same techniques as scientists to figure out the world.  They have both innate mechanisms for learning, and also the ability to learn quickly.  In addition to their scientific natures, babies seem to display a sense of inborn benevolence—it seems Hume was correct, or at least Gopnik and John think he was.  And yet while babies understand a lot, they have to learn about instances in which people are different from then.

The live audience offers their thoughts, asking insightful questions about how we know we aren’t just reading ourselves into babies, why play is apparently necessary to learning, and perhaps most intriguing, can we as adults recover some of the seemingly lost capabilities of childhood?  As Gopnik paraphrases, “if babies are so smart, why are we so dumb?”  Gopnik offers her thoughts on the matter, explaining a sort of division of mental labor between youth and adulthood.  On the topic of what adults can learn from babies, John has one word: diapers.  Ken and Gopnik offer a few more.  They end by trying to answer the question on which so many manuals have been written: with what do we need to provide babies so that they will develop and learn best?  Gopnik offers some salient advice.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:25): April Dembosky hits the sandbox to find out first hand how children learn through play.  She encounters a complex social world of preschool negotiation and imagination. She speaks to Educator Jane Perry about the role of pretend play in childhood development.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 50:30): Ian Shoales tells us about his best friend at age 3, who happened to be imaginary, and the time a bear attacked him in the bushes.
 
 

Alison Gopnik; Professor of Psychology, Institute of Cognitive Science; University of California, Berkeley 

 
 
 

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