The Innate Knowledge Thesis

What’s that all about?

~ Rationalism vs. Empiricism / The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Innate Knowledge thesis joins the Intuition/Deduction thesis in asserting that we have a priori knowledge, but it does not offer intuition and deduction as the source of that knowledge.

It takes our a priori knowledge to be part of our rational nature.
Experience may trigger our awareness of this knowledge, but it does not provide us with it.
The knowledge is already there.

Plato presents an early version of the Innate Knowledge thesis in the Meno as the doctrine of knowledge by recollection.

The doctrine is motivated in part by a paradox that arises when we attempt to explain the nature of inquiry.

How do we gain knowledge of a theorem in geometry? We inquire into the matter.
Yet, knowledge by inquiry seems impossible (Meno, 80d-e). We either already know the theorem at the start of our investigation or we do not.
If we already have the knowledge, there is no place for inquiry. If we lack the knowledge, we don’t know what we are seeking and cannot recognize it when we find it.
Either way we cannot gain knowledge of the theorem by inquiry.
Yet, we do know some theorems.

The doctrine of knowledge by recollection offers a solution.

When we inquire into the truth of a theorem, we both do and do not already know it.
We have knowledge in the form of a memory gained from our soul’s knowledge of the theorem prior to its union with our body.
We lack knowledge in that, in our soul’s unification with the body, it has forgotten the knowledge and now needs to recollect it.
In learning the theorem, we are, in effect, recalling what we already know.

Plato famously illustrates the doctrine with an exchange between Socrates and a young slave, in which Socrates guides the slave from ignorance to mathematical knowledge.

The slave’s experiences, in the form of Socrates’ questions and illustrations, are the occasion for his recollection of what he learned previously.

Plato’s metaphysics provides additional support for the Innate Knowledge Thesis. Since our knowledge is of abstract, eternal Forms which clearly lie beyond our sensory experience, it is a priori.

Contemporary supporters of Plato’s position are scarce. The initial paradox, which Plato describes as a “trick argument” (Meno, 80e), rings sophistical.

The metaphysical assumptions in the solution need justification.

The solution does not answer the basic question: Just how did the slave’s soul learn the theorem?
The Intuition/Deduction thesis offers an equally, if not more, plausible account of how the slave gains knowledge a priori.

Nonetheless, Plato’s position illustrates the kind of reasoning that has caused many philosophers to adopt some form of the Innate Knowledge thesis.

We are confident that we know certain propositions about the external world, but there seems to be no adequate explanation of how we gained this knowledge short of saying that it is innate.
Its content is beyond what we directly gain in experience, as well as what we can gain by performing mental operations on what experience provides.
It does not seem to be based on an intuition or deduction.
That it is innate in us appears to be the best explanation.

Noam Chomsky argues along similar lines in presenting what he describes as a “rationalist conception of the nature of language” (1975, p. 129).

Chomsky argues that the experiences available to language learners are far too sparse to account for their knowledge of their language.
To explain language acquisition, we must assume that learners have an innate knowledge of a universal grammar capturing the common deep structure of natural languages.
It is important to note that Chomsky’s language learners do not know particular propositions describing a universal grammar.
They have a set of innate capacities or dispositions which enable and determine their language development.

Chomsky gives us a theory of innate learning capacities or structures rather than a theory of innate knowledge.

His view does not support the Innate Knowledge thesis as rationalists have traditionally understood it.

As one commentator puts it, “Chomsky’s principles … are innate neither in the sense that we are explicitly aware of them, nor in the sense that we have a disposition to recognize their truth as obvious under appropriate circumstances.

And hence it is by no means clear that Chomsky is correct in seeing his theory as following the traditional rationalist account of the acquisition of knowledge” (Cottingham 1984, p. 124).

Peter Carruthers (1992) argues that we have innate knowledge of the principles of folk-psychology.

Folk-psychology is a network of common-sense generalizations that hold independently of context or culture and concern the relationships of mental states to one another, to the environment and states of the body and to behavior (1992, p. 115).
It includes such beliefs as that pains tend to be caused by injury, that pains tend to prevent us from concentrating on tasks, and that perceptions are generally caused by the appropriate state of the environment.

Carruthers notes the complexity of folk-psychology, along with its success in explaining our behavior and the fact that its explanations appeal to such unobservables as beliefs, desires, feelings and thoughts.

He argues that the complexity, universality and depth of folk-psychological principles outstrips what experience can provide, especially to young children who by their fifth year already know a great many of them.

This knowledge is also not the result of intuition or deduction; folk-psychological generalizations are not seen to be true in an act of intellectual insight.

Carruthers concludes, “[The problem] concerning the child’s acquisition of psychological generalizations cannot be solved, unless we suppose that much of folk-psychology is already innate, triggered locally by the child’s experience of itself and others, rather than learned” (1992, p. 121).

Empiricists, and some rationalists, attack the Innate Knowledge thesis in two main ways.

First, they offer accounts of how sense experience or intuition and deduction provide the knowledge that is claimed to be innate.
Second, they directly criticize the Innate Knowledge thesis itself.

The classic statement of this second line of attack is presented in Locke 1690. Locke raises the issue of just what innate knowledge is.

Particular instances of knowledge are supposed to be in our minds as part of our rational make-up, but how are they “in our minds”?
If the implication is that we all consciously have this knowledge, it is plainly false.
Propositions often given as examples of innate knowledge, even such plausible candidates as the principle that the same thing cannot both be and not be, are not consciously accepted by children and those with severe cognitive limitations.
If the point of calling such principles “innate” is not to imply that they are or have been consciously accepted by all rational beings, then it is hard to see what the point is.
“No proposition can be said to be in the mind, which it never yet knew, which it never yet was conscious of” (1690, Book I, Chapter II, Section 5, p. 61).

Proponents of innate knowledge might respond that some knowledge is innate in that we have the capacity to have it.

That claim, while true, is of little interest, however.

“If the capacity of knowing, be the natural impression contended for, all the truths a man ever comes to know, will, by this account, be every one of them, innate; and this great point will amount to no more, but only an improper way of speaking; which whilst it pretends to assert the contrary, says nothing different from those, who deny innate principles. For nobody, I think, ever denied, that the mind was capable of knowing several truths” (1690, Book I, Chapter II, Section 5, p. 61).

Locke thus challenges defenders of the Innate Knowledge thesis to present an account of innate knowledge that allows their position to be both true and interesting.

A narrow interpretation of innateness faces counterexamples of rational individuals who do not meet its conditions. A generous interpretation implies that all our knowledge, even that clearly provided by experience, is innate.

Defenders of innate knowledge take up Locke’s challenge.

Leibniz responds (1704) by appealing to an account of innateness in terms of natural potential to avoid Locke’s dilemma. Consider Peter Carruthers’ similar reply.

We have noted that while one form of nativism claims (somewhat implausibly) that knowledge is innate in the sense of being present as such (or at least in propositional form) from birth, it might also be maintained that knowledge is innate in the sense of being innately determined to make its appearance at some stage in childhood.

This latter thesis is surely the most plausible version of nativism. (1992, p. 51)

Carruthers claims that our innate knowledge is determined through evolutionary selection (p. 111).

Evolution has resulted in our being determined to know certain things (e.g. principles of folk-psychology) at particular stages of our life, as part of our natural development.
Experiences provide the occasion for our consciously believing the known propositions but not the basis for our knowledge of them (p. 52).
Carruthers thus has a ready reply to Locke’s counterexamples of children and cognitively limited persons who do not believe propositions claimed to be instances of innate knowledge.
The former have not yet reached the proper stage of development; the latter are persons in whom natural development has broken down (pp. 49–50).

A serious problem for the Innate Knowledge thesis remains, however. We know a proposition only if it is true, we believe it and our belief is warranted.

Rationalists who assert the existence of innate knowledge are not just claiming that, as a matter of human evolution, God’s design or some other factor, at a particular point in our development, certain sorts of experiences trigger our belief in particular propositions in a way that does not involve our learning them from the experiences.

Their claim is even bolder:

In at least some of these cases, our empirically triggered, but not empirically warranted, belief is nonetheless warranted and so known.

How can these beliefs be warranted if they do not gain their warrant from the experiences that cause us to have them or from intuition and deduction?

Some rationalists think that a reliabilist account of warrant provides the answer. According to Reliabilism, beliefs are warranted if they are formed by a process that generally produces true beliefs rather than false ones.

The true beliefs that constitute our innate knowledge are warranted, then, because they are formed as the result of a reliable belief-forming process.

Carruthers maintains that “Innate beliefs will count as known provided that the process through which they come to be innate is a reliable one (provided, that is, that the process tends to generate beliefs that are true)” (1992, p. 77).

He argues that natural selection results in the formation of some beliefs and is a truth-reliable process.

An appeal to Reliabilism, or a similar causal theory of warrant, may well be the best way for rationalists to develop the Innate Knowledge thesis.

They have a difficult row to hoe, however.

First, such accounts of warrant are themselves quite controversial.
Second, rationalists must give an account of innate knowledge that maintains and explains the distinction between innate knowledge and a posteriori knowledge, and it is not clear that they will be able to do so within such an account of warrant.
Suppose for the sake of argument that we have innate knowledge of some proposition, P. What makes our knowledge that P innate?
To sharpen the question, what difference between our knowledge that P and a clear case of a posteriori knowledge, say our knowledge that something is red based on our current visual experience of a red table, makes the former innate and the latter not innate?
In each case, we have a true, warranted belief.
In each case, presumably, our belief gains its warrant from the fact that it meets a particular causal condition, e.g., it is produced by a reliable process.
In each case, the causal process is one in which an experience causes us to believe the proposition at hand (that P; that something is red), for, as defenders of innate knowledge admit, our belief that P is “triggered” by an experience, as is our belief that something is red.

The insight behind the Innate Knowledge thesis seems to be that the difference between our innate and a posteriori knowledge lies in the relation between our experience and our belief in each case.

The experience that causes our belief that P does not “contain” the information that P, while our visual experience of a red table does “contain” the information that something is red.

Yet, exactly what is the nature of this containment relation between our experiences, on the one hand, and what we believe, on the other, that is missing in the one case but present in the other?

The nature of the experience-belief relation seems quite similar in each.

The causal relation between the experience that triggers our belief that P and our belief that P is contingent, as is the fact that the belief-forming process is reliable.
The same is true of our experience of a red table and our belief that something is red.
The causal relation between the experience and our belief is again contingent.
We might have been so constructed that the experience we describe as “being appeared to redly” caused us to believe, not that something is red, but that something is hot.
The process that takes us from the experince to our belief is also only contingently reliable.
Moreover, if our experience of a red table “contains” the information that something is red, then that fact, not the existence of a reliable belief-forming process between the two, should be the reason why the experience warrants our belief.

By appealing to Reliabilism, or some other causal theory of warrant, rationalists may obtain a way to explain how innate knowledge can be warranted.

They still need to show how their explanation supports an account of the difference between innate knowledge and a posteriori knowledge.

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