Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Like the Infant

Sent along by Chris Fraser (much thanks!) — comments welcome:

Scientific research supports Daoist ideas? … (Chris’s question)

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(From http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/to_be_a_baby/)

To Be a Baby

Bibliolog/ by Evan Lerner / May 5, 2009

Alison Gopnik describes new experiments in developmental psychology that show everything we think we know about babies is wrong.

Thomas Nagel famously asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” That question has become a staple of Philosophy 101 courses, but we might be better served asking a more basic one: What is it like to be a baby? Though all of us experience life as a baby firsthand, we’ve long held misconceptions about what babies are capable of thinking, feeling, and understanding. Only recently have we overturned dominant theories of development in which very young children were thought to be barely conscious at all.   

In The Philosophical Baby developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik compiles the latest in her field’s research to paint a new picture of our inner lives at inception — one in which we are, in some ways, more conscious than adults. Gopnik spoke with Seed’s Evan Lerner about how babies and young children learn from us and what we can learn from them. 

Seed: How does a better understanding of what’s going on in the minds of babies help us as adults?
Alison Gopnik: One of the things we discovered is that imagination, which we often think of as a special adult ability, is actually in place in very young children, as early as 18 months old. That ability is very closely related to children’s ability to figure out how the world works. Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world. In fact, the new computational model of development we’ve created —  using what computer scientists call Bayesian networks — shows systematically how understanding causation lets you imagine new possibilities. If children are computing in this way, then we’d expect imagination and learning to go hand in hand.

Seed: You describe children as being “useless on purpose.” What do you mean by that?
AG:  It’s related to one of the basic things that came out of our research: Why do children exist at all? It doesn’t make tremendous evolutionary sense to have these creatures that can’t even keep themselves alive and require an enormous investment of time on the part of adults. That period of dependence is longer for us than it is for any other species, and historically that period has become longer and longer.

The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use. So one of the ideas in the book is that children are like the R&D department of the human species. They’re the ones who are always learning about the world. But if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined. The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.

Seed: You think Freud’s and Piaget’s conceptions of young children’s theory of mind are wrong. What do we know that they didn’t?
AG:  Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both. The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are.

Seed: So is this just a matter of a changing frame of reference, where we now value imagination more?
AG: Well, the science has changed, too. For Freud and Piaget, it was a perfectly good hypothesis. If you just looked at young children and babies, they just did not seem very smart. We have new techniques we use to get more subtle measurements of what’s going on in children’s minds, and that’s the thing that has overturned that earlier view. When we take more than a superficial look at what children are doing, it turns out that they both know much more and learn much more than we ever thought before.

Seed: What are these techniques? How can we interrogate the minds of people who can’t yet fully communicate?
AG: Children are not very good at spontaneously telling you what they are thinking. With adults, we give them a questionnaire and have them give us answers. That doesn’t work for babies, who can’t talk, and for young children, who can only give a kind of stream-of-consciousness response. So one thing is to look at what they do rather than what they say. This works if you give them very focused questions with very simple answers. Rather than ask a child to explain how a toy machine works, we’ll ask, “Do you think this block or that block will make the machine go?”

Seed: What have you found?
AG: These techniques show that children can work with very complex statistical information. In the machine example, we show children’s patterns of conditional probability, the relationship between certain blocks and the machine turning on or off. If I tried to give you just a description of the sequence of events in one of these experiments in a conversation, I’d probably get it wrong and you wouldn’t be able to remember it — it’s pretty complicated for even adults to describe. But when you give kids these complicated sets of relationships and then just ask them to make the machine go or make the machine stop, they do the right things. Although they can’t consciously track how these conditional probabilities work, they are unconsciously taking that information into account. And they do this in the same way that sophisticated Bayesian network machine-learning programs do.

Seed: What about less objective causal inferences, such as ones dealing with morality?
AG: One of my favorites of these experiments is one that’s been around for quite awhile but hasn’t been fully appreciated. Two-and-a-half-year-olds already recognize the difference between moral principles and conventional principles. You can ask them if it would be okay to hit someone at daycare if everyone said it would be okay, versus asking them whether it would be okay to not hang up your coat in the cubby if everyone said it would be okay. These children say it’s never okay to hit someone, but whether or not you have to put your clothes in the cubby could change from daycare to daycare. They already seem to appreciate the difference between the kinds of morality that comes from empathy and the kind that comes from our conventional rules. From the time they are two, they recognize both are important but in different ways. That’s pretty amazing.

Seed: So where do adult philosophers go from here?
AG: Back to the 18th century, in some ways. If you look at someone like David Hume, he thought he was doing a kind of theoretical science — he didn’t think there was a line between what we find out from science and what we find out from philosophy. Increasingly, modern philosophers say that we can learn about the big questions by looking at science. But science, especially developmental psychology, can also tell us about philosophy; it can tell us about what we start with, what we learn, and what the basic facets of human nature are. The kind of picture you often get from scientifically oriented philosophy is often very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology, with everything innate and genetically determined. But one of the more important things that has come out of developmental work is that there’s also a powerful capacity for change. And we’re starting to understand how that change takes place at a very detailed neurological and computational level. 

And the same is true when we look at our moral development. A lot of moral psychology has been saying that we have these innate moral instincts, or innate moral grammars. When we look at children, we do see some of these innate moral intuitions, but there is also this tremendous capacity for moral revision. In some ways, I think those are some of the most distinctively human abilities. They give us the ability to say, “Oh wait, the way that we’ve been operating is not working, and that’s wrong.” And this gives us the ability to change those things that are wrong and get to better moral principles than we started out with.

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May 17, 2009 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism

9 Comments »

  1. I’m not so sure this is consistent with the Daodejing view:

    “The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are….it turns out that they both know much more and learn much more than we ever thought before.”

    It seems to suggest children are just better at the stuff that the DDJ thinks adults should revert away from, no?

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. No, I don’t think so Manyul. The learning and knowing referred to here involves know-how, not know-what. I think the idea is that children are better at adapting to circumstances, and do so without being conscious of it.

    Comment by Bao Pu | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  3. Bao Pu,

    Interesting point; thanks for pushing on this. Let me push back a bit. I’ve never been too happy with the “knowing how” and “knowing that” distinction, or with distinguishing either of those from “knowing what”–not with the distinctions per se, but with their significance for explaining much. It seems like most bits of knowledge are some integrated combination of knowing how, knowing what, and knowing that. Take, for example, from the article: figuring out how the world works, understanding causation, imagining new possibilities, or distinguishing between fantasies and realities. I’m not so sure we can delineate these sorts of things clearly into the various senses of knowing.

    The related point, with regard to the DDJ is whether knowing that or knowing what are ever really the exclusive targets of criticism in it. Maybe the DDJ’s real target is some sort of “false” knowledge–i.e. what someone claims to be knowledge but is really expertise in a terminology game. Or is the DDJ really down on actual knowledge?

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  4. Manyul, I can see why the study’s description of the baby as being able to undertake complex cognitive processes would lead you to say that a baby is just better than an adult at acquiring what Daoism condemns, which is “knowledge.“ But, I think the following passage from Ch. 1 of the Zhuangzi might help to suggest otherwise.

    Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, ‘The king of Wei gave me some seeds of a huge gourd. I planted them, and when they grew up, the fruit was big enough to hold five piculs. I tried using it for a water container, but it was so heavy I couldn’t lift it. I split it in half to make dippers, but they were so large and unwieldy that I couldn’t dip them into any thing. It’s not that the gourds weren’t fantastically big – but I decided they were no use and so I smashed them to pieces.’

    Chuang Tzu said, ‘You certainly are dense when it comes to using big things!….Now you had a gourd big enough to hold five piculs. Why didn’t you think of making it into a great tub so you could go floating around the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying because it was too big and unwieldy to dip into things! Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!’”

    I think passages like this from the Zhuangzi illustrate how uselessness and imagination go hand in hand. As the study points out, even though babies are typically thought of as being simple-minded because they can’t communicate and act like adults, it turns out that their apparent uselessness and purposelessness is actually quite productive, in that it allows for the spontaneity and imagination that enables them to handle complex tasks unconsciously. Somewhat analogous to the spontaneous (i.e. effortless) and unconscious efficacy of babies, DDJ 37 says, “The dao does nothing, and yet nothing is left undone.”

    In the case of the Zhuangzi passage, Huizi is unable to imagine new possibilities for using the gourd because he is unable to think past his own preconceptions about how the gourd should be used. What’s more, his preconceptions are fixed according to considerations of profit and gain, that is, of how the gourd’s nature can be shaped in order to best serve his purposes of mundane utility. Since Zhuangzi and the baby are “useless on purpose” and lack the preconceptions that constrain the flexibility of their perspectives (this, I take it, is the kind of knowledge that DDJ and Daoism in general warn against), they are able to freely and imaginatively wander within all the possibilities that an object might afford. Huizi and the adult, on the other hand, have a determined view about how the gourd should be used, or how things in general ought to be done, and that view is usually constrained by an attachment to personal gain in some sense. So, it takes being useless oneself in order to see the use of the useless.

    I think the concept of knowledge has been tripping up the discussion so far. For Daoism, its not a matter of preferring know-how to know-that, nor is it matter of attaining true or actual knowledge; in the end, I don’t think its a matter of attaining anything at all. The baby does not engage in imaginative play in order to ascertain truths about the world. We may be able to speak of the baby as making complicated causal inferences, but the baby itself doesn’t know that its doing such a thing. The baby’s brain is constantly growing in its capacity for learning, but the baby itself doesn’t know any better. Wuzhi (無知) seems to be a legitimate description of the baby’s way of “knowing.”

    Comment by Amit | May 19, 2009 | Reply

  5. The part about uselessness reminded me of some observations Guy Claxton once made:

    “Right from playschool, adults will be asking children: ‘What are you trying to do?’, or ‘That’s interesting; why did you do that?’ And children quickly get the idea that they ought to know what they are up to, what they are trying to achieve; and to be able to give an account of themselves, their actions and motives, to other people. They come to assume, with their parents and teachers, that it is normal to be intentional, and proper to have explanations to offer.” (Hare Brain Tortoise Mind p. 8 )

    As I said and Amit supported, it’s unconscious knowledge that’s being addressed. Children, and Daoists, learn how to do various things, but aren’t interested in putting it into words, which tends to harden our minds, to limit open-mindedness.

    As Amit suggests, this involves Wuzhi – not-knowing – as we find in another Zhuangzi passage (ch. 2): “Only the man of far­reaching vision knows how to make them into one. So he has no use [for categories], but relegates all to the constant. The constant is the useful; the useful is the passable; the passable is the successful; and with success, all is accomplished. He relies upon this alone, relies upon it and does not know he is doing so. This is called the Way.” (Watson)

    A few lines later, there’s a passage which has always made me think of an infant-to-adulthood progression/regression:

    “The understanding of the men of ancient times went a long way. How far did it go? To the point where some of them believed that things have never existed – so far, to the end, where nothing can be added. Those at the next stage thought that things exist but recognized no boundaries among them. Those at the next stage thought there were boundaries but recognized no right and wrong. Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured, and because the Way was injured, love became complete.”

    The highest stage represents a fetus, then a newborn infant, then a child and then a teenager/adult. The “love became complete” seems to me to be referring to attachments (to right and wrong, etc.).

    Gotta run now…

    Harmony,
    Bao Pu

    Comment by Bao Pu | May 19, 2009 | Reply

  6. Amit,

    Very interesting thoughts! I do wonder about this, however:

    “I don’t think its a matter of attaining anything at all. The baby does not engage in imaginative play in order to ascertain truths about the world. We may be able to speak of the baby as making complicated causal inferences, but the baby itself doesn’t know that its doing such a thing. The baby’s brain is constantly growing in its capacity for learning, but the baby itself doesn’t know any better. Wuzhi (無知) seems to be a legitimate description of the baby’s way of ‘knowing.'”

    I’m not trying to be petty, but ascertaining truths about the world actually does seem to be attaining something, something very significant in fact. To me it sounds like you’re making the real distinction between knowing and “knowing that you know”–self-conscious knowing. After all, isn’t ascertainment of truths “knowing” in most senses of the term? So, maybe there’s some sense of knowing but not “owning” (有) that knowledge that is akin to knowing but not knowing that you know, in the phrase 無知. But then I think the case would have to be made that this is what’s going on in the critique of knowledge in either the DDJ or the Zhuangzi.

    OR, maybe the point is not knowing versus knowing that you know, but some form of “relying on”–as in the passage that you cite, where one isn’t actually ascertaining truths, but somehow “using” the world in a reliable way. Some form of unselfconscious fictionalism?

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 19, 2009 | Reply

  7. Thanks for the reply, Manyul (and sorry about the double post). As for Zhuangzi and fictionalism, I couldn’t begin to say whether fictionalism accurately characterizes Zhuangzi’s thought, since there seem to be lots of versions of the theory that differ on very nuanced points. In a general sense, though, I do think there are legitimate comparisons to be drawn between the two, as well as between some of historical fictionalists like the Pyrrhonists, for example. However, fictionalism itself, in denying that statements should not be taken as literally true, seems to presume a distinction between literal and figurative levels of meaning which may not be presumed in the Chinese traditions.

    Leaving all of these cans of worms aside, maybe we can look at the text to discern what kind of attitude Zhuangzi has towards knowledge. These two passages specifically have to do with his attitudes towards statements of truth and whether statements can correctly refer to things in the world. So,

    Ch.1

    “Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there? What does the Way rely upon, that we have true and false? What do words rely upon, that we have right and wrong?”

    On the other hand, in Ch. 13, Laozi states,

    “Artful wisdom, the spirit-like sage – I hope I have shuffled off categories of that sort! If you’d called me an ox, I’d have said I was an ox; if you’d called me a horse, I’d have said I was a horse. If the reality is there and you refuse to accept the name men give it, you’ll only lay yourself open to double harassment. My submission is a constant submission; I do not submit because I think it time to submit.”

    There is always the problem lurking in the background of whether there is a unified consistent position to be found throughout the inner and outer chapters, but that aside, the two passages seem compatible. In the first passage, words are not just wind in that, unlike the wind which is constantly flowing and which does not have any fixed or determinate location, words come from a fixed perspective and purport to refer to something fixed. Zhuangzi then goes on to question whether words can actually refer to something fixed, and whether they can be grounded in some absolute truth of the matter. Whatever words or the Way rely upon, it is neither truth nor falsity (as fictionalism might have it). Or rather, Zhuangzi wouldn’t be able to answer one way or the other. This might be the unselfconscious relying upon you mentioned previously, fictionalism aside.

    As for the second passage, it seems that an opposite position is expressed, namely that there is some fact of the matter to which words refer. But, Zhuangzi’s Laozi does not need to be read as making an ontological statement about reality as such. Rather, he just submits to whatever name people give to reality. This attitude seems akin to a Pyrrhonic abidance by appearances in the world, without having the right to be sure about whether those appearances are true or false.

    What kind of knowledge, then, could be invoked to adequetely express the sense in which Zhuangzi is not concerned about truth or falsity, but still plays along with language and its interactions with the world?

    Comment by Amit | May 19, 2009 | Reply

  8. This:
    “And the same is true when we look at our moral development. A lot of moral psychology has been saying that we have these innate moral instincts, or innate moral grammars. When we look at children, we do see some of these innate moral intuitions, but there is also this tremendous capacity for moral revision. In some ways, I think those are some of the most distinctively human abilities.”
    strikes me as confirming a Mencian view more than a Taoist view….

    Comment by Sam | May 21, 2009 | Reply

  9. Hi Sam,

    I was just thinking something along those lines. I wonder how the “moral revision” bit gets spelled out in the studies Gopnik cites. Makes me want to read the book. I could see Mencius saying that the “revision” can’t be so radical, and that at some point, the revisions become some form of straying away from the innate intuitions.

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 21, 2009 | Reply


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