That’s not innate! Pt.1: Fodor’s

There are many arguments out there making a case that humans are born with something innate. Similar to a pre-loaded program in newly bought computers, an innate feature is commonly known as instincts or maybe knowledge from a previous life.

Although nobody knows for sure whether there is actually anything innate, or if there isn’t any, there’re still arguments. For this article, we cover the argument by the cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor.

Fodor’s argument for Radical Concept Nativism is as follow:

1. Apart from miracles or futuristic super-science, all concepts are either learned or innate.

2. If they’re learned, they are acquired by hypothesis testing

3. If they’re acquired by (non-trivial) hypothesis testing, they’re structured.

4. Lexical concepts (our understanding of each word) aren’t structured.

5. So lexical concepts aren’t acquired by hypothesis testing.

6. So lexical concepts aren’t learned. (that is, learning something new actually doesn’t exist)

7. Therefore, lexical concepts are innate. (qtd. Laurence & Margolis, 2002:31,32).

Thus, following that all lexical concepts (words) are innate, Fodor went on to claim that even “carburetor” is an innate concept.

Is a carburetor innate? Babies are born knowing these?

To rewind and unpack Fodor’s argument let’s point out his most important part: that all learning is based on hypothesis testing. In simpler words, we learn new things by guessing what they are in terms of older things we already know.

This is great. Any modern person learning what a “carburetor” is would do the same thing: we would base them previous knowledge, probably in mechanics class. Which is based on something else more fundamental, which is again based on…. Tracing all the way back, it’ll all be based upon our knowledge of the 4 basic forces in physics. Great! Maybe that’s what innate knowledge is: a sense of knowing the forces that brought us into existence and maintaining the existence of everything else. Those primitive physics forces are what innateness is!

But: let’s consider the case of Ancient Egyptians learning about the “carburetor.” For them, there are no 4 basic forces in nature. There’re only wills of the Gods. So, if it’s true that learning is just about guessing what the new thing is based on old knowledge, then eventually the Ancient Egyptians would either fail to learn what a “carburetor” is, or they’ll learn it in a completely different way.

The knowledge systems of modern people and Ancient Egyptians are completely different: one seeks to explain everything in terms of the 4 basic forces, or maybe the general equation of everything; one seeks to explain everything in terms of the thinkings and feelings of the Gods. One uses abstract relations; the other uses “empathizable” causes. To them, the primitive innateness is not physics forces, but Gods!

And there’s the contradiction: how can we consider the primitive forms of our knowledge innate when it’s simply a product of culture? The “innateness” of the carburetor for Ancient Egyptians is completely different from ours. Which means the “innateness” of the carburetor for humans hundreds of years from now will also be completely different from ours.

The bottom line? Some people may just confuse what is humanly innate to the norms of their civilization.

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