A few weeks ago Seed magazine ran a short interview with Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist who has recently published a book called “The Philosophical Baby”. “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” she asks. She goes on to make the case that during this period of uselessness, the child is free to explore the physical world as well as possible worlds through imaginative play- and that new ways of looking at the world spring from childhood;
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.
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.
Ignoring the fact that they’ve developed a computer model of development (?!), In February I posted about an article called “Delusional Realities” in which Shaun Gallagher argued that “in the spirit of embodied, situated and phenomenological views of cognition,” the delusional subject “does not live in the one unified world of meaning that is defined objectively (in a view from nowhere), but in multiple realities, sub-universes or finite provinces of meaning.” The interviewer asked him; “This is a philosophical approach to answering a psychiatric question, but do you also think it has implications for other areas of philosophy? For instance, does showing that people can experience alternate realities suggest that to some extent aspects of objective reality are just shared beliefs about the world, and does this suggest that our ideas about the world are more constructed than we normally think of them as being?” Shaun Gallagher replied “I think one of the big questions underneath all of this is, you know, how do we actually think about the mind – what is the mind?…And everybody agrees, it’s not a Cartesian substance, but then there’s a huge amount of talk among a lot of philosophers about beliefs and desires and mental states, and then there’s a huge amount of talk about brain states.” Which brings us back to Alison Gopnik and her study of babies;
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.