Un-worldly knowledge?


We have already considered that although we have never experienced anything perfect in the world,  we do have the idea of perfection. From where could we have gained this idea, if we did not gain it from our experience in the world?

At one time it was believed that all our experience came from this life. We were born as with a tabula rasa, clean slate, ready for the world to write what it would, to make us whatever it wished. Research however, has shown that new born babies will avoid crawling over tables and prefer certain shapes, say a human face to others. Also, experiences in the womb have been shown to be recalled by babies (although this is not 'un-worldly knowledge.')

Studies of reincarnation indicate that people can have knowledge of things which are not part of their experience. For example, children describing experiences as a previous life as another person, although they have not had the experience of knowing about that person. Yet the stories have been confirmed by investigating the life of that previous person. (It is not relevant here whether we believe the research or not.)

A couple of thousand years ago and more, Socrates questioned a slave boy and illustrated he knew theories of mathematics although he had never been taught them.

The philosopher, David Hume denied all these accounts rather saying that when we imagine a dragon, we join up some of our experiences, lizards, fire, wings, etc and create a new picture. Although we have never seen a dragon, we can make up an image of one by cutting and pasting parts of our experience. Similarly, accounts of magic are just so incredible that we would always believe that the witness was mistaken. Yet the problem will not go away.

Human beings can develop phobias for some things, but do not easily develop phobias for others - even when these other things are more dangerous. Few people have phobias of guns. This has never been reported in the research. Many have phobias of spiders. Yet guns are more dangerous than spiders! Rats can be conditioned to associate light with electric shocks, or taste with sickness, but they cannot easily be conditioned to associate light with sickness or electric shock with taste. Both humans and rats seem to have an innate logic which links some things together and not others. Humans and even animals seem to come into the world with some predisposition to think in certain ways.

Human babies begin to select the speech patterns of their carers. At first they utter a large number of different types of sounds, but if they are in a Japanese speaking environment, for example, they begin to use the sounds used in that language and drop the others. However, the question of whether we learn language as such or whether we have to use our predispositions has raged a controversy over the last few decades. Philosophers have argued that we would never be able to learn language if we didn't realise that what we were hearing was language. We can utter sentences we have never heard, and so mere imitation doesn't seem to be the explanation. Without some innate knowledge, we would not be able to learn language at all.

In order to even begin to understand the world in which we live, we need to have certain skills. These basic skills, which philosophers have tried to identify are called categories.

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Last modified on: 27-Sep-98.
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