The Origins of Knowledge and Nonconceptual Content
Submitted by Robert OShaughnessy on Sun, 03/29/2009 - 20:12.
One of the papers for this weeks discussion is the Origins of Knowledge by Spelke et al and my project is very much concerned with this subject. Spelke’s ideas are important to how our capacity to have conceptual knowledge develops and a discussion of them by JL Bermudez in the Paradox of Self Consciousness is influential on my thinking. I pick up the story in Chapter 3 with him trying to establish that infants and animals are capable of nonconceptual content (that is can experience the world as having content but without having any concepts about what the experiences are of). He notes that Spelke 1990 introduces four principles that very young infants have:
a) theprinciple of cohesion: points on surfaces of objects must be in contact with each other (infants see one object even if 2 different colours are in contact; they are surprised if the object comes apart)
b) the principle of boundedness: if an object is occluded in the middle they don't see the 2 parts of the object behind as one (neither surprised nor not surprised if its revealed to be 2 objects or 1 object) provided static. If however the 2 objects behind are moving as one they see it as one object and are surprised if it turns out to be 2
c) the principle of solidity : illustrated by Baillargeon’s (1987) drawbridge; infants are surprised when it could drop through a solid object (that is 2 objects can’t be in the same place at once).
d) the principle of continuity : if a moving object disappears and reappears this surprises infants (that is objects shouldn’t be able to get to a location in space without going through the intervening space).
Bermudez believes that Spelke is right to reject Piaget’s conception of the world of infants as a blooming buzzing confusion and that instead its composed of bounded segments behaving in particular ways. Does this mean that infants have mastery of the concept of an object? The infant would have to have basic conceptual abilities (including mastery of the concept of place, some form of self concept, a concept of connectedness of space, and a concept of object).
For Bermudez to possess a concept you must be able to do certain forms of inference or have certain expectations (e.g. x is an object so nothing will pass thru x). He says this is how Spelke sees it: the infant apprehends objects through thought (a folk physics theory made up of the four principles). But Bermudez says infants just parse a visual scene into bounded segments that correspond to objects an increasing amount over their development but they don’t know the reasons (they can’t evaluate if its a justified belief).
They aren’t just seeing an unstructured visual array because they show surprise. So what do they experience? One answer is to get at what are essential to objects (he calls them object properties), things like: a) the property of having a single continuous trajectory through spacetime b) existing when not perceived c) having a determinate shape d) being impenetrable and so on (it doesn’t matter precisely what they are just that there is some such list and some of them are certain).
He says that infant development involves increasing sensitivity to these object properties. First to just parse the scene into bounded segments and gradually to pick up other properties until the bounded segments map cleanly onto to what is in the world. Concept acquisition is an increasing grasp of what discriminates one thing from another together with an increasing grasp of what inferences or expectations can be relied upon about how the thing will behave. It is a move from implicit to explicit understanding and a crucial bridge in achieving this is an‘increasing ability to put thatnonconceptual understanding to work in the manipulation and exploration of the environment.’
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