To Be a Baby

Bibliologue / by Evan Lerner /

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

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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.

Credit: crimfants

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.

Originally published May 5, 2009

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