Inborn knowledge

In Meno, Socrates asks Meno’s attendant (“Boy”) questions about geometry, and the boy is able to answer just by thinking about it. Having been asked the right question, he knows what the answer must be.

Socrates argues that the boy had knowledge about geometry before he ever learned about it in this life, and that he merely recollected this knowledge when he was asked the right questions. Socrates thinks that this is evidence of the boy’s having gained that knowledge in some sort of preexistent state before he was born.

These days many people would explain the same thing by suggesting that our brains are wired to “understand” geometry. It’s not that we have the answers to geometric questions already memorized. However, on being asked those questions we have a built-in ability to figure out the answer to the questions on the fly. Furthermore, those answers seem self-evident to us, which is why they are so similar to “recollection”. Having thought about the question, we are able to “just see” what the answer must be.

Suppose this is true: that our brains are wired to respond to certain questions in certain ways, to interpret the world according to certain principles of space and time and cause and effect and so on.

In that case, it would explain the boy’s awareness of basic geometric principles, but it would also have some important ramifications for what knowledge is. Some of our knowledge comes from the senses. Some comes from our culture and our family (by means of the senses). But some also would come from the way our brains our wired — presumably, everything that has the quality of “recollection” that Socrates pinpoints.

In the normal course of our thinking, what has this quality of recollection? A lot. Our understanding of space and time. Our understanding of things as things, with an identity that persists (think of Descartes and the wax). Our understanding of logic. Our assumption that memories of the past reflect a real past. Our sense of ourselves. Our recognition of other people as people and not just robots who act like people. Our sense of having the freedom of choice. Our recognition of cause and effect. Our assumptions that the universe works according to regular principles. Our preference for simpler explanations over complex ones. Perhaps our recognition of moral and esthetic and religious values.

Does all this count as knowledge? If not, it is hard to see how we can know anything.

Yet it is also hard to see why it should count as knowledge. Saying that it evolved in us isn’t quite an answer. Evolved beliefs wouldn’t have to be true, they would just have to have survival value. Some false beliefs might be very good for survival.

It’s a little startling to realize how much of everything we think is based on things we “just know”, whether we learned them before we were born or merely find them built into the architecture of our brains.

What do you all think?

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1 thought on “Inborn knowledge

  1. Anamnesis…
    Really…so many brilliant minds nobody has replied?
    …what of using a collective knowledge bank?
    What of…,this being a two year old post

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