Paul Bloom:
"Descartes' Baby" (2004)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
The US psychologist Paul Bloom opens the book by presenting his thesis: that babies are born "dualists", i.e. that the distinction between body and soul is innate. He begins by pointing out that equating chimps and children (both incapable of talking and devoid of world knowledge) is not correct because, on one hand, chimps are very skilled at actions while children are not, and, on the other hand, children are capable of guessing a person's intention in a way that eludes chimps. In fact, children even tend to ascribe intentions to inanimate objects. Children know that people have states of mind.

Humans create categories. We will never eat the same tomato again, but we apply the attributes of that tomato (for example, its taste) to any other tomato we see in the world. However, we will not eat objects that are red and round just because our tasty tomato was red and round. If we were not capable of categorizing, or categorized at a "wrong" level, we would not survive: we would starve to death even when surrounded by tomatoes (none of which is identical to the one that we know is edible) or we would start eating anything red and round, including a plastic ball. We create "useful" categories. Humans are better than any other animal at understanding that just "looking like" does not mean "being the same thing". Two tomatoes are the same thing (tomatoes) but a tomato and a red plastic ball are not the same thing. A funny-looking car is still a car, while a sculpture with no engine is not a car. The difference between the oddly-looking car and the car-looking sculpture is that the former was designed to be a car whereas the latter was designed to be a sculpture. This is a consequence of our ability to guess other people's intentions. Paul Bloom calls it "artifact essentialism". We therefore assume that there must be a creator even for the things that have not been designed by a human being: hence religion to explain the natural world.

In the social realm, the golden rule of morality is reciprocity: don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you. Children are born endowed with a "moral circle" that is limited to their family. As they get in touch with other humans, cooperate with them, identify with them and are taught by their tutors, children expand their moral circle. This process has also been at work on a larger social scale: societies have become more and more tolerant of each other as they interacted, cooperated, etc.

Bloom devotes a lot of pages to Paul Rozin's theory of disgust. The idea is that we are disgusted by food that can make us sick, and then we extrapolate disgust to non-food objects and actions. Children are not disgusted by anything. The disgust grows as their parents feed them only some food. Children then become disgusted by food that does not match that archetype. Bloom speculates that disgust is translated from the realm of food to the other realms. (He does mention in passing that disgust exerts its own fascination but does not elaborates on why people watch horror movies or are morbidly attracted to the filthiest reality shows). The whole detour into disgust does not add much to the book, reaches no conclusion, and is very weak on both logically and empirically grounds.

The section on the spiritual realm is equally inconclusive: the evidence shows that children are consumers but not producers of religious ideas. Then who creates the idea of god?

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