Alison Gopnik:

"The Philosophical Baby" (Farrar, 2009)

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Modern philosophers have been discussing the self-consciousness of being something rather than something else via questions such as "What is it like to be a bat?" The US psychologist Alison Gopnik asked a simple: "what is it like to be a baby?" Before we become rational, sentient adults, we spend several years in a limbo called "childhood" of which we remember little. We cannot recall (clearly) whether we were conscious back then, and, if yes, whether we were the same persons we are now. It is common knowledge that children learn a lot and that what we learn as children shapes our adult life. Gopnik sets out to prove that children are "smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious" than adults are. She doesn't quite prove that theorem, but the proof alone is worth the price of the book.
Clearly, childhood must serve a purpose, especially human childhood that appears to be so senseless from an evolutionary point of view (no other cub is so helpless in the world). Children spend years practicing a form of mental gymnastics that other species can't do, and that provides the human species with an evolutionary advantage: the ability to map the world and to imagine worlds that don't exist. Gopnik believes that the ability of imagining alternative worlds (of dealing with "counterfactuals") peaks during childhood. Far from being limited to the "here" and "now" as Piaget assumed, children understand how the real world works and then project that knowledge into many other possible worlds. The fact that children don't seem to be capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy should not be taken as evidence of cognitive limitation but of cognitive power: they are very creative instead of being passive (like adults tend to be).
Because all of this is due to a physically different structure of the brain (mainly in the prefrontal cortex, that doesn't mature until the mid-20s), Gopnik goes as far as to claim that children and adults are two different subspecies of the same species, Homo Sapiens.

Children are also capable of creating "theories of mind", i.e. of understanding the goals and desires of other children and people in general. The way they understand psychology is similar to the way they understand the physical world: they create "psychological counterfactuals", i.e. imaginary companions. With them they rehearse the rules of psychology the same way that they rehearse the rules of physics when they imagine hypothetical worlds. Children are aware that these imaginary companions don't exist, just like they are aware that imaginary worlds don't exist. Children constructs maps of both the physical world and of the psychological world. In both cases children first understand the world, then they imagine hypothetical worlds, then they are ready to actually create worlds. In the physical world this translates into action. In the psychological world this translates into dealing with other minds and trying to make them do what we want them to do (which includes the complex interplay of discussions, strategies, and even deceit and lies).

The key to learning is probability theory. Children act just like scientists. They perform experiments and then update their beliefs, each belief being weighed probabilistically. This is true of both facts about the world and facts about people. Gopnik concludes that statistical analysis is actually wired inside the brain. When Thomas Bayes formulated his theorem (the main building block of probabilistic reasoning) he had actually stumbled on a property of the brain.

However, the way children acquire their knowledge about the world is different from the way a scientist does because their brain works in a fundamentally different way. The adult brain regulates attention by inhibiting distractions and thereby "focusing" on something. The baby's brain is still incapable of inhibitory neurotransmitters and therefore absorbs everything that is going on rather than focusing on one particular aspect of reality. The adult brain can balance cholinergic and inhibitory neurotransmitters, whereas the baby's brain is dominated by cholinergic ones.

Gopnik then wanders away from the main theoretical topic and delves into practical issues. Psychologists have long assumed that early childhood experience influence our mental life as adults. The importance of genes is, however, over-emphasized because we change the environment and so the same genes one generation later have to operate on a different environment. In fact changing the environment in which a poor child grows up can have dramatic effects on her adult life.

Gopnik points out that children are already equipped with a strong degree of empathy, and therefore she believes that morality is grounded on our early life as much as on the rules we enforce later in society. I am dubious about this part. I have always been fascinated by the origins of torture, especially when torture seemed to serve no practical purpose, and to me those origins go back to childhood: children like to torture object, torture animals and torture other children too. It is precisely a consequence of Gopnik's theory of counterfactuals: "what if i tear this book apart? what if i break this cat's leg? what if i put sand in this child's eyes?" There might be empathy "after the fact", but i think there is also a lot of innate "cruelty" (experimenting for the sake of experimenting).

Gopnik mentions an incredible amount of recent research to support her points. The reader therefore gets a survey of current theories. At the same time, i am weary of any statement such as "recent experiments show": most theories are proven wrong within a few years, so the more you rely on recent experiments the more likely that your conclusions will have to change. At several points in the book i personally would have loved to know what the beliefs were in the scientific community before the "recent experiments".

The book is enjoyable and the enthusiasm of the writer is contagious.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi