The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Some Nativism

Piaget's model of cognitive development constitutes a powerful paradigm but does not explain everything. In particular, Piaget's theory is inadequate to explain how children learn language. Without any a-priori knowledge of language, it would be terribly difficult to learn the theory of language that every child eventually learns.

The British psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith, a student of Piaget, proposed a model of child development that bridges Fodor's nativism (built-in knowledge) and Piaget's constructivism (learning), i.e. innate capacities of the human mind and subsequent representational changes. Karmiloff-Smith envisions a mind that is both equipped with some innate capacities and that grows through a sequence of subsequent changes.

Karmiloff-Smith's child is genetically pre-wired to absorb and organize information in an appropriate format. Each module develops independently, as proved by children who exhibit the symptoms of a single mental disorder but are perfectly capable in all other ways.

Karmiloff-Smith's starting point is Fodor's model of the mind (that the mind is made of a number of independent, specialized modules), but, based on evidence of the brain's plasticity (the brain can restructure itself to adapt to an early damage), Karmiloff-Smith believes that modules are not static and that they "grow" during the child's development, and that new modules are created during the child's development ("gradual modularization").

She points out that children display from the very beginning a whole array of cognitive skills, albeit still unrelated and specific (for example, identifying sounds, imitating other people's movements, recognizing the shapes of faces). Therefore, the child must be born with a set of pre-wired modules that account for these cognitive skills.

Somehow, during development the modules start interacting and working together and adult life takes shape.

Initially, children learn by instinct, or at least "implicitly". Then their thinking develops, and consists of redescribing the world from an implicit form to more and more explicit forms, to more and more verbal knowledge.

Of course, the environment that drives the mind's growth also includes the other individuals. Education and playing are forms of influencing the evolution of the thought system of a child.

Karmiloff-Smith notes a thread that is common to several spheres of cognition: the passage from procedural non-expert to the automatic (nonprocedural) expert also involves a parallel passage from implicit to explicit knowledge (from executing mechanically to understanding how it works). Child development is not only about learning new procedures, it is about building theories of why those procedures do what they do. This "representational redescription" occurs through three stages: first the child learns to become a master of some activity; then she analyzes introspectively what she has learned; and, finally, she reconciles her performance with her introspection. At this point the child has created a "theory" of why things work the way they work.

Therefore Karmiloff-Smith admits cognitive progress like Piaget, but her "representational redescription" occurs when the child has reached a stable state (mastery), whereas in Piaget's model progress only occurs when the child is in a state of disequilibrium.

This process of "representational redescription" involves re-coding information from one representational format (the procedural one) to another (a quasi-linguistic format). There are therefore different levels at which knowledge is encoded (in contrast with Fodor's language of thought).

The same "redescription" process operates within each module, but not necessarily at the same pace. In each field, children acquire domain-specific principles that augment the general-purpose principles (such as representational redescription) that guide their cognitive life.

Moreover, the cultural context determines which modules arise.

Finally, mapping across domains is a fundamental achievement by the child's mind.

Another US developmental psychologist, Patricia Greenfield, modified this theory by showing that initially the child's mind has no modules, only a general-purpose learning system. Modules start developing later in the life of the child. Greenfield identified a common neurological layer in the early stages of development (up to two years old) that accounts for both linguistic skills and object manipulation skills. As the child's brain develops, those skills split.


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