Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Infants Can Cry and I Can Write a Midterm – And Nothing May Be True

The mind gains knowledge through processing information in stimuli and internally rationalizing it. This I know to be true, but it cannot stand alone. Therefore, the following propositions must also be taken into account for us to all take this statement as true:

If the brain is a blank slate aside from instinctual qualities

And if those qualities include rational thought

And if knowledge does not have to be true to be known

As long as those statements are all true, then our final statement on how we gain knowledge also applies. Therefore, rather than prove my statement, we can prove the propositions that come before it, as the statement would logically follow as true.

The brain is a blank slate, aside from instinctual qualities.

This statement serves as two ideas in one, two ideas that would at face value contradict each other, but that can live in a balanced harmony to explain the brain and how it is. First, we can define what the blank slate is. Although cited in history many times, the theory was popularized in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

The idea behind the Blank Slate theory is that at birth, an infant emerges with a mind blank of anything – thoughts, personality, instincts, and even the ability to process information. From there, processing, personality, thoughts, and all other basic brain functions are learned through sensory experience.

This theory obviously stands as undeniable pure empiricism, and because my statement does not, we are simply going to modify Locke’s theory as so many others have. Locke wrote his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the late 1600’s, and by the late 1800’s Wilhelm Wundt had characterized all repeated human behaviour as human instinct, the most basic definition. From there, many psychologists and philosophers alike have toyed with the idea of instincts. For this statement, we’re going to use the criteria outlined in the book Instinct: An Enduring Problem in Psychology. The criteria go as followed:

To be considered instinctual, a behavior must:

a) be automatic
b) be irresistible
c) occur at some point in development
d) be triggered by some event in the environment
e) occur in every member of the species
f) be unmodifiable
g) govern behavior for which the organism needs no training (although the organism may profit from experience and to that degree the behavior is modifiable)

Warning for Baby Nudity

In layman’s terms, an instinct must be a behaviour that can occur in every human being when stimulated in a certain way, and it must be a behaviour that overrides reason and rational thought, therefore requiring no prior skill. Think fight or flight, a popularly cited and discussed human instinct. As for infant instincts, there are quite a few recorded that are cited by psychologists and parenting websites alike.

The instinctual qualities we are born with include rational thought

Once again, to answer this we must address and answer two things. The first is to define what rational thought is (and the purpose it plays in this statement on epistemology), and the second is to state that we are born with that rational thought.

Due to the nature of the word rational an the amount of people who have studied, defined, and warped it’s definition. this case, rational thought is the ability to process information, eg. rationalism, the theory that reasoning is the main source of our knowledge. Of course, because of our reliance on empiricism for the blank slate theory, we’ve reached a point here where rationalism and empiricism play an equal part in the gaining of knowledge.

With our definition of rational thought defined as the ability to process information through reasoning, we can safely assume infants are born with the ability to reason at the most basic levels. It’s undeniable that infants cry when they require attention, and in this case we can assume that the following basic reasoning is occurring.

“I’m hungry, so I will call for my mother.”
“My diaper is soiled, I will call for an adult.”
“Something has startled me, I will call for help.”

We can also apply the instinctual qualities earlier defined to rationalizing, further cementing the idea. Infant rationalizing is instant. For example, an infant will cry immediately after being started. It’s irresistible, babies cannot resist crying when they need help, unless serious trauma has rendered them silent. It occurs immediately at birth, a point in development. It is triggered by stimuli in the environment, such as fear, discomfort, and hunger. It occurs in all infants who are born healthy. It does not vary or change. And, finally, it does not need any prior training. In fact, quite the opposite, as most healthy infants come out into the world screaming.

Knowledge does not have to be true to be known.

This is perhaps the hardest statement to prove, if only because once we define knowledge and truth, we are left with something that still must be believed with perhaps a little bit of faith. Or, perhaps not, because even if it’s untrue it is known.

Either way, let us use the most literal dictionary definition of knowledge.

noun knowl·edge \ˈnä-lij\
: information, understanding, or skill that you get from experience or education
Although the dictionary is often not the best source for defining words in depth, in this case I’ve chosen the most basic definition for a very basic reason – this definition is the one most people recognize and ascribe to. Since humans have created language, humans can define language, and in this case knowledge is understood as information, understanding, and skills that are gained through experience.

As for truth… Well, truth is unknown. That is to say, there is no giant checklist that will say whether what we know is really a truth or not, and when so many things are either subjective or wholly based on perspective, we may never know. Because of that, humans have the potential to be knowledgeless if knowledge MUST be true to be known, so we will simply say that knowledge as potentially untrue is fair.

The mind gains knowledge through processing information in stimuli and internally rationalizing it.
Finally, we’ve gone through our propositional statements and defined them to the point where we can say that this statement is true.
The mind gains knowledge, (which does not need to be true,) through processing information in stimuli, (empiricism,) and internally rationalizing, (and instinct all humans are born with, and also rationalism) it.
With this statement, many (if not all,) schools of epistemology can argue their case. After all, as long as the stimuli is there and as long as the brain is functional enough to rationalize it, then it can be known. It can be known as competence and acquaintance, it can be argued as a true belief or not, it can serve itself to foundationalism or anti-foundationalism, and it can do almost any conceivable mixture of these schools.


Erasing the Boundaries

Vincent`s upbringing on the viewing of rationalism and empiricism and talks of genetic code, which intrigue me, have led me to look into erasing the boundaries. So I begin by putting forth the question of empiricism again: What evidence is there that cognitive processing is not wholly dependent on information from senses? If it is not from the sense, where is it from?
Through the proposal of evolutionary psychology, there is no sharp line that can be drawn between information that originates in the environment—including that acquired from the senses—and information that is conveyed through genes.

In the genetic model, the environment is paradoxically all-important. The information in the genes cannot express itself in bodily structures unless they are in a complexly specified suitable environment–so much so that 99% of the information for building an organism may be thought of as located in the environment and only 1% in the genes themselves (the proportion is not strictly quantifiable). The environment acts as a trigger for selective gene transcription, which in turn has an effect upon the immediate environment. As the information in the gene expresses itself in response to the structure of the environment, and the environment in turn responds to the action of the genes, the organism slowly begins to materialize. It is as if matter itself contains most of the information for life.

In terms of cognitive development, this means that genetic and environmental information act concurrently to construct cognitive structures. Some of the environmental information that activates certain genes may come through the senses; for instance, cats are unable to perceive vertical lines if they are not exposed to them before a certain age, and children who have not heard a language before the age of ten will no longer retain the capacity to acquire one. More complex scenarios with intermediate control structures are also possible, as an alternative to a continued role for the genes.

While the rationalist argument agrees with the genetic model in that both affirm that cognition is dependent on structures that do not derive from experience, the genetic model has historicized rationalism, playing the part of empiricism in undermining its claims to transcendental universals. Thus, the distinction between empiricism and rationalism has become largely meaningless, like two aspects of the same coin that have fused into a sphere.

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Rationalism, the Paradigm Shift, and the Penrose Tile

KITES & DARTS: British mathematician Roger Penrose created a plane of beautiful, endless variation with just two shapes, kites and darts, seen here in blue lines. Image by Dominique Fung

I came across this article in Nautilus that seems to tread some familiar territory in terms of a few of our discussions during metaphysics in the last while.

Given that Fibonacci seems to appear everywhere in nature—from pineapples to rabbit populations—it was all the more odd that the ratio was fundamental to a tiling system that appeared to have nothing to do with the physical world. Penrose had created a mathematical novelty, something intriguing precisely because it didn’t seem to work the way nature does. It was as if he wrote a work of fiction about a new animal species, only to have a zoologist discover that very species living on Earth. In fact, Penrose tiles bridged the golden ratio, the math we invent, and the math in the world around us.

However, an added piece of this idea relates directly to a concept at the heart of our epistemology unit, as relates to the idea of a paradigm shift:

It was as though Penrose’s fanciful mathematics had forced itself into the natural world. “For 80 years, a crystal was defined as ‘ordered and periodic,’ because all crystals studied from 1912 on were periodic,” Shechtman says. “It wasn’t until 1992 that the International Union of Crystallography established a committee to redefine ‘crystal.’ That new definition is a paradigm shift for crystallography.”

It was more than mere mental inertia that made it so hard to understand and absorb Shechtman’s discovery. Aperiodic crystalline structures weren’t just unfamiliar; they were supposed to be unnatural. Remember that the placement of one Penrose tile can affect things thousands of tiles away—local constraints create global constraints. But if a crystal forms atom by atom, there should be no natural law that would allow for the kind of restrictions inherent to Penrose tiles.

As we continue to argue the merits of empiricism versus rationalism, doesn’t the example of the Penrose tile present a case of rationalism leading the way?



Epistemology Inquiry ~ Dylan

               Within the tunnel of Epistemology, I’m somewhere in there spinning sporadically in every direction, caught in a whirlwind of confusion, bewilderment and jet lag. These past weeks of dissecting the very nature of knowing have really taken me on a very exciting, very puzzling path. Engaging in epistemological questions usually ended up taking me further away from where I thought I was on the road of clarity. So to pull me somewhat into the lights of the tunnel, I needed some sort of vehicle to bring me closer to where I was trying to get too. Being really interested in all the different types of ways that we could gain knowledge, I quickly became aware of many different schools of thought in epistemology. One that really interested me was Empiricism. From the beginning of talking about Epistemology, I was really interested in the subjectivity of knowledge and peoples’ different ways of receiving information. So the Empiricist way of gaining knowledge through sensory experience really appealed to me from the first time I took a look at it. Through the lens of Empiricism, I will try to steer myself through by trying to answer some of the big epistemological questions. So to somehow de-fog the tunnel in my mind, let’s take a ride in this car of Empiricism, and see just where it can take us.

The main idea of Empiricism is that the primary way that we gain knowledge is through sensory experience. So the things that we know can only come from the way that we’ve experienced things, its impossible for us to just sit down and be able to know things. Empiricists believe that this a posterior knowledge comes through experiencing daily life and they also stress the importance of using scientific research and experiments to cement knowledge as well. All in all Empiricism is about gaining knowledge by experiencing it through our senses. An Empiricist would also say that what we know is what we’ve experienced. Since the only way we can know things is through experience, what we know is limited to the things that we can learn through our senses.  John Locke’s essay An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was a major foothold in terms of adding to the Empiricist way of thinking, and would be a shoulder for many Empiricist thinkers to come. The big idea that was in this essay was the idea of tabula rasa (which also sounds like a fantastic name for a German thrash metal band) The tabula rasa, was an idea can be found originating in works as far back as Aristotle, though neither Locke nor Aristotle called it that at the times that they wrote about it. Even though it may have been under a different name Locke was definitely influenced by Aristotle’s writings about this subject. The idea is that when we are born, our brain is a blank slate, a white page, for which information is to be recorded on. And it is only recorded on through sensory experience. This became a basis for Empiricism because it states we never know things until our senses experience them.

Sometimes to know something better, and to help me try to answer those big Epistemological questions, it’s good to know somethings opposite. If we were name Empiricism’s moral enemy it would have to be Rationalism. The feud between Empiricism and Rationalism is actually quite a famous feud in the world of epistemology, and has been going ever since the two first started to exist together. Look, it even has its own poster.


Really though, the arguments between Rationalist and Empiricists are really great to examine to help you kind of figure out where you lie on the spectrum of your beliefs in how knowledge is constructed. Rationalists, unlike Empiricists, say that there are significant ways that knowledge is constructed that is independent of sensory experience. They say that there is some knowledge that we already know at birth. For that reason they completely reject the Empiricist’s idea of the Tabula rasa. As Empiricists believe that knowledge is primarily gained a posterior, Rationalists believe that it is gained a priori. Analytical philosopher and writer Galen Strawson has been quite frequently quoted summing up Rationalism with the quote which he once wrote saying “You can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don’t have to do any science.” If there was ever a way to sum up Rationalism in one sentence, I feel that that is the best way of doing it.

So now that we have both of the groups set up and introduced, lets bring in an example and see how both of these groups would dissect how we know what we know. Let’s use this statement that I found: a king who has reigned for four days has reigned for more than three days. A Rationalist would that we don’t need any evidence to know this. We know without having to do any research that four is more than three, it’s something that we just know. In response to that, an Empiricist would say that we would have to experience what three is, in terms of days and numbers, to know that it is less than four. We would have to taught how to measure three days, or even one day. We would have to feel what one day feels like to be able to know what three is. And in terms of numbers, we would also have to know that four is more than three. We would have to experience both three and four, either individually and together, and make the conclusion that yes, four is indeed more than three. They would state that that isn’t just something that we can think and then know, we have to learn it through experience.

Now, as we’ve finished examining each of the two schools of thought and even pitted them against each other in the Epistemological boxing ring, complete with fight posters and everything, we must leave the guide of both of them and try and make sense of what is going on for ourselves. A sad moment, I know. I’m getting flashbacks from the end of the Metaphysics unit where I had to separate myself from the ever so watchful gaze of Arthur Schopenhauer. Of course if I had no desire to happy, then I would never be sad. Oh Arthur…

Taking a look at what I’ve from learned Empiricism, and Rationalism as well, I must say that I do have a bit of a clearer image of what I think I know about knowing. I can’t say that I can totally call myself a either Empiricist or a Rationalist purist. I can say though, that my gut instinct to pick Empiricism as a school of thought to begin as a place to start wasn’t totally wrong. If I had to put myself on the spectrum that I was talking about between the two, I would be much closer to the Empiricism side. I do agree that a lot of the knowledge we receive does come from our sensory experience. And in terms of the king example, I do agree with the fact that we first have to experience both three and four, in terms of numbers and days, to be able to say that we know that four is more than three. But I feel that through learning about Empiricism, I’ve been able to pinpoint what I spot is the difference between what I think about knowledge and what it thinks about it. I feel like I take a little bit of what I think from the Rationalist side, in that I feel that there are some things that we know by instinct. Some things that we do automatically such as breathing, or our survival instincts are things that we haven’t totally learned by experience. Most importantly though, I also feel that there is a more social aspect of learning. I think what it comes to for me is that what we know are things that we experience through our senses, and but how know it is through our own individual sensory experiences, and our shared experiences. I think that learning both from one another, and together with others are an important part of how we know things. Through sharing knowledge that we’ve experience through books and other forms of spreading knowledge, we are able to learn from one another what the other has experience. And we can also learn things together, through discussing things and just general learning as a community. And what the implications of this are and what this means for all of this, is that we are constantly learning individually through experience, but it is important for us to come together and be able to spread that knowledge and learn together in a more social way as well.

So now where do I sit in my metaphorical tunnel? I think that in terms of Epistemology I do have a much clearer view than I did before, but I don’t think that being in the fog itself is actually something that we should try and avoid at all costs. I think that in terms of learning and growth and life in general, being spiraling aimlessly in the fog isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think that you do have times where you’re out of the fog and where you’re in patches of clear spaces. But it’s important to allow yourself to be lost in the fog, because that’s where you’re able to find out what you really think about things. Whether it’s questioning the nature of reality, or trying examine knowledge, it’s useful to blindly kind of stumble around with an open mind every once in a while so that you may have a clearer understanding of where you want to end up, even if you may never get there. I think that the point of learning isn’t necessarily to help us reach an end quicker or more efficiently, it’s so that we can make the experience of getting there a much richer and more enjoyable one.