Disprovinginnateideas[Locke] Essay, Research Paper
In John Locke s Essay of Human Understanding he successfully sets the foundation for disproving the doctrine of innate ideas through the use of several refutations. Further critical scrutiny and explanation of Locke s criticisms make for a solid argument that innate ideas cannot possibly exist. Locke s strong arguments derive from empirical proofs and observations in the world around us.
John Locke begins his denial of innate ideas by stating a fact: humanity has the capacity to acquire knowledge through the application of the body s faculties. These faculties include our sensory perceptions and reflections. This fact is sufficient to prove it not innate [I,i,1] because God is perfect in every way, thus unable to make the mistake of over-equipping his creation, humanity, with innate ideas. In essence, Locke is posing a rhetorical question: Why would God give us the capacity to acquire knowledge if we already have innate ideas? God could not possibly do this because it would be redundant, superfluous and disproportionate – all descriptions of an imperfect act; and as stated previously, God is infallible. To attack this argument is to attack the concept of God [something that was usually avoided, even during the age of enlightenment]. A proponent of the doctrine of innate ideas cannot counter this argument because it assumes dependency on God s existence. Who else would stamp the minds of humanity with innate ideas?
The concept of innate ideas stems from universal truths. Locke attacks this claim by arguing that such universal truths are non-existent because nothing can be universally agreed upon. The traditional moral rule do not kill is usually thought to be innate, however, it is over-looked that people exist in the world who believe murder is not immoral, namely cannibals. Ideas can be extremely commonplace, but not universal. Hypothetically, if a truth existed that all consented to, this still would not be sufficient to prove it innate a point explainable through consideration of the existence of children.
Locke argues that ideas are not on the mind naturally imprinted, because not known to children, ideots, etc. [I.ii.5]. Children are born with undeveloped minds and are unable to know anything at birth due to lack of experience and unused faculties. People would know at birth of any knowledge they had in their mind. Since they do not know anything at birth, they cannot have innate knowledge. It is impossible to lack all knowledge and yet have a specific type of knowledge.
What is, is; and it is impossible for
the same thing to be, and not to be [I.ii.4].
To suggest otherwise is nonsensical or the term knowledge itself is being defined in terms of a trivial truth: to have innate knowledge of x is to have the capacity to come to know that x yet capacity for knowledge is a faculty of the mind, not knowledge itself. [Bakhurst,class12]
The capacity of a newborn s mind for knowledge (a faculty of the mind) is too weak and simple to hold any idea typical of the innate doctrine (example – Plato s concept of morals) because they are too complex to exist in an undeveloped or just beginning to be developed mind that is only capable of very basic ideas and perceptions. This is why people are unable to have any conscious knowledge of the first few years of life, even though these years are experienced (which normally results in knowledge) the mind is too weak at that point in time for memories.
Childhood, starting from birth, is primarily dedicated to experiencing simple ideas (i.e. heat, cold, light, darkness, etc) since complex ideas are incomprehensible without first developing such basic ideas. In fact, to develop more complex ideas it is necessary to combine basic ideas together (the mind does this naturally).
A newborn needs years of familiarizing, observing and developing to equip its mind with the capacity to hold memories. The fact that the human mind develops from birth onwards leaves no room for innate ideas. It is impossible for an idea to exist in the mind at birth because the mind itself is incapable of holding such thoughts exceeds the capacity of the mind.
Locke s arguments stimulate speculation and stir questions: What about instincts? They exist in our mind at birth therefore instincts are innate. Instincts should not be confused with innate ideas. They are not the outcome of any cognitive activity; to be more precise, they are mechanistic behaviors that are necessary for survival. In fact, instincts can be explained in an empirical sense denying any ties to innate concepts:
The instinct a baby has to cry is a function of the body that releases a certain chemical in your brain that relieves such unpleasant feelings as stress and depression while simultaneously emitting an unmelodic sound. It is not coincidence that a baby s cry does two things: rids stress and sounds unpleasant. Crying, like all instincts, is not an innate idea stamped on our mind by God (I.ii.1); rather a faculty of the mind humans received through evolution. This suggests humanity gains knowledge through the experience of evolution in they same sort of way a single person gains knowledge through experience. We have evolved for millions of years from proteins and single celled organisms to humanity as we now recognize it. Every adaptation still existent in humanity was kept (ie. Not useless and thus rid of later in evolution) out of necessity. Survival of the fittest as Darwin says.
Infants cry because they have to do so in order to survive: how else would the mother and father know to wake up in the middle of the night to feed, change, hold etc. Mammals adopted crying through necessity before humanity existed. Mammals evolved from a non-crying species and adapted the instinct of crying over many years. Early mammals can be analogously related to early childhood of people in that both are in the developing stages to form man. It can also be argued that crying is a function of the body, like urination. Both are uncontrollable during infancy and controllable after observance, practice and experience.
Our ideas are successfully explained to originate in a manner entirely empirical. Thus we don t need the doctrine of innate ideas.
bibliography: J.Locke’s Essay of Human Understanding