Plato thought that learning was a kind of remembering since all ideas were innate. By contrast, John Locke, although not the first, understood the mind as a clean slate upon which experience was written. Complex ideas were produced from simpler ideas that were “experienced.” This is why his philosophy is called empiricism, meaning that which is known by experience.
This potted version is of course hugely simplified but is enough to orient us to some interesting reflections. Most of us, I suspect, side with Locke. The proposition that ideas are implanted in the soul before birth seems totally strange to us. However, the argument about innate ideas is far from settled. There is something unreal about Locke’s clean slate.
What does the writing, who deciphers what is written? Now that we know something about the neurological structures that are essential to our experiencing we have to conclude that the mind is not a clean slate at all but that it is prepared at birth for particular kinds of experience.
The mind is not simply a screen onto which the world is projected. Rather, the sensory pathways of the brain are involved in complex processing of different elements of sensory experience and these are all put together in a way that is completely mysterious to produce conscious experience.
The processing that happens in the sensory pathways and finally in the cortex is further upstaged by other work that the brain does. For example, there is evidence that our visual system is particularly structured to recognition of the human face. This is why we can easily see the man in the moon and why a circle with two eye points and a mouth is immediately recognisable as a face even though major components are missing.
The other major discovery in this area is that we have inbuilt language processing areas in the left temporal lobe. There seems to be a structure that sorts out grammar for us that we inherit, i.e. that is innate. No matter what language the child learns, this fundamental grammar machine is essential for learning a language.
This is why the most complex thing we ever learn, to speak, is achieved at an early age with little or not tuition, whereas it takes years of intense leaning to achieve adequate reading and writing. Language acquisition is an early evolutionary talent while reading and writing are late; there are no innate neural mechanisms that facilitate them.
It seems that this language acquisition machinery become less capable as we age so that if we have not learnt a language by the time we are eighteen then we have a very hard time indeed.
So innate ideas do exist, at least as innate structures that are receptive to certain kinds of information.
The debate between innate ideas and empiricism is an old one and it had theological importance. It was thought that among the innate ideas implanted in the soul was the idea of God. In fact this became a proof of the existence of God. In rather crass terms, it is thought that all humanity has inherited a “God shaped hole” and along with it a yearning for that hole to be filled. This was thought to be an explanation for the universal existence of religion in human culture.
Modern Protestant theologians of the twentieth century were wary of this idea because it meant that all people had a need or thirst for religion and that therefore all religion was essentially the same and was able to fill the “God shaped hole.”
This removed the possibility of the criticism of particular religions. All religions, no matter how absurd its beliefs, no matter how injurious to its believers and society it was had to be accepted. The need for religion eclipsed the evaluation of truth.
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