What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?

In Dark Matter of the Mind, Daniel Everett contrasts Plato and Aristotle. He sides with the latter, specifically in terms of a blank slate view of the human mind. But most people wouldn’t understand what is meant by a blank slate in this context. He explains that (Kindle Locations 1140-1143),

Like Aristotle, Locke did not believe that the absence of knowledge on a tablet means that the tablet has no other properties. It has the capacity to receive and store information and more. Neither philosopher thought of the tabula rasa as devoid of capacity to be written on, not even of capacity to write upon itself. In my reading, they meant by tabula rasa not that there were no innate abilities, but that there were no innate specific concepts.

This is hard to grasp the exact distinction. It’s not an argument that nothing is preexisting. All that it means is nothing is predetermined, as already formed (i.e., Platonic forms). So, what exactly might be already present at birth and innate to all human minds?

I’m still not entirely sure about Everett’s answer to that question. He is critical of someone like Jung, based on the claim of Platonic error or overreach. Here is his description (Kindle Locations 971-973):

Jung (1875– 1961), another of the leading dark matter theorists in the Platonic tradition, was the founder of “analytical psychology” (Jung [1916] 2003). Fundamental to this form of therapy and the theory behind it was, again, Bastian’s elementary ideas, which Jung reconceived as the “collective unconscious,” that is, innate tacit information common to all humans.

It’s the last part that is relevant, “innate tacit information common to all humans”. But is that an accurate interpretation of Jung? Let’s turn to Jung’s explanation of his own view (“Concerning the Archetypes with Special Reference to the Anima Concept”):

It is in my view a great mistake to suppose that the psyche of a new-born child is a tabula rasa in the sense that there is absolutely nothing in it. In so far as the child is born with a differentiated brain that is predetermined by heredity and therefore individualized, it meets sensory stimuli coming from outside not with any aptitudes, but with specific ones, and this necessarily results in a particular, individual choice and pattern of apperception. These aptitudes can be shown to be inherited instincts and preformed patterns, the latter being the a priori and formal conditions of apperception that are based on instinct. Their presence gives the world of the child and the dreamer its anthropomorphic stamp. They are the archetypes, which direct all fantasy activity into its appointed paths and in this way produce, in the fantasy-images of children’s dreams as well as in the delusions of schizophrenia, astonishing mythological parallels such as can also be found, though in lesser degree, in the dreams of normal persons and neurotics. It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.

Everett says that Jung is claiming “innate tacit information” and speaks of this in terms of Bastian’s “elementary ideas”. That seems to be the same as inherited ideas. If so, Jung is denying Everett’s allegation before it ever was made. “It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.” That doesn’t sound all that different in how Everett discusses the topic (Kindle Locations 349-355):

The theses of learned tacit knowledge and nativism need not be opposed, of course. It is possible that both learned and innate forms of tacit knowledge are crucially implicated in human cognition and behavior. What we are genuinely interested in is not a false dichotomy of extremes but in a continuum of possibilities— where do the most important or even the most overlooked contributions to knowledge come from?

I am here particularly concerned with difference, however, rather than sameness among the members of our species— with variation rather than homeostasis. This is because the variability in dark matter from one society to another is fundamental to human survival, arising from and sustaining our species’ ecological diversity. The range of possibilities produces a variety of “human natures”

That in turn sounds much like Jung. A variety of “human natures”. Well, Jung developed an entire theory about this, not just a variety through archetypes as inherited possibilities but more specifically a variety of human personality types (i.e., “human natures”). The potentials within humanity could constellate into many patterns, according to Jung. And his book about personality types was directly influential on anthropology in developing a modern understanding of the variety of cultures, of which Everett writes much about.

So, if a supposedly Platonic thinker like Jung can make a basic argument that isn’t necessarily and clearly distinct from a supposedly Aristotelian thinker like Everett, then what precisely is the distinction being proposed? How does one differentiate innate ideas and innate possibilities of ideas? Is anyone “genuinely interested in… a false dichotomy of extremes”?

7 thoughts on “What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?

  1. I agree, doesn’t sound so different, Jung and Everett, as you say, but also, as you say, innate ideas as opposed to only innate idea-building software, a small point perhaps, but perhaps the first is all Nature with less room for Nurture, right?

    Actually, this is something I find interesting, it does sound when you’re reading about these sorts of issues, it does start to sound like the biologists are expecting to connect specific thoughts to specific genes – like I imagine they are hoping to explain the most bizarre and impressive specific behaviours discovered among separated twins in the famous twin and adoption studies, the crazy details that showed up. Read enough of it, you start to wonder whether new thoughts, (and therefore new solutions for human problems) require new mutations.

    I know the smartest ones can make the distinction there, between innate ideas, or evolved behaviours (maybe a better way to say the same thing) and the stuff we can produce with a different sort of brain function, the function that can extrapolate, run simulations and imagine generally in ways that are not immediately and pressingly connected to our survival or procreation, the frontal lobes, I think, the cerebral cortex.

    I think the idea is, we have all this biology, all this animal evolution, all the urges and needs of animals and all the hard-wired parts, instincts and such, but part of our particular biology is a built-in computer that we can use for whatever we wish, kinda thing, right? That’s the idea more than that we have a gene for space travel and crossword puzzles.

    I’m open to Jung, in theory, but if you’re asking me now, making me choose, I’m on the Nature side there, sort of against my general bent. I think Jung’s over-reaching, making stuff up, which Freud too, I’d have to say. Any talk of archetypes have to be the same as references to myth, only descriptions. We came first, our actual existence, and the rest is all attempts to describe it, attempts to build a working theory.

    • “perhaps the first is all Nature with less room for Nurture, right?”

      That is my sense of it. The extremes of the debate are between the biological/genetic determinists and the environmental/cultural relativists. But most researchers and theoreticians don’t hold the most extreme views.

      What usually happens is that those with the most extreme views get most of the media attention. There is something exciting about those who take strong positions and everyone loves the melodramatic fighting between extremes. It’s great entertainment, even if not always leading to useful scientific debate.

      “it does start to sound like the biologists are expecting to connect specific thoughts to specific genes”

      I understand the attraction of it. This kind of determinism or even near-determinism offers a compelling vision, backed by a narrative of evolution. It can even be formulated into a Whiggish account of progress.

      What makes it compelling is that mere social progress can be undone in an instant but genetic evolution is permanent in its impact. There is maybe a hope hidden within this vision, a hope that something at the most fundamental level of human reality (i.e., genetics) could sweep across the human species and utterly transform it for all following generations.

      The dark side of it, though, is a harsh Social Darwinism. This can lead down paths of eugenics.

      Did you see this post from a couple years ago?

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/identically-different-a-scientist-changes-his-mind/

      I quote from a book by a genetics researcher. He talks about spending years looking for genetic explanations and how they’ve never been able to find any causal connection that is all that impressive. At best, genetics has been proven to solely determine a tiny fraction of a percentage of what makes us human.

      This scientist became frustrated with this approach and so changed his mind about the primary role of simplistic genetic determinism. He concluded that, “the old distinction between nature and nurture is simply no longer relevant.” In a similar fashion, I wonder if nativism and relativism are also no longer relevant… or less relevant or not relevant in the way it was assumed.

      “I think the idea is, we have all this biology, all this animal evolution, all the urges and needs of animals and all the hard-wired parts, instincts and such, but part of our particular biology is a built-in computer that we can use for whatever we wish, kinda thing, right?”

      Yeah. The question then is how flexible is this and how much potential exists within it. Also, there is the issue of how many other confounding factors are involved, such as within specific social and physical environments.

      “That’s the idea more than that we have a gene for space travel and crossword puzzles.”

      It just seems that there were a surprising people holding out hope of finding a gene for very narrow abilities, capacities, behaviors, etc. If you can find a single gene for extreme intelligence, then altering that one gene in a baby could turn them into a genius. If there is one gene for a disease, then eliminating that one gene would eliminate the disease.

      It was the hope for easy solutions that would allow progress to happen quickly and cheaply, without all the hard work of improving ourselves and improving our society.

      “I’m open to Jung, in theory, but if you’re asking me now, making me choose, I’m on the Nature side there, sort of against my general bent.”

      I can’t say for certain which side I’m on, as I’m not clear what the sides are, besides the most extreme positions. I know I’m not extreme in my views in either direction. It depends on who you are comparing. Jung is a relativist compared to Chomsky. But compared to Everett, Jung is a nativist.

      Most people, I think, would assume that Jung is a nativist, which is to say on the Nature side. It’s all a matter of how you interpret his views. He definitely believed there was a universal human nature of sorts, even if it contained immense potential and diversity. Everett, on the other hand, doesn’t even like framing the issue in terms of human nature… as he sees no singular, unchanging human nature. The Jungian archetypes can be taken as a Platonic belief in Nature writ large, which is how Everett sees Jungian theory.

      Part of me sides with Jung. And another part of me sides with Everett. The only side that I have a hard time taking seriously is that of the most extreme nativists and determinists, which is Nature as inborn and predetermined.

      Then there are the extremists on the other side, which if pushed far enough go off the deep end into strange and amusing territory. Someone like Robert Anton Wilson could be taken as a good example of extreme relativist, with his views of reality tunnels, a position I’ve always appreciated but is ultimately unprovable. Extreme relativism brings serious doubts to even the ability to objectively discuss the entire topic.

      “I think Jung’s over-reaching, making stuff up, which Freud too, I’d have to say. Any talk of archetypes have to be the same as references to myth, only descriptions. We came first, our actual existence, and the rest is all attempts to describe it, attempts to build a working theory.”

      I’m struggling with trying to figure out where Jungian theory fits into all of this. I sense that Jung was onto some important insights. But that isn’t to say all of his theories based on those insights were correct. There are patterns that can be found across individuals and cultures. Everett is more comfortable in dismissing those patterns than I am.

      But I am in alignment with Everett’s view that we need to return to specifics and particulars, especially in terms of field research. Let’s get more serious about looking at how actual humans live in actual societies and see what we find. After that and based upon that, we can speculate to our heart’s content.

  2. Great post, B., I love this stuff. Just had the thought, it maybe sounds like Everett isn’t reacting so much to Jung as to maybe Jung’s followers, you know, like a common ‘voice of Jung today’ is maybe easier to argue with . . .

    • You’re probably right. The strong Jungian view doesn’t necessarily represent Jung himself but it definitely represents many of his followers.

      It’s maybe hard to know Jung’s ultimate view on all matters. He wrote over a 60 year period and so I’m sure his ideas changed somewhat over time. The piece by Jung I quoted from is of uncertain dating, written at some point in the last decades of his life.

      Jung isn’t a primary concern of Everett. I just thought it would be a useful angle to dig into what is meant by this division.

      What Everett is more concerned about is nativism in linguistics, such as Chomsky’s universal grammar. Maybe more than Jung, Chomsky apparently embraces more of a Platonic view and he does bring up Plato in his writings. It seems that he believes we humans are born with the basics of language already imprinted in our brains, which implies a genetic deterministic explanation of language.

      Chomsky, from what I understand, believes that if you study only one language that you’ll understand the essence of all languages. And it isn’t even necessary to study that one language in the field. It’s fine to simply analyze it in a scientific lab or academic office. If you break a language down into its parts, the universal grammar will supposedly reveal itself… like the beating heart as students slice into the still living frog in science class.

      Cultural context and social differences are irrelevant. And so the study of social science is misleading. Chomsky apparently goes so far as to claim that social sciences aren’t really science at all. I guess, from this perspective, the evidence that Everett gathered about the Piraha can’t explain anything because, well, it’s just social science. Chomsky has gone so far as to claim that Everett is a fraud and a huckster, a strong response.

      I’m not sure where I fall on the spectrum of opinion. Everett’s writings have been challenging me to think more deeply and carefully. Over my life, I’ve been drawn to nativist ideas and I can sense that it is partly because of the kind of religion I was raised in. I sense that Everett is also maybe responding to his own former religious views, as he went from a true believer doing missionary work to a deconverted atheist doing science.

      Everett’s strong criticisms of nativism find a parallel in the strong nativist crticisms of Everett’s own views. I noted the following in an earlier post:

      Even so, Everett is not arguing for a strong Whorfian positon of linguistic determinism. Then again, Vyvyan Evans states that not even Benjamin Lee Whorf made this argument. In Language, Thought and Reality, Whorf wrote (as quoted by Evans in The Language Myth):

      “The tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called ‘mind’. My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signalling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur.”

      It’s easy, when arguing with the strongest possible position of an opponent, to simply set up a straw man to knock down. But that doesn’t help us get to the heart of the conflict, which is found closer toward where the two sides meet. So, what is the ultimate distinction that, more than anything else, shows where someone stands on the issue? Is there a single ultimate distinction or is the entire boundary hopelessly fuzzy?

    • To be fair to Chomsky, his writing career has now extended longer than Jung’s writing career. Chomsky’s ideas have changed a lot. That is actually a criticism some people make. His theory morphs so much over time that it’s unclear where his position stands at any given moment.

      The different Chomskyan positions, over more than a half century, partly disagree with one another. But the one unchanging element, as one critic explained, is his preference of hard science and dismissal of the social sciences. He believes that language can be studied like anything else in nature. So, his universal grammar is simply a variety of natural law applied to biology and brains, a law of human nature built into human evolution.

      That is ultimately what rubs Everett the wrong way. It’s a strong nativism built on what appears to be strong biological/genetic determinism, at least as far as language is concerned. Everett sees this as an indefensible position, going by what is known from field research. He simply sees too much diversity and malleability to be explained by a universal grammar or any other similar theory.

      But in reading someone like Everett, I’m only hearing one side of the debate. Part of the problem is the terms of the debate are still unclear, as new evidence keeps rolling in. It might require the coming decades to sort it all out.

    • Conservatives always wonder why people turn to the federal government for solutions.

      Well, it’s because people are so often oppressed and disempowered at the local level. It’s like blacks during Jim Crow. They tried to solve their problems locally. But at some point, it becomes obvious that those in power at the local level have no intention to solve problems, often because the problem is to their advantage or at least not dealing with it is to their advantage.

      If conservatives wanted to avoid big government, they’d ensure every problem such as this is solved before big gov ever gets involved. Yet conservative states, as compared to the rest of the country, have the most and worst problems at the local level.

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