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What’s wrong with the minimal conception of innateness in cognitive science?

Abstract

One of the classic debates in cognitive science is between nativism and empiricism about the development of psychological capacities. In principle, the debate is empirical. However, in practice nativist hypotheses have also been challenged for relying on an ill-defined, or even unscientific, notion of innateness as that which is “not learned”. Here this minimal conception of innateness is defended on four fronts. First, it is argued that the minimal conception is crucial to understanding the nativism-empiricism debate, when properly construed; Second, various objections to the minimal conception—that it risks overgeneralization, lacks an account of learning, frustrates genuine explanations of psychological development, and fails to unify different notions of innateness across the sciences—are rebutted. Third, it is argued that the minimal conception avoids the shortcomings of primitivism, the prominent view that innate capacities are those that are not acquired via a psychological process in development. And fourth, the minimal conception undermines some attempts to identify innateness with a natural kind. So in short, we have little reason to reject, and good reason to accept, the minimal conception of innateness in cognitive science.

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Notes

  1. See for example: Cowie (1999), Griffiths (2002), Linquist (2018), Mameli and Bateson (2006) and Samuels (2007).

  2. For this reason I set aside experimental work on our folk conception(s) of innateness (Griffiths et al. 2009; Knobe and Samuels 2013; Linquist et al. 2011).

  3. Note that in recognizing both kinds of learning systems are innate, I do not presume an intrinsic connection between innateness and domain-specificity (Khalidi 2001).

  4. Notably, this way of understanding the debate does not rule out the possibility that domain-specific knowledge, or concepts, may form part of the acquisition base. For discussion see Margolis and Laurence (2013, pp. 712–715).

  5. Of course, matters may also depend on the psychological domains in question. For example, one can hold that mindreading depends on domain-general statistical learning systems, and support this empiricist hypothesis by appeal to domain-specific learning mechanisms in perception (see e.g. Ruffman 2014).

  6. See for example: Ariew (1996), Mallon and Weinberg (2006) and Wimsatt (1986).

  7. Though I touch on some potential examples when discussing the next challenge for the minimal conception.

  8. In this list “conditioning” is meant to include evaluative conditioning in which a change in the preference for a conditioned stimulus is induced from being paired with a positive or negative unconditioned stimulus.

  9. One could argue that triggering involves a species of domain-specific learning that is specialized to operate in informationally-impoverished contexts. In which case, RC could be amended to refer only to domain-general learning rules. If triggering is not a clear case, then an alternative example of a process that violates RC would then be those that initiate the molecular cuing in visual development, described below.

  10. Again, as stated at the outset, my interest is not whether our folk notion of innateness is confused, as it may well be.

  11. When recruiting “neurotypical” participants this usually involves screening for comorbidity with other psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia or psychopathy, and also conditions that impact learning such as dyslexia (which impacts reading ability) or dyscalculia (which impacts arithmetic skills).

  12. There is substantial disagreement amongst proponents of HPC-stye approaches as to how the clustering and underlying mechanisms should be understood (Boyd 1999; Millikan 1999). Here I set these issues aside and follow Samuels’ characterization.

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Acknowledgements

Thank you to Evan Westra, the anonymous referees, and the Special Issue editors, Mateusz Hohol and Marcin Miłkowski, for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript. A special thanks is also due to Mark Engelbert. The ideas presented here grew from our many fruitful conversations about the notion of innateness. This project has received funding from the FWO and European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant agreement No. 665501, via an FWO [PEGASUS]\(^2\) Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship (12T9217N) to the author.

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Correspondence to J. Brendan Ritchie.

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Ritchie, J.B. What’s wrong with the minimal conception of innateness in cognitive science?. Synthese 199 (Suppl 1), 159–176 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02543-0

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Keywords

  • Innateness
  • Learning
  • Psychological explanation
  • Primitivism