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From Myths to Mechanisms

How do humans come to know about---and to knowingly manipulate---objects, causes, words, numbers, colours, actions and minds?
In a beautiful myth, Plato suggests that the answer is recollection.
Before we are born, in another world, we become acquainted with the truth.
Then, in falling to earth, we forget everything.
But as we grow we are sometimes able to recall part of what we once knew.
So it is by recollection that humans come to know about objects, causes, numbers and everything else.


Leibniz explicitly endorses a version of Plato's view.
The view is subtler than it seems: we'll return to the subtelties later.

‘the soul inherently contains the sources of various notions and doctrines which external objects merely rouse up on suitable occasions’

Leibniz (1996, p. 48)

\citep[p.\ 48]{Leibniz:1996bl}
Locke, as you probably know, was an empiricist. Here's his manifesto.
(Here I'm contrasting Plato's and Leibnz' nativism with Locke's empiricism.)

‘Men, barely by the Use of their natural Faculties, may attain to all the Knowledge they have, without the help of any innate Impressions; [...]

This claim about colour isn't relevant yet but we'll return to it later.

‘it would be impertinent to suppose, the Ideas of Colours innate in a Creature, to whom God hath given Sight, and a Power to receive them by the Eyes from external Objects’

(Locke 1975 [1689], p. 48)

\citep[p.\ 48]{Locke:1975qo}
Spelke is blunt.

‘Developmental science [...] has shown that both these views are false’

\citep[p.\ 89]{Spelke:2007hb}.

(Spelke and Kinzler 2007, p. 89)

Spelke doesn't have exactly Locke vs Leibniz in mind here, but it's close enough.

The quote continues ‘humans are endowed neither with a single, general-purpose learning system nor with myriad special-purpose systems and predispositions. Instead, we believe that humans are endowed with a small number of separable systems of core knowledge. New, flexible skills and belief systems build on these core foundations.’



The claim that we should shift from thinking about myths to mechanisms raises two questions.
First, what are the mechanisms?
And, second, why suppose there is any role for philosophers rather than scientists?