Cogito ergo sum, baby

Toddlers have amazing philosophical minds that work like computers and can teach us a world about ourselves

Published August 13, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

I confess the idea of babies carrying on philosophical investigations never crossed my mind until I met Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley. Gopnik, a cognitive scientist with cross-training in philosophy and common sense, has spent her career carefully and cleverly teasing out the previously unsuspected complexity of a baby's thoughts. In her new book, "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life," Gopnik incisively and compassionately highlights the extraordinary range of mental capabilities of even the youngest child.

What makes Gopnik's book stand out from the myriad recent books on consciousness is her overarching insight into the sophisticated ways that even infants think and scheme. Citing her work and that of colleagues, Gopnik makes a convincing case that, from a very early age, even before the acquisition of language, we are actively engaged in assessing everything from statistics (probabilities) to right vs. wrong in a moral sphere. Recently I sat down with Gopnick for a conversation about how each of us began our thinking, and how kids might presently be looking at the world.

What inspired you to study the "philosophical baby"?

I've know since the first time I read Plato, when I was 11, that I wanted to try to think about some of the great philosophical questions. How do we know about the world? How do we understand other people? What is consciousness? Where does morality come from? But by the time I was 11, I was also the oldest child of six siblings and I had the first of my own three babies when I was 23. So I've also always wanted to try to answer some equally deep questions about children themselves. How can they learn so much so quickly? What is it like to be a baby? Why do we love them so much?

Like most parents, I think, my children have been the source of some of my most intense joys and despairs, my deepest moral dilemmas and greatest moral achievements. Childhood is a fundamental part of all human lives, parents or not, since that's how we all start out. And yet babies and young children are so mysterious and puzzling and even paradoxical. They seem so unlike us, yet they actually are us. Sometimes they seem so brilliant, and then the next minute they do something that seems so dumb.

When you read about children, either in ubiquitous parenting books or in memoirs and autobiographies, all you get is the personal. What should I do to make my baby smarter? What did my parents do to make me who I am? The idea of the book was to take a step back from the personal and immediate and think about babies and young children from this wider scientific and philosophical perspective. Thinking about babies could help us understand philosophy and thinking philosophically could help us understand babies.

Why do you think so little has been written about the philosophy of children -- that philosophy, for 2,500 years, has essentially excluded thinking about kids?

There are two reasons. Philosophers used to rely on their armchair intuitions about how minds work. If you look at babies casually, your intuition is likely to be that not much is going on. In the '70s, new video technologies allowed us to develop experimental techniques for investigating babies' minds. Since then, philosophers are increasingly paying attention to these scientific results, rather than simply relying upon untested intuitions.

The other reason was that for those 2,500 years, there were people who had a great deal of deep experience of babies and who knew all along how important and interesting babies were. But those people were women and the philosophers were men. An Oxford philosopher once told me, "Well, one has seen children about, of course, but one would never actually talk to them." Now, partly because women like me have become scientists and philosophers, those two areas of human experience don't seem so separate.

One of the difficulties in knowing how babies think is that they can't describe their thought processes. Yet psychologists have devised some very ingenious experiments to show that by age 12 to 15 months, infants with very limited vocabulary are already developing a clear cause-and-effect sense of how the world is put together. Without the benefit of much language, how do you think the brain creates this knowledge?

Alan Turing had one of the greatest scientific insights of the 20th century, when he realized that a physical system that was organized in a particular way could do many of the things that a human mind can do. That idea allowed us to build computers, physical systems that can reason and calculate without language or consciousness. The great idea of cognitive science is that the human brain is a computer -- though one profoundly different and vastly more powerful than the ones we have now. Once this idea was out there, it made sense to think that babies' brains were just as capable of computation as adult brains, even though babies might not be able to report what their brains were doing in a self-conscious reflective way. And that’s just what we’ve discovered. In fact, studying babies can give us new ideas about how to design learning computers.

Presumably, if present in very young infants, this ability must be innate, as if our brains are hard-wired to sort out cause-and-effect even before we acquire language.

Well, developmental psychologists won't say something is innate unless we've found it in newborn babies -- which is tough, but remarkably, not at all impossible! So babies might actually somehow develop these causal learning methods in the first few months of life. But they certainly are there very early.

How is this different from the ways in which other animals learn about the world?

Animals are certainly more sophisticated than we used to think. And we shouldn't lump together animals as a group. Crows and chimps and dogs are all highly intelligent in very different ways. Crows are amazingly sophisticated at understanding how physical objects like wires and twigs work. Living with us seems to have led dogs to evolve to be enormously clever at making people think they are loved. You could think of them as Stepford Wolves. But in a way that's just the point. Animals seem to home in on very particular kinds of causal relationships that are important to their survival. They also rely heavily on trial and error to learn which actions are effective on the world. But human children learn abstract cause-and-effect relationships just for the fun of it, even when they're not particularly relevant to survival.

Old-line psychologists such as Piaget thought that children didn't understand cause-and-effect until they were well into their school years. Why didn't earlier psychologists notice that young children could easily construct complex theories of causation?

Piaget observed babies tremendously closely and he realized just how philosophically important and interesting they were -- though much of the observation was actually done by his wife, Valentine. But even closely observing young children doesn't really tell you what they can do. For example, we've discovered that young children have much better cued memory than spontaneous recall. If you ask a 3-year-old an apparently straightforward question like "How does this machine work?" you're likely to get a sweet look and either silence or stream of consciousness poetry. But if you ask them, "Does the blue block make it go or does the yellow block make it go?" they will give you the right answer. You have to ask babies and children questions in their language, not ours. It's taken us 30 years to figure out how to do that, and we're still learning.

Very young children readily imagine a variety of outcomes to any given situation. For example, 2-year-olds can tell you that if their imaginary teddy bear is drinking imaginary tea and spills it, the imaginary tea will have to be mopped up. Is this ability to imagine the what-ifs of life what most separates human from non-human thought?

I think so, though again animals are smarter than we thought. Still, humans have a special ability to think "counterfactually," to imagine what might have happened rather than remember what did happen, and animals certainly don't do that as much as we do. For better or worse, we live in possible worlds as much as actual ones. We are cursed by that characteristically human guilt and regret about what might have been in the past. But that may be the cost for our ability to hope and plan for what might be in the future.

If the ability to imagine cause-and-effect begins before children have well-developed language and reasoning skills, does this tell us that the origins of the kinds of questions we ask are also deeply rooted in our biology?

Well, of course, everything about us is rooted in our brains. But brains aren't fixed by our genes. Instead they are dramatically plastic, capable of changing to fit all those new environments we encountered when we started our Pleistocene wanderings, and the even more remarkable new environments we create for ourselves. Asking questions is what brains were born to do, at least when we were young children. For young children, quite literally, seeking explanations is as deeply rooted a drive as seeking food or water. What we do as scientists and philosophers is an extension of that childhood drive -- the questions keep changing but the drive to ask them is what makes us human.

I remember my mother quoting Dr. Spock as "the authority" on child rearing. Now there are theories to satisfy any parenting position. Some psychologists such as Judith Harris have gone so far as to suggest that parenting has little long-term effect on how children think. Where do you weigh in?

This is an interesting case of the way that scientific importance and everyday interests are at odds. Parents tend to focus on very small differences -- like whether my kid will be more likely to get into Harvard than yours -- among children who are otherwise living in very similar environments. But, scientifically, we wouldn't expect to be able to say much about differences at that scale. We can't predict very much about how my parenting, as opposed to that of my friends, will influence my child as opposed to theirs, which is what all those parents want to know.

What do you think makes one a better parent?

Well, I can tell you what won't make you a better parent or your child any smarter. The science can tell you that the thousands of pseudo-scientific parenting books out there -- not to mention the Baby Einstein DVDs and the flash cards and the brain-boosting toys -- won't do a thing to make your baby smarter. That's largely because babies are already as smart as they can be; smarter than we are in some ways. In the relationship between early experience and later life, there is not a shred of scientific evidence that any of that makes a difference.

That doesn't mean, as people like Judith Harris say, that parenting itself doesn't make a difference. It makes an enormous difference. Even the most self-consciously "bad" parent is already putting a lifetime's worth of effort and energy and care and devotion into the life of their child, effort and care and love that would be saintly if you devoted it to anyone else. It also isn't that there's some innate program that requires just a minimal amount of nurturing to unfold. Specific changes and differences in caregiving make a vast difference. Reading and schooling have made an enormous difference to children. Poverty has an enormous impact on children. Children learn all the contours of daily life from their parents. To conclude that parenting has no effect is like saying that because I can't tell you specifically whether carbon emissions will cause a hurricane in New Orleans this year, global warming has no effect on the weather.

There's a more profound philosophical, and even moral point, here. We can't predict much about how our parenting will influence our children in the long term. Many people may achieve great things as adults, in spite of or even just because of, the fact they were miserable as kids. But we have enormous power over our child's lives when they are children. We can determine whether our children thrive as children, and whether they remember that thriving childhood as adults. Isn't that actually more important? Instead of anxiously asking will my caregiving make my son go to Harvard 20 years from now, why not proudly think my caregiving will make my son have just the life that I shape for him, right now, with my particular jokes and quirks and devotion?

Do you think your work has made you a better parent?

Being a developmental psychologist didn't make me any better at dealing with my own children, no. I muddled through, and, believe me, fretted and worried with the best of them. But I think it did make me even more appreciative of the richness and complexity of children's minds, and watching them certainly made me a better scientist.

In the '80s, as I began to wonder how we come to understand others people's minds, my 2-year-old, Andres, had to cope one night with pineapple with kirsch as dessert. For months afterward, he would thoughtfully remark, apropos of nothing, "Mommy, you know, pineapples -- they're yummy for you but yucky for me." And that became the germ for a whole line of studies that showed that toddlers are far from being the egocentric solipsists we once thought, and how they, and therefore we, start to understand that other people can want something different than we do.

Children, by being less focused, have a greater general awareness and ability to imagine than us older fossils. Is there a take-away message for how to maximize a child's free spirit and imagination while, at the same time, forcing her to spend the hours necessary to learn algebra, geometry and the capital of Peru?

The message is that there is a necessary trade-off between two different kinds of intelligence -- a trade-off built right into our evolutionary nature. On the one hand, there is our childhood ability to imagine and explore a very wide range of possibilities and to learn new causal maps without caring about their immediate usefulness. On the other, there is our adult ability to put that learning to work to plan and act effectively, swiftly and automatically. Babies and young children are useless on purpose. They are unable to focus, plan and act, so they can wander and dream and play. We grown-up caregivers do the planning and acting for them.

For most of history, education, in the form of apprenticeship, was about turning the discoveries of early childhood into the narrow, focused, automatic competencies of adulthood. But sometime in the 17th century, we discovered that we could reproduce this evolutionary division of labor among adults. We could have professional scientists, for example, who just got to explore and learn about the world without exploiting it for any useful purpose. And we could have institutions like universities, where adults got to do the same thing. Or at least were supposed to; the real function of universities is mostly assortative mating. So we began to try to develop both types of intelligence at once, to have a school system that rewards flexibility and imagination and competence at the same time.

I think we should encourage a kind of cognitive bilingualism in both adults and children. We should have times in our lives or institutions when we can learn and explore and play, and other times in which we can plan and execute and work. An unsung joy of caregiving and child rearing is that it gives you a wonderful opportunity to recapture the imagination and play of childhood at the same time that you're doing the most important kind of adult work there is.

"The Philosophical Baby" is not exactly a how-to book for parents. But if it were, what can reading it do for parents?

It will do the same thing that reading about the stars does. You gaze up at the stars and they're awesome. And then you read about astronomy and the next time you gaze at the stars you realize, "My God, they really are awesome." Parents gaze at their children, when they're not driving themselves crazy with parenting books, and think, "They're amazing!" And what I can tell them is, "You don't know the half of it, they're even more amazing than you think!"

By Robert Burton

Robert Burton M.D. is the former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital and the author of "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not" and "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind." A former columnist for Salon, he has also been published in the New York Times, Aeon and Nautilus, and currently writes a column at the Cambridge Quarterly for Healthcare Ethics.

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