Baggage 5 – Locke


This bit of baggage is the idea of the ‘tabula rasa’ or the blank slate which originated with John Locke in the late 1600s.

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE.

This lack of human nature or of inherited mental abilities was a good argument against tyranny, bigotry, racism, sexism, slavery etc. because we were all born with equally empty brains. Only force, exploitation and bad luck can make us unequal. For a long time, behind ideas of politics, education, morality and so on, has been the assumption that the newborn brain is without structure. Of course we can still have these good things without the theory of tabula rasa. If it is actually not a correct theory we can abandon it, and still get on with democracy, universal education and other aspects of equality in our societies.

The continual return to the ‘nature verses nurture’ argument is the attempt to advance or eliminate the tabula rasa philosophy. However, the argument has already been settled.

  1. Nature is important. The brain is born with an enormous amount of structure and with learning programs in place. We have some instincts is well. There is a ‘human nature’ and a long list of activities and beliefs that are found in all societies.

  2. Nurture is important. Almost everything we do or think is affected by our memories. We learn through experience. The environment makes lasting changes to our brains. All those remembered facts and skills that make us unique come from experience.

  3. Nature and nurture cannot be separated. It is silly to say that some mental ability is x% inherited and 1-x% acquired. Everything is an inseparable mixture of the two working together. Nothing happens due to genetics; nothing happens due to environment; everything happens due to the interaction of genetics and environment.

Alison Gopnik says:

The brain is highly structured, but it is also extremely flexible. It’s not a blank slate, but it isn’t written in stone either.

What effect does the denial of in-born structure in the brain have on the subject of consciousness? The biggest problem is about the relationship between language and consciousness. Of course, we are unsure of the detailed relationship. But trying to understand the relationship may be treated as more than a straight forward scientific question and instead treated as a political or sociological one.

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