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Rand on Nurture

men are born tabula rasa, both cognitively and morally
Ayn Rand, _The Virtue of Selfishness_, p54

Elliot Temple on January 23, 2011

Comments (24)

Tabula non rasa

Can't be born a tabula rasa cognitively, because then one could never learn not to be one, since one would have no knowledge of how to learn. The idea only makes sense to someone who thinks we learn through experience writing ideas onto our blank slate - empiricism.

Can't be born a tabula rasa morally, since we are born with preferences and the propensity to change them (see above).

And anyway, try this thought experiment: Get a tabula rasa. Sit comfortably in an armchair and observe it. Its subsequent behaviour is nothing like a baby's.


David Deutsch at 7:42 PM on January 24, 2011 | #2102 | reply | quote

Yes. I was interested in what Rand's view on the matter was, then I found this. I heard it proposed that she was a Nature advocate, and that that is implicit in Atlas Shrugged. I didn't think Atlas Shrugged expressed a position one way or the other, and I wasn't sure what Rand's position was. This quote clarifies.

I think her position is significantly better than the realistic alternative for what else I might have discovered she thought. It might not be accurate at high precision, but the *spirit* of her position is good.


Elliot at 7:47 PM on January 24, 2011 | #2103 | reply | quote

In terms of what people actually mean when they say 'nature'(fatalism) and 'nurture' (epistemological optimism), 'nurture' is definitely true.


Karl Stocker at 8:33 PM on March 24, 2011 | #2110 | reply | quote

good bad true false

In a way, maybe. Women reinforce what they feel was a good thing for men to do, thusly shaping society. Men are less interested in good/bad, more in true/false. Or is that my bias?

(http://crpa.co/CRPA-Philosophy.htm#figure20)


Ron C. de Weijze at 1:34 AM on April 1, 2011 | #2111 | reply | quote

Why is the spirit of this statement good if the statement itself is false?


Anonymous at 4:24 PM on April 10, 2011 | #2114 | reply | quote

> Why is the spirit of this statement good if the statement itself is false?

It's not false like all wrong. It's imperfect in some details which aren't relevant to her point. Her point is that men can improve morally and cognitively during their lives. That's a hopeful, true and important message.

The way she's wrong is: we aren't actually born with a 100% completely blank slate. But that doesn't matter to her point because what we're born with can be changed and improved.


Elliot at 1:46 PM on April 27, 2011 | #2126 | reply | quote

Context is Important

I am late to this but I agree Elliot.

Ayn Rand was careful in her statements and she did not have the medical or scientific knowledge to make such a statement as an objective scientific fact. She also did not add "as far as we know now."

I think she was speaking as a philosopher who believes, as I do, that humans are infinitely capable of improvement and growth, regardless of any pre-programming. I consider it another celebration and emphasis of our rational nature.

She should have made that more clear if that was her intent. Or she allowed her philosophical axioms to negate science, which would be bad philosophy.


John Campbell at 12:10 PM on May 27, 2011 | #2128 | reply | quote

Update:

I hadn't yet studied Objectivism enough in 2011. DD is a fan of Ayn Rand but still hasn't.

Speaking offhand without looking up exact sources: I think Rand's view is that men are born with the *structure* of their mind, but not its *content*. That is, you're born with the mechanism for thinking, but your thoughts themselves aren't predetermined.

The term "blank slate" is misleading since it doesn't specify *what* is blank and what isn't. Rand didn't think that *the entire mind* was a blank slate (which is the view criticized in DD's comment above). She rejected innate ideas, but not innate capacity for reasoning.

I think that's approximately right. But it's not exact.

One issue is I think a lot of our inborn capacity for reasoning itself is software (ideas), not hardware, and is changeable.

I think it's harmless to have some inborn ideas, given the understanding that they can be changed. It's like if you open up new text editor and it has an example document preloaded. No big deal. Certainly doesn't affect what you end up writing. You can just delete the sample document or ignore it and make a different document. So I think technically we do have inborn ideas – though exactly how many and what they are isn't known – but this is not a big deal and doesn't mean we're stuck with them or that they influence us or whatever. Also the inborn ideas can't deal with the modern world cuz they evolved before the modern world existed.

People are born with a starting point but starting somewhere doesn't control where you go, what you do next.

Even if you were born with a bias, and couldn't change it, it *still* wouldn't influence your future thinking in the way people on the other side of this debate believe. DD gave me an example long ago. Suppose your car drifts left a bit. The wheels are screwed up and you periodically have to turn right a bit to straighten out. Like a shopping cart. And suppose you can't get it fixed, you're just stuck with it. Will this affect what destinations you drive to? Will it influence you to go to Taco Bell instead of McDonalds because one is to the left? No, that's ridiculous. You still decide where to drive, you just have to do a little extra work to deal with the innate flaw in the car.


curi at 10:14 AM on January 21, 2019 | #11672 | reply | quote

>quote, I hadn't yet studied Objectivism enough in 2011. DD is a fan of Ayn Rand but still hasn't.!

I am new to Objectivism but very intrigued of how much sense it has brought to me so far. I am still grasping the fundamentals though.

>quote, Speaking offhand without looking up exact sources: I think Rand's view is that men are born with the *structure* of their mind, but not its *content*. That is, you're born with the mechanism for thinking, but your thoughts themselves aren't predetermined.!

Yes, this is my understanding of it as well. That we are born with the mechanism for both thinking and emotions, but that they yet lack *content*.

>quote, The term "blank slate" is misleading since it doesn't specify *what* is blank and what isn't. Rand didn't think that *the entire mind* was a blank slate (which is the view criticized in DD's comment above). She rejected innate ideas, but not innate capacity for reasoning.!

Agreed. DD explains very well why that is in the comment above.

>quote, One issue is I think a lot of our inborn capacity for reasoning itself is software (ideas), not hardware, and is changeable.

I think it's harmless to have some inborn ideas, given the understanding that they can be changed. It's like if you open up new text editor and it has an example document preloaded. No big deal. Certainly doesn't affect what you end up writing. You can just delete the sample document or ignore it and make a different document. So I think technically we do have inborn ideas – though exactly how many and what they are isn't known – but this is not a big deal and doesn't mean we're stuck with them or that they influence us or whatever. Also the inborn ideas can't deal with the modern world cuz they evolved before the modern world existed.!

I'm not sure I follow here. I agree on the drifting car analogy, but how can we have inborn ideas (from birth) and where do they come from?

PS: This got me wondering on a side track subject: *savants*. Obviously they use reason to solve whatever problem, but they seem less aware of how they come to conclusions apart from there being shapes that they interpret (at least in this example). I'm not sure I have a question here but it is interesting. And it is a subject for another time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xd1gywPOibg


Nicholas DeRoj at 12:24 PM on January 21, 2019 | #11675 | reply | quote

> I'm not sure I follow here. I agree on the drifting car analogy, but how can we have inborn ideas (from birth) and where do they come from?

Inborn ideas come from our genes. Genes govern the formation of our brain hardware and configure it in an initial state. That initial state is a little like a brand new computer which has an operating system (OS) installed, as well as some initial apps and data already loaded (examples of data: a sample video, help documents, some bookmarks in the default browser, and pictures that can be used as desktop backgrounds).

Genes don't just create a computer, they set it up with software, like the OS, so that it's useful.

An "idea" is, roughly, a thing in our mind that we can think about and can change. The human intelligence OS can at least mostly be thought about, understood, and changed, so it's mostly ideas. We self-upgrade our thinking/reasoning/learning methods instead of sticking with the ones provided by our genes. We use the initial versions to create better ideas to replace them with.

I also think our genes provide, in the initial hardware and software setup, the loose equivalent of some pre-loaded apps and data. These are also ideas. These are easy to change or ignore, they aren't any sort of threat to free will. There's nothing to stop genetic evolution from having done this, there are evolutionary advantages to it, and it doesn't contradict our experiences of what people are like (because it's compatible with free will, it doesn't control people, it has no real bearing on adult life, it's just a detail of how childhood works).

These are design details which are compatible with the Objectivist view of human nature and capabilities, not with the "nature" side of the debate.

The inborn ideas are not things any adult would recognize as being similar to any conscious idea they remember ever having. Adults consciously think in terms of high level ideas. The ideas we think about consciously are built on thousands(?) of layers – they're built up from simpler things. There is a ton going on beneath the surface. (That is also how people design software today, in many layers.)

We are capable of changing lower level stuff, but many adults are very bad at it. People suck at introspection, changing their habits, that kinda thing. And only a fraction of the higher layers are in English, and people are especially bad at understanding and changing the parts of their mind that aren't in English, like emotions (both the emotions themselves, and the mechanisms that create them, are ideas too).

Why do people think there are innate ideas? It's because they don't know how change the ideas they created in early childhood. But they believe that ideas are easy to change, so whenever something is hard to change they blame something else like genes or nature. That's super wrong. In many respects, culture is more powerful and harder to change than nature. Hence e.g. my view (and DD's) that homosexuality consists of ideas. It's an (early childhood) choice. It's very hard to change (though getting easier due to decades of cultural pressure, political activism, etc, to legitimize and encourage it. This has actually changed our culture some.)

You see the same thing with smoking and other "addictions". People find it hard to change, so they think the cause must be something other than ideas, cuz if it was ideas then they assume a bit of willpower would suffice to change it. They are dead wrong. As Rand, Mises, DD and all the good philosophers emphasized, ideas rule the world and are, in many respects, the most powerful thing in the universe.

There are lots more details. I want to be clear there's more to this knowledge, I haven't shared everything. Some of it is quite hard to talk about with people who don't have important background knowledge, especially being an expert on Critical Rationalism *and* an expert programmer (preferably familiar with lisp, "AI" algorithms, stuff like that). BTW, unfortunately, I think fewer than ten people have that background knowledge. Maybe just me, DD and Alan.


curi at 1:13 PM on January 21, 2019 | #11676 | reply | quote

> PS: This got me wondering on a side track subject: *savants*. Obviously they use reason to solve whatever problem, but they seem less aware of how they come to conclusions apart from there being shapes that they interpret (at least in this example). I'm not sure I have a question here but it is interesting. And it is a subject for another time.

Considering ~everyone is an inductivist, I already believe ~everyone is deeply confused about how they reason (they do evolutionary guesses and criticism, then think they did induction). An adult mind is *extraordinarily* complex, and what people are consciously aware of is much less than 1% of what's going on.

Savants are still interesting in some ways. But IMO not as interesting as most people think. Stuff like remembering thousands of digits of pi is *trivial* for a computer, and human brains are literally computers. In programming terms, savants are people who found the right high level API calls to, via hundreds of intermediate APIs, get some lower level control. I think the more interesting side of the coin is how much people fail at things that are trivial for an iPhone, like multiplication – it gives some indication that there are a *lot* of software layers in between the conscious mind and the computer.


curi at 1:26 PM on January 21, 2019 | #11677 | reply | quote

>quote, Inborn ideas come from our genes. Genes govern the formation of our brain hardware and configure it in an initial state. That initial state is a little like a brand new computer which has an operating system (OS) installed, as well as some initial apps and data already loaded (examples of data: a sample video, help documents, some bookmarks in the default browser, and pictures that can be used as desktop backgrounds).

Genes don't just create a computer, they set it up with software, like the OS, so that it's useful.

...

These are design details which are compatible with the Objectivist view of human nature and capabilities, not with the "nature" side of the debate.!

Ok. This is a way I have not thought about ideas before - in a neural net conceptualization way (but much more complex). I am familiar with fundamental deep learning, enough to be able to make use the analogy at least. Interesting.

I think the "Objectivist logic" (heavy emphasis on concept integration) reminds of this as well. Being new to Objectivism I often find myself forgetting it if I do not introspect or rush. And I suck at introspecting.

Do you have any recommendation of how to approach introspection and develop the skills? A "where to start" so to speak.

>quote, Why do people think there are innate ideas? It's because they don't know how change the ideas they created in early childhood. But they believe that ideas are easy to change, so whenever something is hard to change they blame something else like genes or nature. That's super wrong. In many respects, culture is more powerful and harder to change than nature. Hence e.g. my view (and DD's) that homosexuality consists of ideas. It's an (early childhood) choice. It's very hard to change (though getting easier due to decades of cultural pressure, political activism, etc, to legitimize and encourage it. This has actually changed our culture some.)!

This is a pretty radical view today. Wouldn't that make sexuality as a whole a product of ideas? And in that case also heterosexuality although it is the default (and a prerequisite to continuation of life)?

Also, what leads you to conclude that sexuality consists of ideas other than that it is hard to change. Also is there evidence it could be changed? I was under the impression there wasn't.

>quote, There are lots more details. I want to be clear there's more to this knowledge, I haven't shared everything. Some of it is quite hard to talk about with people who don't have important background knowledge, especially being an expert on Critical Rationalism *and* an expert programmer (preferably familiar with lisp, "AI" algorithms, stuff like that). BTW, unfortunately, I think fewer than ten people have that background knowledge. Maybe just me, DD and Alan.!

Thank you. For sure even the current part is enough to keep me occupied, but feel free to expand more if you want. It might be very interesting to revisit this from time to time as I think more about these things (and hopefully other people do as well).


DeRoj at 11:07 PM on January 21, 2019 | #11682 | reply | quote

>quote, Savants are still interesting in some ways. But IMO not as interesting as most people think. Stuff like remembering thousands of digits of pi is *trivial* for a computer, and human brains are literally computers. In programming terms, savants are people who found the right high level API calls to, via hundreds of intermediate APIs, get some lower level control. I think the more interesting side of the coin is how much people fail at things that are trivial for an iPhone, like multiplication – it gives some indication that there are a *lot* of software layers in between the conscious mind and the computer.!

Interesting.

I was more referring to the computation method using shapes rather than arithmetic to deduce the answer (@ 1:40). But maybe you see that as the same on a deeper level? Could potentially "regular" people learn this with a better conceptual understanding and linking?

There is some interesting stuff that Arthur Benjamin demonstrates with "mathemagics".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baxOXLN23GI


Anonymous at 11:25 PM on January 21, 2019 | #11683 | reply | quote

> Wouldn't that make sexuality as a whole a product of ideas?

Yes. Sexuality is a preference and preferences are ideas. How would it work if we couldn't change it? Our ability to create knowledge is universal. You can't have universality except in some area because knowledge has reach/generality. It's impossible to design your knowledge creation software so that new knowledge you create is guaranteed not to reach into the forbidden area. The growth of knowledge is unpredictable. To ensure it couldn't reach into the forbidden area would totally ruin the universality - you wouldn't be able to create knowledge at all.


Bystander at 11:56 PM on January 21, 2019 | #11684 | reply | quote

>quote>quote Why do people think there are innate ideas? It's because they don't know how change the ideas they created in early childhood. But they believe that ideas are easy to change, so whenever something is hard to change they blame something else like genes or nature. That's super wrong. In many respects, culture is more powerful and harder to change than nature. Hence e.g. my view (and DD's) that homosexuality consists of ideas. It's an (early childhood) choice. It's very hard to change (though getting easier due to decades of cultural pressure, political activism, etc, to legitimize and encourage it. This has actually changed our culture some.)!

>quote

>quote This is a pretty radical view today. Wouldn't that make sexuality as a whole a product of ideas? And in that case also heterosexuality although it is the default (and a prerequisite to continuation of life)?

It's possible that heterosexuality is the factory setting for human beings. But sexuality is also heavily modified by culture. Lingerie and high heels didn't exist in our evolutionary history, but they play an important role in heterosexual behaviour for many people now.

Also, being able to create knowledge by conjecture and criticism can't be limited to just creating knowledge about non-sex stuff. Sex is tangled up with aesthetics, art and that stuff. Also knowledge of biology opens up opportunities to have sex without procreation, with less risk and so on and that can motivate biological research.

>quote Also, what leads you to conclude that sexuality consists of ideas other than that it is hard to change. Also is there evidence it could be changed? I was under the impression there wasn't.

There's a whole reddit thread full of people who claim their sexual preferences changed:

https://www.reddit.com/r/bisexual/comments/528zm0/i_know_this_might_sound_crazy_but_i_feel_like_i/

Here's another reddit thread:

https://www.reddit.com/r/bisexual/comments/8el3n8/i_became_bisexual/

More broadly being confused about your sexuality is a commonly reported thing. Also, sex between men who claim to be straight is a thing, see "Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men" by Jane Ward.


oh my god it's turpentine at 12:31 AM on January 22, 2019 | #11685 | reply | quote

> Wouldn't that make sexuality as a whole a product of ideas?

Yes.

> Also, what leads you to conclude that sexuality consists of ideas other than that it is hard to change. Also is there evidence it could be changed? I was under the impression there wasn't.

There is evidence but I think it's better to focus on concepts. Start with a model of the mind and then consider what sexuality could be other than an idea. Or if it is an idea, consider what could stop it from being changed, by what means. There are many things that make ideas harder to change, and often that difficulty is enough to prevent change, but making something actually impossible to change is a different matter.

The main rival view is to see the mind as a bunch of components with different functions – a sex part of the brain, a math part, a language part, an art part, kinda like that. Under this view, one can imagine that the math part of the brain allows full conscious control but the sex part is designed a different way. Without knowing exactly how any part is designed, that has some plausibility.

But DD and I have a different view, which is that there's just *one* intelligence program that does all the things (via the one method of evolutionary guesses and criticism), instead of intelligence being built out of a collection of modules for dealing with different topics. Under this view, if we can consciously control how we deal with hockey, then it should work for sex too. It'd take a special exception for it to be otherwise. There are reasons that special exceptions don't work well, which are similar to the reasons that it doesn't work to make a CPU with a special exception: like it's actually extraordinarily problematic to try to make a computer chip that mostly works normally but can't add 2+2.

It's really hard to have something that's really powerful, has tons of functionality, but then also add artificial limits on it. basically all that powerful functionality leads to workarounds to get around the limits. and if you make the limits so extensive that you stop workarounds, you end up having to disable a large amount of the functionality (e.g. turn off additional all together to prevent 2+2).

---

re savants: regardless of the conscious thoughts associated with it, the math or other things they do is generally trivial for a computer far inferior to a human brain.

> Could potentially "regular" people learn this with a better conceptual understanding and linking?

In theory, yes. That doesn't violate the laws of physics. But it's way, way too hard currently. Maybe in a thousand years when people are much wiser. Today, people have so little conscious control over their minds and are just scratching the surface in self-understanding. That kind of skill needs to be developed a ton before it could be used to figure out how to intentionally do savant-type stuff.


curi at 12:31 AM on January 22, 2019 | #11686 | reply | quote

FYI for quoting you just need to put ">" in front of a line, you don't have to write "quote". It's designed so that when you view a comment you see the same letters/characters that the person wrote, only the color/bold/italics is changed. So if you copy/paste what someone wrote (to quote it), you'll keep the same formatting since you're copying all the same letters they used. (The exceptions that don't copy easily are images and also when someone makes a word be a link instead of having the whole url visible.) The formatting available is a subset of Markdown.


Anonymous at 12:37 AM on January 22, 2019 | #11687 | reply | quote

> The main rival view is to see the mind as a bunch of components with different functions – a sex part of the brain, a math part, a language part, an art part, kinda like that.

How do they explain this when the human brain evolved tens of thousands of years before we invented stuff like maths and art. Those things happened within the last ten thousand years. Considering humanity and its ancestors spent much much longer making stone tools it would be more plausible to argue we have stone-tool modules. Some of us should have in-born talent for making stone tools. There should be stone-tool savants. But that's not a thing.


Anonymous at 2:37 AM on January 22, 2019 | #11688 | reply | quote

Gender is also a matter of ideas (but not your sex). Not sympathetic to transgender politics though as that is leftist, authoritarian bullshit trying to pull down the culture.


Bystander at 2:57 AM on January 22, 2019 | #11689 | reply | quote

Good to see more people joining in and sharing.

"> Yes. Sexuality is a preference and preferences are ideas. How would it work if we couldn't change it?"

(Let's see if I got the quote mechanics right ;) Appreciate the tip.)

Well put.

"> There is evidence but I think it's better to focus on concepts."

This is why I think you are the best, Elliot. You help clearing up the thinking and do not just give answers or data.

That was a good explanation that cleared up quite a lot for me.

---

"> Maybe in a thousand years when people are much wiser. Today, people have so little conscious control over their minds and are just scratching the surface in self-understanding. That kind of skill needs to be developed a ton before it could be used to figure out how to intentionally do savant-type stuff."

What would be the issue requiring time here? I reckon it is the time to develop our understanding of the underlying processes and how to learn them, and not a hardware issue. Did I understand you correctly?


DeRoj at 9:45 AM on January 22, 2019 | #11690 | reply | quote

No "" needed I see. Just >


DeRoj at 9:50 AM on January 22, 2019 | #11691 | reply | quote

>> The main rival view is to see the mind as a bunch of components with different functions – a sex part of the brain, a math part, a language part, an art part, kinda like that.

> How do they explain this when the human brain evolved tens of thousands of years before we invented stuff like maths and art. Those things happened within the last ten thousand years. Considering humanity and its ancestors spent much much longer making stone tools it would be more plausible to argue we have stone-tool modules. Some of us should have in-born talent for making stone tools. There should be stone-tool savants. But that's not a thing.

(FYI I used the "quote" link to auto-generate the quotes above.)

I think their best answer is: the brain modules listed are just examples. Science has not yet discovered the actual list of modules, and a lot about how they function is unknown. The "math" one is presumably one that's pretty good at math, but it could have evolved for some other purpose (like, say, estimating numbers of bison in a herd, or comparing distances, which are mathy things) and have more functionality than just math.

That vagueness gives them enough wiggle room to deal with a fair amount of object criticism. But it leaves them open to criticism of the vagueness. What can be done about that? Keep it vague how vague their position actually is! By lacking representatives who will debate and answer questions or criticisms, lacking clear statements of their position (so they can claim there is a better, more precise version specified at an unspecified place by an unspecified very smart person), and lacking paths forward.


curi at 12:28 PM on January 22, 2019 | #11692 | reply | quote

> Good to see more people joining in and sharing.

The primary FI forum is the email group. There's more discussion there.

http://fallibleideas.com/discussion

There are currently ongoing discussions about *bounded* discussion/learning/thinking. (There's also a discussion about Kate's multi-year history of evasion. I'd advise skipping Kate's discussions and reading other ones instead.)

Some of the posts about it:

https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/fallible-ideas/0b_LiYy96aQ/DxJimli0GwAJ

I think I'm about equally responsive here and on the email group. But other people aren't.

Another factor is that people often think I can answer something better than they can, so they don't answer. Often I can get people to talk more if I don't comment on an issue.

> What would be the issue requiring time here? I reckon it is the time to develop our understanding of the underlying processes and how to learn them, and not a hardware issue. Did I understand you correctly?

A lot of philosophical progress is needed.


curi at 12:40 PM on January 22, 2019 | #11693 | reply | quote

> The primary FI forum is the email group. There's more discussion there.

> http://fallibleideas.com/discussion

Thank you for the info. I'll make sure to look into it.


Anonymous at 12:05 AM on January 23, 2019 | #11696 | reply | quote

(This is an unmoderated discussion forum. Discussion info.)