Sunday, July 26, 2015

Believer's Remorse

I was doing some research last evening for a blog entry I’m working on, and in that research I found some choice quotes from Christian apologist Dustin Segers. Readers who have followed my blog for the past several years may remember some noteworthy interactions with Segers’ apologetic statements that I have posted here.

Here are some examples:
and a series of six posts interacting directly with Segers’ questions for atheists:
As I came upon Segers’ statements, I wanted to find those locations (URL references) on the internet where I had originally found them as I want to use some of them in developing some points that I have in some upcoming blog posts that I have currently in draft stage. I found that Segers’ own blog, Grace in the Triad, no longer exists – what you’ll find there now is discussion of kitchen cabinet hardware, not presuppositional apologetics like back in the good ol’ days. (Perhaps Segers took a suggestion I had made here.)
Also, I have not seen any activity from Segers on Triablogue – where in the past he would occasionally post in the past under the moniker “Dusman” – for several years now. (The last posting of Segers’ postings on T-blogue is one titled Life is a Vapor, from March 2012.)
However, I did stumble upon something relatively more recent.

A little less than a year ago (8/31/2014 to be exact), a video featuring Segers was posted on the internet in which he states, in a rather sober, up-front talk to a camera, that he has been suffering from depression – a problem that has been affecting him since, he says, 2011, a problem which has caused him to cry tears into his own beard (yes, that bad!).

Segers explains that he was “disqualified” from the “ministry” through “various personal sins” and “went back to work,” leading to a couple of years that “were extremely difficult.” He says he “lost [his] identity… as a full-time church worker,” and that “the spiritual support structure… felt like it was gone, which it essentially was.” Segers blames himself for this, saying “mostly because it was my fault.” He says that “depression consumed me” and that he “did not want to get out of bed” and “hated my new job,” and “only lasted there for about six months.” He says that there were “a lot of ethical challenges taking place at that job” and then “stepped down from” it. (It seems he’s going down and downer here.) He says that he’s in a new job now (again, this was a year ago), which he loves and can do a lot of ministry in.
But his problem was “depression, and despair, and hopelessness, even to the point of contemplating suicide, multiple times.” All this coming from someone who champions a worldview which is supposedly built on hope, faith, rebirth, salvation, justification, sanctification, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, connection with the creator of the universe, the promise of Christ, having one’s name written in “the Book of Life,” being a “new creature in Christ,” being “forgiven” of one’s sins, etc. But in spite of this, according to this article:
A new study conducted among more than 1,700 pastors has found that clergy are at far greater risk for depression and anxiety, mostly due to stress, than those with other occupations.
The study by the Clergy Health Initiative (CHI) at Durham-based Duke Divinity School interviewed over 1,726 United Methodist pastors in North Carolina by phone and through online surveys. It found that the clergy depression prevalence was 8.7 percent and 11.1 percent respectively, significantly higher than the 5.5 percent rate of the national sample.
Apparently Segers, being struck down by depression while working in a ministerial capacity, found himself in that unlucky percentile. And the way he describes it sounds like it’s quite a severe case. He says that he “had to give my guns to my friend, who was a pastor… I love to shoot guns, for target practice, just for fun, and I had to give all that to him. I had to give him my computers. I needed a complete break from the internet, both from a temptation standpoint [he does not elaborate on this] as well as just from a deep mental psychological spiritual declutterance stand point.” He has sought to simplify his life, which apparently means, perhaps among other things, disengaging from internet apologetics. In spite of this, he says that “the depression kept coming back. It just would leave for three or four or five weeks, and it would come, it would come, it would come back stronger every time.”
Somehow the “knowledge” that he’s one of “God’s elect” has not immunized Segers from the doldrums. No, I’m not trying to make light of Segers’ pain; nor am I dancing on the gravity of his situation. Indeed, I’d say it’s a good thing that he acknowledge that he’s got a debilitating problem. But stories like this – and I’ve seen many – suggest that the whole “new creature in Christ” thing is not what believers like to make it out to be. No matter how hard they try, some people simply can’t find comfort in suffering. Indeed, who can?
But how can one avoid depression and despair if he follows consistently the teachings of a worldview which proclaims selfishness to be a “sin”? Joy, pleasure, happiness – these are all intensely selfish values. How can one not succumb to deep emotional misery when his worldview insists that he hate his parents, his family members, even himself? Can one truly find happiness – in terms of non-contradictory joy - by practicing a worldview which teaches that the moral thing for a person to do is “deny himself”? And if one’s standard of love is a god which turns its own back on its only son while he’s being tortured and executed, and which sends tsunamis and earthquakes and epidemics to inflict unspeakable suffering on puny little human beings, treating them as insignificant, dispensable waste, what fulfillment in life can one really expect to achieve?
We are told by Christians that, as atheists, we can find no real “meaning” in our lives. What they’re really saying is that our lives don’t mean anything to them. And that’s fine with me – I don’t need my life to mean anything to them. The underlying premise of such a charge, however, is the ethics of sacrifice taken as the moral standard, essentially saying: if you don’t have anyone (such as an invisible magic being) to sacrifice your life for, then your life is utterly meaningless. They never stop to question this premise – many non-religious people (in fact, I’d say the majority) have accepted this premise as well.
The result of religious morality on the psychology of a person is extremely toxic. Any pleasure, joy and fulfillment that he experiences in life is darkened by an imposing cloud of guilt, an emotion that, along with dreadful fear, is indispensable to the Christian worldview. A state of unearned guilt is the psychological starting point in Christianity; without guilt, there’d be no need for salvation, and there’d be no way to sell Jesus. Only guilty people need a pardon.
But if we go by what we find in the New Testament, paying mind especially to the supernaturalism found in the gospels, Christians are apparently to believe that unclean spirits roam the earth and infect people’s souls, having the power to deceive people, steal their salvation, even make them physically sick. The Catholic Church’s increase in the practice of exorcisms in recent years signals an increase in the Church’s mystical hysteria. Someone’s been reading the gospels.
The believer is instructed to make his requests known to supernatural forces by means of prayer – a one-way conversation that’s indistinguishable from talking to one’s bed sheets. Regardless how the believer imagines it, prayer is what one might do if he’s given up on actively setting out to make positive changes in his life. The choice to pray, then, is the choice to resign from the responsibility of taking action to improve one’s life as well as the choice to invest one’s faith in the hope that somehow reality will re-align itself to one’s desires and preferences. Such a practice will only paralyze one’s sense of efficacy in his own life.
Whether they are environmentalists seeking bans on everything from light bulbs to reservoirs, or Christians compelling people to come into their churches and “get saved,” leftists and religionists are all telling us essentially the same thing: man is bad because he exists, and he should live his life in guilt and shame. Of course, religion perfected this technique of mutilating man’s spirit, preferably before it has an opportunity to develop, long before anyone became interested in old growth forests and endangered newts.
When children are taught by the adults in their lives to believe that they were “born into sin” and that they deserve nothing better than to roast in unquenchable hellfire for all eternity, it should come as no surprise when they spend their adult years in a perpetually depressed state. They are told over and over again that they are wicked and must repent, and the psychological wounds this causes in one’s adolescent years never really heal.
While there may certainly be factors in a person’s life, things that happen to him – accidents, illnesses, marital problems, crime, etc. – that can mitigate against one’s uncompromised enjoyment of life, I think one’s overall philosophical view of reality and life is extremely important and cannot be overestimated. Indeed, when do we ever hear apologists talk about happiness? The very idea of living a happy and fulfilled life seems to be an invention of the Enlightenment, for prior to this men were told to accept their lot and bear their cross, that pleasure-seeking (cf. enjoying life) and pride (cf. taking deep satisfaction in one’s achievements) are “vanity” and “of the devil.” All human beings were expected to lead boring, servile lives and make no effort to build a life truly worth living. Taking such proscriptions seriously would lead a person to near if not outright paranoia in regard to his own experience. This is why a key device in Christianity is dissociation - the severing of the believer’s outwardly facing emotions from their causes in order to appear unaffected by mundane things and present to the world an otherworldly euphoric calm masking the torturous inner conflict and turmoil embroiling his entire psychology.
Christians of course are going to say, in one form or another, that Jesus is the solution to depression. “Instead of ‘being who you are’,” writes Jason Engwer, “it's better to be who God wants you to be.” Such advice will simply send the eager believer into a labyrinth of utter darkness and despair. It is by necessity an unachievable mission: no matter what one does in order to “be who God wants [him] to be,” there will never be any objective indicators to light the way and tell him if he’s there yet. And no matter how frequently or infrequently he looks in the mirror, he will always see himself – he will always be who he is. How is he to know when he is no longer being who he is but now being “who God wants [him] to be”? Whose wants and desires are really guiding the transformation? And exactly what was wrong with the starting point, and why?
Speaking from my own personal experience, I know that if I were a Christian, I would be miserably depressed. My advice to Segers is to renounce all forms of mysticism, come out of the primitive darkness of Christianity, and stop pretending about reality. I don’t propose this as a cure-all, but it would be some very important steps in the right direction.
by Dawson Bethrick

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60 Comments:

Blogger Joe said...

Dawson,
You have hit the nail on the head. I struggled greatly with depression for long periods while a Christian. The struggle to live up to impossible ideals, preaching a way of life to others that you are not living yourself. The various politics and in fighting among the various Christianities takes its toll. One of the driving forces of depression for Christians is that one can never be his authentic self. The Christian is always having to wear masks to keep up certain pious appearances. It is even worse for Christians in the more sacramental traditions that requires one to confess to a priest. It is very sad. Having now escaped the Christianities, I have had down times but nothing close to the extreme struggles with depression I had as a Christian. I hope that Seger and others like him can get help for their depression. A good start is moving away from the imaginary into the real world.

July 27, 2015 7:18 AM  
Blogger Luiz Claudio said...

Hi Dawson,

Excellent points, as always.

Is the last sentence of this paragraph correct?

" A state of unearned guilt is the psychological starting point in Christianity; without guilt, there’d be no need for salvation, and there’d be no way to sell Jesus. Guilty people don’t need a pardon"

Wouldn't it be guilty people need a pardon?

Regards, Luiz

July 27, 2015 6:55 PM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks for catching that, Luiz. Yes, that's definitely a major typo. I've corrected it to: Only guilty people need a pardon - which is what I thought I had originally written.

I fixed a couple other typos ("never" instead of "ever" at one point, and a misspelled article).

I always appreciate the second pair of eyes!


Joe,

I really enjoyed your comment. I think personal anecdotes like this are quite powerful in fact. Believers themselves will always be reluctant to admit that they're depressed, even though most of them are probably deeply depressed. They certainly aren't going to want to tell non-believers whom they're trying to best in a debate. You're not going to see Sye Ten Bruggencate get on stage and admit that he wrestles constantly with salvation doubts, worries about whether or not he's really saved, anxiety from trying to maintain a false front all the time, etc. Yet, it's obvious he doesn't have a happy day in his life.

Check out Dustin Segers in this video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQphYalunZk.

Tell me, does this look like a happy man leading a personally fulfilling life? He looks like he's in utter anguish. Try just watching it without the sound, you'll get the idea.

Okay, gotta run.

Regards,
Dawson

July 27, 2015 8:02 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Dawson,Thanks for the video. A clear example of a Christian loving his enemy. ;-) I have been like Dustin Segers.I have argued with the same desperate tone on many occasions. His faith is built on his ability to win argument points but here he clearly failed. I was impressed how Adam stayed calm in the face of such desperate hostility.

I actually started to listen to atheist arguments after realizing that most Christians do not listen to non-believers. I was sitting with an Eastern Orthodox priest one time and watched him just listen to the atheist make arguments against Christianity with absolutely no response. It was the first time I saw a Christian act like he really cared for the atheist. And it was then I realized that I had not truly cared for the atheist as a person. I only cared to argue with him. I then started to listen to the concerns of other atheists and I eventually realized that Christianity no longer made any sense to me.

July 28, 2015 8:20 AM  
Blogger Cameron Elliott said...

Dawson wrote:

"How is he to know when he is no longer being who is but now being “who God wants [him] to be”?

I think you missed a he in the last part:

"How is he to know when he is no longer being who (HE) is but now being “who God wants [him] to be”?

July 29, 2015 12:59 AM  
Blogger Cameron Elliott said...

Dawson wrote:

"some very important steps in the right directly."

Surely you mean the right direction?

July 29, 2015 3:04 AM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

You're correct on both, Cameron. Thank you!! Those two are fixed now.

July 29, 2015 5:10 AM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Dawson,

You wrote: "But how can one avoid depression and despair if he follows consistently the teachings of a worldview which proclaims selfishness to be a 'sin'?

A great question for the Christian. I suppose the Christian might appeal to the alleged joy to come in the "next world" (i.e., a world that doesn't exist other than in their imaginations). But, of course, this will do no good, since reality has the final say, not imagination.

You wrote: "Joy, pleasure, happiness – these are all intensely selfish values."

Yep. And when I mention to my Christian relative that happiness is achievable here, in this world, I always get pushback. When I ask him if he's happy, there's always a reluctance on his part to give a direct answer. Instead, he'll hem and haw and say things like, "I don't know about happy, but I'm at peace."

To this I should ask, "How can you possibly be at peace knowing that, according to your storybook, I, as an atheist and one of your loved ones, am headed to a place of eternal torment after he dies?"

I can almost hear his answer right now: "Well, I have HOPE that won't be the case."

So in the end, it ends up being just a case of wishful thinking built upon wishful thinking.

Ydemoc

July 29, 2015 10:03 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Correction:

In the third to last paragraph, it should read, "... a place of eternal torment after I die."


July 29, 2015 10:07 PM  
Blogger Daniel GodIsTime said...

Just a note to say I'm still reading. Thanks for all your work.

DL

July 30, 2015 7:47 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

Mr. Bethrick,

Though unrelated to the present topic, I was curious if you had any ready thoughts on the topic of human instinct that you would have both the time and interest to share.

Assuming my understanding is correct, Objectivism, in keeping with tabula rasa, rejects human "instinct" as a type of innate, automatic knowledge (For instance: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/instinct.html). However, a more common definition of "instinct" is an unlearned inclination towards some type of complex behavior.

Would you also reject the above definition of instinct in regards to human beings?

If yes, why?

If no, how does that coalesce with the notion of tabula rasa?

Thank you for your time and for providing an excellent resource of rationality.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 07, 2015 10:24 AM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Brandon,

Thanks for visiting my blog and posting your question.

In regard to the question of whether or not human beings have instincts, as you already recognize, it depends crucially on what is meant by “instincts.” Often we hear the notion of “instinctual knowledge,” which would be akin to so-called a priori knowledge – knowledge known right out of the womb, if not before. Objectivism rejects this view insofar as ‘knowledge’ here is understood to involve conceptualization, a volitional process which itself has to be learned. In short, Objectivism does not hold that human beings are born with concepts already in their minds, but in fact that a human being must undertake, from the earliest age, the arduous task of learning whatever knowledge he needs in order to live. We must learn our knowledge, not simply tap into a reservoir of knowledge that we’re born with.

If, on the other hand, ‘instinct’ is understood to denote “an unlearned inclination towards some type of complex behavior,” I suppose I’d need to look at proposed examples of this as well evidence for its presence in human beings – particularly infants, since at later ages the behavior in question may very well be the result of learning.

There are a few things that I think are important to keep in mind here. For one, the notion ‘behavior’ is very general, even somewhat vague if care is not used in discriminating its underlying causation. For example, we can say that ice displays certain behavior under certain temperature conditions, or that ants exhibit certain behaviors, or that comets exhibit behavior. We often use the concept ‘behavior’ in contexts that do not assume conscious activity.

Also, what is meant by “inclination”? Are infants “inclined” to breathe once they are out of the womb? Does this count as knowledge? I don’t think so. Does an ant know that it’s breathing? I suppose some presuppositionalists could go so far as to argue that breathing is not possible unless one first “knows” how to breathe. But in fact breathing is an autonomic, non-volitional “behavior.”

I’ve sometimes heard that thumb-sucking is an example of an instinct. But is it really the result of knowledge? I don’t see why it must be. I’m not a pediatrician, but the thumb-sucking reflex seems to be an unconscious reaction; ultrasound technology has revealed that it often happens in the womb. Does the fetus “know” that it is sucking its thumb? Does it “know” that sucking its thumb will result in some desired outcome – such as a feeling of temporary satisfaction? I really doubt it. It may be that it’s reacting to hunger pangs. But that’s not “knowledge” per se. It’s just a reaction.

I also want to make another, broader point. I’m often asked “What does Objectivism say about X?” I admit I’m somewhat concerned, in the back of my mind, when I get these questions (not that I want to discourage them!), because of unintended impressions that may be swirling in people’s minds (not necessarily yours). Objectivism does not affirm its philosophical tenets – e.g., humans do not have instinctual knowledge, we begin tabula rasa, we need values in order to live, reason is man’s means of knowledge, etc. – as “articles of faith” to which we think reality must conform. On the contrary, we look out at reality and identify what we discover, and we are careful to apply an objective process to this task, and the result is knowledge of reality. Objectivism is not a religion, so we do not treat knowledge as if it were stipulative in nature. I just wanted to make this point since I sometimes fear readers may get the wrong impression, given the pervasive influence of mysticism in our culture.

Thanks again for your question. Please let me know if you have more.

Regards,
Dawson

August 07, 2015 9:57 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

Mr. Bethrick,

Thank you for your response.

Regarding a proposed instance of instinct, the most ready example I can provide is the well-documented phenomenon of newborns focusing on and being able to discriminate between human faces, often in a very short time after birth (a matter of hours).

While I certainly agree with you that simple physiological reactions (e.g., breathing, thumb-sucking, etc.) could not rightly be called knowledge, as they lack conscious activity, infant facial recognition seems like it would not be in this category of action. How does an infant ‘know’ to focus on faces, as opposed to non-faces? Would it be reasonable to attribute volitional conceptualization at such an early stage of development?

With respect to your broader point, you have identified one my reasons for asking you about human instincts. Throughout my ongoing study of Objectivism (undoubtedly the most explicit, honest, cohesive, and reality-based philosophical system that I have ever encountered), I have not gotten the impression that Objectivists start with metaphysical or epistemological stipulations and then conform their philosophies to satisfy those stipulations. In all cases, Objectivism builds its philosophical tenets from self-evident, irreducible recognitions of reality -- save for possibly in the case of tabula rasa.

As I presently understand, Objectivism adherence to a completely blank cognitive state seems at odds with at least some empirical evidence.

To be clear, I was not intentionally hiding this motive, but rather I am operating under the assumption that I have misunderstood something. As I stated, Objectivism, thus far in my studies, seems wholly consistent to me apart from this point. In other words, it is my aim to learn, not to tear down.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 08, 2015 10:25 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

Mr. Bethrick,

A short reference list, should you have the time or desire to investigate the topic of infant facial recognition further:

Infants’ preference for faces over non-faces

Goren, C. C., Sarty, M., Wu, P. Y. K. (1975). Visual following and pattern discrimination of face-like stimuli by newborn infants. Pediatrics, 56, 544-549.

Johnson, M. H., Dziurawiec, S., Ellis, H., & Morton, J. (1991). Newborns' preferential tracking of face-like stimuli and its subsequent decline. Cognition, 40, 1-19.

Simion, F., Cassia, V. M., Turati, C., & Valenza, E. (2001). The origins of face perception: Specific versus non-specific mechanisms. Infant and Child Development, 10, 59-65.

Infants’ preference for mother’s face over stranger’s face

Bushnell, I. W. R., Sai, F., & Mullin, J. T. (1989). Neonatal recognition of the mother's face. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7, 3-15.
Pascalis, O., de Schonen, S., Morton, J., Deruelle, C., and Fabre-Grenet, M. (1995).

Pascalis, O., de Schonen, S., Morton, J., Deruelle, C., Fabre-Grenet, M. (1995) Mother's face recognition by neonates: A replication and an extension. Infant Behavior and Development, 18, 79-85.

Infants’ ability to discriminate faces

Quinn, P. C., Uttley, L., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., Slater, A. M., Pascalis, O. (2008). Infant preference for female faces occurs for same- but not other-race faces. Journal of Neuropsychology, 2, 15-26.

Overview of facial processing in infants

Pascalis, O. & Slater, A. (2003). Development of face processing in infancy and early childhood: Current perspectives. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 08, 2015 10:29 AM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Brandon,

Thanks for sending the list of articles – just their titles sound intriguing!

However, the example you cite does not qualify as knowledge in the philosophical sense that Objectivism has in mind in its endorsement of tabula rasa. For tabula rasa to be false or mistaken, there would have to be evidence that human beings have knowledge (specifically, concepts already formed and integrated in their minds) prior to experience, prior to birth, prior to any activity involved in concept-formation as Objectivism explains it (cf. “a priori knowledge”). But that’s not what we have in the case of the example you cite. Your example simply indicates that at least some infants are able to perceive – i.e., to have awareness of entities in which various sensations are automatically integrated into percepts – at a very early age. That’s not what Objectivism means by knowledge.

In her development of her theory of concept-formation, Rand observed that one of the necessary causal steps in the process of forming concepts is what she called selective focus. This is the stage at which a child isolates two or more existents from a ground (i.e., from everything else he perceives), having recognized general similarities among those existents (e.g., two balls have the same shape, two human beings both have heads and arms and walk upright, etc.). This step comes before actually forming concepts, and must because the abstraction process by which concepts are formed requires two or more units to unite into a single category, or concept. (All of this is laid out in Rand’s book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, which I strongly encourage you to read.)

The example you cite suggests that at least some infants are able to focus perceptually on single units (as opposed to mentally integrating two or more) quite early in life. But Objectivism holds explicitly that perception precedes concept-formation, so this is to be expected. But perceiving an object and isolating it against other objects is not what Objectivism means by knowledge. Knowledge involves awareness in the form of universal categories (i.e., concepts), not simply direct perceptual awareness of specific objects in one’s immediate surroundings.

This distinction between the perceptual level of awareness and the conceptual level of awareness needs to be emphasized here. Perception is the direct awareness of specific existents that are immediately present within the range of the perceiver’s sensory organs (such as a newborn perceiving his mother’s face and, likely, other specific existents); in contrast to this, conceptualization, the distinguishing feature of knowledge, gives us awareness of entire categories of existents, even though the vast majority of which we will never perceive. For example, the concept ‘face’ includes not only the newborn’s mother’s face (which the newborn directly perceives), but also the newborn’s own face (which the newborn has yet to perceive and doesn’t even know he has), as well as your face, my face, George Washington’s face, Rasputin’s face, Aristotle’s face, etc., etc. The concept ‘face’ includes all faces which exist now, which have existed in the past, and which will exist in the future (which is why we use modifiers to delimit what we are referring to when we use the concept – such as “his mother’s face,” “my face,” “her face,” etc.). But a newborn’s first step in the process of forming concepts (this selective focus) does not serve as evidence that the newborn has performed the remaining steps in the process of concept-formation (e.g., measurement-omission, integration, etc.) necessary to form the concept ‘face’ which are prerequisite to knowing that it is perceiving a face as opposed to a train station or an ash tray. Perceiving an object is not equivalent to knowledge.

[continued…]

August 10, 2015 5:18 AM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

Keep in mind also that consciousness as such is biological and has physiological causes. We do not need specialized scientific understanding to recognize this: I see with my eyes, I hear with my ears, I touch with my skin, etc. Perception is just as physiological as breathing and thumb-sucking, and is a physiological reaction to external stimuli. But perception as such is not itself knowledge as such.

You asked, “How does an infant ‘know’ to focus on faces, as opposed to non-faces?” The infant probably does focus on other things as well, but keep in mind also that faces are moving and often coming into very close range to the infant’s own face, so familiarity (i.e., percepts retained in memory) through repeated perception is bound to develop quite quickly.

A point Binswanger makes in his lecture series “The Metaphysics of Consciousness” is quite instructive here. He observes that (in contrast to other physiological functions, such as breathing, digestion, circulation, etc.) consciousness is a “difference detector.” If you set a blank sheet of paper before you and stare at it for a few moments, you’ll soon realize that there’s nothing focus on (think of snow-blindness). But if an ant starts to crawl across that sheet of paper, you’ll immediately notice some differences, such as its black body, its little legs wiggling, and its movement across the paper. If you continue staring at the sheet of paper, you’ll probably start focusing on the ant rather than on the paper – this would be the natural thing to do. You could try to ignore the ant, but this would take some effort, especially if the ant wanders in aimless circles on the paper, thereby remaining in your field of vision.

So I think the confusion here has to do with what tabula rasa actually affirms as well as what qualifies as knowledge as opposed to perception. Clearly while the infant was still in his mother’s womb, he wasn’t saying, “OK, when I get out next week, the first thing I’m going to do is gaze at my mother’s face.”

I quote from Bryan Register’s article Has Objectivism Been Refuted? where he interacts with one critic’s attempts to discredit tabula rasa:

<< Fittingly, Robbins denies Objectivism's empiricism, the claim that sense-perception is the only ultimate source of human knowledge. Specifically, he attacks the empiricist claim that one's mind is tabula rasa at birth, a blank tablet. Robbins cites Rand's statement of this view: "Speaking metaphorically, [a child] has a camera with an extremely sensitive, unexposed film (his conscious mind), and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world." (29) Robbins replies that the doctrine of tabula rasa is a contradiction: "How could Rand speak of the child's conscious mind if that mind is 'unexposed' and the child 'knows nothing of the external world'? ... Rand's words imply that he is conscious of nothing. But to be conscious of nothing, as Rand elsewhere argued, is not to be conscious... ." (30) Robbins has confused the faculty of consciousness with the act of consciousness. A child is born with a faculty (a potential) for the awareness of things, and he uses it to be aware of things. Even Rand's metaphor leads away from a possible misinterpretation: one can certainly have a camera which is not currently taking a picture or a computer which is not currently programmed. >>

Hopefully these points haven’t burdened your understanding too much. Since you want to understand, I want to help.

Regards,
Dawson

August 10, 2015 5:18 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

Mr. Bethrick,

Thank again for your response and your willingness to engage this topic with me. And you have not burdened my understanding at all. As usual, your present your thoughts very clearly. I, on the other hand, have apparently failed to elucidate my point.

You wrote: "…the example you cite does not qualify as knowledge in the philosophical sense that Objectivism has in mind in its endorsement of tabula rasa. For tabula rasa to be false or mistaken, there would have to be evidence that human beings have knowledge (specifically, concepts already formed and integrated in their minds) prior to experience, prior to birth, prior to any activity involved in concept-formation as Objectivism explains it (cf. “a priori knowledge”)."

My question did not pertain to what qualifies as knowledge in Objectivism -- which is well explained by both Rand in IOE, as well as yourself in this blog -- but rather what qualifies as tabula rasa in Objectivism and how that notion coincides with instinct, defined as an “unlearned inclination towards a some type of complex behavior,” such as proposed in the example I provided. Regarding my inquiry of how an infant ‘knows’, I had intended the single quotes to indicate that I was using the term loosely. Again, that was a failure of clarity on my part.

Regarding Objectivism’s endorsement of tabula rasa, it seems that you are saying that this only refers to an absence of concepts, which is more or less consistent with Peikoff ("Sense Perception and Volition," OPAR). However, Rand’s endorsement of tabula rasa seems stronger to me. For example, from the Objectivist lexicon:

“Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments.” – TOE, p. 28

“At birth, a child’s mind is tabula rasa; he has the potential of awareness—the mechanism of a human consciousness—but no content. Speaking metaphorically, he has a camera with an extremely sensitive, unexposed film (his conscious mind), and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world. He faces an immense chaos which he must learn to perceive by means of the complex mechanism which he must learn to operate.” – The Comprachios, p. 54

Obviously, Rand was fallible (and also very astutely aware the fact, as evidenced by her strict endorsement of reason), and her ideas can and should be expanded upon, but it was this understanding of tabula rasa (i.e., a consciousness completely void of content, which would include innate preferences) that seemed inconsistent to me with respect to at least some empirical evidence.

You wrote: “Your example simply indicates that at least some infants are able to perceive – i.e., to have awareness of entities in which various sensations are automatically integrated into percepts – at a very early age.”

I agree that infant facial recognition does indicate perception, which is entirely consistent with the Objectivist’s theory of concept formation. However, my point does not pertain to the general ability of perception, nor to the general act of perception, but rather to the apparent preferential focus of perception among newborns. In other words, newborns seemingly innate preference for face-like stimuli, as well as the ability to discriminate faces (not just between mother and not-mother, but also between ethnicity), presumably without the aid of concepts. Hence my question of whether or not you thought it reasonable to attribute volitional conceptualization at this stage of development.

[continued…]

August 10, 2015 8:13 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

You wrote: “You asked, “How does an infant ‘know’ to focus on faces, as opposed to non-faces?” The infant probably does focus on other things as well, but keep in mind also that faces are moving and often coming into very close range to the infant’s own face, so familiarity (i.e., percepts retained in memory) through repeated perception is bound to develop quite quickly.”

Undoubtedly, you are correct that infants do focus on things other than faces. However, the preference for face-like stimuli has been observed even when the newborn is simultaneous presented with nonface-like stimuli that has been spatially optimized to the neonate’s visual ability (Valenza et al., 1996). In these experiments, infants prefer faces even when something “more appealing” is presented.

Regarding the familiarity of faces, some of the studies involve neonates that are merely hours old. While not completely discounting the point, it does seem less likely that this behavioral preference is the result of repeated observations.

To be clear, I am not arguing for a priori knowledge per se, as I agree that knowledge is conceptual and that concepts are ultimately informed by perceptual inputs from reality. However, I am curious about the possibility of some type of inherent information that, while not conceptually held, is nevertheless retained in and/or has influence on consciousness and what philosophical implications (if any) that would have for Objectivism.

Alternatively, I am also curious if I have failed to integrate something.

In any event, thank you again for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 10, 2015 8:14 PM  
Blogger photosynthesis said...

Brandon,

I think that the point you're missing is that tabula rasa in Objectivism refers to knowledge, as that which requires concept formation.

Instincts towards focusing on faces, for example, would not require the concept of a face proper, but some innate inclination towards some shapes. Instinct would be something different to the knowledge, and thus tabula rasa, that Objectivism is about.

If what you're looking for, though, was some objectivist explanation for instincts, then I can tell you that the philosophy offers you a background, a starting point for understanding, not an answer for everything (it's not a religion). After that you develop / study the sciences.

I'm no Objectivist (not informed enough), but I hope this helps.

August 11, 2015 7:50 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

photosynthesis,

Thank you for your response. I do not consider myself an Objectivist either, and for the same reason you cite. But I have been studying the philosophy and attempting to integrate what I have learned -- so, lots of 'chewing' still going on here.

You wrote: "I think that the point you're missing is that tabula rasa in Objectivism refers to knowledge, as that which requires concept formation."

As I stated in my reply to Mr. Bethrick, I was really looking for a clear definition of tabula rasa, as he understands it, and how he thought human instincts interact with that notion (assuming human instinct is a valid concept to begin with). But, I am fairly confident that I understand Objectivism's definition of knowledge and the reason why inborn inclinations of behavior could not be classified as such. Though, naturally, this leads to the question of how Objectivism would classify human instinct, as I have defined it, and how Objectivism would understand the way in which instinct interacts with consciousness (if at all).

In his response, Mr. Bethrick seemed to indicated that tabula rasa in Objectivism means what you describe: the absence of inborn concepts. My understanding of Rand, however, was that she took a much stronger position (i.e., a consciousness void of all content, which would include innate preferences).

For example, her analogy of "unexposed film" and "unprogrammed computer" (The Comprachios, p. 54). However, if we do indeed have innate preferences, this would indicate that our "computer" is not actually unprogrammed. This situation, if accurate, would also raise some interesting questions regarding the nature of human consciousness, especially at birth.

You wrote: "If what you're looking for, though, was some objectivist explanation for instincts, then I can tell you that the philosophy offers you a background, a starting point for understanding, not an answer for everything (it's not a religion). After that you develop / study the sciences."

I certainly do not expect Objectivism to have an answer for everything or for knowledge to just be spoon-fed to me. However, as this relates to an area that is discussed in Objectivist literature, I was curious as to Mr. Bethrick's understanding.

In my experience with his writings, Mr. Bethrick has a keen ability to identify cognitive missteps and to relate Objectivist principles in novel situations. Thus, if he is willing and able to discuss this topic with me, I certainly want him to. I am operating under the assumption that I have, in fact, misunderstood something.

And, as an aside, I do not think that religions offer an answer for practically anything, ;-).

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 11, 2015 9:47 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

photosynthesis,

Just to add a little more to my response...

I do not want to give the wrong impression of what I mean when I refer to the idea of a "programmed" consciousness. I am not suggesting that this would be evidence of a "programmer" in the sense of some mystical, conscious agent.

Should it be the case that human beings have some type of innate "programming" which interacts with consciousness, I see no reason why this could not be the result of some biological causality that we have yet to understand (and, further, I would fully expect this to be the case). In fact, it may have been this very concern which motivated Rand to word things regarding tabula rasa as strongly as she did.

You might not have gotten that impression for what I had written, but just in case.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 11, 2015 12:13 PM  
Blogger photosynthesis said...

Hey Bradon,

OK then. I suspect, though I might be wrong, that we could solve this by thinking about the "innate" inclinations as part of the "hardware" to follow your analogy.

I don't think, though, that Rand was talking about a *consciousness* devoid of anything, but about the mechanisms. Dawson talked about this in his answers to you.

Does that help?

August 11, 2015 5:18 PM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

Photo,

As always, it’s nice to hear from you. Thanks for joining the conversation. I enjoy your comments and, as many times before, gather that you understand more than you give yourself credit for!


Brandon,

I’ve been giving your questions a lot of thought (when I can) since you first raised them, and I’ve made several pages of notes on the matter (which I will try to bring out here and perhaps in later messages if the conversation continues). I can definitely appreciate that there are a wide variety of issues to consider here.

We both seem to agree that whatever may be in an infant’s budding consciousness at the time in question (shortly after birth), it could not be conceptual. If that’s true, then I think we’re already siding with Rand’s understanding of tabula rasa given “instinct” as “automatic” or “innate knowledge.”

You state that your question pertains to what qualifies as tabula rasa in Objectivism and how it coincides or coheres with instinct understood as “unlearned inclination towards some type of complex behavior.” But this definition itself seems so broad as to include a number of things and raises a number of questions. For example, what is meant by “inclination,” and what qualifies a behavior as “complex”? You have agreed that breathing and thumb-sucking do not qualify as knowledge since they are “simple physiological reactions” which “lack conscious activity.” But here’s that descriptor ‘simple’ (as opposed to ‘complex’). So some yardstick must be in mind here to differentiate between simple physiological reactions and complex behaviors.

By implication, you apparently include regarding faces as an example of complex behavior, though I don’t know why. From the points I’ve already made, I’d say that it’s natural (an inclination perhaps?) for organisms which possess perceptual faculties to track moving objects in their visual field. Depending on how deeply one wants to analyze that or thumb-sucking, I don’t know why one would be considered a simple reaction and the other a complex behavior.

Also, drawing on the literature you’ve cited, you’ve referred several times to “preferences,” which you’ve qualified as innate. The notion of an “innate preference” suggests that it is present apart from learning and independent of experience. Hence a possible example of an instinct as you’ve defined it. Preference, as I understand it, presumes awareness of alternatives, some preferred over others. But if that’s the case, how could anyone, infant or otherwise, prefer one thing over another prior to any experience whatsoever? I find this quite puzzling in all this.

[continued…]

August 11, 2015 7:05 PM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

In the quotes cited and elsewhere, Rand refers to certain “mechanisms,” which prior to their activation (?) she refers to as potentials. These include emotional and cognitive mechanisms. In The Virtue of Selfishness she refers to “the pleasure-pain mechanism” (cf. here). Here, with pleasure vs. pain, we have two contrasting alternatives, and I’d suppose that an infant experiences the difference rather early in life. It may feel mild discomfort from the chill air of the hospital room to the pain of an irrigator forced down its throat or a hypodermic injection. And it can feel the pleasure of being swaddled in a blanket and resting on mommy’s bosom. Now it has something to prefer over something else. But how could it prefer the one over the other prior to experiencing either?

Also, even though I have not studied the literature on the matter, I’m often concerned about the potential to project things we adults take completely for granted (so often without realizing it) when discussing the nature of cognitive development in the earliest stages of life. I recall learning in my own psychology courses back in college about object permanence – i.e., the recognition (which I would say is quite implicit at first) that an object continues to exist even though it has removed itself from a child’s perceptual range (such as when a ball rolls around a corner or under the sofa). We of course take this very much for granted – indeed, it’s one of our first cognitive encounters with the primacy of existence, a principle which philosophers throughout history have been desperately trying to evade! (And the sciences have not remained completely immune to the resulting fallout in the philosophy departments.) So there must be some way to detect and measure “preferences” in a way that controls against researcher projection and bias. Or is there? If an infant happens to regard faces in its vicinity, is this due to a genuine preference, or simply because it is learning to track moving objects in its perceptual field? And if it is a preference, can it be shown that this preference existed before any experience, as something “innate” waiting to be let loose on the world?

Anyway, I have several more pages of thoughts on this, but very little time. So I’ll have to close with this. I hope you find what I’ve come back with so far helpful.

Regards,
Dawson

August 11, 2015 7:05 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

photosynthesis,

Thank you for your response. Having been a lurker of IP for some time, I have read many of your interactions in the comment sections, and I gladly welcome your input.

However, I did not intend to get the discussion hung up on what Rand might or might not have meant, as I was only trying to clarify the context of my original inquiries. That said, I will gladly accept yours and Mr. Bethrick's interpretation of tabula rasa – that is, the notion that humans are born without concepts – if only to allow the conversation to move on from there.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 12, 2015 9:18 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

Mr. Bethrick,

Again, thank you for your time and for your engagement with this topic. As I noted to photosynthesis, I have been a long-time lurker of IP, and it really is a pleasure to be having this conversation with such astute thinkers. And regardless of the outcome from this discussion, what you have written is helpful to me, even if only to sharpen my reasoning, improve my clarity, and potentially expose some errors in my thinking.

You wrote: “[Your definition of instinct] seems so broad as to include a number of things and raises a number of questions. For example, what is meant by “inclination,” and what qualifies a behavior as “complex”? You have agreed that breathing and thumb-sucking do not qualify as knowledge since they are “simple physiological reactions” which “lack conscious activity.” But here’s that descriptor ‘simple’ (as opposed to ‘complex’). So some yardstick must be in mind here to differentiate between simple physiological reactions and complex behaviors.”

While my definition could perhaps be reduced, I think I will have better luck trying to clarify the terms. Unfortunately, I do not yet have the ability to say much with little, unlike some better thinkers.

In a biological context, inclination refers to a natural tendency of an organism to perform a particular action – that is, a common pattern of behavior that is attributable to the nature of the organism in question. For example, sloths are inclined to sleep for up to 18 hours a day, deer are inclined to stand motionless when temporarily blinded by bright light, and dogs are inclined to wag their tails when excited. Note the inclusion of tendency, implying that the action is not necessarily unerring, but has been observed frequently enough to be associated with the organism.

Regarding complex versus simple behaviors, you have actually identified the primary “yardstick” that I had in mind: conscious involvement. Whereas some actions of biological organisms can be performed with very little conscious involvement (e.g., thumb-sucking) or no conscious involvement at all (e.g., respiration), other actions do necessitate sustained conscious involvement, such as running from a predator, foraging for food, or focusing on a computer screen. Admittedly, even this conception raises some questions (for example, how long and to what degree must consciousness be involved for a behavior to be consider complex?), though I think that it will serve our present purposes.

Taking the above together, instinct would then be “an unlearned [natural tendency of an organism] to perform a [behavior which requires sustained conscious involvement].” I am not quite sure if that is an improvement in clarity, but I hope that it is.

You wrote: “By implication, you apparently include regarding faces as an example of complex behavior, though I don’t know why. From the points I’ve already made, I’d say that it’s natural (an inclination perhaps?) for organisms which possess perceptual faculties to track moving objects in their visual field.”

I hope my explanation above helped to clear up some of these concerns. But just to reiterate, I would regard the act of focusing on and discriminating between faces as a behavior that requires sustained conscious involvement (i.e., complex), as opposed to very little or no conscious involvement (i.e., simple). As such, I would certainly consider the utilization of perceptual facilities to track moving objects as a complex behavior.

In fact, I might even consider perceptual tracking as another example of human instinct, but I have not given it careful thought, and it stands in stark contrast to what Rand has stated on the matter (“The Comprachicos,” p. 54). Not to derail the conversation, but I have yet to integrate Rand's contention that the act of focusing one's eyes is not innate, but an acquired skill, as this seems to imply both volition and effort. Could an infant fail to or choose not to focus its eyes?

[continued...]

August 12, 2015 10:03 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

You wrote: “Preference, as I understand it, presumes awareness of alternatives, some preferred over others. But if that’s the case, how could anyone, infant or otherwise, prefer one thing over another prior to any experience whatsoever? I find this quite puzzling in all this.”

While I would agree that awareness of one's preference presumes an awareness of alternatives, I do not think that the notion of preference itself necessarily presupposes experience – at least not in a biological sense.

For example, I prefer the taste of strawberries to the taste of blueberries, and I am aware of this because I have experienced the taste of both strawberries and blueberries. However, as taste is ultimately the result of biological causality – the chemical composition of food interacting with the papillae of the tongue which is then transmitted to the brain – my preference was already present, in a very real sense, even before I had tasted the fruits. All of this, of course, assumes that the casual structures that comprise my sense of taste stay more or less the same, which should not be a major concern for our current discussion, but it bears mentioning (for instance, I used to hate the taste of tomatoes when I was a kid, but as an adult, I love 'em!). Regardless, I do not see a necessary conflict between the notions of innate and preference when understood in this fashion, but please correct me if I am bungling my thinking here.

Also, perhaps this is related to Rand's idea of cognitive mechanisms (thank you for pointing that out, by the way). Could it be that infants, due to some causal biological factors, have a “preference potential” for tracking face-like stimuli? I will have to defer to your understanding of Rand in this instance, but I cannot see any immediate reason why this cannot be so.

You wrote: “...there must be some way to detect and measure “preferences” in a way that controls against researcher projection and bias. Or is there?”

To detect researcher projection and bias (which is, of course, a very valid concern), the best method that I know of is the peer review process. Alternatively, if one did not trust this process due to some perceived systemic infection of bad philosophy (again, a valid concern in some areas of science), I would suppose that the best method of detection would be to personally analyze the existing study designs and conclusions or to conduct one's own study, assuming that the analyzer is both keenly aware of and can account for his or her own cognitive biases.

You wrote: “If an infant happens to regard faces in its vicinity, is this due to a genuine preference, or simply because it is learning to track moving objects in its perceptual field? And if it is a preference, can it be shown that this preference existed before any experience...?”

Obviously, I am leaning towards considering the phenomenon of newborns focusing and discriminating among faces as an example of human instinct. If it were the case that neonates are exhibiting these behaviors as a result of simply learning to track moving objects, why do they spend a disproportionate amount of time tracking face-like stimuli? And why, if presented with nonface-like stimuli that is specifically designed to optimally engage infants' visual ability, do they still track faces?

At this time, the explanation that seems most consistent with the evidence to me is that there is some type of biological “programming” going on – in other words, information that is not held conceptually, but is nevertheless retained in and/or has influence on human consciousness. As far as proving that this “preferential programming” exists before any experience, I do not think that we have the scientific capability to determine this yet. However, as I mentioned previously, some of these studies included infants that were mere hours old – though this is not at all conclusive, it is highly suggestive.

As always, I appreciate your time and consideration, and I welcome your thoughts.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 12, 2015 10:04 AM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Brandon,

A few follow-up points to your latest rejoinder.

You wrote: “I might even consider perceptual tracking as another example of human instinct, but I have not given it careful thought, and it stands in stark contrast to what Rand has stated on the matter (“The Comprachicos,” p. 54).”

How does perceptual tracking (even if it is an unlearned inclination or tendency) “stand in stark contrast to what Rand has stated on the matter”? In the source cited, she writes:

<< At birth, a child’s mind is tabula rasa; he has the potential of awareness—the mechanism of a human consciousness—but no content. >>

To “stand in stark contrast” to this, one would have to posit content already existing in a child’s consciousness at or before birth. But how does perceptual tracking, or even a tendency of the eyes, once they engage with light (i.e., after opening them and looking out at the world), to track moving objects, constitute as “content” already existing in the child’s consciousness at or before birth? Presumably an infant does not open its eyes until after it’s out of the womb. It is the nature of the eyes to turn light which hits the retinas into sensations – but that’s not an instinct on any definition. And, since consciousness is in a very relevant sense a difference detector, it seems quite plausible (to me anyway) that it is in the nature of the visual response to the world (which doesn’t happen until after the infant is out of the womb and opens its eyes) to track moving objects against a stable background. How does this qualify as “content” at or before birth?

You wrote: “I prefer the taste of strawberries to the taste of blueberries, and I am aware of this because I have experienced the taste of both strawberries and blueberries. However, as taste is ultimately the result of biological causality – the chemical composition of food interacting with the papillae of the tongue which is then transmitted to the brain – my preference was already present, in a very real sense, even before I had tasted the fruits.”

Frankly, I think this is a misuse of the concept ‘prefer’ since it reduces preferences to deterministic chemical reactions. In fact, preference involves some form of evaluation and therefore consciousness of the things being evaluated. (This standard dictionary reference defines “prefer” as follows: “to set or hold before or above other persons or things in estimation; like better; choose rather than.”) To set or hold something before or above something else, to like something better than something else, to choose one thing rather than another, specifically entails not only awareness of the chosen over the unchosen, but estimation of the one against the other. How can a fetus be capable of this?

Preference is not simply “this reacts a certain way when it touches my tongue.” In fact, how does one determine when another person prefers something (as the conclusion of the cited research apparently requires)? I prefer pasta smothered in layers of Parmesan cheese for dinner over a simple green salad; but no one could tell this from merely observing my actions, for virtually every night I eat a simple green salad for dinner. Do I prefer the green salad? No, I really don’t – I prefer to load up on carbs because it’s such a delight. But for whatever reason (again, imperceptible to the observer), I don’t do what I prefer. In short, it’s hard to see how one could reliably (and without projecting) infer what is preferred from mere behavior.

So I’m a bit stymied here. You want an “inclination” or “tendency” to qualify as content already existing in an infant’s consciousness prior to birth (“in stark contrast to what Rand has stated on the matter”), and yet you want preference for one thing over something else without awareness of that which is preferred and that which is not preferred.

[continued…]

August 12, 2015 7:00 PM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

There’s another point I encourage you to investigate, one which David Kelley raises in his book The Evidence of the Senses in distinguishing sensations from perception. Here’s a teaser:

<< Perhaps the most striking cases appear in the experience of blind persons whose sight is surgically restored. Such newly sighted patients have great difficulty learning to perceive and identify objects visually. The nature of the difficulty is still a matter of controversy and in any case seems to vary from person to person. Some reports, however, suggest a form of experience radically unlike our own. >>

Now if focusing on faces were in fact some pre-programmed instinct native to the human organism, why would any blind patients whose sight has been restored have any “difficulty learning to perceive and identify objects visually,” especially if this were supposed to be an “unlearned tendency” that is already baked into our consciousness before we’re ever conscious?

Anyway, fascinating question, Brandon.

Regards,
Dawson

August 12, 2015 7:00 PM  
Blogger photosynthesis said...

Hi Dawson,

Thanks for your kind words.

I find Objectivism to say a lot of what I have thought for quite a while. So, I'm glad to read that I have indeed shown some understanding of what this is about.

Best!

August 12, 2015 8:20 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

Mr. Bethrick,

Thank you for your response.

You wrote: “How does perceptual tracking (even if it is an unlearned inclination or tendency) 'stand in stark contrast to what Rand has stated on the matter'?”

The passage that I was referring to is actually the very next paragraph on the same page:

“If, in any two years of adult life, men could learn as much as an infant learns in his first two years, they would have the capacity of genius. To focus his eyes (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill), to perceive the things around him by integrating his sensations into percepts (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill), to coordinate his muscles for the task of crawling, then standing upright, then walking—and, ultimately, to grasp the process of concept-formation and learn to speak—these are some of an infant’s tasks and achievements whose magnitude is not equaled by most men in the rest of their lives.” – “The Comprachicos,” p. 54 (my emphasis)

Compare this to the full context of my statement, where I wrote: “In fact, I might even consider perceptual tracking as another example of human instinct, but I have not given it careful thought, and it stands in stark contrast to what Rand has stated on the matter (“The Comprachicos,” p. 54). Not to derail the conversation, but I have yet to integrate Rand's contention that the act of focusing one's eyes is not innate, but an acquired skill, as this seems to imply both volition and effort. Could an infant fail to or choose not to focus its eyes?”

The stark contrast is between 1) perceiving as an acquired skill (Rand) and 2) perceiving as an innate behavior. Though, as I stated, I have not given this point careful thought. But, I am still curious: If perceiving is volitional and requires effort (i.e., it is an “acquired skill”), could an infant choose not to or fail to focus its eyes?

You wrote: “It is the nature of the eyes to turn light which hits the retinas into sensations – but that’s not an instinct on any definition. And, since consciousness is in a very relevant sense a difference detector, it seems quite plausible (to me anyway) that it is in the nature of the visual response to the world (which doesn’t happen until after the infant is out of the womb and opens its eyes) to track moving objects against a stable background. How does this qualify as “content” at or before birth?”

To be sure, I would not consider the mere reaction of eyes to light as an instinct, and I am not sure how I gave you that impression. But, if the rest of this analysis were accurate, would we not find infants spending a statistically equivalent time tracking all sorts of objects? While infants do track different objects, what we find (assuming the study conclusions are accurate) is that infants spend a disproportionate amount of time tracking face-like stimuli. To borrow from Binswager metaphor, the blank piece of paper has a lot of different insects moving about it, but the viewer is compelled to spend a large amount of its time considering one particular type of insect, when it is present.

Regarding your admonishment of my use of the concept prefer, you are, of course, right that I am not using the term in its correct sense. However, would you not agree that our preferences have underlying causal factors? (Which was really the point of my example and not so much to redefine or butcher the concept prefer). Perhaps this could be understood as a “preference potential”?

But, more to the point, the studies conclude that infants are choosing to track face-like stimuli rather than nonface-like stimuli when presented with both, and presumably without the aid of concepts. Accordingly, as infants would have no knowledge of the difference between “face” and “not-face”, what are we to make of this “preferential” behavior?

[continued...]

August 13, 2015 12:57 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

You wrote: “In fact, how does one determine when another person prefers something (as the conclusion of the cited research apparently requires)? I prefer pasta smothered in layers of Parmesan cheese for dinner over a simple green salad; but no one could tell this from merely observing my actions, for virtually every night I eat a simple green salad for dinner. Do I prefer the green salad? No, I really don’t – I prefer to load up on carbs because it’s such a delight. But for whatever reason (again, imperceptible to the observer), I don’t do what I prefer. In short, it’s hard to see how one could reliably (and without projecting) infer what is preferred from mere behavior.”

Respectfully, I do not think this a fair analogy, if your intent is to say that inferring the preferences from the behavior of a developed adult (who possess a myriad of experiences and informed concepts) is equivalent in difficulty to inferring the preferences from the behavior of an undeveloped neonate (which possesses little to no experience and no concepts).

For example, while an adult might prefer the taste of pasta as opposed to salad, that same adult might not prefer the consequences (which he or she is aware of due to experience and knowledge) of eating pasta as opposed to salad. As you stated, an outside observer would not be able to discern based on the behavior alone. However, in the case of infants (and perhaps even small children who gorge themselves on candy, despite the resulting stomach upset), things are not quite so complicated, and a reasonable inference for preference can be made based on what the infant chooses to do (at least, I think so).

You wrote: “So I’m a bit stymied here. You want an 'inclination' or 'tendency' to qualify as content already existing in an infant’s consciousness prior to birth ('in stark contrast to what Rand has stated on the matter'), and yet you want preference for one thing over something else without awareness of that which is preferred and that which is not preferred.”

To reiterate, I have sought your engagement in this conversation to learn. So, what I want is simply the benefit of your knowledge, understanding, and critical discernment on this topic for as long as you are willing and able to provide it. I do not think that I have been shy about my admiration for you as a thinker. And, as we both affirm, what we want has absolutely no bearing on what is.

I hope my above points helped to clear some of this confusion. But, just in case, what I am hypothesizing is the presence of information that is not conceptually held but is nevertheless retained in and/or has influence on human consciousness at or prior to birth. Further, I am positing that a person can be biologically predisposed to prefer one thing over another thing without a conceptually understanding of either that which is preferred or that which is not preferred.

[continued...]

August 13, 2015 12:57 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

You stated: “Now if focusing on faces were in fact some pre-programmed instinct native to the human organism, why would any blind patients whose sight has been restored have any 'difficulty learning to perceive and identify objects visually,' especially if this were supposed to be an 'unlearned tendency' that is already baked into our consciousness before we’re ever conscious?”

As the Kelly quote indicates (thank you for that), the reason why people who have had their sight restored after a long period of blindness have difficulty perceiving and identifying objects is not a settled matter and the occurrence of this problem varies depending on the person. Part of the issue of assessing these cases is that they are very rare (Ostrovsky, Andalman, & Sinha, 2006) and that few published accounts of recovery from early blindness provide details about the patient prior to sight-recovery.

However, one prevalent scientific opinion is that this difficulty is, at least partially, the result of the biological structures of vision lying dormant, thus contributing to their atrophy. In fact, some animal studies suggest that a prolonged lack of vision can lead to permanent functional blindness. None of this, of course, precludes the presence of an innate behavioral tendency to track faces, anymore than a dog which has had the nerves of its tail damaged precludes its innate behavioral tendency to wag said tail.

And again, as you have pointed out, we should be careful of projecting the nature of consciousness in later stages of life onto the nature of consciousness in early life. Obviously, if face-tracking is an innate behavior, it would seem that it can be overruled as we develop new perceptual habits (a situation that often gets me into trouble with my wife when she wears a low-cut dress). Thus, a straight comparison of behaviors – innate or otherwise – between a person possessing a developed consciousness and a person possessing an undeveloped consciousness might not be reasonable in this instance.

In any event, I am very glad that you find this line of inquiry interesting. I will admit that I am more than a little concerned that I might be taking advantage of your graciousness and/or branching too far out into the realm of scientific inquiry, as opposed to philosophic inquiry.

As always though, thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

P.S. For a fascinating case study involving a man whose vision was restored after 50 years, but whose visual perception was nevertheless impeded by his tactile understanding of the world, please see “Recovery from Early Blindness: A Case Study” by Gregory & Wallace (1964).

August 13, 2015 12:57 PM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Brandon,

You wrote (quoting Rand): “To focus his eyes (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill), to perceive the things around him by integrating his sensations into percepts (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill),”

Yes, I see what you were saying. My bad. (Unfortunately, for much of this conversation, you’re getting me at my worst – after a very long day of work!) I think this has more to do with Rand’s theory of perception than it does with her affirmation of tabula rasa, which is what I’ve been primarily focused on here.

Also, I would agree that Rand’s use of the word “skill” here may suggest volition and effort (especially effort, in the acquiring part), but I would caution that we not take this in the wrong way – e.g., the Humean view that we select sensations and consciously assemble them into percepts. To the degree that Rand allows volition here, it is from what I can tell in directing our sensory organs – e.g., turning our heads to see something or tilting one’s head towards one side to hear better, etc., actions that we no doubt take completely for granted as adults. By skill here, Rand may simply have in mind an ability that improves through repeated operation. This of course would not imply anything innate per se, save a potential for certain types of action, which is what, according to Rand’s view, we’re born with anyway.

I would also point out that not all actions of this sort are necessarily volitional. If someone behind you drops a heavy suitcase on a hard surface in an otherwise quiet setting, you’ll likely jump involuntarily if you were not expecting it. Such startling moments seem to “wake” us up, and quite involuntarily. Rand’s view is that infants begin on the level of sensations and eventually (surely some more quickly than others) develop the ability – or “acquire the skill” – of integrating those sensations into percepts.

[continued…]

August 13, 2015 8:24 PM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

In the case of regarding faces, I suspect that, along with any tendency to track moving objects perceptually, there may in fact be a pleasure mechanism involved here. Looking at some faces, especially if they’re making pleasant noises and contorting their smiles into goofy shapes, may be cause reactions of pleasure in infants (in some at least), and let’s face it: pleasure is pretty hard to resist. But experiencing pleasurable sensations does not presume mental content or an innate skill beyond the immediate sensory level, would it? One simply feels it. Similarly with pain. We react to injury, like it or not – regardless of our preferences. That’s the primacy of existence.

You wrote: “To be sure, I would not consider the mere reaction of eyes to light as an instinct, and I am not sure how I gave you that impression.”

No, you didn’t give me the impression that you were calling this an impression, and I apologize for giving the impression that I had that impression! (Again, my post-workday exhaustion here.) I’m eventually trying to tie this back to your explanation of the causal basis for your preference for strawberries over blueberries (and to answer your question, sure – preferences have underlying bases, indeed, probably very complex bases, involving estimation or evaluation, along with a long series of causal connections and interactions). But here I want to stress that the taste of strawberries resulting in pleasure is no more an example of innate programming on one’s consciousness than is light causing sensory reaction in one’s retinas. Both pleasure and pain are available independent of perception; the level of sensations is sufficient.

I think the point is that, if your preference for strawberries over blueberries is pre-volitional, pre-conceptual, even pre-perceptual, in fact strictly chemical (as you had described it earlier), then it is no more an instinct than light hitting the eyes and causing a sensation – and precisely for the same reasons: in the one case we have retinas and optic nerves firing, in the other we have the taste buds firing. Why not similarly with the preference for faces?

Speaking of fascinating studies (thanks for the reference, btw), I recall Binswanger describing a number of experiments regarding sensation and perception (I remember several he described in particular involving young kittens). I will have to look that up again, but if I’m not mistaken it’s also in his series on “The Metaphysics of Consciousness.” I would also recommend Kelley’s aforementioned book if you’re interested in further research in these areas from at least an Objectivist-influenced perspective.

Thanks again for the fascinating discussion.

Regards,
Dawson

August 13, 2015 8:24 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

Mr. Bethrick,

Thank you for your response.

There is no need at all to apologize. I did not realize that I had you at a disadvantage, and I appreciate the fact that you chose to interact with my questions when you could have been relaxing after a long day's work. Also, I hope that I have not put any undue pressure on you to respond within a certain time frame. As I stated previously, I am a longtime fan of IP and your writings, so I expect that I will continue to be around for a while – so, no pressure at all.

In your latest reply, you raised some very interesting points. In particular, your exposition of Rand was very helpful to me. For whatever reason, I tend to have difficulty understanding and integrating some of her thoughts.

You wrote: “In the case of regarding faces, I suspect that, along with any tendency to track moving objects perceptually, there may in fact be a pleasure mechanism involved here. Looking at some faces, especially if they’re making pleasant noises and contorting their smiles into goofy shapes, may be cause reactions of pleasure in infants (in some at least), and let’s face it: pleasure is pretty hard to resist. But experiencing pleasurable sensations does not presume mental content or an innate skill beyond the immediate sensory level, would it? One simply feels it. Similarly with pain.”

I agree that there is likely some sort of mechanism involved – a conclusion that is consistent with many of the researcher findings. Though, I am not sure if the pleasure/pain response from our 'direct senses' (e.g., touch, taste) can be equated with the pleasure/pain response from our 'indirect senses' (e.g., sight, hearing). In the former case, these responses seem intrinsic, whereas in the latter, they seem extrinsic.

For example, if someone were to strike my knee with a hammer, my body's natural reaction is a pain response. This is due to nature of my knee, which includes pain receptors and a connection to my nervous system. As you aptly stated, this requires nothing more than the sensory level of consciousness. In a similar way, the chemical reaction between a strawberry and my tongue produces a pleasurable response – again, nothing more than the sensory level required.

However, in the case of vision, what is meant by saying that a particular image is pleasurable or painful? Assuming a moderate intensity, does this mean that the interaction of a particular pattern of light with our optic nerves can in and of itself cause us pain or pleasure? I would think that some type of context would be required for an image to elicit either of these responses.

For instance, as I possess a developed consciousness, I can certainly derive pleasure from a particular image by cognitively associating it with past pleasurable experiences and emotions, but how would an infant accomplish this tabula rasa? Even if it is true that some neonates visually regard faces because it evokes a pleasurable response, it seems to me that we would still need to posit the presence of some type of innate information or “programming” in order to provide a context for the visually-derived pleasure. Similar points could be made about hearing, as well.

And, by the way, thank you for the suggestions of Kelly and Binswanger. I believe I have read some of Kelly's work some time ago, but I am not that familiar with Binswanger. I will definitely look into their respective works.

As always, thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 14, 2015 1:45 PM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

Consciousness may be tabula rasa at birth, but it's still consciousness. A blank slate is still a slate. Even prior to specific content, consciousness has a specific nature. Part of that nature is the capacity to learn. I think this is the point photosynthesis was making when he made the software/hardware analogy.

An infant's first experience is a wash of sensations. Faces are a great source of sensations. They move around, come in close, make sounds, make contact, change shape, and they are associated with intrinsic pleasure such as food. It would be remarkable if an infant didn't focus on faces. If an infant lacked the capacity to integrate the various sensations associated with faces into a single percept, then it wouldn't be conscious. That is what our consciousness does (among other great things).

If faces were flat, dull, unmoving objects that only did one thing -- reflect light -- then it would be remarkable if infants somehow "knew" to focus on them. But given that faces are some of the most interesting things in the world, I don't find it amazing at all that infants focus on them -- perhaps only that infants learn so quickly to do so.

Maybe I'm oversimplifying things, but that's how I see it right now.

August 15, 2015 8:32 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

David,

Thank you for joining the conversation and sharing your thoughts.

You wrote: “Consciousness may be tabula rasa at birth, but it's still consciousness. A blank slate is still a slate. Even prior to specific content, consciousness has a specific nature. Part of that nature is the capacity to learn.”

To be clear, I agree that consciousness, as it exists, has a specific nature. Further, I agree that a primary aspect of that nature is the capacity of awareness, as well as a capacity to integrate sensations and precepts, thereby providing the basis for concept-formation and, as you imply, knowledge.

You wrote: “An infant's first experience is a wash of sensations. Faces are a great source of sensations. They move around, come in close, make sounds, make contact, change shape, and they are associated with intrinsic pleasure such as food. It would be remarkable if an infant didn't focus on faces. If an infant lacked the capacity to integrate the various sensations associated with faces into a single percept, then it wouldn't be conscious. That is what our consciousness does (among other great things).”

I would also find it remarkable if infants did not utilized their perceptual faculties to consider objects, faces included. But I would be careful here about projecting the cognitive nature of adults onto that of newborns, especially as you seem to be utilizing the benefit of your experience in assessing the significance of faces (i.e., faces do “x, y, and z” and are associated with “x ,y, and z” and are, therefore, very interesting to consider). As we possess a more-developed form of consciousness that includes a wide variety of experiences and informed concepts, we can certainly appreciate the significance of faces.

However, in the case of a neonate that has little to no experiential associations or concepts, how do we account for their apparently preferential regard for faces within hours of birth? Especially as many of these experiments involved using face-like stimuli that consisted of a two-dimensional representation of the basic features of human faces – so, no sounds, no contact, no shape changing, etc.. Furthermore, when presented with nonface-like stimuli that was designed to optimally engage an infant's visual ability (i.e., a “more appealing” stimulus), the infants still preferred the face-like stimuli.

You wrote: “If faces were flat, dull, unmoving objects that only did one thing -- reflect light -- then it would be remarkable if infants somehow "knew" to focus on them. But given that faces are some of the most interesting things in the world, I don't find it amazing at all that infants focus on them -- perhaps only that infants learn so quickly to do so.”

As I noted above, in many of these experiments, the face-like stimuli were actually “dull, flat, unmoving objects” (though the experimenters did move the stimuli around the infant's visual field to assess perceptual tracking behavior). You have identified the source of my fascination with the topic – infants seem to somehow 'know' to focus on faces. In fact, in some of these experiments, the neonates showed a preference for face-like stimuli before having ever seen an actual face (Goren, Sarty, & Wu, 1975).

All of this suggests to me that there is some type of biological “programming” going on, which, if true, may or may not have some interesting philosophical implications (which was one of the primary reasons I brought this subject up to Mr. Bethrick).

Thank you for your response.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 15, 2015 10:30 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

Brandon,

I'm working on a reply. I'm also looking at the research you posted. It's taking a little longer than I expected, but I should have it completed tomorrow. Just didn't want you to think I had lost interested in this fascinating topic!

August 17, 2015 7:40 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

David,

No rush at all! I recognize the fact that this conversation is a bit outside of the stated scope of this blog, and I appreciate any sort of interaction on this topic.

Since you are reviewing the evidence yourself, I can offer at least two more studies (I have an entire folder of peer-reviewed references regarding varying scientific opinions on this subject, should you want direction to others) that might be interesting to you, apart from the one I cited in my reply:

Maurer, D., & Young, R. (1983). Newborns’ following of natural and distorted arrangements of facial features. Infant Behavior and Development, 6(1),127–131. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0163-6383(83)80018-6

Johnson, M.H., Dziurawiec, S., Ellis, H.D., & Morton, J. (1991). Newborns’ preferential tracking of face-like stimuli and its subsequent decline. Cognition, 40(1-2), 1–19. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0010-0277(91)90045-6

The Johnson et al. (1991) study is especially interesting, as not only did they replicate Goren et al.'s (1975) findings, their own findings suggested that preferential tracking of face-like stimuli is most statistically significant between 0 – 1 month of life and then begins to decline after this time.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 17, 2015 9:12 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

Brandon,

Thank you for your respectful and thoughtful response. I have been giving your comments a lot of thought, and have been checking out those references you provided as well. I haven’t been able to go beyond reading every study’s abstract, as many of the studies themselves reside behind a paywall. The ones I did read are full of difficult technical language that I often failed to fully grasp. I did my best to derive some layman-level impressions. Because you provided several citations, I’ll comment on each of them in the order you provided, and number them for future reference.

#1 Goren, C. C., Sarty, M., Wu, P. Y. K. (1975). Visual following and pattern discrimination of face-like stimuli by newborn infants. Pediatrics, 56, 544-549. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1165958

I’ll post the entire abstract:

“Forty newborn infants, median age 9 minutes, turned their eyes and heads to follow a series of moving stimuli. Responsiveness was significantly greater to a proper face pattern than to either of two scrambled versions of the same stimulus or to a blank. The demonstration of such consistent response differences suggests that visual discriminations are being made at this early age. These results imply that organized visual perception is an unlearned capacity of the human organism. The preference for the proper face stimulus by infants who had not seen a real face prior to testing suggests that an unlearned or "evolved" responsiveness to faces may be present in human neonates.”

Pretty astounding stuff! Unfortunately, that’s all the information I can get to (without coughing up cash). If this were the only thing to read, I would be scratching my head in amazement right now.


#2 Johnson, M. H., Dziurawiec, S., Ellis, H., & Morton, J. (1991). Newborns' preferential tracking of face-like stimuli and its subsequent decline. Cognition, 40, 1-19. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1786670

Abstract:

“Goren, Sarty, and Wu (1975) claimed that newborn infants will follow a slowly moving schematic face stimulus with their head and eyes further than they will follow scrambled faces or blank stimuli. Despite the far-reaching theoretical importance of this finding, it has remained controversial and been largely ignored. In Experiment 1 we replicate the basic findings of the study. In Experiment 2 we attempt a second replication in a different maternity hospital, and extend the original findings with evidence suggesting that both the particular configuration of features, and some aspects of the features themselves, are important for preferential tracking in the first hour of life. In Experiment 3 we use a different technique to trace the preferential tracking of faces over the first five months of life. The preferential tracking of faces declines during the second month. The possible causes and consequences of this observation are discussed.”

This study references the first you cited, but no others. It claims to replicate the basic findings, but we don’t get much more information than that (in the abstract). Still, pretty impressive!

[cont...]

August 18, 2015 1:22 PM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

#3 Simion, F., Cassia, V. M., Turati, C., & Valenza, E. (2001). The origins of face perception: Specific versus non-specific mechanisms. Infant and Child Development, 10, 59-65. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/icd.247/abstract

The abstract:

“Many studies have demonstrated that newborns prefer upright faces over upside-down faces. Based on this evidence, some have suggested that faces represent a special class of stimuli for newborns and there is a qualitative difference between the processes involved in perception of facelike and non-facelike patterns (i.e. structural hypothesis). Others suggest that there is no reason to suppose that faces are different from other patterns, because faces, like any other class of visual stimuli, are subject to filtering by the properties of the visual system (i.e. sensory hypothesis). The core question that will be addressed in the present paper is whether, to manifest itself, face preference requires the unique structure of the face, represented by the relative spatial location of its internal features, or rather some more general properties that other stimuli may also possess. Evidence will be presented supporting the idea that newborns do not respond to facelike stimuli by ‘facedness’ but, rather, by some general structural characteristics that best satisfy the constraints of the immature visual system.”

Unfortunately, we don’t get much here. I find the final sentence to be intriguing, however, as it appears to be counter to #1 and #2.

#4 Bushnell, I. W. R., Sai, F., & Mullin, J. T. (1989). Neonatal recognition of the mother's face. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7, 3-15.

I was unable to dig this one up.

#5 Pascalis, O., de Schonen, S., Morton, J., Deruelle, C., Fabre-Grenet, M. (1995) Mother's face recognition by neonates: A replication and an extension. Infant Behavior and Development, 18, 79-85. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/222305738_Mother%27s_face_recognition_by_neonates_A_replication_and_extension

Again, this study relies upon the 1975 Goren (#1) study as the basis of some of its presuppositions. As you noted, this study has to do with infants’ preference for mother’s face over a stranger’s face. That does seem to be the case, in a vague way. The infants were about 4 days old when studied, and did seem to prefer looking at mother’s face, although that preference disappeared when mother and stranger wore a scarf. This implies that the infant’s visual acuity is still relatively poor. I don’t see a problem with any of this as regards tabula rasa, and I imagine that you would agree.

#6 Pascalis, O., de Schonen, S., Morton, J., Deruelle, C., Fabre-Grenet, M. (1995) Mother's face recognition by neonates: A replication and an extension. Infant Behavior and Development, 18, 79-85.

I’m assuming you accidentally posted the same study twice. I tried to find two separate studies, but didn’t.

#7 Quinn, P. C., Uttley, L., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., Slater, A. M., Pascalis, O. (2008). Infant preference for female faces occurs for same- but not other-race faces. Journal of Neuropsychology, 2, 15-26. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19334302

This study has to do with 3-month old infants, and so does not seem relevant to the current conversation.

#8 Pascalis, O. & Slater, A. (2003). Development of face processing in infancy and early childhood: Current perspectives. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3786559/

Older infants again (3-7 months), so I skipped this one.

[cont...]

August 18, 2015 1:23 PM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

In your most recent comment, you provided two more studies. The second one appears to be a repeat of #2 above. The first I’ll call #9. For #9, I couldn’t find the abstract of the actual study, only a paper discussing it and numbers 1 and 2 above.

#9Maurer, D., & Young, R. (1983). Newborns’ following of natural and distorted arrangements of facial features. Infant Behavior and Development, 6(1),127–131. https://www.uni-muenster.de/imperia/md/content/psyifp/aeechterhoff/sommersemester2012/sozialekognition/turatietal_newbornspreferenceforfaces_developpsy_2002.pdf

The abstract of this paper particular paper states:

Three experiments investigated whether the presence of more elements in the upper part of a configuration (i.e., up– down asymmetry) plays a role in determining newborns’ preference for facelike patterns. Newborns preferred a non-facelike stimulus with more elements in the upper part over a non-facelike stimulus with more elements in the lower part (Experiment 1), did not show a preference for a facelike stimulus over a nonfacelike configuration equated for the number of elements in the upper part of the configuration (Experiment 2), and preferred a nonfacelike configuration located in the upper portion of the stimulus over a facelike configuration in the lower portion of the pattern (Experiment 3). Results demonstrated that up– down asymmetry is crucial in determining newborns’ face preference.

In my opinion, these results do not support the assertion that newborns have an innate tendency or preference to focus on faces. Furthermore, I do not find the “facelike” stimuli used in the study to be appreciably facelike. They do seem to show that a white oblong shape with various black “blobs” in the upper portion is preferable to one with the blobs in the lower portion. I don’t think we can infer too much from this.

Additionally, Experiment 2 seems clearly to contradict the findings of study #2 (above) that is one of only 2 studies provided that claims to find data that newborns display a preference for faces and/or facelike stimuli.

Another pair of points worth noting:

“However, it appears difficult to reconcile this interpretation with
the findings of Simion et al. (2002). In that study, the preference
produced by the up-down asymmetry manifested itself for pat-
terns that did not look anything like faces in terms of their structure
but that also had more elements in the top half than in the bottom
half. Thus, parsimony would dictate that all of these results could
be explained by a general preference for vertically imbalanced
patterns rather than for faces per se.”

and

“An opposite explanation maintains that the meaningful experience newborn infants
have with human faces drives the perceptual preference for stimuli
that share similar qualities. Of course, at the moment, there is no
definitive answer to this issue. In fact, the infants tested in the
present study had between 1 and 4 days of experience with visual
stimuli, including human faces. Thus, nothing can be said about
whether such preferences are innate.”

This is in line with what I and others have suggested, that the interaction with faces from the first moments of a newborn’s life creates in it a preference for faces.

This study essentially discards itself from our conversation, as it ends by saying “nothing can be said about whether such preferences are innate” and that is exactly what we are talking about.

[cont...]

August 18, 2015 1:24 PM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

So of the 9 resources, I think that only numbers 1 and 2 are relevant to the discussion at hand. Two studies are not enough, in my opinion, to demonstrate conclusively that infants prefer faces or facelike patterns over other visual stimuli.

In my search for information on this topic, I clicked on every link present on the abstract page of #1. I found many of these to be relevant. For instance:

A) Easterbrook (1999) Newborns discriminate schematic faces from scrambled faces. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10504887

Abstract
Newborn attention to, and discrimination of, facelike patterns was examined in three experiments employing 35 one- to three-day-old infants. Differential eye tracking and head turning to three moving stimuli (a schematic face, a scrambled face, and a luminance-matched blank) were measured in two of the three experiments. The newborns turned their eyes and heads farther to follow patterned stimuli, containing facelike features, than to a luminance-matched blank, but they did not turn farther to a stimulus with the features arranged in a facelike manner compared to features scrambled. A third experiment tested newborns' ability to discriminate between the facelike and scrambled face patterns. Using an infant-controlled procedure, infants showed similar initial fixation times and similar numbers of trials to reach a 60% response decrement criterion to both patterned stimuli. Following habituation, novelty responding indicated that infants discriminated between the schematic face and the scrambled face patterns. Although infants did not show a preference for a facelike stimulus compared to a features-scrambled pattern in the present experiments, they could discriminate the two patterns based on the internal arrangement of the facial features.
Although I do not understand some of the language used here, I think I can comprehend enough to understand that this experiment contradicts #1 and #2.

B) Simion, Valenza How Face Specialization Emerges in the First Months of Life. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17920431

Abstract
The present chapter deals with the topic of the ontogeny and development of face processing in the first months of life and is organized into two sections concerning face detection and face recognition. The first section focuses on the mechanisms underlying infants' visual preference for faces. Evidence is reviewed supporting the contention that newborns' face preferences is due to a set of non-specific constraints that stem from the general characteristics of the human visuo-perceptual system, rather than to a representational bias for faces. It is shown that infants' response to faces becomes more and more tuned to the face category over the first 3 months of life, revealing a gradual progressive specialization of the face-processing system. The second section sought to determine the properties of face recognition at birth. In particular, a series of experiments are presented to examine whether the inner facial part is processed and encoded when newborns recognize a face, and what kind of information--featural or configural--newborns' face recognition rely on. Overall, results are consistent with the existence of general constraints present at birth that tune the system to become specialized for faces later during development.

This seems to support my explanation by appeal to learning.

[cont...]

August 18, 2015 1:24 PM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

So we have 2 studies that claim to support the notion that newborns have an innate preference for faces, and 2 studies that seem to dispel that notion. I think we need more research in this area before we can stand on any conclusions.

I also found a long (40-page) paper that is not itself a source of original research, but discusses and refers primarily to #2 above. Development Neurobiology of Face Processing (chapter 2 of who knows how many in who knows what publication) http://people.umass.edu/lscott/publications/scottnelson.ip.pdf

If you or anyone else wants to slog through this difficult chapter, I’ll let you. I did, and it wasn’t much fun. I’ll select one tidbit to support my side of the discussion, however:

“This model suggests that early in development, infants have diffuse cortical activation
in response to faces that then becomes more specific with environmental exposure to faces. Subsequently, during the first few months of life, infant face perception is an emergent product of the interaction of early orienting tendencies and the overabundance of facial stimuli in the environment. These early orienting abilities are not the result of an innate cortical face module but instead reflect more primitive innate neural circuitry, involving subcortical areas of the brain. With experience, the diffuse neuronal activation becomes more specific, and the face processing system thus becomes more specialized.”

That sounds like learning to me. It even goes so far as to claim that the “early orienting abilities are not the result of an innate cortical face module.” Granted, this is a tentative conclusion, but it makes the most sense to me.

In my initial comment, I said that faces are not dull, flat, unmoving objects. You countered by nothing that the objects in most of these experiments were, in fact, dull, flat, unmoving objects. But faces in general are dynamic. A newborn’s first interaction with faces are with those of the dynamic type. If someone later shows the infant something that looks vaguely like a face (perhaps in part due to poor visual capacity early in life), then perhaps the infant is simply looking at the facelike object and waiting for it to do something interesting. I don’t see why this couldn’t explain the “apparent preference” claimed in a few of the foregoing experiments.

I think it is important to note that, in addition to the low number of studies that have been done, the total number of infants who have been studied is also quite low. Study #1 used 40 infants. Study #2 does not specify, but claims to replicate #1, so let’s say another 40. Study A used 35 infants. Study B does not specify. In most of the studies that I rejected as not relevant to the current topic, the number of newborns studied was between 8 and 20.

Finally, I think we need to hold a high degree of skepticism when researchers make empirical claims about the nature of infant consciousness based on simple observation a few hours or days after birth. As you cautioned me against, it would be very easy to project one’s adult ideas onto a newborn. I don’t know how anyone could realistically claim that an infant recognizes and prefers faces at birth with any degree of certainty.

Thanks for reading all that!

David Barwick

[cont...]

August 18, 2015 1:25 PM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

p.s. In response to your charge that I might be projecting my adult cognitive nature onto that of newborns

“especially as you seem to be utilizing the benefit of your experience in assessing the significance of faces (i.e., faces do “x, y, and z” and are associated with “x ,y, and z” and are, therefore, very interesting to consider). As we possess a more-developed form of consciousness that includes a wide variety of experiences and informed concepts, we can certainly appreciate the significance of faces.”

I take it to be self-evident that faces are “interesting,” at least as compared to “dull, flat, unmoving objects.” We do not need to comprehend the “significance” of faces in order to apprehend that they “move around, come in close, make sounds, make contact, change shape” as I observed in my first comment.

August 18, 2015 1:26 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

David,

Thank you for your response.

That was quite a reply! Before I address your more specific points, please consider some more general points first.

A common theme in your response is the notion of skepticism. While I agree that a healthy dose of skepticism is important for critical inquiry, you seem to have some sort of “skeptical threshold” that you believe has not been met. For instance, you claim that “[t]wo studies are not enough...to demonstrate conclusively that infants prefer faces or facelike patterns over other visual stimuli.” Naturally, I would ask: In your view, how many studies would be enough? Now, if you were to say 10 studies would be enough, why not 25? And so on, ad nauseam. My point here is that the quality of research is much more important than the quantity of research.

In any event, if you have a genuine interest in this topic, I would suggest that you continue your investigation beyond the handful of studies that I have provided before concluding how many there actually are, and for you to focus primarily on the study methodologies before considering the study conclusions.

Also, apart from implying that I have been making the case that the science on this topic is conclusive (please see my comment in this thread to Mr. Bethrick from August 12, 2015 to dispel this notion), you also seem to be implying that the phenomenon of neonates preference for face-like stimuli is itself the hotly contested issue – it is not. The primary issue is why it occurs, not that it does occur. Furthermore, you are basing this conclusion on a limited review of abstracts of studies that I had provided to Mr. Bethrick (all of which were general starting points for further investigation that I had provided at the very beginning of our discussion).

While you are certainly entitled to disregard research for whatever reason that you would like, I would strongly encourage you to ask yourself if you have some sort of intellectual investment that you are protecting, i.e., are you rejecting these studies because they are not congruent with your current views or are you rejecting them for good reasons? Respectfully, I do not see how you could be doing the latter, as your limited abstract review did not include an analysis of the study methods, just the conclusions.

The above points are abundantly clear when you write the following regarding Maurer et al. (1983): “In my opinion, these results do not support the assertion that newborns have an innate tendency or preference to focus on faces. Furthermore, I do not find the “facelike” stimuli used in the study to be appreciably facelike. They do seem to show that a white oblong shape with various black “blobs” in the upper portion is preferable to one with the blobs in the lower portion. I don’t think we can infer too much from this.”

Immediately following this, you write: “Additionally, Experiment 2 seems clearly to contradict the findings of study #2 (above) that is one of only 2 studies provided that claims to find data that newborns display a preference for faces and/or facelike stimuli.”

Despite identifying an issue with Maurer et al.'s methodology – you did not “find the 'facelike' stimuli used in the study to be appreciably facelike” – you accept their Experiment 2 findings which, according to you, contradicts the notion of a preference for face-like stimuli. Which, of course, is the position that you held before having ever read these studies.

[continued...]

August 18, 2015 6:59 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

One more broad point...

You may have misunderstood my purpose in bringing this topic up to Mr. Bethrick. I did not start this conversation to say: “Babies have inborn preferences, so Objectivism is wrong about 'x','y', and 'z'.” On the contrary, I am asking Mr. Bethrick that if it is the case that infants have some type of innate behavioral “programming” (as I believe the study conclusions suggest), how would this notion interact with Objectivist epistemology and metaphysics? In other words, are there good philosophical reasons why the idea of innate behavioral “programming” is probably not a good interpretation of the studies, as far as Objectivism is concerned? And if there are not, what are the philosophical implications of this “programming” from an Objectivist point of view?

I hold both Mr. Bethrick and the philosophy of Objectivism in very high regard. Accordingly, my purpose here is to learn, not to tear down.

On to more specific points...

Regarding the Simion et al.'s (2001) study, you wrote: “I find the final sentence to be intriguing, however, as it appears to be counter to #1 and #2.”

The final sentence of the abstract reads as follows: “Evidence will be presented supporting the idea that newborns do not respond to facelike stimuli by ‘facedness’ but, rather, by some general structural characteristics that best satisfy the constraints of the immature visual system.” (my emphasis)

This does not counter the research findings of either Goren et al. (1975) or Johnson et al. (1991) that neonates prefer face-like stimuli. As I noted above, the contested issue is why infants prefer face-like stimuli, not that they do.

Regarding Easterbrook et al.'s (1999) study, you wrote: “Although I do not understand some of the language used here, I think I can comprehend enough to understand that this experiment contradicts #1 and #2.”

Easterbrook et al.'s study actually consisted of three experiments, two of which were (moderately) supportive of preferential tracking and one which was not. In their discussion, Easterbrook et al. listed two likely reasons for their discrepant results: 1) the ceiling effect & 2) that infants were responding to the presence of horizontally positioned eyes on the scrambled face (i.e., they had not made the nonface-like stimuli “nonface-like” enough).

Regarding Simion et al.'s (2007) chapter, you wrote: “This seems to support my explanation by appeal to learning.”

The excerpt states the following: “The first section focuses on the mechanisms underlying infants' visual preference for faces. Evidence is reviewed supporting the contention that newborns' face preferences is due to a set of non-specific constraints that stem from the general characteristics of the human visuo-perceptual system, rather than to a representational bias for faces.” (my emphasis)

Again, the contention is why it happens, not that it happens. To be clear, I am not denying at all that infants begin to learn about faces – I am quite sure they do, as I was once a baby and I know about faces! But even here, the authors are discussing a “mechanism” that causes the preferential behavior (i.e., not due to learning, but to a causal, biological process).

Regarding your citation from the 40-page paper, note the full context of your quote: “These early orienting abilities are not the result of an innate cortical face module but instead reflect more primitive innate neural circuitry, involving subcortical areas of the brain.” (my emphasis)

Again, not due to learning, but to a causal, biological process. And again, the question being addressed is why.

[continued...]

August 18, 2015 7:00 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

You wrote: “In my initial comment, I said that faces are not dull, flat, unmoving objects. You countered by nothing that the objects in most of these experiments were, in fact, dull, flat, unmoving objects. But faces in general are dynamic. A newborn’s first interaction with faces are with those of the dynamic type. If someone later shows the infant something that looks vaguely like a face (perhaps in part due to poor visual capacity early in life), then perhaps the infant is simply looking at the facelike object and waiting for it to do something interesting. I don’t see why this couldn’t explain the “apparent preference” claimed in a few of the foregoing experiments.”

Your conjecture here that neonates are “waiting for [the face-like stimuli] to do something interesting” seems to be giving infants an amazing amount of contextual understanding in the first few days of life. You are attributing enough cognition and visual ability to at least allow that 1) infants can readily recall past sensations and the specific sources of those sensations & 2) infants can associate those past sensations with new stimuli that does not produce those sensations. I cannot see how this explanation, prima facie, is more plausible than an innate preference for face-like stimuli. Also, it is inconsistent with at least some empirical evidence.

You wrote: “Finally, I think we need to hold a high degree of skepticism when researchers make empirical claims about the nature of infant consciousness based on simple observation a few hours or days after birth. As you cautioned me against, it would be very easy to project one’s adult ideas onto a newborn. I don’t know how anyone could realistically claim that an infant recognizes and prefers faces at birth with any degree of certainty.”

I have not claimed that infants “recognize” faces – at least not in the conceptual sense you seem to be using here. Further, I do not believe that is what the research is claiming. Regarding detecting researcher projection and bias, please see my comment in this thread to Mr. Bethrick from August 12, 2015. Regarding inferring preferences from infants, please see my comment in this thread to Mr. Bethrick from August 13, 2015.

You wrote: “I take it to be self-evident that faces are “interesting,” at least as compared to “dull, flat, unmoving objects.” We do not need to comprehend the “significance” of faces in order to apprehend that they “move around, come in close, make sounds, make contact, change shape” as I observed in my first comment.”

In your original comment, you were making the case that it would be amazing if infants did not focus on faces because faces do interesting things, i.e. because of the experience of faces. Obviously, an infant would have to first experience those interesting things before any kind of sensations can be had and also be able to cognitively associated those sensations with a particular stimuli. Hence, my caution against projecting the nature of a more developed consciousness onto the nature of a less developed consciousness. And just to be clear, I do not think that comprehension is required, or even likely possible, in regards to infants experiencing sensations. For a relevant discussion of some of these points, please see my comment in this thread to Mr. Bethrick from August 14, 2015.

I realize that the above is predominately negative, but I hope this response does not sour the conversation for you and that it is helpful in identifying some potential cognitive biases that may be impeding your understanding of this topic.

Thank you for your time, and I welcome your thoughts.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 18, 2015 7:00 PM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

Brandon,

Thank you for wading through my long reply! Rest assured, no offense taken nor conversation soured. It's obvious from the tone of your comments that you're not here to make me or anyone else look or feel stupid. Also, any time that someone points out any errors I've made, he's doing me a favor. Like you, I'm here to learn, and I find that often the best way to discover my errors is to throw them out in the open and let people fire away! To that end, I have some concessions to make, but also some rebuttals. Unfortunately, it will probably take me another two days to hash them all out, as Wednesday will be busy for me.

Thanks again,

David Barwick

August 18, 2015 10:13 PM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

David,

I am glad that my comments were well-received. Also, I do not mean to give the impression that I am somehow immune to bias or errors -- I am certainly not. I have made and will continue to make errors, which is why I value conversations like this, as they allow me to both improve my clarity and sharpen my reasoning (I hope).

For example, I realize now that I was not as clear as I should have been in the earlier parts of my discussion with Mr. Bethrick when I was referring to the phenomenon of infants focusing on and being able to discriminate between human faces. Quoting myself, I called this "infant facial recognition" several times.

I apologize for this lack of clarity and for possibly giving you the wrong impression, as I did not mean "recognize" in the sense of infants conceptually knowing that what they are looking at is a face, especially in the case of newborns. What I meant (which hopefully became obvious as the conversation progressed) was that infants treat face-like stimuli in an observably different way, as opposed to other stimuli.

Thank you again for taking the time to interact with this topic.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 19, 2015 11:54 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

Brandon,

Sorry that it took so long! I want to blame it all on life being busy, but it also just takes me a while to work out this much material in anything resembling a coherent fashion. I also took great care to edit my remarks for tone, as I don’t want to wipe out the pleasantly congenial nature of this conversation. If, at any point, I have failed to maintain an appropriate degree of friendliness, I apologize.

You said: “A common theme in your response is the notion of skepticism. While I agree that a healthy dose of skepticism is important for critical inquiry, you seem to have some sort of “skeptical threshold” that you believe has not been met. For instance, you claim that “[t]wo studies are not enough...to demonstrate conclusively that infants prefer faces or facelike patterns over other visual stimuli.” Naturally, I would ask: In your view, how many studies would be enough? Now, if you were to say 10 studies would be enough, why not 25? And so on, ad nauseam.”

I could ask you the same question in reverse: how few examples would you consider convincing? One? Two? Three? I don’t know how many it would take before I would be convinced; all I know is, the information to which I had access didn’t convince me.

You said: “My point here is that the quality of research is much more important than the quantity of research.”

When I directly criticized the studies, it was precisely the quality of research that I set out to criticize. For instance, when I said, “Furthermore, I do not find the “facelike” stimuli used in the study to be appreciably facelike. They do seem to show that a white oblong shape with various black “blobs” in the upper portion is preferable to one with the blobs in the lower portion. I don’t think we can infer too much from this.” This refers to one of the few cases where I had access to the methodology. Regarding the Goren and Johnson studies (the two most relevant to the discussion), I languish in ignorance of their methodologies.

You said: “The primary issue is why it occurs, not that it does occur.”

When I first set out to look at the references you provided, I took it for granted that it did occur. I did not begin to doubt the veracity of that claim until I looked at the evidence in favor of it (to the limited extent that I could).

You said: “Furthermore, you are basing this conclusion on a limited review of abstracts of studies that I had provided to Mr. Bethrick (all of which were general starting points for further investigation that I had provided at the very beginning of our discussion).”

I tried to make it clear throughout my comment that I was well aware of the severe limitations I was working with. I never criticized the studies to which I did not have access. I could have simply neglected to comment on the available information at all, but then we wouldn’t be having this interesting conversation! If the researchers stated something regrettable or misleading in their abstract, well, that’s their fault, not mine.

August 21, 2015 8:04 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

You said: “While you are certainly entitled to disregard research for whatever reason that you would like, I would strongly encourage you to ask yourself if you have some sort of intellectual investment that you are protecting, i.e., are you rejecting these studies because they are not congruent with your current views or are you rejecting them for good reasons? Respectfully, I do not see how you could be doing the latter, as your limited abstract review did not include an analysis of the study methods, just the conclusions.”

There are certainly instances when we are entitled to reject the claims of scientists (or anyone) due to prior philosophic knowledge. For example, when physicists claim that particles in a quantum vacuum pop in and out of existence uncaused, we are justified in rejecting this claim even in complete ignorance of the study methods the physicists used.

Now, I want to make clear that I’m not sure that these studies fall into the same category as my above example.

In regard to my ignorance of the methodologies used by Goren and Johnson in their respective studies: I did have access to Maurer’s methodology, and I inferred that Goren and Johnson did more or less the same thing. That was an error on my part.

You said: “The above points are abundantly clear when you write the following regarding Maurer et al. (1983): “In my opinion, these results do not support the assertion that newborns have an innate tendency or preference to focus on faces. Furthermore, I do not find the “facelike” stimuli used in the study to be appreciably facelike. They do seem to show that a white oblong shape with various black “blobs” in the upper portion is preferable to one with the blobs in the lower portion. I don’t think we can infer too much from this.”

Immediately following this, you write: “Additionally, Experiment 2 seems clearly to contradict the findings of study #2 (above) that is one of only 2 studies provided that claims to find data that newborns display a preference for faces and/or facelike stimuli.”

Despite identifying an issue with Maurer et al.'s methodology – you did not “find the 'facelike' stimuli used in the study to be appreciably facelike” – you accept their Experiment 2 findings which, according to you, contradicts the notion of a preference for face-like stimuli. Which, of course, is the position that you held before having ever read these studies.”

I intended this pair of comments to be of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” variety. Either you accept Maurer’s methodology and thereby contradict Johnson, or you reject Maurer’s methodology and can’t count his study as support anymore (nor Goren or Johnson IF their methodology was similar). I also want to state again that I do not consider the “facelike” stimuli used in the study to be appreciably facelike. If that kind of “facelikeness” is the basis of the Goren and Johnson studies -- and thus of the notion that infants prefer facelike stimuli -- then I think we can consider washing our hands of this whole thing.

Also, to be fair, I didn’t hold the position that infants don’t prefer face-like stimuli at all before reading these studies. My position -- which I thought I was defending in my August 15 comment, but probably didn’t make clear -- was that infants don’t prefer face-like stimuli a priori.

[cont...]

August 21, 2015 8:08 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

You said: “Again, the contention is why it happens, not that it happens. To be clear, I am not denying at all that infants begin to learn about faces – I am quite sure they do, as I was once a baby and I know about faces! But even here, the authors are discussing a “mechanism” that causes the preferential behavior (i.e., not due to learning, but to a causal, biological process).”

As you noted, many of my remarks were motivated by a strong skepticism that infants prefer faces or face-like stimuli. Again, this was not my initial position, but one I adopted after gleaning what I could from the research to which I had access.

You said: “Regarding your citation from the 40-page paper, note the full context of your quote: “These early orienting abilities are not the result of an innate cortical face module but instead reflect more primitive innate neural circuitry, involving subcortical areas of the brain.” (my emphasis)”

With respect, I think rather than elucidating the full context of my quote, you instead narrowed it beyond clarity. The quote and my statement again:

“This model suggests that early in development, infants have diffuse cortical activation in response to faces that then becomes more specific with environmental exposure to faces. Subsequently, during the first few months of life, infant face perception is an emergent product of the interaction of early orienting tendencies and the overabundance of facial stimuli in the environment. These early orienting abilities are not the result of an innate cortical face module but instead reflect more primitive innate neural circuitry, involving subcortical areas of the brain. With experience, the diffuse neuronal activation becomes more specific, and the face processing system thus becomes more specialized.”

That sounds like learning to me. It even goes so far as to claim that the “early orienting abilities are not the result of an innate cortical face module.” Granted, this is a tentative conclusion, but it makes the most sense to me."

In the paragraph I quoted, I think it’s clear that “early orienting abilities” means the capacity to (rapidly) learn [perhaps this is not what the researchers intended, however]. This is in line with my initial (August 15) comment, when I said “Even prior to specific content, consciousness has a specific nature. Part of that nature is the capacity to learn. I think this is the point photosynthesis was making when he made the software/hardware analogy.”

If I am misinterpreting this in some way, I apologize and will (genuinely) appreciate correction on the matter. But I will not go quietly into the night! :-)

[cont...]

August 21, 2015 8:11 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

I said: “In my initial comment, I said that faces are not dull, flat, unmoving objects. You countered by [noting] that the objects in most of these experiments were, in fact, dull, flat, unmoving objects. But faces in general are dynamic. A newborn’s first interaction with faces are with those of the dynamic type. If someone later shows the infant something that looks vaguely like a face (perhaps in part due to poor visual capacity early in life), then perhaps the infant is simply looking at the facelike object and waiting for it to do something interesting. I don’t see why this couldn’t explain the “apparent preference” claimed in a few of the foregoing experiments.”

You said: “Your conjecture here that neonates are “waiting for [the face-like stimuli] to do something interesting” seems to be giving infants an amazing amount of contextual understanding in the first few days of life. You are attributing enough cognition and visual ability to at least allow that 1) infants can readily recall past sensations and the specific sources of those sensations & 2) infants can associate those past sensations with new stimuli that does not produce those sensations. I cannot see how this explanation, prima facie, is more plausible than an innate preference for face-like stimuli. Also, it is inconsistent with at least some empirical evidence.”

I don’t know what to say to this other than “I disagree.” I didn’t intend to advance my assertion as an iron-clad explanation of the results, only as a possible explanation. If the Goren or Johnson studies used genuinely face-like stimuli, perhaps the infants were doing just what I imagined. If the Goren or Johnson studies used only genuinely unface-like stimuli, then I’m not sure what the point of their studies could be.

I also think you’re cashing in on a double standard here. If infants lack the appropriate visual acuity, why are we bothering with studying their visual tendencies?

Imagine what experience is like for an infant. I don’t have a child, but it seems that most of what they do is sleep. The rest of time, the probably have a very large face immediately in their visual field.

I said: “I take it to be self-evident that faces are “interesting,” at least as compared to “dull, flat, unmoving objects.” We do not need to comprehend the “significance” of faces in order to apprehend that they “move around, come in close, make sounds, make contact, change shape” as I observed in my first comment.”

You said: “In your original comment, you were making the case that it would be amazing if infants did not focus on faces because faces do interesting things, i.e. because of the experience of faces. Obviously, an infant would have to first experience those interesting things before any kind of sensations can be had and also be able to cognitively associated those sensations with a particular stimuli. Hence, my caution against projecting the nature of a more developed consciousness onto the nature of a less developed consciousness.”

The first time I saw an elephant, I found it interesting despite the fact that I had never experienced one. I didn’t “know” that it was supposed to be interesting, yet it was interesting all the same. I did not mean that an infant would have to “know” (used loosely) that faces are interesting before he could find them interesting. A face would have to be interesting in the first place before an infant could ever “know” that they are interesting. My point was that (real) faces are interesting even the very first time you see them.

[cont...]

August 21, 2015 8:12 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

You said: “What I meant (which hopefully became obvious as the conversation progressed) was that infants treat face-like stimuli in an observably different way, as opposed to other stimuli.”

I don’t have access to the relevant information, but I wonder if the “face-like stimuli” used in the Goren and Johnson studies were the white lightbulb shapes and black squares used in the Maurer study. If so, I think that perhaps it’s unfair to call this category “face-like stimuli.” The eye is lazy; it is attracted to blank white space. As noted in one of the experiments, without an eye tracker it is impossible to determine which part of the “face-like stimulus” the infant is focusing on (or, for that matter, if the infant is even focusing in the ocular sense).

I wonder what motivated these studies in the first place. Was it because infants tend to look at faces? As I’ve said, I think that could be due to the interesting nature of faces. What other reason could motivate a study such as Goren’s? Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I’m skeptical of these claims (again, for the sake of clarity, this wasn’t my original position regarding the actual conclusions of the studies).

Finally, you said: “You may have misunderstood my purpose in bringing this topic up to Mr. Bethrick. I did not start this conversation to say: “Babies have inborn preferences, so Objectivism is wrong about 'x','y', and 'z'.” On the contrary, I am asking Mr. Bethrick that if it is the case that infants have some type of innate behavioral “programming” (as I believe the study conclusions suggest), how would this notion interact with Objectivist epistemology and metaphysics? In other words, are there good philosophical reasons why the idea of innate behavioral “programming” is probably not a good interpretation of the studies, as far as Objectivism is concerned? And if there are not, what are the philosophical implications of this “programming” from an Objectivist point of view?

and:

“For example, I realize now that I was not as clear as I should have been in the earlier parts of my discussion with Mr. Bethrick when I was referring to the phenomenon of infants focusing on and being able to discriminate between human faces. Quoting myself, I called this "infant facial recognition" several times.”

I do think that I misunderstood you, and I don’t think it’s entirely your fault. I did key in on certain phrases, even when, later, you made it clear that you did not mean conceptual knowledge but innate tendency, or instinct. Regarding this latter prospect, I’m not sure that it would have any philosophical implications at all. Even if, say, an infant bore the instinct to look at faces (and I’m not suggesting that they do, nor that it would be evolutionarily advantageous to do so), this would not suggest that the notion of tabula rasa is mistaken. It would only suggest that there is some biological advantage to focusing on faces, even from a newborn age.

[cont...]

August 21, 2015 8:13 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

Going back in time to your August 13 comment, you quoted a section of “The Comprachicos.” I have some thoughts regarding your quotation, as well as your comments on it, that I’d like to present for general critique.
I don’t think that the process of integrating sensations into retained awareness of entities -- i.e., into percepts -- is a binary process. I don’t think that, one day, one’s sensations suddenly snap into place, so to speak, and become percepts. I imagine that developing perception takes time, and is probably a dim, clumsy process in its early stages. I think it’s entirely possible, however, that the process begins immediately upon birth, to whatever limited or advanced extent the human mind is capable of at such an early age.

I’ve also only just now begun to read the essay for myself, but I find the paragraph immediately following your quotation to be relevant:

“These achievements are not conscious and volitional in the adult sense of the terms: an infant is not aware, in advance, of the processes he has to perform in order to acquire these skills, and the processes are largely automatic. But they are acquired skills, nevertheless, and the enormous effort expended by an infant to acquire them can be easily observed. Observe also the intensity, the austere, the unsmiling seriousness with which an infant watches the world around him.”

That’s all I have time for right now. I welcome your comments (or anyone’s for that matter), and thanks for taking the time to read through all of that.

David Barwick

August 21, 2015 8:14 AM  
Blogger Brandon Dickens said...

David,

Thank you for your response, which was very respectful throughout.

However, it would seem from your comments that either I am failing to effectively elucidate my points or that you are failing to effectively integrate them (including the ones that I had already made to Mr. Bethrick). In either case (perhaps it is both?), I do not think this conversation between you and I is likely to be very productive at this point.

But, as you took the time and effort to offer a response, I would be more than happy to do you the courteous of answering your questions.

You wrote: “I could ask you the same question in reverse: how few examples would you consider convincing? One? Two? Three?”

Depending on the quality of the study, it would only take one for me to entertain a particular empirical interpretation. I do not require complete certainty to take something seriously – good evidence is enough for me.

You wrote: “I also think you’re cashing in on a double standard here. If infants lack the appropriate visual acuity, why are we bothering with studying their visual tendencies?”

Actually, it was you that was highlighting the visual acuity of infants. This was not part of any of my points, but rather my response to your contention that although newborns have poor vision, they have good enough vision (and cognitive ability) to generate contextual knowledge about faces.

You wrote: “I wonder what motivated these studies in the first place. Was it because infants tend to look at faces? As I’ve said, I think that could be due to the interesting nature of faces. What other reason could motivate a study such as Goren’s?”

The studies have been performed for a variety of reasons. For instance, the Goren et al.'s (1975) study was an investigation into mother-child bonding. But, I would imagine that these studies were primarily motivated by the same idea that motivates most of science: a desire to explain observations of reality.

If I missed any of your direct questions or if you have more, please let me know.

Good luck in your future investigations, and thank you for taking the time to interact with this topic.

Sincerely,
Brandon D Dickens

August 21, 2015 11:06 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

Brandon,

No worries. Something Rand said that Dawson once pointed out to me is that one can't discuss something and integrate it at the same time. It's entirely possible that one or both of us will come to understand the other better in the future, after more reflection or intellectual growth (I'm not implying that I know which of us that might be).

Cheers,

David Barwick

August 21, 2015 11:37 AM  
Blogger David Barwick said...

Brandon,

I was listening to a podcast the other day that brought to mind this conversation. The podcast is called Philosophy in Action, and was a long-running series by Dr. Diana Hsieh (Brickell). The question to which she was responding had to do with disagreeing with certain things Rand said vs disagreeing with aspects of Objectivism. Dr. Hsieh’s statement that I’d like to share:

“...Objectivism is a philosophic system -- it’s not Ayn Rand’s thoughts about everything, and it’s not the sum total of her writings. It’s a body of knowledge, it’s a set of inter- related principles about the nature of the universe, about the nature of man, and so on. So it’s possible to agree with the philosophy of Objectivism even while thinking that Ayn Rand was wrong on various points; on certain points about child development, on sexual psychology, on a bunch of other things, you know, let’s say that she got certain historical claims wrong, and so on. So, basically, you need to be really clear here about what Objectivism is and what it’s not. It’s not everything that Ayn Rand thought...”

--Diana Brickell, Philosophy in Action episode #68 51:40-52:24

Re-reading the long comment thread, it seems to me that the point when everyone began talking past each other is when some of us said that tabula rasa refers to conceptual knowledge and you responded with passages from The Comprachicos containing Rand’s statements about early childhood development. I compounded the issue when I focused on the value of the facial recognition studies themselves, rather than the supposed philosophic implications of such. I even misstated my basic belief when I said, “I did key in on certain phrases, even when, later, you made it clear that you did not mean conceptual knowledge but innate tendency, or instinct. Regarding this latter prospect, I’m not sure that it would have any philosophical implications at all. Even if, say, an infant bore the instinct to look at faces (and I’m not suggesting that they do, nor that it would be evolutionarily advantageous to do so), this would not suggest that the notion of tabula rasa is mistaken. It would only suggest that there is some biological advantage to focusing on faces, even from a newborn age.” What I should have said is, “I’m not sure that it would have any implications for Objectivism.”

Whether or not Rand misused the concept of tabula rasa in The Comprachicos, the basic Objectivist doctrine is that tabula rasa refers to knowledge, not instinct or innate desire. When Objectivist literature refers to instinct, it (as I understand it) means that -- whatever forms of instinct man may have -- what distinguishes man from the lower animals is that man’s instinct is not sufficient for his survival. He must learn, conceptualize, integrate, think.
I just wanted to drop this in and see if it perhaps clears up any misunderstanding between us that prevented us from reaching a mutually satisfactory philosophic conclusion.

Cheers,

David Barwick

July 26, 2016 12:18 PM  

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