1) Is there any set of rules that human beings or, more generally, other sentient living beings know a priori before any learning process? In other words, do sentient living beings always were born knowing some causal relations about the world?

For instance, a newborn baby may not know that walking from a high place in direction of an edge may result on him falling due to gravity. Maybe he doesn't even know that he can move its arms and he only learns that after performing fortuitously an impulse that generates such action. Maybe he doesn't even know that he must breath in order to survive and he only learns that after feeling the discomfort and pain caused by the lack of oxygen.

As a disclaimer, I'm excluding here tautological logical syllogisms such as the principle of non contradiction and other axioms of logic. I'm also excluding here any synthetic a priori knowledge that can be derived from these (if you believe in synthetic a priori).

2) In the positive case, how complex can these causal relations be (maybe a measure or an undeniably remarkable complex a priori knowledge)?

I'm particularly interested in a priori knowledge about normative judgements mainly related to social mores.


This is a pretty popular research topic! One good place to start might be with the work of Spelke, she's all over this. Try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNq_a_wgdgQ

If you prefer written words, this paper is a nice broad overview, although note the 2007 publishing date, there's been a fair bit of work since then. Spelke, Elizabeth S., and Katherine D. Kinzler. "Core knowledge." Developmental science 10.1 (2007): 89-96.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the references. I'm particularly interested in a priori normative judgements related mainly to morality. Do you know about any references showing evidences or supporting non existence of such kind of a priori knowledge? $\endgroup$ – user40276 Jun 25 '18 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ Well, towards the end of that talk Spelke discusses 'social stuff' which I think is as close as you'll get from an empirical-developmental view. She argues for a distinction between separate core knowledge domains for 'agency' and 'social behavior' that later merge. I think it's reasonable to read that as two tools in an innate toolkit from which morality is constructed. But the empirical results are still coming in, and the big philosophical debate is really over how to organize them: is the agent/social clustering useful, & how do these components relate to the broader concept of morality? $\endgroup$ – steveLangsford Jun 26 '18 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. I've read the paper that you mentioned, but it doesn't seem to address exactly my question in the comment. My question was whether morality itself might be a priori and not whether it emerges by means of other a priori systems through experience. I understand that it's probably something too difficult to test, though. Here I mean morality in its wider sense (as what you should do and shouldn't do), but the ones related to the social such as altruism would be more interesting. $\endgroup$ – user40276 Jun 26 '18 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ Also I've heard (by a psychologist) that infants in early age are not able to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world in space, so it's a little doubtful that they can identify their own race visually. But maybe it happens through other senses or by visual resemblance to their parents. $\endgroup$ – user40276 Jun 26 '18 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ Well, a 'whether' question could be answered 'yes' or 'no'! Here the answer depends how you define morality. If your definition is broad, the answer is "definitely no". If your definition is narrow, it's either "innate endowment makes this development close to inevitable" or "this is itself an atomic innate endowment" These more interesting narrow versions compel you to match the language you're using to the empirical results, and to be open to changing your terminology somewhat as those results improve. $\endgroup$ – steveLangsford Jun 27 '18 at 15:18

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.