Tag Archives: gopnik

Alison Gopnik and the mirror of nature

Gopnik’s (1996) argues that scientific knowledge (as well as children’s theories) stems from a device-powered ability. In her candid account, a child (or a scientist) discovers truths by using a truth-discovering device we’re all equipped with. Individuals (children and scientists) have direct access to truths; and truths involve a two-way relationship: they are a mirror-like match between the individual’s representations and the world (as opposed to, for example, being the result of a social, normative, constructive process).

Gopnik acknowledges that epistemology has a normative component, but only in the sense that some epistemologists and philosophers of science prescribe the structure of the ideal scientific inquiry. Indeed, when most scholars talk about traditional epistemology schools (logical positivism, falsificationism, etc.) as being “normative” they mean exactly that kind of external, prescriptive attitude. Yet there is another way of understanding the normative side of epistemology (one that Piaget, for example, emphasizes frequently): epistemology is normative, in this second sense, because its object of study (science) is inherently normative; that is, because scientists try to conduct their research according to certain binding rules and, moreover, they try to formulate laws, rules and models that explain, not just how the world works, but also why the world must work in that way. Scientists use a deontological language when talking about their research; they believe some theories are bad and others are good; they require that scientific statements be justified; they demand other people to be fair in their evaluation of their theories. Epistemologists, in this second version of “the normative,” do not try to impose prescriptions from the outside, but to reveal what is inherently normative in actual science. Gopnik does not take into account this inherently normative nature of science, but she reduces normativity to the traditional epistemologist’s recommendation of certain rules of enquiry to the scientist.

Hand in hand with Gopnik’s neglect of the internal normativity of science, she sees science as stemming from an individual, internal ability to “find the truth,” that is, as something that “people do” (they eat, they sleep, they have sex, they find the truth). She consequently endorses a naïve realism according to which science “gets it right” and succeeds at “uncovering the truth” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 489), and this because “human beings are endowed by evolution with a wide variety of devices that enable us to arrive at a roughly veridical view of the world” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 487). She claims that human cognition is a system that “gets at the truth about the world” because “it is designed by evolution to get at the truth about the world” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 501).  I will not delve into the obvious circularity of such assertions (briefly: to assess whether our cognitive device works well and yields true representations we use that very device). But I believe that this very way of talking about cognition (“we have a device inside our head that operates with rules and representations and is ready-made to find the truth”) makes it impossible from the start to provide an adequate account of a) the normative and b) the social aspects of cognition, since social norms are in this view necessarily reduced to an external source of information, i.e., to the device’s input. Gopnik’s words: “They [mental representations and rules] may be deeply influenced by information that comes from other people, but they are not merely conventional and they could function outside of any social community” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 488). Furthermore, when Gopnik talks about the institutions of science or the division of labor in science, she sees social organization simply as a way of being more effective at achieving a certain goal (reaching truths). It’s a merely technical, means-end reasoning.

What concept of “truth” is Gopnik using when she asserts that the human cognitive system produces truths? She seems to rely on a naïve version of truth as correspondence: our cognitive system is like a mirror of the world; it produces representations that match up to the outside world (Gopnik, 1996, p. 502). Needless to say, this correspondence view of truth has been criticized and destroyed over and over again by philosophers and epistemologists from all schools; it is untenable for a number of reasons. The three main reasons: 1) knowledge processes do not imitate reality but to impose certain abstract, mathematical or relational models unto the world, 2) consequently, our mental representations are not copies of the world; rather, they contain abstract concepts (atom, mind, time, gravity, homeostasis) that radically redescribe the object we are trying to know; and 3) we only say that some things are true within a certain form of life or cultural context that provides the rules to evaluate what is true and what is not.

Gopnik treats truth as a natural fact and as a tangible property of representations, which are also pretty much treated as tangible things. Yet the concept of “truth” only exists within certain normative systems; and normative systems only exist in culture, not in nature; truths are not things; we say that certain propositions or theories are “true” always in the context of complex, relational systems such as science. Animals try to solve concrete problems, but they don’t search for the truth. Human interest in the truth cannot derive from having a natural device implanted in our brain only; something else needs to be added to the mix.

Most interesting theories about the social origins of scientific knowledge do not focus on “socially transmitted information” or “social input” but on social structure. Yet Gopnik finds it “hard to see how a particular social structure, by itself, could lead to veridicality” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 491).

It is in my opinion much easier to see how social structure could lead to veridicality than how a computer-like device could do so. Social structure creates institutions that formalize adversarial scenarios, so that one party is in charge of attacking a position and the opposite party is in charge of defending it. They enforce rules, in many contexts (from editorial boards to legislatures and courts) that specify what counts as a legitimate argument and as valid proof. Moreover, institutions create authorities that rule above the parties in the dispute and are in charge to adjudicate between them, to say who’s right, “who has the truth”. States have succeeded in creating the first institutions that were “impersonal” in the sense that they represented abstract principles or the common good (rather than the interest or the point of view or a specific individual); once people got used to think in terms of impersonal principles (the Greeks called them arches) they applied this form of thought to nature and started discovering principles and laws in the world around us. I’m collapsing into one paragraph thousands of pages written by very diverse authors (Hegel, Durkheim, Vernant) who recognized that social institutions created something absent in the natural world: truth.

If you accept at least provisionally that what is particular about science is not only that it gets things right (its efficacy) but also that produces legal-like knowledge (legitimate, verifiable knowledge that aims at universal validity), you can start to see what it is that social structure adds to the mix.

Says Gopnik: “An important point of the empirical developmental work, and a common observation about science, is that the search for better theories has a kind of internally-driven motivation, quite separate from the more superficial motivations provided by the sociology. From our point of view, we make theories in search of explanation or make love in search of orgasm” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 498). Her idea is that evolution built our internal device in such a way that would feel thrills of pleasure when finding the truth. Yet I believe that the passion of scientists has more to do with a social feeling, namely justice. They strive for truth with the passion that a rebel fights for justice. As when the equation works, the pleasant experience results from the recognition that the result is fair, that the right explanation is given its due value.

Summing up, my argument against Gopnik (1996) proceeds in three steps: 1) She doesn’t recognize the normative dimension of scientific knowledge, so she imagines we have a scientific-knowledge device that is effective, but not one that produces valid, legitimate knowledge; 2) The non-normative conception of truth (which is conceived as a match between the mind and the world) makes her embrace a naïve realism; 3) this narrows, or rather kills, the power of her theory to include the social aspects of knowledge. The main flaws in Gopnik’s theory, therefore, derive from her understanding of scientific activity as resulting from a mere ability to investigate and find truths rather than as a social, normative practice.

Gopnik, A. (1996). The scientist as child. Philosophy of Science, 63, 485–514. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/188064

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Alison Gopnik as a child

Shamelessly, Gopnik starts her seminal article on The Scientist as Child (Gopnik, 1996) by claiming that “recently, cognitive and developmental psychologists have invoked the analogy of science itself” (p. 485). Recently! That analogy is at the core of the Piagetian enterprise. Indeed, Piaget founded the field of cognitive development some 80 years ago by appealing to that very analogy, i.e., by claiming that the fields of epistemology (or philosophy of science) and developmental psychology can illuminate each other because there are functional similarities between the processes of knowledge acquisition in children and in scientists. The insight that the scientific investigation of children’s cognitive development sheds light on the history of science and vice versa is 100% Piagetian. Yet Gopnik discusses it as if it were a new idea.

Gopnik knows that Piaget already said this. In other writings she’s honest enough to admit she knows about Piaget’s systematic comparison between children and scientists, although she also claims that she means it in a different way; i.e., she affirms that the relationships she establishes between the fields of child psychology and epistemology are not the same as in Piaget’s. Yet in this particular paper (Gopnik, 1996) and in many other places (most notably, her lectures to undergraduates, of which I will speak some day) she pretends that it’s she and her theory-theory colleagues who have coined this famous analogy. In this particular article, Piaget’s name is not even mentioned.

There are many other ideas that are originally Piagetian and for which the Swiss researcher gets no credit at all. For example: that theory change is a process that goes through different stages: disregard or denial of uncomfortable evidence, compromise solutions, generalized crisis and substitution by a new theory. And, of course, the basic contention that children have theories in a sense comparable to scientists. She also claims: “Theory change proceeds more uniformly and quickly in children than in scientists, and so is considerably easier to observe, and we can even experimentally determine what kinds of evidence lead to change. In children, we may actually be able to see “the logic of discovery” in action” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 509). This is Piaget talking! Yet she presents these ideas as if they were completely her own.

This is not my main criticism of Gopnik’s work, of course. The central problem, in my opinion, is the way she understands science (as result of a mere ability to investigate and “find truths” rather than as a normative practice). I’ll talk about it in a different post.

Gopnik, A. (1996). The scientist as child. Philosophy of Science, 63, 485–514. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/188064

Misunderstanding Piaget

Re-reading Piaget and García’s Psychogenesis and the History of Science (Piaget & Garcia, 1988). I like the way they explain the Piagetian project in the introduction.

It is clear to me that many of Piaget’s critics misunderstand the object of study of genetic psychology (either purposely or by ignorance).They criticize Piaget as if he was talking about the child as a concrete, integral individual (involving emotional, biological, socio-cultural and cognitive aspects); that is, as if Piaget were talking about the same child that is studied by developmental psychology.

Yet Piaget makes it very clear that it is not such a concrete child he’s studying but, rather, he’s concerned with an abstraction: the epistemic subject, i.e., the child as embarked on the construction of justifiable, i.e., normative knowledge; the “child as scientist.” Thus in section 2 of the Introduction Piaget and García make it clear that they are not concerned with the psychophysiology of human behavior (actions as material events, consciousness, memory, mental images, etc.) Rather they’re only interested in the child’s construction of cognitive instruments insofar as they are (or become) normative, that is, insofar as they come to be organized according to norms that the individual either gives herself or accepts from others during the processes of knowledge acquisition. If A. Gopnik (to give just one example, among many possible others, of an author that puts forward a distorted version of Piaget’s theory, and keeps defeating the strawman over and over again) understood this distinction, half of her criticisms of Piaget would instantly become pointless.

Piaget, J., & Garcia, R. (1988). Psychogenesis and the History of Science. New York: Columbia University Press.