How do we learn?

Many people are very interested in how we know what we know. Do we learn by thinking about things, or by experiencing them? One group of philosophers suggests that we are born with some ideas already in our heads. While others disagree completely.

Born with ideas

Famous philosopher René Descartes suggested that some of our ideas exist in our minds even before we are born. He said that we might not be aware of having these ideas, but they are like rules that we use to make sense of the world. They include mathematical ideas such as shapes and sizes. Without these ideas, Descartes said, the world would seem like a big, colorful, energetic mess that made no sense at all.

Working it out

One of the ideas that Descartes said is we are born with is “cause and effect.” For example, when a baby hits a mobile and it moves, what makes him hit it again? Descartes would say it is because the baby already understands the idea of cause and effect, so he knows that the force of his hand will make the mobile move. But John Locke said this was wrong. He said that a baby has no ideas, but is able to work things out. So he would say that the baby just happens to hit the mobile again, and again, and starts to notice that the hand and mobile movement seem connected.

No set ideas

Other philosopher Locke said that if people were born with ideas already in their minds then every human being everywhere in the world, at any time throughout history, would have exactly the same ideas. But no one has ever found an idea that exists everywhere in this way. This seems to confirm Locke’s suggestion that we are not born with set ideas already in our heads, but instead have to learn everything for ourselves as we grow up.

Hidden ideas

To support his argument that all our ideas are learned through experience, Locke reasoned that if we were born with ideas already in our heads then we would know about them. Because we don’t know about these ideas, then they can’t be there. However, other philosophers say that Locke could be wrong about this. They argue that we don’t know every single one of our memories, until we try to remember them. For example, you might have forgotten what you did last weekend, until someone asks you about it.

Perhaps the ideas we are born with are just like our memories— in our minds already, just waiting to be found? What do you think?