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Analysis of John Locke's Tabula Rasa Theory

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Humans aren’t born good or evil. As a small child develops, it becomes either builds a quality character or a damaged character depending on the society he or she is raised in and how it is treated. Societies beliefs are often placed upon us and growing up we try to fit in to what society thinks we should be, depending on the society and the child’s family structure, gives the person either better or worse qualities. For example, a person exposed to a more violent society would tend to be more violent himself. Even if the person does not want to be violent at first, they will get used to it because of their surroundings. John Locke is an infamous name in history. We’ve known him as a philosopher and a political figure in time. He also introduced the idea of The Blank Slate Theory also known as Tabula Rasa which is Latin for clean slate. John Locke introduced this idea through his text “ Essay Concerning Human Understanding”. This idea first originated in ancient history. Philosopher Aristotle he wrote it in his book “ On The Soul. As time went on people have further developed the idea to what John Loke interpreted as today. This theory is the concept that the human mind is a blank slate with no rules for processing data, the data is added through experiences essentially you must learn your behavior when you’re born through your environment there is no such thing as human nature and natural rights. New World encyclopedia states “Each individual was free to define the content of his or her character, but his or her basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be so altered. It is from this presumption of a free, self-authored mind combined with an immutable human nature that the Lockean doctrine of ‘natural’ rights derives.” This quote further explains that John Locke thought humans don’t have any preconceived thoughts and whoever you are is who you choose to be. This belief minimizes the effects of genetics and biology on the development of the human personality. Instead, we’re seen as the result of our up bringing and life experiences. The Tabula Rasa theory was one that many people appealed to bc it led people to think that if we all start with a “ blank slate” we’re all equal. As opposed to people already having somewhat of an advantage from birth which creates discrimination, prejudice, or even violence. People also thought that if we were blank slates we would be able to perfect our species.

Several philosophers and psychologists have disagreed with Locke and have proven that humans do have a natural instinct or some type of common knowledge. Psychologists and neurobiologists have shown evidence that initially, the entire brain is programmed and organized to process sensory input, control motor actions, regulate emotions, and respond reflexively under predetermined conditions.These programmed mechanisms in the brain consequently act to learn and refine the ability of the organism. For example, psychologist Steven Pinker showed that, in contrast to written language the brain is programme to pick up spoken language spontaneously.In 2003, Steven Pinker gave a Ted Talk regarding his book and the idea that human behavior is predictable , rather than formed by socialization, interactions between people and the exposure to culture. Pinker discusses the reasoning behind his stance on nature over nurture using five key discussion points, these points being, human universals, neurology and DNA, political reasoning, the arts and parenting. During his Ted Talk, Pinker begins by stating that there are human universals, concepts, behaviors and traits that are carried and found, with many similarities, throughout every human civilization, he then explains that a common example of this is with twins separated at birth, and can be proven through neurological studies. He made an example about twins that were separated at birth still shared some common human characteristics. The main argument is, if there are social behaviours that are inherited and developed before birth, then one should expect twin fetuses to engage in some form of social interaction before they are born. Thus, ten fetuses were analyzed over a period of time using ultrasound techniques. Using kinematic analysis, the results of the experiment were that the twin fetuses would interact with each other for longer periods and more often as the pregnancies went on. Researchers were able to conclude that the performance of movements between the co-twins were not accidental but specifically aimed.

Modern neurological studies have supported Locke’s position, proving the plasticity of the brain and hence its susceptibility to influence. What Locke could not comprehend, however, was that the same neurochemistry that allows significant flexibility and makes human beings adaptable to their environment also predisposes them in certain basic ways. Our neurochemistry is our lowest common denominator, and this brings a nuanced counterargument to Locke with an appeal to the universality of emotions because emotions are neurochemically mediated, they are present across cultures as part of our genetic inheritance. This does not suggest that specific ideas are universal, in that regard, Locke’s thesis remains largely intact.

Contemporary neuroscience does, however, point to an element of human nature that is naturally inherited, contradicts the theory of a pure tabula rasa or any theory that resorts to explanations of nurture entirely to explain human nature. Moreover, more recent evidence of “genetic memory” also demonstrates the presence of readily inherited intuitions that we possess upon birth. The theory of our inborn “numerosity” explored by neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth further proves how numerical attributes are encoded in the human genome from our ancestors. Therefore, while distinct notions of right or wrong are largely absent from our genetic endowment, mounting evidence in neuroscience shows that some minimal inborn attributes do exist, and the most common and fundamental manifestation of these is the goal of survival.

Overall we’ve come to find that there are somewhat of predispositions when it comes to the human brain. Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human mind has been changed very little since the existence of humankind. The main assumption of evolutionary psychology is that the human mind is essentially, evolving and adapting by natural selection. Minds are pre-programmed with certain mental functions, such as perception and emotion. Evolutionary psychologists invalidate John Locke’s tabula rasa theory. The theory that humans have a blank slate at birth can be valid, to a certain extent, because the environment does influence traits and actions. The only exception is when innate characteristics are considered.

Citations

  • Agamben, G., ([1993] 1996). Bartleby, or on contingency. In D. Heller-Roazen (Ed.), Potentialities. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Allport, G. (1955). Becoming: Basic considerations for a psychology of personality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Aquinas, ([1274] 1990). In P. J. Kreeft (Ed.), A summa of the summa. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.
  • Bartky, S. L. (1995). Agency: What is the problem? In J. K. Gardiner (Ed.), Provoking agents: Theorizing gender and agency. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Brill, A. A. (1921). Basic principles of psychoanalysis. New York, NY: University Press of America.         

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