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The term Tabula Rasa suggests that we are born as a “blank slate”, implying that we are born without any form of conscious knowledge whatsoever, and that we gain our information through sense experience of the world. In this essay, I will be arguing in support of ‘Tablua Rasa’, giving what I feel to be the strongest arguments forward, but also comparing them to counter arguments and explaining why they are wrong.
Empiricism is the main argument for Tabula Rasa. John Locke, a popular empiricist, tells us that we are born with no innate knowledge or concepts whatsoever, but only with the innate capacity for reason. Locke says that knowledge and ideas can only be gained via sensory experience of the world. For example, we cannot have the idea of colour (i.e. red) until we have perceived it, hence why a blind person from birth cannot imagine what colour is. Locke also argues that if innate knowledge did exist, then it would be universal and all humans would have it, but there has been no evidence of universal knowledge, therefore, according to Locke, we can deduce that innate knowledge doesn’t exist. Another famous empiricist was David Hume. Hume agreed with Locke on the grounds that innate knowledge does not exist, and that we gain all ideas through sense experience, but disagrees about the mind having the capacity for reason. Hume argues that our minds are completely empty, and that we gain all ideas and concepts, even the capacity for reason, through sense experience of the world. Hume even says that our ideas of ‘things fall down’ were discovered at some point in our lives. Many supporters of innatism have disagreed with Hume, stating that we can conjure up new ideas of which we have never conceived, for example, and unicorn. We have never experienced a unicorn, yet we still have the idea of it. Hume responds by explaining that we have Outward and Inward impressions of the world. Outward impression would be simple ideas such as smell, shape and taste, and Inward ideas being a combination of all our simple ideas, i.e. a unicorn. Hume argues that although we have never experienced a unicorn itself, we have experienced all the aspects and qualities that make up the unicorn, such as the colour white or the horse resembling structure of the animal. Overall, Hume tells us that we can combine our ideas of what we have already experienced to produce more complicated and vivid concepts and ideas, but the aspects that make up these developed ideas must have already been experienced, again, why blind people cannot imagine colour, and deaf people cannot imagine sound.
The main argument against Tabula Rasa is Concept Inatism. Concept Innatism argues that we are born with certain ideas and concepts. Plato supported this claim, and in his writings ‘Meno’, Socrates uses one of Meno’s uneducated slaves to demonstrate that someone without any mathematical training can derive simple geometry and abstract principles, apparently supporting the claim of innatism. Another argument raised by many innatists is that of instinct, claiming that animals instincts, such as why birds fly south in winter, and why a baby will suckle, are not formed through experience and exists in the mind without being created (i.e. not new or old), therefore innate ideas and concepts exist. A counter argument to this would be that instinct does not count as knowledge. For something to be considered knowledge, the subject must be conscious of it, otherwise it is not a concept. The subject does not KNOW why it is doing it, yet it just does it.
Some Innatisits believe that we are born with a sense of moral judgement, a concept of God, and/or basic principles of mathematics. In nearly all society’s and civilisations across all of history have generally had a concept of a higher power(s) that has created and caused everything. Even though to some this counts as sufficient evidence for the concept of God to be innate, others may argue that the idea of a higher power is there to fill the gaps of which we do not understand, hence why in more developed society’s with higher levels of sophisticated science, the level of religion is less. Some would also argue that we do not have an innate sense of moral judgement; hence why many criminals have has a bad upbringing, which implies that the lack of experience of moral judgement means they lack moral judgement themselves.
Overall, I feel that there is much more evidence to suggest that we are born as Tabula Rasa, with Philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume producing successful and minimally flawed arguments supporting the ‘blank slate’ claim, while the arguments of those who support innatism, such as Plato, can be questionable at times.
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