One classic philosophical dispute is the battle over innate ideas. An innate idea, as the name suggests, is an idea that is not acquired by experience but is “built into” the mind. As might be imagined, the specific nature and content of such ideas vary considerably among the philosophers who accept them. Leibniz, for example, takes God to be the author of the innate ideas that exist within the monads. Other thinkers, for example, accept that humans have an innate concept of beauty that is the product of evolution.
Over the centuries, philosophers have advanced various arguments for (and against) innate ideas. For example, some take Plato’s Meno as a rather early argument for innate ideas. In the Meno, Socrates claims to show that Meno’s servant knows geometry, despite the (alleged) fact that the servant never learned geometry. Other philosophers have argued that there must be innate ideas in order for the mind to “process” information coming in from the senses. To use a modern analogy, just as a smart phone needs software to make the camera function, the brain would need to have built in ideas in order to process the sensory data coming in via the optic nerve.
Other philosophers, such as John Locke, have been rather critical of the idea of innate ideas in general. Others have been critical of specific forms of innate ideas—the idea that God is the cause of innate ideas is, as might be suspected, not very popular among philosophers today.
Interestingly enough, there is some contemporary evidence for innate ideas. In his August 2014 Scientific American article “Accidental Genius”, Darold A. Treffert advances what can be seen as a 21st century version of the Meno. Investigating the matter of “accidental geniuses” (people who become savants as the result of an accident, such as a brain injury), researchers found that they could create “instant savants” by the use using brain stimulation. These instant savants were able to solve a mathematical puzzle that they could not solve without the stimulation. Treffert asserts that this ability to solve the puzzle was due to the fact that they “’know things’ innately they were never taught.” To provide additional support for his claim, Treffert gave the example of a savant sculptor, Clemons, who “had no formal training in art but knew instinctively how to produce an armature, the frame for the sculpture, to enable his pieces to show horse in motion.” Treffert goes on to explicitly reject the “blank slate” notion (which was made famous by John Locke) in favor of the notion that the “brain might come loaded with a set of innate predispositions for processing what it sees or for understanding the ‘rules’ of music art or mathematics.” While this explanation is certainly appealing, it is well worth considering alternative explanations.
One stock objection to this sort of argument is the same sort of argument used against claims about past life experiences. When it is claimed that a person had a past life on the basis that the person knows about things she would not normally know, the easy and obvious reply is that the person learned about these things through perfectly mundane means. In the case of alleged innate ideas, the easy and obvious reply is that the person gained the knowledge through experience. This is not to claim that the person in question is engaged in deception—she might not recall the experience that provided the knowledge. For example, the instant savants who solved the puzzle probably had previous puzzle experience and the sculptor might have seen armatures in the past.
Another objection is that an idea might appear to be innate but might actually be a new idea that did not originate directly from a specific experience. To use a concrete example, consider a person who developed a genius for sculpture after a head injury. The person might have an innate idea that allowed him to produce the armature. An alternative explanation is that the person faced the problem regarding his sculpture and developed a solution. The solution turned out to be an armature, because that is what would solve the problem. To use an analogy, someone faced with the problem of driving in a nail might make a hammer but this does not entail that the idea of a hammer is innate. Rather, a hammer like device is what would work in that situation and hence it is what a person would tend to make.
As has always been the case in the debate over innate ideas, the key question is whether the phenomena in question can be explained best by innate ideas or without them.