International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 167 28th November 2011


I. 'Symbolism: From Supernatural to Science: an Epistemological Inquiry' by John Nwanegbo-Ben

II. 'On Concepts: With or Without Perceptions' by Ali Yousefi Heris

III. 'Generating Stable Knowledge via Reduction in Entropy' by Georgios Constantine Pentzaropoulos



For this issue of Philosophy Pathways we return to the topic of Epistemology (see Issue number 164 29th July 2011). How do symbols, for example the symbols in religion or science, embody human knowledge? What does it mean to say that human beings possess the 'innate capacity' to organize raw perceptions into a meaningful form? Under what circumstances is the information thus gained sufficiently ordered or organized to qualify as knowledge?

John Nwanegbo-Ben invites the reader to consider symbols in their historical aspect as well as their contemporary use. Symbols 'represent a state of affairs which has been relatively universalized', that is to say, they embody the accepted knowledge of the time. The key question to ask, however, is how we decide whether the proposed introduction of a symbol into the language is acceptable. The use of symbols enables us to increase our knowledge, by facilitating thought. However, what is the case, the facts, should not be seen to depend on our arbitrary decision whether to use a particular symbol or not.

Ali Yousefi Heris looks at the innateness debate, in the light of genetics, for example the genetics of inherited diseases or disabilities. It is an uncontested observation that the very same gene or combination of genes can produce different effects in different environments. In that case, how does one disentangle the combined effects of environment and genetic makeup? If that question proves intractable, then it is hardly surprising that there will be no simple answer to the innateness question, for example, the question raised by Chomsky to what extent our knowledge of the grammar of our language is 'innate'.

Georgios Constantine Pentzaropoulos in his second article for Philosophy Pathways offers an interpretation of Plato's account of knowledge in the dialogues Meno and Theaetetus, according to which the 'account' which is required in order to convert true belief into knowledge can be understood in terms of the physical concept of entropy, or 'disorder'. When our beliefs are organized into an ordered system, they gain the stability necessary for knowledge; which also explains why, as Plato observed, knowledge has much greater utility than mere true belief. This line of inquiry could be fruitfully extended to explore Edmund Gettier's challenge to the traditional definition of knowledge as 'justified true belief'.

Geoffrey Klempner




Symbolism as a theoretical entity is as old as human knowledge. Its major expression appears to be within the confines of supernaturalism exemplified in various religions of the world. Symbols represent ideals and acts as the mirror of the unseen. In formal and empirical sciences symbols are codified and universalized for general acceptability. The universal acceptability has a double entendre and this is of vital importance in epistemology. The importance of symbolism cannot be over emphasized. However, how reliable are symbols as mirrors to reality? To what extent do we say that a symbol is a true representation of the ideal or absolute knowledge? The purpose of this paper is to analyze the epistemological character of symbolism in human knowledge.

Human knowledge grows by accretion through problem solving. Knowledge of both physical and mental realities most times is represented symbolically. Different forms and levels of experience and relationship to reality both within the confines of the sacred and profane are linked together with the concept of symbols, signs and pictures.

The secularization or universalization of symbols for objective interpretation to boost human knowledge is of vital importance. Religious symbolism has played major roles both in the African traditional religion, Christianity and eastern religious lives. It has aided a standard perception of ideals of each of these religious lives within their socio-cultural milieu.

Our emphasis in this paper is to identify the import of symbolism both in the supernatural and science and in human knowledge. In this we hope to discover or explicate the significance of symbolism in human knowledge and how symbols standardized and make intelligible our understanding of reality whether in the confines of the supernatural or science.

Meaning and Functions of Symbolism
A symbol may be anything, objects, words, colours, or patterns; their defining characteristic is that they stand for something other than their intrinsic property. In aesthetics, symbolism represents an object which apart from its own immediate and proper significance, suggests also another, especially a more ideal content which it cannot perfectly embody. Symbols may be either natural: as light is a symbol of truth; or traditional and conventional: as the cross is a symbol of sacrifice[1]. Another example is while there is nothing intrinsically dangerous about the colour red; it has become a symbol for danger in almost all societies.

Symbols are theoretical or mental entities that are subject to verification. Though these symbols are subject to verification, yet they are of practical value to thought or mental acts and science in general. In African religion, ethics, agriculture, and even in communal political life, symbols are of practical value. As a result of the necessity to exhaust all frontiers of knowledge, there is now a resumption of series of inquiry into the metaphysics and epistemology of symbolism as a category of human knowledge. This resumption is predicated on the intent to standardize knowledge as objectively as possible.

In the 1960s anthropologists delved into the study of symbolism to investigate what symbols stand for and the processes by which meaning is attributed to them. The common agreement between various research schools on this issue 'is the need to explain the universal presence of symbols in all societies and to explain their importance. In human history, symbols have been used to express ideas, communicate meanings, and convey emotions'[2].

Different languages of the world have developed different scripts as symbols of meaning. Hieroglyphics from the ancient Egyptian civilization are among the earliest in Africa and the world. The function whereby a mental result primarily referring to one set of object is transferred to another set of objects; first set is said to be symbolic of the second. Symbols are frequently used in a very wide sense as equivalent to any kind of sign. But it seems desirable to limit its application in psychology to cases in which the sign is provisionally substituted for the thing symbolized. In examining the relationship between 'sign' and 'symbol', D. Okeke states '...sign indicates, symbols represents'[3].

Symbols are used as a kind of key to convey religious concepts, ideas, visual, auditory and even kinetic representation of events. Nature is replicate with symbols. Other non-religious types of symbols have achieved increasing significance in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially those dealing with man's relationship to and conceptualization of the material world.

The function of symbol is to represent a reality or a truth and to reveal them either instantaneously or gradually. The symbol is sometimes identified with the reality that it represents and sometimes regarded as a pure transparency of it. As a 'sign' or 'picture' the representation of the experience of and relationship to reality has either a denotative or a truly representative meaning.

Scholars are now appreciating the theoretical and scientific functions of symbolism. African philosophers have noticed that within the content of both traditional and contemporary life of Africans, symbolism has played very vital roles. Symbolism has been the integral part of African medical practice, religious worship, culture and literature.

Symbolism in the Supernatural
Symbolism began with the emergence of religion and religion is as old as mankind. The reason being predicated on the conception that man is naturally a worshiping being. And the only way for man to identify the supernatural being that he believes is responsible for his being is to use symbolic representation. This in other words shows that man really knows nothing about his beliefs or the supernatural but only that which appears.

The supernatural is simply an act or condition which transcends explanation within the confines of physical or corporal existence. Terry Davidson's description of the supernatural is, 'The Supernatural posits sentient agents who are somehow 'above' or 'beyond' nature (or whatever), who have the ability to alter the very ways in which nature would ordinarily work had these agents instead chosen simply to sit back and watch.'[4]
Issues within these areas have to do with faith and this is premised on the belief on the possibility of suspension or violation of natural laws. Religion is based on supernaturalism, the world of the mysterious, or the unknowable that cannot readily be comprehended by sensual mechanism.

Symbols can be traced back to prehistoric times, where they were totally linked with ritual practices of their religions. A group of so called 'Venus' figures provides one of the earliest examples. The most notable of these is the Venus of Willendorf, a small, stone carving of a faceless pregnant woman, which dates from 30,000-24,000 BC.

In Egypt, the use of animal symbols was clearer, since most of the gods were associated with creatures. In many cases, they were portrayed with animal heads and human bodies. Unlike the Egyptians, the Greeks preferred to portray their gods as human beings, using a variety of symbolic props to identify them.

In the west, symbols developed after Christianity was proclaimed the official religion in AD 313. The symbols were simple: the cross, a dove etc. Religious images were placed inside the church for educational purposes, both for the preacher and the congregation. The crucifixion, for instance, could be symbolized by the instruments of the passion (the crown of thorns, the Lance, the nails, the harmer). In a similar way, an apple and a snake could be used to symbolize the temptation of Adam and Eve.

The oldest Buddhist image represented Buddha through a series of symbolic objects. These include among others the Buddhist tree under which he was sitting when he attained a state of Enlightenment. African religion, culture and even political life are embedded with symbolism. Most African communities created their gods[5] and have symbolic representation of these gods in shrines prepared by them. The ontology of African symbols emphasizes that symbols cannot be an isolated compartment but could be seen as a synthesis of his cultural, social and philosophical thinking[6]. Thus in every aspect of the life of an African that has to do with medical practice or divination of any type, symbols play a direct link. Just as the stethoscope is a symbol of the orthodox medical practice, so do 'the Afa seeds make up the diviners paraphernalia'[7].

Symbols or symbolic relationships are tied or linked to culture. It could be identified in dressing, dance and even musical instruments; these are basic to our understanding of the consciousness of a given people. The issue of the supernatural or African medicine (whether divination or curative) can be identified with symbols such as the mask, shrine, red, white or black cloths. Each of these symbolic representations identifies spiritual forces, each having a particular connotation. As stated above, red in most societies may connote danger, black may connote death, while knives, mirrors, skulls of animals and birds are symbols representing contact points to unseen forces in nature which the medicine man (dibia) uses both for diagnosis and treatment of diseases and ailments that are supernatural in character.

Herbs as another symbol represent various aspects of forces and unseen and unquantifiable energies in nature. The herbs are used for the preparation of drugs or medicine for both curative and even protection for men against evil forces. Beyond the realm of herbs are more mysterious symbols like the effigy as practiced in Haiti as 'Voodoo'. The effigy can be used as a direct contact to the person involved. Through incantations and invocations, it is believed that if the effigy is stabbed, the stab will be felt by the person involved. In most cases, if the intention was to kill, the person dies. There has however been no scientific interpretation to this claim. And to cap it all, without symbolic representations we cannot rightly talk of magic, mystical experiences or miracles in any social milieu. Thus, there is always and element of symbolism in anything related to the supernatural. The reason being that it acts as a reference point for the unseen or that which is hidden.

Scientific Character of Symbolism
Symbolism is as old as knowledge itself hence was not confined to the perceived knowledge of the supernatural alone; symbols also featured significantly in secular themes. Modern day organized science utilizes symbols for general acceptability. Concepts which may appear ambiguous due to difference in Languages and methods of interpretation use symbols. Symbols in scientific knowledge are necessary for objective communication by scientists.

The scientific import of symbolism in human knowledge cannot be over emphasized. The reason is that rational, scientific-technical symbols have assumed an ever increasing importance in modern science and technology. These symbols serve partly to codify and indicate, abbreviate and make intelligible the various mathematical and other scientific and technical relationships and functions. Examples of these are mathematical or logical symbols like <-> Bi-conditional or Equivalence, = equal to, > greater than, -> implication, < less than, negation. These are some symbolic representations of theoretical entities in mathematical and symbolic logic.

In the physical and biological sciences symbols such the symbol (~) for alternating current, or the symbols for male and female[8] respectively are symbols that have been universalized. It should be noted that these type of universalized or secularized symbols are also rooted to a great degree in the realms of religious life like the example of red, white or black cloths. Scientific symbolism functions in a manner similar to that of the religious symbols which associates a particular meaning with a particular sign.

Symbolic representations are usually depicted in diagrammatic or ideographic modes as signs, abbreviations, images, and objects of all kinds that indicate a larger context. In this category belong the simplified or abstract forms, as well as colours, letters and numbers. The circle, the disk, square, the cross, Star of David, Pentagram etc. may symbolize, the sun, universe, stars, the earth, eternity, the flow of time or even a magical spell.

Ordinary formal logic has from the earlier times, substituted symbols (via, the letters of the alphabet) for significant terms, and has thus added much to the facility with which the validity of arguments can be tested. Symbolic logic goes a step further, and adds symbols to stand for combinations of terms, or functions of terms, and statements of relations between terms. Symbols, pictures do mirror the world just like the picture theory of logical atomism of Wittgenstein as documented in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. If we wish to identify a particular element, chemical or compound, we can do so by a particular symbolic representation. The perfect language or statement pictures the structure of reality. An ideal statement gives us the structure of facts, and since facts are composed of objects and their properties, we can say that they are symbolic. The structure of the world corresponds to the structure of language and is pictured for us by language. This picture of language, like any other kind of picture or symbol 'is a model of reality.'[9]

Every model of reality has its symbolic representation. We all (assumption) within the discipline of philosophy, political science etc always have a particular ideology. An example is when the picture of Karl Marx is seen, socialism is imagined hence Marx's picture is a model representation or symbol of socialism.

Why should symbolism be important in human knowledge? Of what significance is it? What we should note is that symbolism has a scientific character. It is this characteristic that makes it significant in human knowledge. Science, etymologically is an upshot of the Latin word Scientia which literally means knowledge. But the knowledge we are addressing now is the contemporary definition and understanding of science which is 'knowledge arranged in an organized or orderly manner, especially knowledge obtained by observation and experimentation. Thus, scientific knowledge is proven knowledge or systematic knowledge based on evidence'[10].

Symbolism is based on the theoretical conception of the correspondence theory of truth and the relativist theory[11]. Symbols represent a state of affairs which has been 'relatively universalized' and accepted by community of scientists, individuals or people. It is this general acceptability as a representation of the real state of affairs that makes it scientific in character. The symbol > greater than has been generally accepted within the scientific world to represent the statement 'greater than', or the symbole < for 'less than'. The colour red or a red cloth has been universally perceived to connote danger.

This universal acceptability depends on the point of view from which it is perceived. For example, we have identified the symbol (~) as representing alternating current in the physical sciences; this same symbol also represents negation in symbolic logic. In contrast to natural language, symbolic logic is artificially contrived by logicians. Its rules and principles are arbitrarily fixed by some sort of fiat that requires logicians to work within their framework, thus, the symbol (~) though accepted generally, but still relative epistemologically. The same can be said of the symbol for a conditional statement (if... then...) that is usually expressed symbolically -> [arrow]. Irvin Copi uses [horse shoe symbol] and this is accepted generally by logicians.

Knowledge presupposes a subject and an object that is, the knower and the known. The subject is the human mind, the seat of perception, the object of knowledge may not be the things of the material world, but the ideas or symbolic representation in the world of ideas. Thus symbols are seen as the representation of the 'ideals'. An object of knowledge, for example water could be represented symbolically in form of a picture, drawing or by a better scientific identification H2O. The symbol H2O can be understood universally by all scientists just as <-> [biconditional] is to all logicians. Symbols can be seen as universals or essences or the general idea of a thing formed in the mind through the process of abstraction. Thus, just as the symbol of the cross signifies sacrifice and as salvation for mankind within the Christian faith and understood generally by all as thus, (even if its meaning is not accepted as a belief by some) so also are other symbolic representations.

There is however an element of the principle of Occam's razor in symbolism. This principle states that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed. Occam's razor helps us to shelve those concepts, variables or constructs that are not really needed to explain a phenomenon. Symbols are like short cuts to realities that may look ambiguous to express. The issue is that symbolic representation as a means of comprehending reality does not adequately give us a true knowledge of the 'thing in itself'. The crucifix, picture of God or Buddha tree does not adequately give us the true nature of Jesus, God or the Buddha. Names and symbols are ambiguous. The name John (if it is mine) does not represent my personality adequately nor does it represent my body as a corporeal being.

What should be noted is that one of the characteristics of a scientific statement is its general acceptability. The fact that Aristotelian cosmology was dethroned despite its general acceptability did not negate it as a scientific knowledge. Symbolism though assumed to be an ideal representation of reality by all does not constitute an absolute means of representing the sacred or supernatural nor the secular or science.

1. Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. Edited by James Mark Baldwin. Vol. II Gloucester: Peter Smith. 1960. p. 640.

2. Mukulika BanerJee, Symbolism (Anthropology) Microsoft. Encarta 2006. Microsoft Corporation.

3. David. C. Okeke. Foundations of Religious Studies. Enugu: Raboni. Nig. Ltd. 2006, P. 90.

4.Terry Davidson. Paranormal, Supernatural, Ghost, Science, and Atheism http:--- Retrieved 10.10.2010

5. C.I.C. Mbamara 'Creation of Deity in African Clinical and Social Settings: An Epistemological inquiry' in Essence: Interdisciplinary-International Journal of Philosophy. No. 2, 2005. p. 35.

6. Paul Ogugua 'Understanding Igbo-African Medicine (A Metaphysical, Epistemological Study' in Essence: Interdisciplinary-International Journal of Philosophy. No. 3. 2006. p.50.

7. M. F. Asiegbu 'Dibia Ogwu: An Indispensable Agent in the Search for Ultimate reality and Purpose in Igbo World' in Essence. Op. cit. P.30.

8. For these examples I am Indebted to the New Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol. 17. 15th Edition. 1982. P. 900.

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1961. para 2.12.

10. John Nwanegbo-Ben. Philosophy of Physics: The Growth of Man's ideas on the Nature of Matter. Owerri: Advanced Graphic 2008. p.40.

11. Kwesi Wiredu. Philosophy and African Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1980. p.115.

(c) John Nwanegbo-Ben 2011

Department of Philosophy of Science & Technology Federal University of Technology Owerri





Innateness, though a widely admitted view in cognitive science, is a vague and confusing hypothesis. Conceptually analyzed, the notion of innateness either leads to the nonsensical view that we are born with some actual innate stuff, or to the truism that we are born in some sense with certain capacities and dispositions that develop through interaction with perceptual and environmental factors. The first conclusion is empty and unacceptable even by nativists. The second leaves nativists with an acceptable but vague and confusing face of nativism.

On concepts: with or without perceptions

I had a project to do on 'Expert systems: knowledge acquisition' for which I developed an ontology using the Protege platform. Ontology is a formal representation of the knowledge of a particular domain, expressed as a set of concepts, individuals and the relations between them. This formal and explicit specification captures and models the structure of the domain (conceptualization) with possible logical restrictions, and can be used for automatic processing in computers to reason about the relations between those concepts and individuals. Part of the work was such that for every individual in the domain, I had to define a concept to which that individual belongs. In other words, defining a domain individual required subsuming that individual under a concept.

Having finished the project, I had to present it to the professor and other students in the class. But when I was making slides to talk about the same individuals and their relations in the domain, I didn't need to define every single individual by classifying that individual under a concept. The audiences in the class already had those concepts. Intuitively, I knew that they would be able to make sense of the tokens and individuals in the domain exactly in the same way that I do. Indeed that is what we humans automatically do in almost all situations in our everyday behavior. We recognize things around us as belonging to certain classes and this recognition retrieves information about those things, which enables us to predict their behavior, draw inferences about them, and consequently we can make decisions to control our behavior. In fact all the agents, either biological or electromechanical, that are somehow engaged in activities such as language production and understanding, categorization, decision-making and reasoning have access to a repository of concepts. In this way, we can say that concepts are the building blocks of our mental life.

Discussions on our mysterious ability to organize the world into objects, to experience the world as a layout of physical entities that endure through time, and the origin and nature of concepts have been pursued traditionally within the empiricism-nativism framework. The most influential hypothesis is the empiricist model in which we construct the world by first detecting the sensible properties of a scene, and by learning how to use words to denote things in the world (Spelke, 1998a). On the empiricist side, it is generally supposed that we initially interact with the world via fleeting sensations, which they gradually organize into more structured entities. The empiricists believe that our knowledge about the world, and a fortiori all concepts, are derived from sense experiences. The nativists or rationalists, on the other hand, claim that mere sense perceptions are not enough to explain our knowledge. They believe that there is some core knowledge that is not acquired, but develops and interacts with later-acquired knowledge. This non-acquired knowledge is commonly called innate knowledge. Like concepts in Protege, we might like to regard it as a kind of predefined knowledge. The nativists argue that the domain-neutral empiricist model is not sufficient enough to explain all our cognition and hence the rationale for innatism.

Cognitive psychology and developmental studies provide a good source of evidence about the origin of concepts. Some studies point to a close link between our perceptual experience and our cognitive capacities. Results from a recent study (Domahs, Moeller, Huber, Willmes, & Nuerk, 2010) on mental representations of numerosity suggest that there is a strong relationship between number processing and finger counting. The study shows that even in the most elementary numerical tasks with hearing educated adults, there is no exclusively abstract magnitude processing. Rather, it suggests that the process is always functionally influenced by persisting counting experiences. The study not only confirms other findings in developmental, behavioral and neurocognitive researches, but also goes beyond a general relation between finger counting and number processing, and implies that the way number magnitude is processed is determined by the specific structure of finger counting system. In this way the presented data dismisses the idea that our numerosity representation and number processing is purely abstract in nature.

The above study on the relation between cognition and perception goes in the empiricists favor and provides evidence that even seemingly abstract cognition turns out to be rooted in persisting bodily experiences. Contrary to this result, there are other studies in support of innatism suggesting that at least part of our knowledge is independent from perceptual experience. Typical instances are the idea of Universal Grammar as an innate and domain-specific body of mentally represented knowledge (Chomskian module), and studies that advocate initial knowledge during infancy (Leslie & Keeble, 1987; Spelke, 1988; Spelke, Breinlinger, Macomber, & Jacobson, 1992; Wynn, 1992) which consider, for instance, solidity, substance and causality in young children as innate principles of arithmetic, physics and psychology.

It is the early existence of such cognitive capacities in infancy that leads the above studies to the postulation of the innateness hypothesis. Experiments on infants' ability to compute the numerical results of arithmetical operations lead Wynn (1992) to conclude that the existence of such abilities so early in infancy suggests that we innately possess the ability to perform some arithmetical calculation. This and the other studies mentioned above show that researchers normally draw innateness with respect to the contribution of perceptual experience in the emergence of cognitive abilities. In other words, innateness is understood as conception independent of perception. This is actually one of the reasons that these experiments are mostly performed on infants. Compared to adults, infants obviously have the minimum perceptual experience possible. This conception-perception dichotomy is best illustrated in the following passage from Spelke (1988a):

     Our research suggests that these views are wrong for a
     common reason. All assume that objects are perceived: that
     humans come to know about an object's unity, boundaries,
     the persistence in ways like those by which we come to know
     about its brightness, color, or distance. I suggest, in
     contrast, that objects are conceived.
This apparently suggests that there are two aspects to our experience: perceptual and conceptual aspects. Perceptual aspects include our experience of color and distance while our experience of unity and boundaries of objects is conceptual. But what is it to have perception or conception of something? What is it to have either of conception or perception with or without the other one?

Perceptual experiences, one might say, are based on purely sensory data while conceptions do not depend on sensory data, or in other words, conceptions do not depend on perceptions. In this sense, our concepts of color or brightness of an object are derived from purely sensory data while our very concept of object, that is, the conditions under which something is recognized as an object, or its unity over time, are independent from sensory data. This means that we come to know about an object's unity in the same way that we come to know about, say, an object's market value. Studies show that infants who cannot yet reach for objects or talk about them nevertheless organize the visual world into unitary bodies (Spelke, 1988a). Then it might be concluded that the organized world is not constructed from a sensory tableau, but from a conceptual system, which is independent from perceptions. The idea of being equipped with such an independent cognitive repository sounds to be the core of innateness hypothesis.

The idea of conception or cognition independent of perception is of course far from clear and demands for clarification. It is plausible to suppose, at least as a first approximation, that we are born with bodies of information or principles whose development is quite independent from perceptual experiences. This doesn't seem to be promising as the idea of present at birth imposes a kind of temporal constraint, which is neither sufficient nor necessary for innateness. As Samuels (2004) points, the condition is not sufficient because the prenatal learning is possible. In addition, traits that paradigmatically are not innate can be present at birth. Present at birth is not a necessary condition as there are typically innate traits that are not present at birth and appear later in development. Typical examples are the growth of pubic hair and sexual characteristics. Therefore, the idea that we are born with some actual innate stuff seems unacceptable. On the other hand, if innate traits somehow instantiate late in development, then they enter into interaction with environment and perceptual data. With respect to this situation, one might suggest that cognitive innate stuff is not quite independent from perceptions as we envisaged before. Rather, they are influenced by perceptual experiences and the influence is limited only to some transitory stages of development.

This conception of innateness suggests a kind of interactionist view according to which innate cognitive characteristics are the result of interaction with perceptual data. In other words, they are the result of both internal and environmental factors. They are like dispositions that can be developed, but the development requires the trigger of perceptual experience. A classical and interesting example of this conception of innateness is illustrated in Descartes' analogy between innate traits and congenital diseases:

     In the same sense we say that in some families generosity
     is innate, in others certain diseases like gout or gravel,
     not that on this account the babes of these families suffer
     from these diseases in their mother's womb, but because they
     are born with a certain disposition or propensity for
     contracting them (1648, p. 304).
As babes, according to Descartes, do not suffer from disease in their mother's womb, the analogy dismisses the notion of innateness as present at birth. In addition, since inborn diseases are influenced by environment or perceptual factors, it also instantiates an interactionist approach to innateness. This is close to the biological conception of innateness in which innate traits, although influenced by perceptual experiences, are developmentally stable.

What would be Descartes' answer, if we ask him what is it for a concept or trait to be innate, or in other words, what are the conditions under which a trait is innate? He would probably refer to his analogy and reasonably answer that the innateness conditions are the same as the conditions under which a disease is inborn or congenital. This answer immediately leads us to the question of the conditions under which a disease is inborn. Obviously diseases do not develop in vacuo, and any answer to this question certainly does not ignore the role of environmental factors. The situation is also in line with our second conception of innateness in which the development of innate cognitive perceptions is not away from environment, but influenced by perceptions. In this way, the conditions of being an innate ability and being an inborn disease are identified, and therefore characterization of inborn diseases leads to a clarification of the concept of innateness.

One might propose that to say that an organism has an inborn disease is to say that if it comes to an appropriate age, some specific symptoms appear that indicates he has been afflicted with certain disease. It is noticeable that we are looking for conditions that are characteristic of inborn diseases. Since the conditions of innate traits and inborn diseases are identified, the proposed solution is useful in understanding characteristic features of innate traits, if the proposed conditions exclude non-inborn diseases. But this is exactly the problem with the above solution since both inborn and non-inborn diseases satisfy this condition. Human diseases are classified in a number of ways, from those caused by nutritional factors, to those caused by infectious agents and also those with a genetic origin. Cytomegalovirus, for instance, is a viral genus infection, which has the characteristic ability to remain latent within the body over long periods, and tends to reactivate intermittently without symptoms. Once a person becomes infected, the virus latently persists in the body for the whole life and can exhaust the immune system in old age (Scott, Gibbs, Karlan, & Haney, 2003 p. 192). This simply shows that there are some infectious diseases that satisfy the above condition, which was supposed to belong specifically to inborn diseases.

It may be argued in response that Descartes' analogy identifies innate traits with genetic traits. In other words, by comparing innate traits with inborn diseases, Descartes is characterizing innateness as part of our latent biological endowment in the same sense that biologists consider genetic traits as part of our biological endowment. In fact some biologists have put forward similar proposals. Lorenz, for example, declares 'an innate trait is one that is genetically transmitted as opposed to acquired by cultural transmission or individual learning' (as cited in Ariew, 1996). But how are we going to understand the notion of a disease genetically transmitted? What is it exactly to associate innateness with a process that is 'in the genes'?

This requires an analysis of the relation between genes and characters. Indeed it is customary in biology to use shorthand such as 'gene for brown hair' or 'brown hair gene'. It also seems correct to say that my hair or eye colour, all the processes in my body from small-scale like cell division to reproduction and my capability to survive, even my learning abilities, are all genetically encoded. But it is an oversimplification if we treat these statements and terminology as suggesting a direct causal relationship between a particular gene and the production of a process or a character such as brown hair. At least in the case of hair colour, the gene involved in making hair brown is primarily involved in pigment formation throughout the body, not just in hair colour.

There is also a more serious problem with the above proposal in that it is based on a sharp contrast between genes and environment. It supposes that a trait is either acquired or genetically transmitted. But even genetically transmitted traits are not developed independent of perceptual and environmental factors. Thus, this proposal doesn't seem to be promising for the following two reasons: first, there is no direct causal relationship between a particular gene and the production of a process or a character and second, by the truism that phenotype always requires an interaction between genotype and environment, that is, phenotype is the sum of the combined action of our genes and the environment in which we grow and develop.

It is worth considering that our characters are influenced either by a single gene[1] or involve two or more genes, which are called multifactorial characters.[2] Although the development of all these characters requires interacting with environment, for multifactorial characters there is a strong interaction between genotype and environment (Metcalfe, Hirst & Saunders, 2001). The following cases illustrate the relative influence of genetic and environmental-perceptual factors:

Siamese cats: In order to appreciate the effect of the environment on the phenotype, let's consider the temperature and coat colours in Siamese cats. In these cats, the pattern of brown extremities -- feet, face, ears, and tail-and cream coloured body is transmitted to their descendents. The kittens are all cream coloured at birth; some days later, pigment appears in their new fair, first along the margin of the ears and gradually over their extremities. If the kittens grow and develop in a warm environment, the amount of brown fur is less than the amount they gain if they develop in cold temperature. Although it appears that the brown and cream pattern is itself inherited, in fact what is really inherited is the capacity of the fur to form brown pigment, depending on the particular temperature at the time of growth. So a single genotype may produce different phenotypes, depending on the environment in which the organism develops (Metcalfe et al. 2001, p.52).

Identical twins and multifactorial characters: Another interesting way of considering the relative influence of environmental or genetic factors in the development of characters is the study of the identical twins. In this study, identical twins reared together are compared with those in which members of each twin-pair are separated at birth and raised in different households. The two individuals in each twin-pair are genetically identical because both are formed from a single fertilized egg, which splits early in development to form two distinct embryos with identical genes. Thus identical twins separated at birth can be studied to examine the effect of different environments and perceptual factors on the same genes. Studies have revealed that although the twins have identical genotypes, they have different multifactorial characters (Metcalfe et al. 2001, p. 55).

These cases illustrate that we cannot provide a successful account of innateness in terms of gene-environment dichotomy. There are alternative biological accounts that explain innateness as a matter of degree rather than gene-environment dichotomy. Sober (1998), for example, proposes that 'a phenotypic trait is innate for a given genotype if and only if that phenotype will emerge in all of a range of developmental environments', and Ariew (1996) suggests that 'the degree to which a biological trait is innate for a genotype is the degree to which a developmental pathway for individuals possessing an instance of that genotype is canalised'. None of these ideas seems to be clear and helpful as they lack a precise account of the relation between genes, characters and the role of perceptual and environmental factors.

The notion of environment, with respect to the development of phenotypic characters, has a very broad sense, ranging from cytoplasm that surrounds nucleus within a cell, to specific environments such as uterus, or even to more general factors such as human culture or earth's climate. It includes any social or physical factor, other than genes, which can interact with the genotype. This means that the above accounts not only require providing a dynamic interaction between genes and perceptual factors, but they also require explaining this interaction with respect to such a broad sense of environment. The concept of environment is so broad, inclusive and indeterminate that any attempt to account for innateness in this way is condemned to vagueness. This implies some kind of insufficiency in the innateness hypothesis.

Almost all[3] nativists wholeheartedly accept the interactionist view that innate characters are caused jointly by both internal and perceptual factors. But none of them give an account that provides the necessary and sufficient conditions that characterize nativism. The situation needs to be clarified by the advocates of nativism. Otherwise, innateness sounds like a negative hypothesis, established and interpreted vaguely as nothing but the negation of Empiricism.


1. Such as blood groups or some disorders like Huntington.

2. Such as height, weight or coronary heart disease.

3. There are exceptions such as Jeffry Elman suggesting that a trait is innate if and only if it is the product of interactions internal to the organism. (1996)


Ariew, A. (1996) Innateness as Canalization. Philosophy of Science, 63 (Proceedings), pp.S19-S27.

Descartes, R. (1648). Comments on a Certain Broadsheet, in Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D. (1985). The Philosophical Writing of Descartes, volume 1. Cambridge University Press.

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Elman, J. et al. (1996) Rethinking Innateness: a Connectionist Perspective on Development, MIT Press.

Lepore, E., & Pylyshyn, Z. (ed.), (1999) What is Cognitive Science? Blackwell.

Metcalfe, J., Hirst, M., & Saunders, R. (2001) Human Genetics and Health Issues, The Open University.

Murphy, G. (2002) The big book of concepts. The MIT press.

Samuels, R. (2004) Innateness in cognitive science. Cognitive Science, Vol.8 No.3

Sober, E. (1998) Innate knowledge. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge.

Spelke, E. (1998a) Where perceiving ends and thinking begins: the apprehension of objects in infancy. In A. Yonas (ed.), Perceptual Development in Infancy, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 197-234.

Spelke, E. (1998b) Nativism, Empiricism and the Origin of Knowledge. Infant Behavior & Development, 21 (2), 181-200.

Scott, J., Gibbs, R., Karlan, B., & Haney, A. (2003) Danforth's Obstetrics and Gynecology. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; Ninth edition.

(c) Ali Yousefi Heris 2011




     All men by nature desire to know
Aristotle 'Metaphysics'

Abstract. The purpose of this work is to examine the conditions under which reduction in uncertainty contributes to knowledge stability. Two of Plato's works, Theaetetus and Meno, are used to illustrate the difficulties. Links with information theory are established by virtue of a computer metaphor. Results are expressed in a series of four statements. According to the final statement, by reducing entropy, uncertainty is also reduced, and the flow of information approaches steady state. In that state, knowledge is always stable and valuable.

Keywords: Epistemology; knowledge acquisition; cognitive sciences; computer metaphor; stability; entropy; information philosophy.


Knowledge acquisition is a central subject in classical epistemology, theoretical computer science, and the cognitive sciences. Given that much of our knowledge is gained via interaction with the environment, it follows that the study of knowledge requires the examination of all possible feedback mechanisms between the human brain and its surrounding physical space. Memory is an important part of this feedback process as it involves brain's neuronal circuitry.

Leading experts in neuroscience have for some time been trying to find a link between short-term memory and the creation of a long-term memory (Menzel, 2005). EU-funded research has also shown that the hippocampus inside the brain's limbic system plays a major role in memorizing recent events (Moser, 2005). Recently, it has been suggested that the human brain could be simulated as an artificial neural network with a two-level memory hierarchy Pentzaropoulos (2011). By virtue of this computer metaphor, the short- and long-term memories are connected via a feedback mechanism which allows the short-term memory to be regularly renewed in order to store all recently used information. Then, this renewal process guarantees brain's responsiveness to intellectual challenges such as making new decisions. Finally, it was noted there that any knowledge gained is valuable only if the information from which it is derived reduces uncertainty.

The purpose of this work -- a follow-up of our research above -- is to examine the conditions under which reduction in entropy may contribute to knowledge stability. Our approach involves aspects from classical epistemology, computer science, and information philosophy.

Part 1: Nature of Knowledge

Epistemologists often make a distinction between two types of knowledge: ability or know-how, and propositional knowledge. Here we consider both types. However, we retain the view that much of our knowledge is gained via perception following the tradition elaborated by Democritus. Therefore, in this paper, the senses (aestheses) are considered more important than intuition (noesis). We also retain the view expressed by the British empiricist, John Locke, that the mind at birth is more or less like a blank table or slate, i.e. a tabula rasa (Blackburn, 2008). However, we give to this term an information-theory definition as explained below.

At its initial state, the mind is assumed to have no information. However, given the mind's constant exposure to the outside world, it becomes clear that the tabula will eventually become full unless we assume that it has infinite capacity. Our earlier work (Pentzaropoulos, 2011) suggests that memory can be very large but not infinite despite brain's extensive neuronal circuitry. Therefore, we consider the tabula to be like an erasable tablet, a term which is consistent with the origin of the Latin word (verb) radere which means 'erase' (Morwood, 2003). Human memory has the property of writing and overwriting information, much like computer memory. Roughly speaking, human short-term memory is analogous to the (volatile) computer main memory, while long-term memory can be associated with the (more stable) computer virtual memory. The latter could be seen as a very large tabula rasa such as a database containing billions of records. Such databases form the infrastructure of today's digital libraries; and, of course, digital libraries are sources of knowledge.

The problem of defining knowledge in acceptable terms began with Plato's view in the Theaetetus that knowledge is true belief plus a logos, or else certification by reason (Blackburn, 2008). In this dialogue, which takes place in the presence of the mathematician Theodorus, Socrates announces that he has no idea what knowledge is like; and that he is seeking some form of a definition. Theaetetus says that he cannot think of any definition of knowledge. Thereafter, Socrates and Theaetetus engage in a lengthy conversation both trying to arrive at an acceptable definition. Three possible definitions are examined in this dialogue:

  (i) knowledge as pure perception;
  (ii) knowledge as true judgment; and
  (iii) knowledge as true judgment with an account.

Although none of the three definitions proved to be completely satisfactory, the last definition seems to be somehow better than the other two, prompting the young Theaetetus to note the word 'account' (logos). Then, Socrates comes to the point that, in his opinion, things without an account are unknowable, while things with an account are knowable. The final conclusion of the Theaetetus is that we do not really know how to define knowledge. But this is not to say that we have not learned anything about what knowledge is like. As Theaetetus admits, he has given birth to far more than he had in him (Chappell, 2009).

In computer science, knowledge and memory are defined in somewhat different terms than those used in epistemology. Let us look at this definition: 'Knowledge: the objects, concepts and relationships that are assumed to exist in some area of interest' (http:---).

Knowledge is different from (raw) data or information, two key concepts in computer terminology, in the sense that new knowledge may be created from existing knowledge by logical inference. Information is the result of applying some kind of processing to this (raw) data, giving it meaning in a particular context.

Wisdom has been excluded as it concerns a higher state of mind along with other human properties. Wisdom may never be achieved, at least according to Pythagoras, who thought of himself not as wise but only a friend of wisdom (friend, philos plus wisdom, sophia equals friend of wisdom, i.e. philosopher). Nevertheless, the above computer metaphor illustrates that, if knowledge is a prerequisite to wisdom, then we will always want more data and information. But, knowledge gained through the senses can sometimes be deceiving; therefore, information gained through data processing should always be held up for inspection. Following the above discussion, we can write our first statement:

S1. Data (raw) fi Processing fi Information fi Knowledge.

If we accept that knowledge is true judgment with an account, as noted above, then we must also note that -- because of S1 -- knowledge cannot really be separated from data or information. The last two usually come from experiments or measurements performed in the framework of physical or technical systems. Therefore, knowledge is affected by the process of gathering data or transforming data into information.

Part 2: Reliability and Stability

The observations made above lead to our second statement:

S2. Knowledge inherently contains uncertainty, which comes from the methods of obtaining data and information. Such uncertainty can be characterized analytically.

The second part of S2 is not immediately obvious, but it will become clearer later when we will be discussing the problem of stability of knowledge and its relation to information entropy. The latter is a well-known index of uncertainty in both physical and technological systems. For now we examine stability.

The following passage in Plato's Theaetetus -- known as the wax tablet paradigm -- makes a clear distinction between perception and thought. The objects of perception are a series of constantly-changing immediate awarenesses. The objects of thought are those objects of perception to which we have chosen to give a measure of stability by imprinting them on the wax tablets in our minds (Chappell, 2009).

Plato's Theaetetus [191c-191e] (http:---)
     Socrates. Please assume, then, for the sake of argument,
     that there is in our souls a block of wax, in one case
     larger, in another smaller, in one case the wax is purer,
     in another more impure and harder, in some cases softer,
     and in some of proper quality.
     Theaetetus.I assume all that.
     Socrates. Let us, then, say that this is the gift of
     Memory, the mother of the Muses, and that whenever we wish
     to remember anything we see or hear or think of in our own
     minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions and thoughts
     and imprint them upon it, just as we make impressions from
     seal rings; and whatever is imprinted we remember and know
     as long as its image lasts, but whatever is rubbed out or
     cannot be imprinted we forget and do not know.

     Theaetetus. Let us assume that.
The most remarkable thing here is Socrates' view that human memory is actually split into parts, i.e. it is a non-homogeneous structure in computer terminology. Moreover, Socrates actually insists that human memory has the property of writing and overwriting its 'images' (icons): this is, of course, a well-known property of all kinds of modern computer memories, e.g. electromagnetical, optical, and semiconductor memories. Anything (data) that is not stored in memory cannot be used in a subsequent processing activity; similarly, as Socrates points out, whatever is rubbed out or cannot be imprinted remains unknown.

Returning to the problem of the stability of knowledge, epistemologists generally agree that true beliefs are better than false beliefs in the sense that the former have greater instrumental value. However, true belief can never be as good as knowledge (Pritchard, 2008). The fleeting nature of true belief was early identified by Plato in his work Meno. There, it is argued that knowledge is more stable than belief (opinion) because knowledge is not easily lost. In the course of the dialogue Socrates refers to an old legend (mythos) according to which the ancient sculptor Daedalus had inserted a mechanism in his statues by which they could move.

Plato's Meno [97c-98a] (http:---
     Meno. I wonder, Socrates, this being the case, that
     knowledge should ever be more prized than right opinion,
     and why they should be two distinct and separate things.
     Socrates. Well, do you know why it is that you wonder, or
     shall I tell you?

     Meno. Please tell me.
     Socrates. It is because you have not observed with
     attention the images of Daedalus. But perhaps there are
     none in your country.
     Meno. What is the point of your remark?
     Socrates. That if they are not fastened up they play truant
     and run away; but, if fastened, they stay where they are.
     Meno. Well, what of that?
     Socrates. To possess one of his works which is let loose
     does not count for much in value; it will not stay with you
     any more than a runaway slave: but when fastened up it is
     worth a great deal, for his productions are very fine
     things. And to what am I referring in all this? To true
     opinion. For these, so long as they stay with us, are a
     fine possession, and effect all that is good; but they do
     not care to stay for long, and run away out of the human
     soul, and thus are of no great value until one makes them
     fast with causal reasoning. And this process, friend Meno,
     is recollection, as in our previous talk we have agreed.
     But when once they are fastened, in the first place they
     turn into knowledge, and in the second, are abiding. And
     this is why knowledge is more prized than right opinion:
     the one transcends the other by its trammels.
     Meno. Upon my word, Socrates, it seems to be very much as
     you say.

The passage cited above confirms this problem: right opinion (or mere true belief), unlike knowledge, can be unstable. True beliefs are still useful, but they cannot stay in their place unless they are tethered to the ground by what Socrates calls a logical explanation (aetias logismos). The distinction between knowledge and true belief forms the basis of the definition of knowledge as justified true belief.

Pritchard (2008), who also quotes the same paradigm (The Statues of Daedalus), links stability of knowledge to reliability of information which underpins knowledge. This author offers the following example. Suppose one is trying to find his way to the nearest restaurant in an unfamiliar city. Suppose, further, that the particular map is unreliable. Eventually, he would notice that none of the landmarks corresponded to the where they ought to be. He would quickly realize that the map is unreliable, thereby preventing him from getting to the restaurant.

Let us now recall our statement S1 according to which information and data are prerequisites to knowledge. Unreliable information will eventually lead to trouble as in the example cited above. Of course, one might still reach his goal, even if the map was unreliable, entirely by chance; but epistemologists generally agree that one cannot gain knowledge by chance. This leads into our third statement:

S3. Knowledge gained through reliable information has greater instrumental value than true belief. Further, knowledge is always more stable than true belief. Thus, knowledge increases the probability that one achieves his objectives.

Part 3: Entropy in Relation to Stable Knowledge

According to our last statement (S3), reliable information is a requirement for achieving genuine knowledge. Knowledge is always stable. In everyday life, information is commonly associated to a sense of order. Any lack of order brings about uncertainty, and sometimes chaos. In physics, as well as in information theory, the entropy of a system is defined as a measure of the system's intrinsic uncertainty (Soanes and Stevenson, 2005). The presence of a feedback mechanism often observed in closed systems contributes to greater entropy. That is the reason why in many system performance evaluation studies entropy is described by an objective function that deserves minimization.

Entropy comes from an ancient Greek word (entropia), which is formed from the prefix en- plus trope. Any logical structure e.g. a memory containing information can be thought of as a 'system'. Entropy distorts information content, and this quite often leads to incomplete knowledge. The amount of information stored in memory, as well as its internal organization, gives us an index of how well we can understand that information. Such an understanding always reduces uncertainty in systems as explained below.

Entropy was given a new meaning -- away from thermodynamics -- thanks to the pioneering works of Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener. Shannon introduced the complex term 'information entropy' when he was developing his mathematical theory of communication, which is now the basis for modern information theory. And Wiener, the founder of Cybernetics, regarded information as the negative quantity of entropy. Therefore, any decrease in entropy results in more information. Probability and statistics are both key elements of information theory.

Closed systems gradually become less and less organized with the passage of time. Wiener believed that communication of information has a tendency to resist entropy. Therefore, an increase of information will increase organization within the system, whether communicated by a living being or a machine (Wiener, 1950). The ancient Greek word 'homeostasis' was interpreted by Wiener as a kind of steady state applicable to both organisms and machines. Life itself continues by maintaining an internal balance of factors.

According to remarks made by several present-day philosophers of information, especially Doyle (http:---), the notion of the so-called 'information philosophy' quantifies knowledge as actionable information. In line with this new method of enquiry, when information is stored in any structure, two fundamental physical processes occur. First is a collapse of a quantum mechanical wave function. Second is a decrease in the system's entropy corresponding to the increase in information. Entropy greater than that must be transferred away from the system in order to satisfy the laws of thermodynamics (Doyle).

The above discussion naturally leads into our fourth and final statement:

S4. Reliable information leads to greater stability of knowledge. Stability requires some form of internal organization as regards information, which can be achieved at the expense of uncertainty. The latter can be described as a manifestation of entropy. Thus, by reducing entropy, uncertainty is also reduced, and the flow of information approaches steady state. In that state, knowledge is always stable and valuable.

Bibliographical References

Blackburn, S. (Editor) (2008).Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford University Press. See 'epistemology' and 'tabula rasa'.

Chappell, T. (2009). Plato on Knowledge in the Theaetetus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (http:---).

Free Online Dictionary of Computing ( Imperial College, University of London. See 'knowledge' and 'information'.

Information Philosopher ( See 'entropy'.

Menzel, R. (2005). RTD Info, Special Issue on Science and Memory. Brussels: European Commission, p. 25, (

Morwood, J. (Editor) (2003). Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary. Oxford University Press. See 'radere'.

Moser, E. (2005). RTD Info, Special Issue on Science and Memory. Brussels: European Commission, pp. 28-29, (

Pentzaropoulos, G.C. (2011). Knowledge acquisition as a memory renewal process. Philosophy Pathways, Issue 159, Part I.

Perseus Digital Library ( Tufts University. See under Plato's Theaetetus [191c -- 191e] and Plato's Meno [97c -- 98a].

Pritchard, D. (2008). What is this Thing Called Knowledge? London: Routledge.

Soanes, C. and Stevenson, A. (Editors) (2005). Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford University Press. See 'entropy'. Wiener, Norbert (1950). The Human Use of Human Beings. The Riverside Press (Houghton Mifflin Co.).


This work has been partially financed by grant no. 70/4/4733 awarded by the Research Committee of the University of Athens, Greece.

(c) Georgios Constantine Pentzaropoulos 2011

Georgios Constantine Pentzaropoulos Associate Professor, Information and Communication Technologies.

Mathematics and Information Technology Unit Department of Economics University of Athens 8 Pesmazoglou Street 105 59 Athens Greece


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020