Sunday, December 31, 2006

Knowledge as a Creole

Sketching out an idea, seeing where it goes... probably shouldn't be taken too literally.


There's a type of human langauge known as a creole.

During the 1800s, there were situations where slaves from various different cultures were brought together to work on farms. They didn't speak speak common languages, so they developed pidgin langauges to communicate: simplified langauges without proper grammatical structures.

But something interesting happened when their children grew up in this pidgin environment. By themselves, the children turned the pidgin into a proper langauge with a proper grammatical structure. These sorts of languages are known as creoles.

Similar things have happened in the development of some sign languages.

In his description of creoles, the psychologist Steven Pinker says "...all it takes is for a group of children to be exposed to the pidgin at the age when they acquire their mother tongue" (The Language Instinct, pp 21 - 30)

Creoles provide signficant insights into children's language development.

Creoles emerge naturally, without explicit decision or design by the children or their parents. There seems to be innate structures and processes in the children's brains that are looking to build a language from the pidgin.

It's like the structures and processes in the child's brain have a plan already sketched out for a language design, and facing an impoverished language like a pidgin, it modifies it and fleshes it out according to the plan.

And in fact, it seems that all language is a creole, in the sense that a child learning their mother tongue is going through the same sorts of processes as those children building a creole. That is, when a child is learning a langauge, they aren't just passively taking in the linguistic elements and deriving the langauge from that, but are actively constructing one according to an inbuilt plan, and only using the available linguistic elements as raw material.

But because in normal situations the child is growing up in environments containing fully-fledged languge(s) rather than incomplete pidgeons, the langauge they build is constrained to match the features of those existing langauges.

Knowledge as a creole

I want to suggest that knowledge is also like a creole, in that the primary means by we acquire it is like language acquisition: it is automatic, happens relatively young, and it is directed by innate processes and structures.

It is primarily responsible for building the knowledge that shapes how we see the world. And like with language-acuquisition, and how we are limited in our ability to learn langauge once we have reached a certain age, our ability to change the way we see the world is limited after we have built our initial picture of the world.

If this was the case, it would help explain why people's worldviews tend to be fairly fixed, and it would also help to explain how worldviews and paradigms evolve over generations.

To see its role in the evolution of worldviews and paradigms, we need to see what happens as we build our knowledge.

Like with langauge, this knowledge-acquisition process is not a passive, simply absorbing the details out there, but is directed by innate processes and strutures that look for certain types of details and build certain types of structures. So it's really less 'knolwedge-acquisition' and more 'knowledge-building'.

To build our picture of the world, we have to integrate lots of different knowledge. This integrative process is not neutral.
Some of the knowledge may be overlapping, covering similar ground, but perhaps from different angles or at different levels of abstraction. Or it may be conflicting. To integrate these it needs to choose certain beliefs over others (not that it's necessairly going to build something that's fully consistent, though).

So in building a picture of the world, and integrating together knowledge, it has to streamline the input it receives. This can clean out dead-wood, like cleaning out beliefs that clearly don't make sense in terms of what we now know, or ad-hoc beliefs.

And this streamlining may actually may make things explicit that were only implicit in the input knowledge. When certain facts are discovered about the world, the middle-aged person who has already built a picture of the world has great difficulty to deeply integrate these facts into their picture of the world.

But the person growing up, building their picture of the world can take these facts as just part of the existing knoweldge and integrate them at a foundational level in their picture. So they may be able to, for example, make explicit consequences of those new facts that were there implicit in the data, but no one else could see before.

I suspect that this could play a role in why ideas often get invented by multiple people around the same time, and help to explain why brainwashing/propoganda efforts are so difficult to undertake in the longer-term.

And interestingly, this would mean that certain ideas can be there, latent in knowledge, for quite some time, until the next generation grows up and deeply incorporates them into their picture of the world.

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