Western philosophy contains two great traditions: the empiricist and the idealist.
Those who work within the empiricist tradition begin with data and experience, then to formulate and test hypotheses that account for the data.
Those who work within the idealist tradition begin with ideas, or better, with fictions and select out facts that seem prove their validity. Facts that tend to disprove the ideas or fictions are discarded.
The idealist tradition is “confirmation bias" run wild.
Freudian theories fall easily within the idealist tradition. Whether it is the notion that all dreams fulfill wishes or that all human beings are living out roles in a grand narrative, either of Oedipus or Narcissus Freud was more interested in creating a new form of human being than in describing humans as they really existed.
Similarly, Freud was not interested in human cultures as they were really constituted. He created a fictional culture, the primal horde and read all subsequent cultures as variations on it.
In the world of therapy, cognitive and behavioral theories begin with experience and draw ideas from it. Psychoanalytic therapists begin with ideas and theories, with fictional characters and fictional worlds. They select facts that appear to prove their fictions true, and discard the rest.
Going back in time, the great British empiricist David Hume argued that experience, or, in particular, sense impressions of objects must precede our understanding of ideas. He meant that you cannot grasp the idea of redness unless you have seen something red. And you cannot understand roundness before you have seen or touched a round object.
He added, in Treatise of Human Nature, that you learn the concept of time by observing sequences of events and the concept of space by observing the relationship between objects.
To which Immanuel Kant famously responded that human beings cannot have experience unless they have a prior notion of space and time.
Thus, Kant reaffirmed a tradition of Western idealism that had begun with Plato’s assumption that the objects we see in the world are mere appearances, shadows of the Ideas or Forms that they were designed to express.
Evidently, Aristotle inaugurated the empiricist or scientific method by observing objects in the world and collecting data about them. Many of his hypotheses about real objects proved to be incorrect, but he still deserves acknowledgement as the father of empirical science.
A Hume might have suggested that if you begin with ideas and appearances you never get to reality, you never relate to real objects in the real world. Since Platonists are more concerned with relating to Ideas or theories they would have difficulty disagreeing. For them facts are a mirage keeping you from seeing Ideas clearly.
Surely, something like this dichotomy was in Wittgenstein’s mind when he reflected—in his Philosophical Investigations—on the fact that we are capable of pronouncing sounds without knowing what the words constituted by those sounds mean. Anyone can make sounds without knowing the words behind those sounds.
Surely, some opera singers sing in foreign languages without knowing what the words mean. Children pronounce sounds and even mouth words before they know what those words mean. And some writers—addicted to the thesaurus-- drop large words into their sentences to impress their readers, even though they do not know what the words mean.
At what moment, Wittgenstein asked, can a speaker be said to understand the meaning of a word?
He posited that a speaker understands the meaning of a word when he can use it in a conversation, correctly. Understanding language involves the way one uses language, not the way one offers up a dictionary definition of the word.
Who decides the correct and incorrect ways of using words? Why, the way real people have used real language in their real lives. This establishes the right and wrong ways to use words.
Clearly, Wittgenstein did not say that words do not have any meaning. And he did not believe that philosophers or other intellectual luminaries should tell people how to use language.
By my lights, language usage is the ultimate free market.
Such were my thoughts when I started reading Alison Gopnik’s column this morning in the Wall Street Journal. Gopnik argued that children learn in roughly the same way that scientists conduct experiments, by beginning with experience and sense impressions … which would be the way David Hume believed that human beings learn.
Watch a 1-year-old baby carefully for a while, and count how many experiments you see. When Georgiana, my 17-month-old granddaughter, came to visit last weekend, she spent a good 15 minutes exploring the Easter decorations—highly puzzling, even paradoxical, speckled Styrofoam eggs. Are they like chocolate eggs or hard-boiled eggs? Do they bounce? Will they roll? Can you eat them?
Some of my colleagues and I have argued for 20 years that even the youngest children learn about the world in much the way that scientists do. They make up theories, analyze statistics, try to explain unexpected events and even do experiments. When I write for scholarly journals about this “theory theory,” I talk about it very abstractly, in terms of ideas from philosophy, computer science and evolutionary biology.
Interestingly, babies learn most when their expectations are disappointed, that is, when reality refuses to confirm their ideas.
In an amazingly clever new paper in the journal Science, Aimee Stahland Lisa Feigenson at Johns Hopkins University show systematically that 11-month-old babies, like scientists, pay special attention when their predictions are violated, learn especially well as a result, and even do experiments to figure out just what happened.
They took off from some classic research showing that babies will look at something longer when it is unexpected. The babies in the new study either saw impossible events, like the apparent passage of a ball through a solid brick wall, or straightforward events, like the same ball simply moving through an empty space. Then they heard the ball make a squeaky noise. The babies were more likely to learn that the ball made the noise when the ball had passed through the wall than when it had behaved predictably.
In a second experiment, some babies again saw the mysterious dissolving ball or the straightforward solid one. Other babies saw the ball either rolling along a ledge or rolling off the end of the ledge and apparently remaining suspended in thin air. Then the experimenters simply gave the babies the balls to play with.
The babies explored objects more when they behaved unexpectedly. They also explored them differently depending on just how they behaved unexpectedly. If the ball had vanished through the wall, the babies banged the ball against a surface; if it had hovered in thin air, they dropped it. It was as if they were testing to see if the ball really was solid, or really did defy gravity, much like Georgie testing the fake eggs in the Easter basket.
In its earliest configuration the human mind prefers to learn how to deal with reality. It is stimulated by occurrences that disconfirm its prior notions of how reality is constituted. This would tend to affirm that human organisms are hard wired to adapt and survive in the real world.
This would tend to refute the Freudian notions of the pleasure principle and primary narcissism. Even Jacques Lacan noted one day that infants are clearly not as self-absorbed and self-involved as Freudian theory would suggest. They are, Lacan noted, intensely interested in the real objects that make up their worlds.
This implies that those who prefer to hold on to their stale ideas, even when reality has contradicted them, suffer from a "confirmation bias" that has induced them them to withdraw from the world:
Adults suffer from “confirmation bias”—we pay attention to the events that fit what we already know and ignore things that might shake up our preconceptions. Charles Darwin famously kept a special list of all the facts that were at odds with his theory, because he knew he’d otherwise be tempted to ignore or forget them.
Babies, on the other hand, seem to have a positive hunger for the unexpected. Like the ideal scientists proposed by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, babies are always on the lookout for a fact that falsifies their theories. If you want to learn the mysteries of the universe, that great, distinctively human project, keep your eye on those weird eggs.
Of course, Popper famously rejected Freudian theory because he believed that it would not accept that any evidence could falsify it. This shows that Freud was more interested in his theoretical constructions and less interested in the way that human beings learn.