Problem with Tabula Rasa
Posted by Jerry on January 12, 2006
I recently finished reading Scott Ryan’s Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, and it has got me thinking.
Ryan argues that if the mind is tabula rasa, then it means that an infant is born with nothing in its consciousness. But, Ryan argues, that goes contrary to Rand’s postulate that a consciousness being conscious of nothing is a contradiction of concepts. So, either the mind is tabula rasa, in which case the mind qua consciousness exists but is blank – or that consciousness does not exist at all because a blank consciousness is no consciousness at all.
Over time, I have been able to come to a robust understanding of Objectivism, and derivatively, the “problem” with tabula rasa.
In understanding and applying the principle of tabula rasa, very often we make the mistake of assuming that the human mind (including character, personality traits, etc.) are entirely blank or non-existent.
This clearly cannot be true given the identity and nature of our consciousness. A new-born infant cannot have an utterly “blank” mind with absolutely no content of awareness because that would contradict the principle of consciousness, i.e., that consciousness is always consciousness of something.
Thus, we reach a contradiction: is the mind of the new-born child tabula rasa, i.e., blank slate or does it have some content? If it is a blank mind, it should have no consciousness. But, we do notice that children exhibit some rudimentary form of awareness.
Now, another Objectivist principle states that contradictions do not exist. All knowledge should be consistently integrated with each other and correspond to facts of reality.
Therefore, in order to eliminate the contradiction we face, we must realize that the definition of tabula rasa has to change because the concept and identity of consciousness is irrefutable (it is axiomatic—one of 3 Objectivist axioms).
Thus, we come to understand Rand’s original and accurate formulation of “blank slate” as properly referring to the conceptual faculty, i.e., the ability of our minds to form concepts and relate them to the world. In other words, the new-born infant has absolutely no conceptual faculty, which is only developed gradually through the learning of language with the use of its auditory and visual senses. One of the striking differences between humans and other creatures is our conceptual faculty–our ability to think in concepts, grasp them, and correspond them to reality. However, this faculty is developed over the years (to various extents depending on the person’s will to think and learn). An infant, therefore, is born without any “pre-programmed” concepts as such. For example, an infant is not born with an inherent understanding or grasp of the concept “mother” and its referent in reality. This is learned, gradually, over time.
Thus, a new-born infant has consciousness that is only consciousness of sensory perceptions—a rudimentary form of consciousness similar to that of animals. The infant’s consciousness comprises awareness on a sensory and perceptual level. A child has no concept of evil, rationality, individualism, value, parasite, etc. because they all require a conceptual grasp through a conceptual faculty.
Thus, we must be careful not to adulterate the Objectivist notion of the blank mind with the Lockean notion of the tabula rasa.