Young children, reason and creativity

From the archives: Posted on 17th December, 1994

[2022 note: I still agree with the thrust of my criticism in this post, but despite having said “you are regarding ‘reason’ wrongly,” I now see some of what I wrote here as mistaken – not quite fully taking into account all the implications of the fact that human beings are fallible. (For my current thinking about reason, see some more recent posts.]

See also: Young children, non-coercion and the interplay of reason

The original poster had written:

“Non-coercion requires the interplay of reason. I think that fairly young children (under six) do not find reason very persuasive.”

I had responded:

“This shows that you are regarding “reason” wrongly (or to be less rude that you and I mean different things by “reason”). If you have the assumption that a child is not rational, you don’t need the anecdotal evidence. If you are using the fact that you and your child fail to reach agreement as evidence for the statement that a child does not have reason,”

A second poster replied:

“I think he’s looking at an analysis of the child’s decision, rather than the simple fact of disagreement.”

An analysis of the child’s decision is a theory about the child’s decision, with which the child may disagree. The original poster’s theory may be wrong: he is fallible, just like everyone else. The original poster has already decided that he is right and the child-under-six wrong, so he is hardly acting rationally, is he? As I said:

“then a sceptic such as I might point out that that is equally evidence that you are not behaving rationally.”

The second poster replied:

“That’s only true if you don’t look at anything beyond the fact of disagreement itself.”

What does it mean to ‘look beyond the fact of the disagreement’? ‘Looking’ implies theories in a person’s mind. There is no such thing as truly objective (non-theory-laden) looking. Our disagreement is about whether there is any reliable source of knowledge, any authority from which one can acquire knowledge. I would like to hear your argument for this idea that there is such a source. We agree that there is reality; we agree that there is objective truth. What we disagree about is about whether one can reliably directly perceive the truth, or reality. You presumably believe that reality can simply be observed. Conversely, I argue that all observation, all experience, is theory-laden. What I mean is, there is no such thing as learning directly from experience, no such thing as induction. But I would love to hear your arguments (and those of all you other inductivists out there) in this regard. 

Where there is a disagreement, that is a conflict of theories. I don’t mean anything obscure by that. Indeed, it is a tautology. Where there is a conflict of theories, there is no reliable way of knowing which (if any) is right (or more right than the other(s).) It is not possible, by ‘looking at reality’, to do this. If it were, there would be no conflict, since the truth would be obvious to all parties. Where there is a disagreement, there is a disagreement about reality or truth. That is not to say there is no right answer а or that there is no objective truth а as you and Tim keep suggesting I must mean: what it means is simply that the truth а reality а is not obvious. 

In this disagreement, the original poster and his child have conflicting views of reality/truth. In that situation, as I have said, logically, we know that at least one of them is wrong, but we don’t know who. Being fallible, the original poster has no reason to assume he is right and the child wrong. This idea seems to be puzzling to many, so I will attempt to elucidate.

We have a conflict between an ordinary person and an expert. Let’s compare the a priori possibility of being wrong, with the a posteriori possibility of being wrong, in the following situation. We have here Ordinary Person (Child, if you like) and Dr Expert (Adult, if you like). Before Dr Expert has put his best case, we all agree that the chances are, he is right and Ordinary Person is wrong. But now let’s consider the situation in which they disagree after Dr Expert has put his best case. Who is most likely to be right? Is it the expert, who knows more? Or is it the person who is most rational? After the expert has put his best case, his expertise becomes irrelevant. Dr Expert has now provided all the information necessary to make the decision. What matters then is who is most rational. I explained what I mean by ‘rational’ in previous postings. The person who is rational is the one who is not sabotaging potential growth of knowledge: in other words, the one who will take everything (including the expert’s greater knowledge, etc.) into account, the one who is looking for a solution, open to ideas from all sources, not dogmatically wedded to a particular idea, and who is not pre-judging the issue, and so on.

I had said:

“You seem to be thinking of reason as a way of persuading someone of a prearranged thing, which (in Popperian terms) it isn’t.”

The second poster replied:

“I don’t see that as the only implication of his view. He could be seeing reason as a means for analyzing facts, and as a side benefit, it also makes it possible to explain that analysis to other people. The aspect of persuasion only comes into play as the other person sees your reason applies to himself. My point (and I suspect the original poster’s) is that the child may not have adequate reasoning development to analyze the evidence and reach a conclusion based on reason.”

May I refer you to my previous postings on what constitutes reason? The sort of reasoning you seem to be talking about is not the same as the criteria which seem to be necessary for the growth of knowledge, and it is those criteria that I refer to, not abstract formal reasoning. ‘Reasoning development’ must mean something other than those criteria I mentioned (including seeking truth, being open to criticism, judging ideas by their content rather than their source, etc., etc.) What develops in a child is not reasoning in the epistemological sense, but ideas themselves. First, the child has only the crudest theories (he does not have language, although he has the potential for language, which is itself a species-level theory embodied in his genes). Those initially-crude theories are refined through this rational process of conjectures and refutations (not necessarily conscious, obviously) throughout the child’s life. By ‘reason’ I mean this process, with those criteria. That is how knowledge grows (or perhaps I should say: that is currently the best available theory of the growth of knowledge, since even meta-theories are conjectural in my scheme of things). 

I find it difficult to conceive of how a child could start off irrational (in other words, having entrenched ideas, not engaging in reason а not refining theories in an evolutionary process of conjectures and refutations а not seeking truth, not open to criticism, avoiding dogma, etc., etc.) but then become rational, become all those things. I may be wrong а children may start off irrational – but since it is not clear whether a tiny baby is or is not rational, and since coercion damages rationality, I don’t want to risk damaging what is either rationality or developing rationality by assuming irrationality and coercing the child. But whether or not a tiny baby is rational, it seems difficult to argue that a child of four who has developed language, say, does not have reason.

You argue that the child may not have adequate ‘reasoning development’ to get the right answer, as it were, but since there is no reliable method of establishing truth, there is no external authority to whom one can turn for the answer in any given situation, so how do we know your analysis of the situation а your theory а is any more right than the child’s? We don’t. There is no way of externally justifying ideas. There is no authority. Religious people may ask God for answers, but they have no reliable way of telling which answers come from God and which they merely think come from God, so they are in exactly the same boat as non-religious people in this regard. 

I had said:

“and the assumption that one may be wrong in anything one says,”

The second poster replied:

“This is something I disagree with (I’m not a skeptic). Assuming that one is mistaken is equally as arbitrary as assuming one is correct. Without evidence, both positions are groundless.”

My statement that one should assume that one may be wrong in anything one says does not imply scepticism. I am not saying that I am wrong, but that I may be wrong. You surely would not wish to suggest that one should not assume that one may be wrong in anything one says? For that would mean you are suggesting that one should assume that one cannot be wrong in anything one says. All I am saying is that in a disagreement, I think I am right, but am assuming that I may be wrong. If I did not think my theory right, then in a rather tautologous sense, my actual theory would be different.

I had said:

“the assumption that the truth is not obvious but is hard to come by but that it can be approached.”

The second poster replied:

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘approaching’ truth, except that perhaps ‘real’ truth is not achievable. Of course, omniscience isn’t possible, but I don’t think that is a valid standard to set for ‘real’ truth.”

Omniscience is not what I am talking about. I am merely saying that truth is hard to come by, and the fact that there is so much disagreement about things is evidence that the truth is not manifest. In some things, there is remarkable agreement. Where that is the case, it might be because the idea is close to the truth а or it might be that when problems are solved in related areas, that then throws up other problems, which may make what seemed like a true idea now seem problematic. It was once ‘obviously true’ to anyone who ‘observed reality’ that the Earth is flat. Now, that idea is, errr, problematic.

I had said:

“If you are not open to criticism, as most parents are not, then if you  ever were wrong, you’d never know.”

The second poster replied:

“It’s been my experience that usually when I’m wrong, I found out through the consequences of the mistake, not through dialog with others.”

Which makes my point for me! You cannot be talking about the cases where you were wrong and have not found out, obviously; so what you are saying here cannot possibly answer my point, because if there were any cases where you were wrong but have not found out, then you would not have found out. You are suggesting that you if you were wrong, you would have found out through experience but you may still be wrong about millions of things which you have not found out about through experience, and which you will never find out as long as you remain closed to criticism from others (including your children), etc., as I said above.

The second poster wrote:

“It seems that any external measure of truth – reality, for example – is missing of your idea of reason and how it fits into one’s thought processes.”

I hope I have explained why above. I would like to hear about this external measure of truth or reality. As I said, the idea seems problematic to me а but I am open to criticism.

I had said:

“In the overwhelming majority of disputes between you and your child, I happen to think your child is right and you wrong.”

The second poster replied:

“That’s quite an arbitrary assumption, considering you don’t even know the topic.”

That is interesting, because my judgement is based upon the original poster’s and your way of arguing, which does not meet the criteria of rationality…

I had said:

“That does not prove that the child is right and you wrong, but it does prove that it is not obvious that you are right in any given disagreement.”

The second poster replied:

“Only if disagreement (consciousness), rather than evidence (reality) is your standard.”

Who is to be the arbiter in a disagreement about the evidence (reality)? It all comes down to conflicting theories, whichever way you look at it.

The second poster wrote:

“Reason is that process – identification. Not, in the strict sense ‘openness to criticism’, though a person using the method of reason is open to criticism.”

I am not sure what you mean by ‘identification’. I don’t believe that there is some authoritative way to acquire knowledge, if this is what you mean.

I had said:

“. . . whether you can consider the entity of that person and yourself as a rational system,”

The second poster replied:

“Rationality is an attribute of consciousness, so it only applies to individual consciousnesses – not to groups.”

We are using the term in different senses then. It is possible to have a rational entity which is composed of more than one individual. A family unit could be a rational entity, if each individual was seeking truth, open to criticism, etc., etc. Indeed, that idea is reflected in the phrase ‘two heads are better than one.’ 

I had said:

“and that doesn’t depend upon the knowledge, . . .”

The second poster replied:

“Right, if I get your meaning, that it isn’t the child’s lack of knowledge that makes him irrational. It’s his inability to apply the method of reason (in some circumstances).”

No, I am saying that the child is just as rational as you or I, indeed, more so, if only because the child has had less time to adopt dogmatic, entrenched, irrational ideas.

I had said:

“The whole point of rationality is what to do in the face of ignorance. It is not what to do when one already knows everything.”

The second poster replied:

“Here, I think our differing premises are showing, because in my view, the whole point of reason is to determine what constitutes valid knowledge. The ability to identify correspondence to reality in ideas.”

I think you are right. This is where we disagree. Your view seems to have no room for creating new ideas, and that is the main thing about the growth of knowledge.

DNA ‘fingerprinting’ which, three years ago, was seen as absolutely rock solid as evidence, has now been shown to be unreliable, and in need of significant improvement. Three years ago a person in America might have been convicted in error upon such a DNA test; he might have been executed even. And such a mistake would not have been a matter of any wickedness – the conviction would have been ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ at that time. But now, the same evidence would not produce the same verdict, because (through the critical-rational process I have described) knowledge in the area of DNA testing has grown, has advanced. What this suggests is that one should always be open to criticism, and never discount any criticisms that are made. Rather than asserting that a critic is irrational or ‘incapable of perceiving reality’, one should (if one cares about truth, problem-solving, the growth of knowledge, explaining reality, and so on) always address the criticisms others have, to their own satisfaction. For only where there is agreement do we not know that there are unresolved problems with the idea acted on. This is a disagreement about epistemology. That is the issue here, I think you will agree.

See also: Young children, non-coercion and the interplay of reason

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1994, ‘Young children, reason and creativity’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/young-children-reason-and-creativity/