The Philosophical Baby:What Children's Minds Tell us about Truth, Love and the Meanings of Life

Date Reviewed
March 15th 2011

This book is more developmental psychology than philosophy, but it certainly offers thinking points. At the age of 10, author Alison Gopnik was reading Plato and questioning his thought. So it may be no surprise that as an adult, while giving answers, she is asking questions from various perspectives. Through this book I have come to quite like the author and the way she combines thought, ideas, science and personal observations.

I was attracted to the Oxford trained U.C. Berkley psychologist by some ideas I had seen her express in another publication. While disappointingly not finding these elaborated on, there were several others that have claimed my attention. At first, I thought I would have trouble finding things to comment on and then disconcertedly I have found too many.

This book focuses primarily on children five years old and younger.

One of the major ideas was encapsulated in a metaphor about the difference between children and adults in picking up knowledge from their environment. Children, she said see knowledge and ideas around them as though they were illuminated by a lantern. So their attention is attracted by stimulus from all directions and attention is easily switched to the most compelling of the moment.

Adults, on the other hand, seek information as though using a flashlight that is pointed in one place at a time, and that not in the beam, is not considered. That is adults have a narrower purpose and discipline in what they will learn. They are not as open to learn as children. But then life and the responsibility of adulthood require information for living and not just idle stimulation.




Baby’s brains are more interconnected where adult’s brains have removed many of these connections in favour of a focus on the efficient connections that are needed.

She emphasizes this point by illustrating that when one is being chased by a lion one doesn’t review all the knowledge humans have learned about lions, but deal specifically with solutions to escape. Without the latter focus, we would have gone extinct.

This refers to keeping the mind open versus closing it and focusing it for practical needs.

However, “keeping the mind open longer may be part of what makes you smarter”.

School and education and the increasing time devoted to that may be keeping people’s minds open longer. “Bright people (or at least people who do well in school) become brighter as a result of going to school, and they therefore want still more schooling, and the more schooling is available the brighter people can become.” Forced to leave school early and work and adapt a practicality may close off general learning facility.

Ironically the increased need for focused attention in school may have, rather than increased the incidence of Attention Deficit Disorder, made it more apparent. Essentially genetic differences are emphasized.

“If we focus on adult abilities, long-term planning, swift and automatic execution, rapid skillful reaction to the deer and the tigers and the deadlines, the babies and young children will indeed look pretty pathetic. But if we focus on our distinctive capacities for change, especially imagination and learning, then it’s the adults who look slow.”

“Children are the R and D department of the human species….the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers. Adults are production and marketing. They make the discoveries, we implement them.” This metaphor is more apparent if one looks at young versus older adults.

She characterizes this with her personal experience “It would be a good idea for me to spend a week exploring all the capabilities of my new computer, as my teenage son would, but with the saber-toothed tigers of grant deadlines and classes breathing down my neck. I’ll just go on relying on the old routines.”

Gopnik points out that IQ scores have risen rapidly over the past century. This obviously has some correlation with broader literacy and numeracy, which is a major component of what is measured in these tests.

Another interesting point she makes along these lines is the correlation of IQ scores between parents and children. With middle and upper class children the correlation is quite high. However, with poorer families the correlation is much more erratic. It turns out that intelligence scores are more highly correlated with the pre-school and school the children attended. Children from the wealthier strata of society are more likely enrolled in good educational environments than children from poor families.

Gopnik doesn’t miss the opportunity to point out that investment in education opportunities for poor children can pay off economically in how useful those people can become and additionally a decreased likelihood of them being a burden to society or criminals.

Maybe less expected than the idea that parents affect children, is how much children affect their parents. It is generally conceded that parents evolve and change their behavior with each child. What is maybe less expected is how parents may be changed by the experiences their children have at school.

A term, new to me, that she brings up and regularly refers to is “counterfactuals”. This describes the world of possibilities i.e. what could have happened, but didn’t in the past and what might happen in the future. In short they are the “wouldas-couldas-shouldas of life. And humans live in them much of the time as well as the current real world.

Counterfactuals in children are manifest in the imaginary worlds they create and may temporarily reside in without seeing them as reality. “Counterfactual thinking lets us make new plans, invent new tools, and create new environments.”

When babies are trying things, a popular counterfactual word is “uh-oh” which “contrasts the ideal with the unfortunate real.”

She gives an interesting illustration of counterfactuals and how they may affect happiness. The question is who is happier following the results of a competition the silver medalist or the bronze medalist? In short, generally the bronze medalist who escaped being out of the medals is happier than the silver medalist who missed out on the gold. The pure logic of success would suggest that the greater achievement of the silver medalist would produce more happiness.

“Our ability to imagine possible worlds is closely tied to our ability to think causally. Having a causal theory of the world makes it possible to consider alternative solutions to a problem and their consequences, before you actually implement them.”

The book is child focused with adults and their abilities used for comparison. I was introduced to the idea that babies as young as eight months have statistical learning abilities. This was discovered in how babies learn language patterns and seem to be able to predict which syllables would follow each other.

And babies do experiments. They prefer mobiles they can influence and observe the consequences and not just ones where they observe the effects. The drive to experiment seems innate and it provides the way to learn things that are not innate. “The ability to learn about the causal structure of the world may lie at the heart of what makes us distinctly human.”

Another concept she explores is “cued” (hint or reminder) memory versus free recall. Cued memory is easier for all of us, but children are much better recalling in response to cues relative to free recall, than adults.

I have long been of the opinion that Star Trek was a thought-provoking program. Gopnik goes much further “Star Trek (is) the most philosophically profound program ever to appear on television.” The example she refers to is about Jadwiga Dax who has a regular body but also moves from one symbiont to another as they die. But he takes the knowledge and experience of each past life with him.

Because children and babies learn so much so fast their world view of things and causes changes radically and frequently. They may have seismic changes every three months. “Really flexible and innovative adults might change their minds this way two or three times in a lifetime.”

As adults we gather, maybe even filter information to confirm our beliefs. “So, quite properly, we will be more reluctant to change them. You want to change your beliefs only when you are sure the new information is robust and reliable…and more robust and reliable than the existing beliefs.” But then “change and transience are at the heart of the human condition.”