An empty head learns nothing – 1

The Moral Life of Babies

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. …

These discoveries inevitably raise a question: If babies have such a rich understanding of objects and people so early in life, why do they seem so ignorant and helpless? Why don’t they put their knowledge to more active use? One possible answer is that these capacities are the psychological equivalent of physical traits like testicles or ovaries, which are formed in infancy and then sit around, useless, for years and years. Another possibility is that babies do, in fact, use their knowledge from Day 1, not for action but for learning. One lesson from the study of artificial intelligence (and from cognitive science more generally) is that an empty head learns nothing: a system that is capable of rapidly absorbing information needs to have some prewired understanding of what to pay attention to and what generalizations to make. Babies might start off smart, then, because it enables them to get smarter.

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.

There is an idea that, in aikido, a new person needs to learn how to learn. If it’s really been shown based on study of artificial intelligence and cognitive science, then it’s almost silly to regard it as a novel insight tied to aikido. Yet, a trap that many seniors and teachers fall into is to try to teach people everything, indeed, spending very little time on the most elementary aspects and “moving on” to more advanced topics, considering them to be more practical, applicable, “real”, or possibly just more interesting and meaningful.

There is, on the other hand, a trend in some circles to strongly emphasize the elementary aspects, and implicitly de-emphasize, possibly creating a subtle taboo around, more advanced topics.

The errors of the former are to prematurely deem the elementary topics as grasped or explored, and to overlook the ways in which they are relevant to advanced things. (“Advanced”, accordingly, starts to appear simply further extensions, or depths, of the rudimentary. And so it may feel more and more misleading to consider something as “more advanced, less rudimentary” – it is unavoidably, instead, “more advanced, more elementary”.) The errors of the latter are to inaccurately deem the elementary topics as never fully grasped or explored, and accordingly forever studying those topics and not “stray off” in advanced topic territories. The error is similar with the former, in that there is a perceived false division between elementary and advanced. The testing, confirming, and study of elementary aspects is incomplete without “advanced”.

The difference in philosophy, possibly personalities, arises when we consider, given that we will never complete our study of the elementary, and there is nobody regulating how much we venture into the advanced, how to allocate our limited time and energy to each?

There is one way of practice relative to which “elementary – advanced” does not seem easily relevant. It is the “process” way of practicing. It may be meditative or otherwise beneficial to a person simply to practice, though he must then practice mindfully and carefully. So, even if such a person does not concern himself with advanced-appearing techniques or applications, he may be cultivating a great capacity for self-awareness or other internal resource. The testing, confirming, etc. that he may undergo is simply by being alive and going through daily life.

The “advanced” may not be easily classified as visible or invisible, because it can internal and external to varying degrees: maybe the person strives to be patient, compassionate, generous, etc. in life by his practice. However, if he embraces such questions as, am I happy, how can I be happier, can I contribute more to the world, how can I be a person tho contributes more to the world, etc., then he generates his own tests and confirmations. The internal, then, may be the happiness and peace that person may experience in everyday life. The external may be what we on the outside see as a peaceful and happy person; it may even be apparent if we weren’t on the lookout, so to speak e.g., if we and others somehow received the person’s generosity, compassion, etc., then we would “have” evidence of this person’s being “advanced”. We may be skeptical, also. The person may be generous, etc. but only within the small world that is his daily life. We may say, what if he ran into some real adversity, some real jerk, or some real poverty – how would his generosity be then? But this particular skeptical process is arbitrary and without end. What proof do we demand, what test fulfilled by the person? Does he need to be the same person in the middle of a warzone? in a lonely desert on the other side of the planet? (Maybe part of the proof is that he is living in a particular, in this case comfortable, stable, etc., circumstance.) While a beginner may need to see various obvious “tests” fulfilled in order to feel satisfied that what is being seen is “advanced”, but hopefully part of the process of becoming less of a beginner is to see more and more that that criteria is not that simple.

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