As life rolls on for me, with many pluses and some minuses along the way, an issue that keeps propping up in my more academic studies is whether people have instincts like non-human animals supposedly do. Or are we born with what some refer to as a blank slate, tabula rasa? That is to say, is the human mind, before it receives the impressions gained from experience, totally or at least mostly uninformed or does it contain some information and guidance for action, various beliefs and so forth, from birth or even before?
Among many of my colleagues and associates, indeed quite a few of my good friends, this is a live topic and we tend to watch for events around us, as well as for books, papers, essays and so on, wherein it figures prominently. One of the major thinkers of the modern era, Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804), even believed that the human mind contains some very vital information as a matter of a birthright, as it were, so that, for example, we all arrive in the world already believing in such notions as causality or time or space, we do not need to be exposed to the facts of reality first in order to acquire them. They are innate.
Another very famous and influential thinker, the philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) who is credited with developing some of the most crucial principles the American founders held to be constitutive of justice itself – the idea of basic, natural, human individual rights (remember the Declaration of Independence where Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founders made prominent use of it) – held the view that the human mind is indeed a blank slate, lacking all knowledge and in need of acquiring it as people commence and continue living. Others, such as the French philosopher Rene Descartes – often dubbed the founder of modern philosophy and an influential mathematician as well – also advocated a view sort of like Kant's, holding as he did that human beings had a few but vital innate ideas, such as the awareness of their own reality! (Such contemporary thinkers as Noam Chomsky and Steve Pinker continue debating the issue.)
One point often stressed by supporters of the innate idea or instinctive knowledge position in defense of their view is that mothers, clearly, have an instinctive love for their children and know, innately, what they need to do for them so they would grow up flourishing rather than being neglected or even perishing. Yet this is just the evidence that I find highly dubious and just the other day it was seriously called into question once again, when a mother was found to have murdered two of her little sons. As CNN reported the story, "The mother of two boys," the CNN report stated, "says she smothered them with her hands, strapped their bodies in car seats and submerged the car in a South Carolina river." Purportedly she had experienced some serious setbacks in her life, including being unemployed, which may help account for what she did.
Now the matter that stood out for me, aside from the horror of it – anyone who knows a thing or two about being a parent would have to experience some such feeling upon running across this type of news, of which, sadly, there is aplenty – namely, where on earth were those alleged instincts in this mother, the innate knowledge of the wrongness of such a deed and therefore the instinctual disinclination to commit it, that people talk about when they defend the idea of instincts. And, of course, this instance of infanticide is but one among hundreds and thousands of others well known from history and around the globe.
It seems to me that the notion that we have instincts has some credibility only vis-a-vis very few kinds of human conduct, such as babies suckling instinctively. Clearly they would not have had any time to learn that that's how they must sustain their lives so they must have something built in, as it were, that gets them to feed from their mothers' breasts. And maybe there are some very few other (early) human behaviors that are instinctive but they are quickly extinguished and thereafter we indeed need to learn how to proceed unprepared apart from certain capacities, with the great variety of tasks in our lives. Unlike other animals, we need to set out to learn, often with deliberation and discipline – it doesn't just happen. (Boy, is that driven home to anyone who is a professional teacher!).
This is a topic with a great deal of ink spent on it, in and out of the academy, and here I am barely touching the surface. But it does seem to me that the anti-instinct side of the debate is more credible. Lacking instincts may well be one of those features of human life that serves to distinguished us from other animals.