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What the World is Like
The most straightforward philosophical way of thinking about the
world's interaction with a baby or other person is in terms of its
input-output relations with its environment. Unfortunately for our
philosophical convenience, but fortunately for our survival, this is
not the way the world is structured.
The world's structure is not directly describable in terms of the
input-output relations of a person. The basic structure of the world
involves the interaction of elementary particles on time scales of
seconds, but intelligence did not evolve in structures of
small numbers (mere billions) of elementary particles. When
intelligence evolved, it was in structures of the order of
elementary particles and time scales of the order of seconds
to years and very complex hierarchical structures. Even then only
some of the higher level and slower objects and events are directly
perceivable. Even bacteria, weighing one picogram grams,
have about atoms. The mass of a small virus is about 10
attograms [attogram = grams].
Even on the human size and time scale, the world is not
structured in terms of human input-output relations. Moreover, much
of the determinism of the world at the microscopic level appears as
non-deterministic at the level at which a person can interact with the
Animal behavior, including human intelligence, evolved to survive and
succeed in this complex, partially observable and very slightly
controllable world. The main features of this world have existed for
several billion years and should not have to be learned anew by each
person or animal. In order to understand how a well-designed baby
should work, we need to understand what the world is like at the gross
level of human interaction with the environment.
Here are some of the world's characteristics. A baby innately
equipped to deal with them will outperform a Lockean baby.
- appearance and reality
- Some properties of the world are stable
even though their appearances change. Objects last from seconds to
centuries, while appearances change in fractions of a second.
Therefore, humans, animals and robots are better off representing
information about objects in so far as it can be obtained by
observation and inferred from past experience or is
innate.7 [McC99] presents a puzzle in which the subject must experiment
to determine the 3-d reality behind the 2-d appearances.
- things of interest
- Some aspects of the world are relevant to an
animal's or person's survival or prosperity, and others are not.
However, notice that human and animal curiosity concerns many
aspects of the world not related to survival or enjoyment.
Other details of shape and pattern are not interesting.
- semi-permanent objects
- Much of the world consists of
three-dimensional objects that have masses, moments, compliances,
hardnesses, chemical composition, shapes, outer surfaces with
textures and colors, are often made of identifiable parts and which
move relative to the rest of the object. A particular object can
disappear from perception and reappear again. The location of an
object in the world is more persistent than its location in the
Objects usually have internal structures that are not apparent to
A baby seems to have an innate interest in the names of things quite
apart from what may be immediately useful. Thinking of it
linguistically, it is an interest in semantics, not just in syntax.
We'd better build that into our robotic children.
- continuity of motion
- Objects move continuously passing through
intermediate points and intermediate orientations.
- continuous processes
- Besides moving objects, there are many
continuous processes with intermediate states.
- two dimensional world
- Because of gravity, much of the world is
two dimensional with its simpler topology. Paths can block other paths.
- specific objects
- The environmment of a child contains other
people, usually including a mother, and parts of people including
parts of the child itself. Objects often have parts which are objects.
However, often only some of the parts are separately identifiable.
The boundaries of the parts are often not definite.
- Objects that are solid do not ordinarily penetrate one
another. Some are rigid and some are flexible.
- Objects require supporting surfaces, and an unsupported
object falls to a lower surface.
- kinds of objects
- Objects have kinds, and objects of the same
kind have properties associated with the kind.8 Babies are ready very early to learn what kinds there are.
- Objects not only have individual properties and
belong to kinds, but different objects and kinds have relations with
one another. At least some ternary relations such as betweenness
are basic. Also ``A is to B as C is to D'' seems to be basic. In
its numerical use, it reduces to the equality of two fractions, but
the quaternary relation seems to be basic in common sense usage.
In philosophy, AI, and computer science, there is an overemphasis
on unary relations, i.e. properties.
- natural kinds
- Many of the objects a child encounters, e.g.
lemons, belong to natural kinds. The objects of a natural
kind have yet undiscovered properties in common. Therefore, a
natural kind is not usually definable by an if-and-only-if
sentence formulated in terms of observables.
- fundamental kinds
- Animate objects are to be understood in terms
of their desires and actions. Inanimate objects are passive.
Some objects are edible by humans and some are not. These kinds
pervade the baby's environment.
- Kinds belong to higher kinds and have relations.
Red is a color and color is a quality. This is a fact of logic
rather than about the physical world, but its usefulness is
dependent on objects being naturally grouped into kinds rather than
being all completely different.
- sets and numbers
- There are sets of objects and other entities.
This includes both sets of objects perceivable on a single occasion
and sets organized more abstractly. Sets can often be counted.
Some are more numerous than others and this is significant. Sets
can be used up, e.g. all the food can be eaten.
- situations and kinds of situations
- Kinds of situations recur.
- the body
- The baby itself and its parts are objects.
- Some objects can be moved with the arms and legs of
- Mothers help a baby that cries.
- A mother loves her baby.
- unimportant aspects
- Many aspects of the world are ordinarily
unimportant for a human or animal. For many purposes, shadows are
- quantitative physics
- Humans could act more precisely if our
senses gave us numerical measures of time, distance, velocity,
humidity, temperature, etc.; our minds could do rapid arithmetic
with them, and we could give numerical values to the signals telling
our muscles how fast to contract. Nature didn't give us this, but
we can build it into our robots as an add-on to the kinds of
semi-quantitative information human senses give us.
- Newtonian physics
- While the world is not fully determinate at
the level at which humans interact with it, many events are related
in a simple numerical way. For example,
describes the distance a body will fall, and hot bodies cool at a
rate proportional to the difference in temperature between a body
and its surroundings.
- The material world is built up from atoms and molecules.
It is more fundamental than most of the above facts but is similar
to them. While even ancient Greek philosophers like Democritus
could conjecture that the world was built from atoms, John Dalton
was the first person to offer scientific evidence for the fact.
- Very complex structures, (e.g. groups, rings and
fields), exist in a mathematical sense.
- mathematics of the world
- Very complex mathematics is
``unreasonably effective'' in understanding and controlling the
All the above are facts about the world. All but the last few may or
may not be represented innately. We can also imagine that we might have
evolved innate knowledge of the above mathematically expressible
facts, but alas we didn't. The items listed are certainly not a
complete set of facts about the commonsense world that a well-designed
child might know about. Moreover, innate mechanisms for dealing with
phenomena related to these facts do not always take a form describable
as having certain knowledge.
In the next section we consider which of the above facts a child might
know about or have special mechanisms for dealing with.
Next: Human Mental Characteristics
Up: THE WELL-DESIGNED CHILD