Inherited abilities



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Immanuel Kant claimed existence of "knowledge" that is "synthetic a priori" e.g. propositions concerning the world that is not based on observations. Existence of such propositions has been questioned and, as far as I know, nobody have succeeded in giving a clear example of such a proposition.

A quick answer is that when we cannot claim existence of "knowledge" regarding our perceived world, we are of course unable to claim existence of "synthetic a priori" "knowledge" just based on that Kant claimed it without beeing able to prove it. But philosophy does not favor quick answers (see footnote).

In order to discuss the topic further I have a suggestion:


The concepts, closest to "synthetic a priori" arguments
are statements about inherited abilities

Can inherited abilities demonstrate "synthetic a priori" arguments?

We may observe that humans, like other animals, show inherited abilities. Some examples:

•  body functions like ability to grow,
•  feelings, that increases our abilities to cooperate with others
•  ball sense
•  herding ability in sheep dogs

A couple of supposed abilities are discussed in detail further below.

These abilities are examples of adaptation to the world and increase our possibilities to survive. In case the world appeared completely different, our abilities would very likely be quite different.

At least some of these abilities hence contain information of our world, which may be expressed as "knowledge" about the world. Are the abilities hence examples of "knowledge" a priori about our world, "knowledge" obtained without experience, "knowledge" that is known "synthetic a priori"? Are they examples of that the concept "synthetic a priori" may be a meaningful term?

Knowledge about the world can only be based on observations

If we accept evolution as described by e.g. Darwin, we can see arguments for abilities as results of an evolutionary process. Abilities that increase our survival are spread to the offspring of survivors. This may be expressed that experiences drawn by our ancestors are stored in our genes.

Abilities are then examples from Kantian "knowledge" a posteriori for the species, but appear to be a priori for the individual.



Additional examples of experience in our genes


Fear of snakes

Suppose that humans have an inherited ability involving fear of snakes.

According to the evolution theory, fear of snakes (if it really exists) developed in a prehuman from gradual or random mutations that got fear of snakes built into its genes. In a world full of poisonous snakes, the offspring from this prehuman show a higher probability to survive compared to them that had not acquired fear of snakes, and whose genes were not propagated due to "undesirable effect of snake venom".

This has been called "Prepared Learning" {Seligman, Behaviour Therapy 2 (1970) 307-320}.

Fear of snakes are based on that snakes are observed as dangerous

Increased survival and reproduction of humans with snake fear may hence be expressed as a result of experience of that snakes are dangerous ("knowledge" a posteriori"). In case snakes in our world had never been dangerous, we should probably never experience an internal preparedness towards fear of snakes. We should, maybe, all have experienced snakes as cute.

Fear of snakes is hence not an example of "knowledge" about dangerous worms a priori, i.e. before dangers of worms were observed by our prehuman.

The discussion is slightly complicated by the fact that the experience, i.e. the memories and conclusions from the observations, according to the evolution theory is built into our genes.



Value attributed to a partner - sex drive

An interesting discussion of that inherited abilities are acquired due to our perceived reality is given by "The Handicap Theory" {Zahavi, J. Theor. Biol. 53 (1975), 205-214}.

The theory implies that individuals during the evolution have learnt to demonstrate and to appreciate signals of biological fitness.

An individual demonstrates high quality by showing ornaments that are unnecessary for survival only. They may demonstrate large horns or beautiful feathers, something unimportant for survival and hence consisting of a form of handicap.

By being able to wear such ornaments, the individual show that it has strength in excess, more than what is needed for survival only. The more demanding the ornament is to wear, the higher the wearer´s quality.

The individuals of the opposite sex that, from gradual or random mutations, have learnt to appreciate such ornaments get offspring with the ornament´s wearer. These acquire higher quality, compared to offspring from individuals that do not have the strength to wear such ornaments.

To wear ornaments, and to be attracted to them, is hence not something based on "knowledge" a priori. It is something that was founded in the same manner as our common experiences, with the difference that the memory is stored in our genes.



Footnote: Two examples of longer answers are:

Boghossian P, Peacocke C, "New Essays on the A Priori" Clarendon Press (2000).

Kitcher P, "A priori", Chapter 1 in Guyer P (Ed), "Kant and Modern Philosophy", Cambridge Univ. Press (2006).


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