Can thought originate from nothing? I was thinking about this last night and got me wondering what would happen if someone was born without senses.


This question really boils down to the notion of innateness, which essentially is the idea that we are born with certain innate ideas and concepts which we would know regardless of experience.

If it were found to be true that humans are born with certain innate concepts (like mathematical necessities, e.g. 2 + 2 = 4) then this senseless person you are talking about could arguably think about things. You could go further and argue that from the a priori truths this senseless person is innately born with, they could employ deductive reasoning to come to even more complex conclusions, leaving themselves with a lot of think about!

However the other side of the argument claims that all our thoughts, habits, and ideas are the result of our experience with the world, more specifically, our sensory experience with the world, this is a viewpoint known as empiricism. If this viewpoint stands to be true, then this senseless person would not have any thoughts whatsoever, it would be impossible! Without initial sensory experience to give him ideas to think about, he would be left alone in his own head.

Anyway thats just my opinion of it, I'll leave it up to you to make your mind up about what you think is true.

Hope that helps!

  • 1
    Not necessarily innateness. Non-sensory intuition ("mindsight") could also provide material for thought, or an inner faculty of spontaneous creativity, what Kant called productive imagination.
    – Conifold
    Sep 20 '16 at 21:20
  • @Conifold, good point! But in my eyes the ability to use this "mindsight" would be an innate one, and so the question of innateness still remains relevant. Let me know what you think
    – Ruthus99
    Sep 21 '16 at 8:19

I don't think we can answer that question without assuming a person without any senses whatsoever can think, and of that I am not so sure.

What we have seen now and then is that whatever is learned is given by the realization of our experience in relation to others. There is an innate ability to perform certain activities given we have experience of them, but without experience it is not possible to take part of this process. Philosophically, the idea that we could be able to think without any senses seems strongly rationalist, but it is undeniable that there are a priori cognitive elements that are only developed by experience; this does not need to be taken in a strictly kantian sense. For example, it seems to be something innate that we imitate facial gestures, in this consists the Meltzoff experiments, see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4137867/ and see a 10-minute old baby imitate facial gestures https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2YdkQ1G5QI

The lack of human experience have had well-known effects, like that of Feral childs, see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/julia-fullerton-batten-feral-children_us_56098e95e4b0dd85030893a9

Years ago we may have believed in the possibility of innate humanness, but today we find it most likely that humanness, whatever it is, is a social process developed through social relations and being part of a community.

It can be interesting to note that the Hegelian writings on the topic of self-consciousness have explicitly a need for other self-consciousness in order to have the rise of a self-consciousness. It happens in society as a whole, and not individually. A persons without senses could very likely stay alive (being kept alive by others), but he wouldn't be more aware of his own existence than any animal (in fact, he would be less aware of it) and being unable to incorporate new knowledge, it would be a perfect blank. No thinking, not at all.

This said, it also raises the question if it is possible to be born without any senses. The likely answer is no, which makes this answer unneeded, since we are arguing about something that doesn't seem possible.

  • Check out "a little girl born without a brain". There is a problem as with philosophical zombies, even if there were any we by definition can't tell. If by definition someone can't react to the outside world at all, how would we know if they "think".
    – Conifold
    Sep 20 '16 at 21:32

this is related to questions like can machines think" and "can extra-terrestrials think?" which boils down to "what do we mean when we claim that something thinks?"

Robert Brandom has an interesting way of thinking about this (pun intended). instead of asking about the "nature" of thought, ask about the structure of behaviors that we call "rational", i.e.that exhibits whatever it is that we treat as thinking, or evidence thereof. the argument is very complex, but an essential aspect of such behaviors is that they are fundamentally social. (See also Wittgenstein's arguments against private language). A creature with no sensory capabilities would have a very hard time engaging in social discourse, and so could not exhibit they kinds of performances that we (normatively) count as evidence of thinking. So in order to claim that such a creature can think, you would have to introduce some special notion of thinking that is different from ours. if you were to succeed, then you would ipso facto change our concept of thinking, or of what it is to think.

  • In other words, the answer depends on the definition of "think." If the person has a brain, brain activity would be measurable, but no one can say what that activity means.
    – WGroleau
    Sep 21 '16 at 19:42
  • @WGroleau: yep. if I take an fMRI scan of your brain while showing you something red, do I get a "picture" of the concept "red". I think Brandom would say unequivocally no, for lots of reasons, chief of which is that concepts involve inference. To have a concept "red" one must be capable of drawing inferences, like "that's red, therefore it is not blue". it's hard to see how this could be reduce to neurological states and activities.
    – user20153
    Sep 21 '16 at 19:52

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