The Philosophical Baby: What children’s minds tell us about truth, love and the meaning of life

Co-presented with the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science, and the School of Pyschology, University of Sydney

Professor Alison Gopnik
24 February, 2011

Why you should listen

Video available soon

In the last thirty years there’s been a revolution in our scientific understanding of babies and young children, a revolution that’s also transformed our understanding of human nature itself. In this talk, I’ll outline some of the new discoveries and their implications for the way we think about young children and ourselves. Human beings have a longer childhood than any other animal – our children are more helpless and dependent than any others. Why make babies so helpless for so long? I’ll show that childhood – our long period of helplessness – is responsible for our uniquely human consciousness and our ability to learn, imagine and love. Their long protected childhood gives human babies an opportunity to learn and play, and that lets them plan and work as adults. Our research shows that even the youngest babies have learning abilities that are more powerful than those of the smartest scientists and most advanced computers. Toddlers already analyse statistics and do experiments. In their unstoppable pretend play, preschoolers also use their discoveries to imagine new ways that the world might be. Children not only learn about the world around them, they also learn about other people and themselves. By the time they are three or four they understand love and morality. These remarkable learning abilities reflect special features of babies’ brains, features that may actually make babies more conscious than adults.

Professor Alison Gopnik

Professor Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD. from Oxford University. She is an internationally recognised leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She is the author of over 100 journal articles and several books including Words, Thoughts and Theories (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff, 1997), and the bestselling and critically acclaimed popular books The Scientist in the Crib (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, 1999) and The Philosophical Baby; What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life (2009). She has also written widely about cognitive science and psychology for Science, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, New Scientist and Slate, among others.