Ch1 L22: On intelligence (assimilation and accommodation) – part 1

  1. In the last post, we discussed that language had enabled us to create concepts to think through and to communicate with [1]. Since concepts are abstract, they can’t be genetically coded; thus kids need to learn and develop them [2]. Let’s see how it goes.
  2. As a kid, you’re trying to make sense of your environment, finding relationships to group things and creating concepts. This innate ability was guided by the people around you, especially your parents, to learn the symbols [3] used to name things.
  3. For example, whenever you see a horse or its picture, you hear someone says “horse”. So, based on the law of adjacency you could define a relationship between the visual and audio signs [4]. Next time, when you saw a horse, you’d shout “horse” and your parents’ cheer, hug you or give any kind of positive affirmation which proved that you did the right thing.
  4. Do you think that at that moment, you understood the concept of a horse? I’d say it’s very unlikely. You just replicated what others had done, and you’d do it again to receive the emotional reward, to be loved and admired. As we saw earlier, pain and pleasure are the first learning tools, telling us to respectively avoid or repeat an experience [5].
  5. What you’d learned was how to use the word horse in the right context. That’s also what Wittgenstein [6] has pragmatically stated in “Philosophical investigations” [7] that meaning of a word is defined by its use [8].
  6. If we try to give meaning to a concept, we need other concepts. Thus, a vicious circle is created. Besides, the basic concepts can’t be defined. If I asked you what time it is, I’d properly used the word time and you could easily answer my question; though we can’t define “time”. To define time, you may use duration or period, but what are they?
  7. Another example would be the word difference for which we need the concept of similarity to be defined. Then to define similarity we need the concept of difference; or if we say that “having a resemblance to”, we are using a synonym of similarity to define it. [9]
  1. One day, you’d see the animal above and you’d instantly shout “horse”. What would happen? You’d get a different reaction. Not only no one looked thrilled, but also you’d hear them say “No, this is not a horse. It is a donkey.”
  2. You’d feel confused which is the mental state when your solutions don’t work or there’s a clash of ideas. Then someone might try to help you by saying “say donkey”, and after you said the word, you’d get the heartwarming love again and the problem seemed to be solved.
  3. Those who came up with the concepts “horse” and “donkey” must’ve found the distinction useful, or spending energy on it is justified [10]. Warlpiri people are indigenous Australians who don’t use numbers [11]. When an old Warlpiri man was asked to say how many grandchildren he had, he answered: “many”. He could name all 4 of them but there’s no word for four in their language. [12,13]
  4. As Adam or Eve [14], after creating the concept of a horse, you’d see other horses and you could easily assimilate them to what you’d created in mind. Then the problem took place when you couldn’t fit the new experience (a donkey) to the concept of a horse. So, you mentally entered the state of disequilibrium and you’d need to create a new concept “donkey” to accommodate to the new experience. Now, your whole world would be well-defined and you’re happily in the equilibrium state.
  1. This model was proposed by Jean Piaget [15], in “The origin of intelligence in children” [16], to explain the development of intelligence in children. He explained that in order to adapt to the environment, we need two complementary agents assimilation and accommodation which were explained through the example above-mentioned. In a nutshell, assimilation is the drive to change our environment to make it similar to our thoughts, whereas accommodation is changing our thoughts so they will be aligned with our experiences.
  2. In the next post, we’ll see how assimilation and accommodation function and what happens if one outgrows the other.

Exercise 22:

  1. Do you agree with Wittgenstein’s theory?


[1] Link to the previous post.

[2] This idea was to some extent discussed by Professor Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind” that myths due to their imaginary nature can’t be genetically coded. We can say the same thing about concepts.

[3] Symbols were introduced in the 19th post. Link

[4] I think that our brain relates two spatially, temporally or conceptually adjacent things. That’s how the network of concepts grows in mind. In this context, conceptual adjacency means similarity. Though determining the adjacency of concepts is at least currently beyond our reach, it helps us intuitively understand the continuum of concepts and the fact that you can’t teach calculus to a 6-year-old. The misuse of the law can create superstitions when we relate two simultaneous events to each other. We practiced the law of adjacency in the 8th post. Link

[5] We briefly discussed pleasure and pain in the 18th post. Link

[6] Link

[7] Link

[8] If we take a glance at the evolution of the meaning or origin of meanings, we realize that from Plato’s era to the 20th century, meaning has been demythified. Plato believed that meanings descended from the realm of forms, and they are aspatial and atemporal. Plato was one of the first people who discovered the distinction between a horse and its concept. A horse dies but its concept is still in people’s mind. This idea was dearly embraced by religion which said that God had taught words to Adam and Eve. Now, not only we don’t believe that meanings come down to us, but also we say that contexts give meaning to their words.

The main takeaway from this discussion is that concepts are created by our mind and they don’t have any legitimacy even if they’re conceived by many. The popularity of an idea doesn’t anoint it. Science has shown us many examples of widely accepted yet wrong beliefs such as the idea of the flat earth.

[9] That’s why when we try to teach a concept to kids, we hope that they’d understand it. This problem can be more dramatic when it comes to math because from the beginning we’re dealing with undefined concepts such as set, number, addition, point, line, area, volume and so on. We’re gonna discuss them through their respective chapters.

[10] As you see, again we find out the impact of minergy on our decisions.

[11] Link

[12] I’d highly recommend you to watch the video about the Warlpiri and the way they define their environment without numbers. Link

[13] Greek mathematicians who devoted themselves to learn and develop geometry, considered arithmetics a slave’s job; therefore, they almost had no contribution in the development of numbers and numerals.

[14] We started this journey as Adam or Eve because they were the best fictitious example of someone who experiences the earth with no prior knowledge to see how we gather data and process them.

[15] Link

[16] Link


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