Few questions in science are as controversial as the origins of knowledge. Whether ideas (propositional attitudes, e.g., “objects are cohesive”) are innate or acquired has been debated for centuries. Here, I ask whether our difficulties with innate ideas could be grounded in human cognition itself.
I first demonstrate that people are systematically biased against the possibility that ideas are innate. They consider cognitive traits (specifically, ideas, as opposed to horizontal faculties, such as attention) as less likely to be innate compared to noncognitive traits (sensorimotor or emotive)— those of humans, birds and aliens, and they maintain this belief despite explicit evidence suggesting that the traits in question are in fact innate.
I next move to trace this bias to the collision between two principles of core cognition—Dualism and Essentialism. Dualism (Bloom, 2004) renders ideas immaterial; per Essentialism, the innate essence of living things must be material (Newman & Keil, 2008). It thus follows that cognitive traits cannot be innate. A second series of experiments tests these predictions.
These results show for the first time that people are selectively biased in reasoning about the origins of innate ideas. While these findings from adults cannot ascertain the origins of these biases, they do open up the possibility that our resistance to innate ideas could be in our nature. Cognitive anti-nativism could be innate.