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Do humans have instincts? What is instinct?

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knowledge: acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles. With my sneezing example, the mind automatically knows the concept of closing the eyes during a sneeze to protect them from germs.

Closing one's eyes while sneezing is an unconscious reflex and not a concept (as defined by Ayn Rand) as it does not involve the mental integration of multiple units while omitting measurement. I suspect any (non-human) mammal with eyelids that sneezes possess this reflex yet does not grasp any concept related to sneezing.

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knowledge: acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles. With my sneezing example, the mind automatically knows the concept of closing the eyes during a sneeze to protect them from germs.
Now, can we apply this understanding of knowledge to a rock -- does the rock automatically know to fall when it is released in the air? Or, does a snake automatically know to fall when it is so released? I presume you will say "No", and that you'll explain why "no". But then what puzzles me is why you can't apply that to eye-closing when sneezing -- what justification is there for saying that "the mind knows to close the eyes"?
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Now, can we apply this understanding of knowledge to a rock -- does the rock automatically know to fall when it is released in the air? Or, does a snake automatically know to fall when it is so released? I presume you will say "No", and that you'll explain why "no". But then what puzzles me is why you can't apply that to eye-closing when sneezing -- what justification is there for saying that "the mind knows to close the eyes"?

Because a rock has to fall when it is dropped. The eyes during a sneeze dont have to close- in fact, some people dont have this reflex(if thats what its called) and some people do have it. If you do have it, then you cant control it which makes it seem like an instinct to me. So, I think certain people have this knowledge innately(they are acquainted with a fact that germs have a high risk of getting in the eyes during a sneeze).

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Because a rock has to fall when it is dropped.
So if you "have to" do whatever, then it isn't knowledge? I'm trying to understand all of the steps in the argument, so bear with me.
The eyes during a sneeze dont have to close- in fact, some people dont have this reflex(if thats what its called) and some people do have it. If you do have it, then you cant control it which makes it seem like an instinct to me.
People who don't have the reflex then don't have this knowledge, I presume. But if you do have the reflex then you have to do it, so it isn't knowledge (that's why I asked about the rock example). So your mind / body would not know to have this reaction, like the rock it would just do it.
So, I think certain people have this knowledge innately(they are acquainted with a fact that germs have a high risk of getting in the eyes during a sneeze)
That kind of implies that certain people have the germ theory of disease genetically built in. Is that what you mean?
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So if you "have to" do whatever, then it isn't knowledge? I'm trying to understand all of the steps in the argument, so bear with me.

Well for an entity to have knowledge, doesnt it have to possess a mind?

People who don't have the reflex then don't have this knowledge, I presume.
They dont have it innately, at least.

But if you do have the reflex then you have to do it, so it isn't knowledge (that's why I asked about the rock example).

How is that different from any animal instinct? If they have to commit the act, it can still be knowledge.

So your mind / body would not know to have this reaction, like the rock it would just do it.That kind of implies that certain people have the germ theory of disease genetically built in. Is that what you mean?

But when an animal acts on instinct it just does it, it doesnt think about it. And yeah, I do think the germ theory is built in for certain humans, which is why their eyes act automatically during a sneeze.

Edited by konerko14
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Well for an entity to have knowledge, doesnt it have to possess a mind?
Right, and that's why you don't want to end up sayng that a rock has knowledge. But that also means that the characterization of "knowledge" can't be simply in terms of "doing an action". Well, remember that I also raised the question about snakes "knowing" to fall -- if you drop a snake, it falls regardless of any mind (or consciousness) it might have. So knowledge is not just the fact of having a consciousness plus the fact of doing something about X.
How is that different from any animal instinct? If they have to commit the act, it can still be knowledge.
But you said that knowledge is "acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles". So in what way does the reaction of eye-closing constitute "knowledge" as you've defined it? And at the same time, why would you not say that a body "knows" to bleed if pierced by a knife, and why would you not say that a snake "knows" to fall if tossed over a cliff (I assume that you would not consider bleeding and falling to be forms of knowledge).
And yeah, I do think the germ theory is built in for certain humans, which is why their eyes act automatically during a sneeze.
Well, I really can't touch that -- at least it's honest. May I suggest, however, the alternative that certain forms of human behavior are not knowledge or the result of knowledge, and thus not counterexamples to the claim that man has no built-in knowledge? An alternative is that humans have various forms of automatic behavior such as breathing, heart beats, digestion, growing hair and so on, which are not knowledge. And those behaviors are not identical across humans -- for instance, color vision is lacking in some people and present in others, because of basic differences in the bodies of particular humans.

If you have concrete evidence that eye-closing when sneezing isn't a consequence of the structure of your body, this would be a good time to bring out that evidence.

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You think that its from tightening of the muscles during a sneeze that cause the eyes to close, and not some form of innate knowledge.
In a sense, that's correct, since the eyes close due to a muscular contraction which takes place during a sneeze; but I'm not making any strong scientific claims as to the exact neuro-muscular system involved. My question is more philosophical in nature, focusing primarily on the issue "what is knowledge". If we were to get back to the contrast that Rand was pointing out between man and animal, she did not claim that man must learn all forms of action that he engages in. There are very many physical reactions that are indeed automatic -- the sensation of pain when burnt, digestion, breathing, the pumping of the heart. And some, more obscure reflexes, that Rand may not have been been aware of (such as the rooting reflex). The claim is, specifically, man has no innate knowledge. Sneezing is not "knowledge", it is a reaction. And as far as I know, the reaction of closing ones eyes is not knowledge either.
But if there was solid evidence that eyes closed during a sneeze to protect them from germs, would that prove that the act is an instinct?
Now we're back to the question of what constitutes "knowledge". You've described the evidence in terms of purpose -- the purpose of the eye closing is.... But well-known reflexes have purposes, which have been hard-wired into chordates for millions of years. Try stabbing a fish or a frog, and see if it doesn't jerk away. The point about reflexes is that they are response systems that entirely circumvent the mind -- they go from the source to the spinal chord. The evidence has to involve cognition, not just reaction and some phylogenetic origin.
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My question is more philosophical in nature, focusing primarily on the issue "what is knowledge".
Do you agree with konerko14's definition of knowledge?

The point about reflexes is that they are response systems that entirely circumvent the mind -- they go from the source to the spinal chord.
But can't reflexes be controlled?
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  • 3 weeks later...

A reflex can be controled, hot stoves can be held on too, as many others, but automatic things are even less than reflexes if they can't be controled, breathing isn't a reflex. Babies find that out at birth, the less inquisitive ones have to be made to cry by a doctor's spanking.

Does anybody have evidence that eye-closing isn't more that a muscle contraction maybe evolved at random but ending up to be evolutionarily effective?

Are you (konerko) saying that we know af germs? It doesn't say that, only that the people without that might not have survived the germs.

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Meh. I didn't see this.

Do you agree with konerko14's definition of knowledge?
It seems right, though it's somewhat vague (particularly the term "acquaintance"). Oddly, though, the concrete application of that definition doesn't (yet) seem right.
But can't reflexes be controlled?
No, except of course by deadening the nerves. On the other hand, you can control when follows the reflex action, so when you suddenly plunge your hand in molten lead you can't choose not to have the escape reflex, but you can choose to not sit there blubbering over your hand, and you can choose to stick your hand back in the pot, if you really want to.
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Speaking of this point, I think it would serve well to remind ourselves with a monk who burned himself. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thích_Quảng_Đức

The story does not indicate that he deadened his nerves physically in any way, so this example can serve how such reflexes can be turned off with a use of a mind.

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It seems right
Yeah, it's workable.

But to me, that definition (or anything similar) would mean that instincts weren't knowledge.

It's somewhat vague (particularly the term "acquaintance"). Oddly, though, the concrete application of that definition doesn't (yet) seem right.
True. There are some "acquaintances with facts" that I wouldn't consider knowledge.

A parrot can say that "two plus two equals four", but it's no more knowledgeable than the bird who says "two plus two equals nineteen". Offhand, I think "conceptualization of facts" is a bit better than "acquaintance with facts", but...

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The story does not indicate that he deadened his nerves physically in any way, so this example can serve how such reflexes can be turned off with a use of a mind.
No, it's true that the story failed to state the obvious, how he deadened his nerves, indeed his whole self. It also reminds us that the automatic reaction does not have to have grossly evident consequence like someone running away screaming "I'm on fire", especially if you plan in advance and start an antagonistic movement before the moment of pain.

But to me, that definition (or anything similar) would mean that instincts weren't knowledge.
Why?
A parrot can say that "two plus two equals four", but it's no more knowledgeable than the bird who says "two plus two equals nineteen". Offhand, I think "conceptualization of facts" is a bit better than "acquaintance with facts", but...
That begs the question under discussion. The cure is to get rid of this "acquaintance" idea, because it is too vague. When a consciousness grasps a fact, it knows that fact. Parrots have no "grasp" of propositions. Edited by DavidOdden
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I really have no time, but just couldn't help myself, so here is what I have to say:

No, except of course by deadening the nerves. On the other hand, you can control when follows the reflex action, so when you suddenly plunge your hand in molten lead you can't choose not to have the escape reflex, but you can choose to not sit there blubbering over your hand, and you can choose to stick your hand back in the pot, if you really want to.

Most Reflexes are mediated by polysynaptic circuits that allow reflexes to be modified

Spinal reflexes provide the nervous system with elementary and automatic motor patterns that can be activated either by sensory stimuli or by descending signals from the brain stem and cerebral cortex. The stretch reflex, as we have seen, is mediated by a simple monosynaptic circuit. Most reflex pathways, however, are poly-synaptic - one or more inter-neurons are interposed between sensory and motor neurons. These inter-neurons typically receive convergent input from more than one source. This feature allows signals from higher centers in the brain as well as other afferent inputs to modify the expression of the reflex. In the absence of supra-spinal intervention, reflexes are stereotyped and automatic.

Most spinal reflexes are mediated by complex circuits that coordinate the actions of groups of muscles, sometimes spanning several joints...

From "Essentials of Neural science and behavior" - Eric R. Kendal, James H. Schwartz, Thomas M. Jessell

(bold emphasis added for those of you who missed the main point in this quote)

And I'll even add translation: Reflexes are pattern of responses which are only active in the absence of brain control. Example: when an object is dropped into your palm, your reflex would be muscle contraction to allow the hand to stay at the same hight. But if your brain is in the middle of executing some other motor command, the reflex will not kick in, or will be modified.

Speaking of this point, I think it would serve well to remind ourselves with a monk who burned himself. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thích_Quảng_Đức

The story does not indicate that he deadened his nerves physically in any way, so this example can serve how such reflexes can be turned off with a use of a mind.

Wolves can chew body parts off when caught in a trap. Humans not special in ability to suspend pain or act in spite of it.

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When a consciousness grasps a fact, it knows that fact.
This too may be a bit vague. Technically, parrots (being conscious) also possess consciousnesses, and "grasp" is about on the same vagueness level as "be acquainted with".

A parrot doesn't (have the capacity to) realize what it's saying is a fact. But getting a two-year old to repeat "two plus two equals four" isn't necessarily knowledge either.

The child possesses the capacities to potentially know. But if the child doesn't know why/how the fact is true, I don't think it's knowledge.

I would say that facts aren't knowledge until they are conceptualized by someone, but given that instincts certainly aren't conceptualized at birth (it'd violate tabula rasa), a conceptualized-centric definition would mean instincts aren't knowledge. I suspect that konerko's definition was meant to be something along that line.

At any rate, I can't envision a definition of knowledge that would include instincts and exclude reflexes. Most would exclude both.

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This too may be a bit vague. Technically, parrots (being conscious) also possess consciousnesses, and "grasp" is about on the same vagueness level as "be acquainted with".
No, it's not. If you don't like "grasp", then you can cook up a definition of knowledge that more accurately describes what knowledge is and that satisfies you. The only point about "be acquainted" that is unsatisfactory is that if something briefly pops in and out of your mind, it isn't something you know.
A parrot doesn't (have the capacity to) realize what it's saying is a fact. But getting a two-year old to repeat "two plus two equals four" isn't necessarily knowledge either.
And did I ever say that for a human, rote speech constitutes knowledge?
The child possesses the capacities to potentially know. But if the child doesn't know why/how the fact is true, I don't think it's knowledge.
No, this is the first step on the slippery slope to epistemological nihilism. It means, for example, that you don't know whether you're supposed to twist a lightbulb clockwise or counterclockwise in order to screw it in, if you can't reduce that to a causal principle (and you can't know that first-order causal principle without knowing all sorts of fancy stuff about how they manufacture lightbulb bases, and why righty is tighty and not loosy). Children do not need to understand the Peano axioms in order to know that two plus two is four. Once the child has learned the fact that two plus two is four, then, obviously, then know the fact. Just saying X doesn't constitute knowing X.
I would say that facts aren't knowledge until they are conceptualized by someone, but given that instincts certainly aren't conceptualized at birth (it'd violate tabula rasa), a conceptualized-centric definition would mean instincts aren't knowledge.
Facts are never knowledge, btw. We can know facts, and have knowledge of facts, but facts do not become knowledge. Conceptualization, as you know, is the integration of two or more units, and individuals such as "Ronald Reagan" or "Jupiter" are not concepts. So that would mean that you can't know / have knowledge of an individual. Man is the only conceptual animal, which means, by your view that all knowledge is conceptual, that animals don't know anything at all. But that's clearly wrong -- animals do know things, just non-conceptually. Some things that animals know are instinctual (automatic / genetic) and the rest are learned. Reflexes aren't knowledge simply because they aren't held in the brain.
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Some facts that aren't learned but are held in the brain (instincts) are knowledge (of facts).

Some facts that aren't learned but are held in the brain (parroting) aren't knowledge (of facts).

How do you determine which non-learned facts that are held in the brain can lead to knowledge, and which non-learned facts that are held in the brain cannot?

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How do you determine which non-learned facts that are held in the brain can lead to knowledge, and which non-learned facts that are held in the brain cannot?
Parrots learn to reproduce sound sequences (that is just so cool), therefore I assume you meant "learned", not "non-learned", in the case of parrot squawk. I also assume that you mean "knowledge of the mathematical facts" and not "knowledge of how to make the noises". That is a sufficiently difficult question to answer that it explains why animal-language researchers take the easy way out and gratuitously assume that superficial behavior equals comprehension. You look for evidence that the animal can "use" the sentence non-randomly. However, I don't understand the implication of your question, espectially the distinction between facts held in the brain leading to knowledge vs. facts held in the brain not leading to knowledge. That's a spurious distinction. I think you are mistaking "knowledge of a sound" with "knowledge of what the sound represents". Parrots only have knowledge of the sound, and not of what the sound represents.
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The concept "knowledge" is formed by retaining its distinguishing characteristics (a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation)...
Emphasis mine.

Instincts are innate; they are not reached through perceptual observation or reasoning.

So how can instincts possibly be classified as knowledge by such a definition?

Edit:

I didn't believe those chainsaw sounds were real, so I googled *and learned about lyrebirds* ;)

Edited by hunterrose
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Well, I think you've got me. Although the discussion of that chapter is carried out in the context of human consciousness (where innate knowledge does not exist), the concept "knowledge" is not limited to humans, so you are right that Rand's definition excludes the contradiction "instinctual knowledge", even for animals.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I gave this thread as close a reading as I could with my limited time, but I wanted to add a question:

There have been studies in which crying infants have been shown smiley-faces drawn on paper and some significant number of them stop crying. Other children were shown faces with jagged lines and no smile, and none of these children stopped crying.

I'm sure some will call this a "reflex", by why is this a reflex? It is an automatic, unlearned response to stimulation (these infants are too young to understand that other human beings exist--they are just at the point where they are learning to focus their eye-sight--let alone that faces contorted to a particular shape means that the infants should feel happy) which requires some kind of thought.

Also, as a note to one post that I saw while reading through this thread, the "reflex" to draw away from a knife after it has cut you can be overcome. So it cannot possibly be that a signal just runs to your spinal chord, then the spinal cord tells your hand to move away. You must process that information to some degree and decide whether you should pull away. In fact, this can be taken to a greater extreme: The monk who ignited himself at a busy intersection in protest of the Vietnamese war. Certainly if there is any process in the human mind which is an automatic reaction, it should have triggered this man to put himself out rather than sit in perfect stillness. The only thing that seems beyond the immediate control of the will is the heart-beat, but we don't term that either "instinct" or "reflex".

So would this infant reaction to smiley-faces count as in-born knowledge or belief? If anything would, this must, no? We can agree--I think--that they did not learn it. We can also agree that they believe or judge (although perhaps not know, since "know" implies justified true belief) that a smiley-face means something good--that they should be happy in its presence.

If anybody denies some or all of this, I want to ask what would count as a human instinct? Unless the claim is unfalsifiable, what conditions would falsify it?

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Human reactions to facial emotions stretch further than babies crying or not crying. There are six emotions that are identifiable by all people and all cultures - children born blind also make the same faces when affected by the same emotion. If anything counts as a human instinct, I think it would be these emotions: fear, surprise, happiness, anger, disgust, and sadness.

Some studies about this (sorry, don't have the links):

Ekman, 1973, 1994; Ekman et al., 1987; Izard, 1980, 1994

So do facial expressions in response to emotion count as reflex or instinct?

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  • 3 weeks later...

I’m making this post as much for my own clarification as anything else. I welcome any critique. I apologize for it’s length.

To clarify, a computer is a CPU and it’s peripherals.

A reflex is analogous to inserting a floppy disk in the drive and the drive spinning up or pressing the eject button and the disk popping out. The CPU has nothing to do with this process, it is strictly mechanical. Closing your eyes when you sneeze has nothing do with any brain process. It is a mechanical reaction to the mechanism of sneezing. Like most reflexes, you can consciously override it with foreknowledge (the build up prior to some sneezes) but the process of sneezing and it’s related facial movements is strictly mechanical. That some people don’t close their eyes when they sneeze simply means that they’re “broken” or the mechanism that produces the reflex doesn’t function in that individual. This is not much different than a faulty floppy drive failing to spin up upon insertion of a disk.

A computer’s BIOS is analogous to sensory perception. Note that BIOS stands for Basic Input Output System. On a computer, this is actually a program. This would be like a brain with no sensory input (useless). However, all modern computers come with this basic program that tells the CPU where a particular device is located and what it is. Your brain receives signals from your eyes, ears, etc. automatically. Like the brain, the CPU has no initial knowledge of what to do with this information.

The next step for a computer is an operating system (OS). It tells the computer how to use it’s basic peripherals as it’s most basic function. This is how animals know when they smell something specific, like food. Some extra programs can also be included with the OS that extend beyond this very basic functionality (such as a program to automatically run a CD). I think this is analogous to the higher animals instincts such as pack behavior.

One can also load extra programs on top of the OS that extend it’s functionality further such as a program that plays music from the CD that was just loaded. This is similar to the learning abilities of animals. The program has been added (learned) but it is such that, once loaded, it's automatic.

What I think is said about man having no instincts is analogous to a computer not coming with an operating system. The link to the senses is pre-established (BIOS) but the knowledge of how to use any of that information is missing (OS). Man must program his OS himself as well as any other extended functions. He is the only creature that both has to do this and can do this. An animal is programmed both initially (came with the OS) and by it’s environment with no choice in the matter. Man can choose his programming and, to survive properly, must.

P.S. The computer model completely breaks down for me beyond this. Computers aren’t volitional. Nor are wolves.

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  • 3 weeks later...

How does one know that animal instincts are innate knowledge and not learned early in their lives?

Here are some examples of animal instincts listed in this thread for reference, all by DavidOdden: african herd animals(zebras, wildebeeste, etc) bolt when they sight cheetahs, migratory patterns of birds and fish, the bowing of pups, cats eating grass to correct dietary problems, honeybee dance, the cuckoo's song.

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