The Plato’s Problem: Life is a Child’s Play

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By You-Sheng Li (2012)


A few years ago, I attended a lecture given by a professor at the local library. His topic was the philosophy of language. As an example, he talked about how his young daughter learned to speak: As a toddler, she only managed to speak two or three words with visible difficulty in expressing herself. Then all of a sudden, she is chattering continuously with her mother or other girls around three and four. She speaks so freely without any visible effort and only has with difficulty in stopping talking. There is nothing in the world that she cannot express and talk about. Furthermore, she is always correct in grammar though nobody has taught her any knowledge of grammar.


Noam Chomsky (1928-) first noticed this phenomenon in the 1960s. He thought we humans are born with a brain power of language, and so-called generative grammar, a grammar which grows itself among children. He called it the Plato’s Problem.


The question is, where does our knowledge come from and how does it become our possession when environmental conditions do not provide sufficient information? In a more general sense, Plato’s Problem refers to the problem of explaining a "lack of input”,or the so-called poverty of stimulus. To solve Plato’s Problem, we have to reveal the underlying reason for the gap between what one knows and the apparent lack of substantive input from experience or the environment.


Plato was the first philosopher who systematically inquired into this issue. It is from the Meno that the modern instantiation of Plato’s Problem is derived. Plato believed that we possess innate ideas that precede any knowledge that we gain through experience. Plato’s work is almost all in the form of dialogue where the main speaker is Socrates. Socrates believed that our souls existed in past lives and knowledge is transferred from those lives to us. The theory of reincarnation had spread to Greece before Socrates’ time from India. The limited stimulus and input from our experience and environment serve only as a reminder that recover something from a wealth of knowledge that is hidden somewhere in our mind already.


Apart from those few who indulge themselves in a daydream of reincarnation, we ordinary people are no longer satisfied with what Plato and Socrates wrote and discussed more than two thousand years ago. Nobody refuses to go to school in the hope that someday all human knowledge will emerge automatically in his mind because he was Kant and Einstein in previous lives.


If we spend more time observing how our children play, we will get a more satisfying answer to the Plato’s Problem. Four or five children of three or four are playing together in a grassland beside a forest. They take a piece of rock as a house and put a handful of earth on it as the chimney. They put several small pebbles around it as workers who are repairing the chimney. Accidentally a child knocks a pebble to the ground. All children come to the rescue of this assumedly injured “worker”. They move it around a while and come back to the same rock, which is now a hospital.


Such child’s play can go on for hours with endless new fascinating developments. If you record it all, it will become a huge book of knowledge too if we discard our utilitarian orientation and adapt to a childish view or Confucius’ aesthetic view. If we analyze it, we will find rules like linguistic grammar which children have never broken. For example, they will not take a pebble as a house but a larger rock as a man. Playing together, they also have rules in cooperation even nobody has taught them before. All young mammals play together, and they have rules to obey too. No matter how fiercely young tiger cubs are playing fighting, they do not hurt each other. If a fox or rabbit runs by, they all come to kill it right away.


Now we have toy blocks, wooden or plastic, for children to play. With a limited number of blocks, they can create endless designs associated with endless stories in a limited time. Buddhism sees life as illusory while Christian ascribes life to God. One of the Taoist notions is that life is a child’s play, and so is our language.


Apes such as monkeys and chimpanzees have a habit of grooming each other when they have nothing to do. Zoologists think that young mammals play as a preparation for adult life while grown-ups stop playing. Here we call the grooming of apes a form of play, since it has all characteristics of play listed above in Section ?. Anthropologists believe that the equivalent of apes’ grooming is chatting among naked humans. So language served mainly as a play replacing apes’ grooming. As any play, common rules obeyed by all participants are a must including linguistic grammar.


If adult apes keep little play such as grooming but grow up humans keep playing extensively for life. They play as much as they were children. Most cultural activities such as literature, theatre, sports, games, chatting and so on are only forms of play. It is often said that among all mammals, humans are the only species who work. Taoist classic writers such a Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu often quoted animals and children as models of life to illustrate their points.


When I was sitting beside a window at home, I often observed the birds in trees and squirrels on the lawn. I found that they spend only a minor part of their time looking for food, which humans may call their job. Each stretch of time they are looking for food is surprisingly short as if they are not patient animals at all. This is more easily observed with squirrels on the lawn if we assume they look for food when they are looking on the ground, though they may and may not. With such loose criteria, squirrels look for food often for less than a minute at a time, but they catch something to eat usually after they have looked several times. Like a lot of animals, squirrels are picky: They examine their food carefully and throw away parts that are not delicious enough. If we take scoring a goal as a reward in a ball game, the frequency of rewards is much less than that of catching food by squirrels. So mammals’ looking for food must be more enjoyable than our play. Judged by brain power, mammals are at most like our toddlers. No matter how hard scientists have tried to teach apes symbol language, they cannot do better than our young children. According to Taoist philosophy, our ancestors who lived in the ancient primary society lived their lives like our children and mammals: They played through their life and never worked.


We can train mammals to do what they do not normally do like by punishing and rewarding them, such as happens in a circus. What will happen if we introduce a similar reward/punishment system to children who are playing with toy blocks? Let’s take sophistication as the goal. Those who produce more sophisticated designs receive a piece of favourite food and those doing poorly are beaten as a punishment. Furthermore, they can only get food through this rewarding system, and those poor performers will starve to death. According to Marxist theory, humans first used such a system to manage their slaves, and then they enslaved themselves by their own inventions, such as capitalism. The fashionable word is alienation, to which famous authors have ascribed slightly different connotations. To me, it indicates a phenomenon of civilized society where humans are controlled by what they have created. It is not well known that Taoist philosophers recognized and explored this issue more than two thousand years ago. Furthermore, they provided a psychological strategy for individuals to cope with such an unfriendly social environment. They have taught us that life is only a child’s play and we should never take it so seriously that we forget the truth of life: enjoy yourself for the moment. Confucius dedicated his life to restore the lost social harmony, which is also based on enjoyment rather than a progressive goal. In our world, there are only two things that are exponentially expanding, wealth and knowledge, both of which double themselves every decade or so. In the West, grandchildren have four times the wealth their grandparents had. When I asked my nephews about the situation in China, they said, “Far more than four times”. No matter how vast our wealth and knowledge become, they will skyrocket far short in the future of reaching the end of our universe. Einstein once said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.” If one day our wealth and knowledge have skyrocketed to reach the end of our universe if there is one, our stupidity can still go further, because life on earth is only a child’s play of toy blocks and its playing variety is apparently infinite.