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Inferential Isolation Is a Barrier to Understanding Cognitive Development

Date given: Monday, 11th September 2023

Handout for all of Inferential Isolation Is a Barrier to Understanding Cognitive Development as pdf. (This has the same content as the web version you are reading here.)


These are notes and slides from a talk at Hannes Rakoczy’s lab in Goettingen.


Inferential Isolation is a basic principle of cognitive architecture, or so much evidence concerning both physical and social cognition indicates. Fast, relatively automatic processes implicitly arrive at conclusions about the movements and causal interactions of objects, and about the thoughts, feelings and actions of agents. But these conclusions are neither informed by culturally acquired knowledge nor reflected in verbal judgements. This inferential isolation is a barrier to understanding cognitive development. Decades of research has established that infants, even in the first year of life, already benefit from fast processes in a variety of domains, which are sometimes called ‘core knowledge systems’. The current challenge is to understand how core knowledge systems enable humans to learn about the physical and social world. One leading view is that the outputs of core knowledge systems ‘give rise to the concepts and beliefs that populate our thoughts’ (Spelke, 2022, p. 199). But this is incompatible with the evidence for inferential isolation. Indeed, the influence of core knowledge systems seems remarkably limited. This talk introduces some alternative ideas about how core knowledge may contribute to later developing forms of understanding. The main ideas are that we should embrace limits on core knowledge systems; and that we can overcome the barrier posed by inferential isolation by taking inspiration from discoveries from comparative and cognitive psychology, which provide a potentially rich source of novel developmental predictions.


inferential integration : For states to be inferentially integrated means that: (a) they can come to be nonaccidentally related in ways that are approximately rational thanks to processes of inference and practical reasoning; and (b) in the absence of obstacles such as time pressure, distraction, motivations to be irrational, self-deception or exhaustion, approximately rational harmony will characteristically emerge, eventually, among those states.
inferential isolation : Converse of inferential integration.
informational encapsulation : One process is informationally encapsulated from some other processes to the extent that there are limits on the one process’ ability to consume information available to the other processes. (See Fodor, 1983; Clarke, 2020, p. 5ff.)


Clarke, S. (2020). Cognitive penetration and informational encapsulation: Have we been failing the module? Philosophical Studies.
Fodor, J. (1983). The modularity of mind: An essay on faculty psychology. Cambridge, Mass ; London: MIT Press.
Kaiser, M. K., Proffitt, D. R., Whelan, S. M., & Hecht, H. (1992). Influence of animation on dynamical judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 18(3), 669–689.
Krist, H., Fieberg, E. L., & Wilkening, F. (1993). Intuitive physics in action and judgment: The development of knowledge about projectile motion. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 19(4), 952–966.
Mylopoulos, M. (2021). The modularity of the motor system. Philosophical Explorations, 24(3), 376–393.
Schwartz, D. L., & Black, T. (1999). Inferences through imagined actions: Knowing by simulated doing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 25(1), 116–136.
Spelke, E. S. (2022). What Babies Know: Core Knowledge and Composition Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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