Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Priori, Empirically Confirmed

From an abstract in the 18 June issue of Science:
Space, and events associated with places and spaces, are represented in the brain by a circuitry made of place cells, head directions cells, grid cells, and border cells. These cell types form a collective dynamic representation of our position as we move through the environment. How this representation is formed has remained a mystery. Is it acquired, or are we born with the ability to represent external space? [Articles by Langston et al. and Wills et al.] investigated the early development of spatial activity in the hippocampal formation and the entorhinal cortex of rat pups... A neural representation of external space at this early time points to strong innate components for perception of space. These findings provide experimental support for Kant's 200-year-old concept of space as an a priori faculty of the mind.

Three questions:
  1. Would a developmental pathway that is triggered early in a child's experience of the external world, and which is followed in a similar or identical way in all normal people fail to confirm the concept of space as a necessary faculty of the mind?
  2. Does this mean that the 1st Critique was referring, all along, to rat minds?
  3. Does an a priori concept become stronger with experimental support?


Nick said...

I take it the sardonic tone in your comments is enough to divine your position on the matter. :) I totally agree.

Kant was, of course, basically uninterested in the development of our concepts and intuitions. He was more concerned with their necessity and/or universality. AS you note, if a mind develops a faculty then it cannot be universal or necessary.

I think, though, that this quote reflects a change in the way people use the term "a priori". Both the average intellectual and sophisticated philosophers (see Penelope Maddy's "Second Philosophy") are less concerned with the necessity of a priori terms because they think that naturalism is true and that no interesting fact about the world is a priori in Kant's sense.

Evelyn Brister said...

Nick, that's a nice point about how the use of "a priori" remains current but the meaning has changed as naturalism has become a widespread philosophical stance. (Though the PhilPapers survey, if one trusts it, indicates that not all of our tribe are naturalists even now--only half are, and I count myself among them.)

Although part of me wants to recognize how nice it is that some scientists (or science journalists) show their cleverness by making a reference to philosophy, I can't help but think that it also displays a certain flipness toward philosophical concepts and their meaning. After all, if the a priori concept of absolute space is subject to support or disconfirmation, it has *already* been disconfirmed--but by relativity theory and the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries.