In response to this year’s Edge Annual Question, I argue that there is no such thing as association / associative learning, and that we need to abandon the idea in order to make progress with the real science of learning. By way of an alternative to associationism, I recombine existing ideas to form the novel conjecture that humans (and other animals) learn by recombining existing ideas to form novel conjectures (and then putting them to the test). I’ve pasted some references to some of these previous ideas below; and, as the essay is itself an exercise in conjectural learning, I would be very grateful for any ‘tests’ in the form of comments, questions or suggestions for further reading.
The problems with associationism
*Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective Knowledge: An evolutionary approach (Revised ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Popper, K. R. (1990). A World of Propensities. Bristol: Thoemmes.
Popper, K. R. (1999). All Life is Problem Solving. Bristol: Routledge.
Popper developed his critique of induction, and his alternative hypothetico-deductive method, in the context of philosophical debates about epistemology and scientific method. In his later work, Popper applied this same line of thinking to the related psychological problem of how organisms -- including humans -- acquire knowledge about the world. Popper argued that because induction was logically invalid, it must also be psychologically invalid; in other words, given that there is "no such thing" as induction in logic, then induction (or ‘association’) is not available as means by which organisms could learn about the world. Popper maintained that "there is no such thing as association", it is "a kind of optical illusion"; "we can, and must, do without [it]" (Popper, 1972). Instead, Popper proposed that organisms come into the world equipped with innate knowledge about what to expect (the product of previous iterations of trial-and-error by natural selection); and that, during their lifetimes, individual organisms increase their knowledge by testing their expectations against the world and learning from their mistakes. In later lectures he put it like this: “everything we know is genetically a priori. All that is a posteriori is the selection from what we ourselves have invented a priori." (p46), and "all knowledge is a priori, genetically a priori, in its content. For all knowledge is hypothetical or conjectural: it is our hypothesis. Only the elimination of hypotheses is a posteriori, the clash between hypotheses and reality. [“our senses can serve us . . . only with yes-and-no answers to our own questions" p46-7 (Popper, 1990)] In this alone consists the empirical content of our knowledge. And it is enough to to enable us to learn from experience; enough for us to be empiricists" (p47) (Popper, 1999).
*Dawkins, R. (1998). The Information Challenge. The Skeptic, 18.
Dawkins, R., & Dawkins, M. (1973). Decisions and the uncertainty of behaviour. Behaviour, 45, 83-103.
Breland, K., & Breland, M. (1961). The misbehaviour of organisms. American Psychologist, 16, 681-684.
Garcia, J., & Koelling, R. A. (1966). Relation of cue to consequence in avoidance learning. Psychonomic Science, 4, 123-124. ["The hypothesis of the sick rat, as for many of us under similar circumstances, would be, 'It must have been something I ate.'"]
Gallistel, C. R. (1990). The organisation of learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gallistel, C. R. (1999). The replacement of general-purpose learning models with adaptively specialized learning modules. In Gazzaniga (Ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences (2nd ed., pp. 1179-1191). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gallistel, C. R., Brown, A. L., Carey, S., Gelman, R., & Keil, F. C. (1991). Lessons from Animal Learning for the Study of Cognitive Development. In S. Carey & R. Gelman (Eds.), The Epigenesis of mind: essays on biology and cognition (pp. 3-36). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gould, J. L. (1986). The Biology of Learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 37, 163-192.
*Gould, J. L., & Marler, P. (1987). Learning by Instinct. Scientific American, 256, 74-85.
Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J., & Henrich, J. (2011). The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. PNAS, 108, 10918-10925.
Gopnik, A. (1996). The Scientist as Child. Philosophy of Science, 63, 485-514.
Marcus, G. (2004). The Birth of the Mind: How a tiny number of genes creates the complexities of human thought. New York: Basic Books.
*Pinker, S. (2010). The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. PNAS, 107, 8993-8999.
Spelke, E. (1994). Initial Knowledge - 6 Suggestions. Cognition, 50, 431-445.
* = especially recommended
Picture credit: The Daily Telegraph