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Core Knowledge, Phenomenal Expectations and Thought

by Stephen A. Butterfill


How is core knowledge linked to full-blown thought and intentional action? Infants in the first months of life have core knowledge of objects, causes, numbers, actions and much else besides (Spelke, 2003; Carey, 2009). But what is core knowledge? There are challenges which apply to the leading theoretical accounts (compare Butterfill, 2007; Keren and Schul, 2009; Adolphs, 2010). One way of responding to these challenges exists for the case of core knowledge of objects, however: several researchers have conjectured that infants’ core knowledge consists in a system of object indexes (Leslie et al. 1998; Scholl and Leslie 1999; Carey and Xu 2001; Scholl 2007). Accepting this conjecture does enable us to answer challenges to the theoretical coherence of postulating core knowledge, but it also means we are confronted with a further challenge about the interface between core knowledge and thought. The representations and processes which comprise the workings of object indexes have only limited influences on thought and action. How then could core knowledge play a role in explaining the emergence, in development, of full-blown thought about, and intentional action on, physical objects? I propose that one possibility hinges on the notion of a phenomenal expectation, which is approximately a sensation in Reid’s sense (Reid, 1785a,b). In general, an aspect of the overall phenomenal character of an experience is a phenomenal expectation just if its subject routinely and unthinkingly takes it to be informative about things that are only distantly related (if at all) to what experiences associated with this aspect of phenomenal character intentionally relate the subject to. Phenomenal expectations can provide a low-cost, efficient link between core knowledge and full-blown thought and intentional action. Perhaps the transition from core knowledge to knowledge proper has such a protracted developmental course because only phenomenal expectations connect core knowledge of objects to thoughts about objects.