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

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 literat