by Alison Gopnik
Gopnik makes the interesting argument that the ability to carry out counterfactual reasoning - i.e. thinking about things that are false or counter-to-fact - is *the* distinctively human capacity, which has underpinned our huge success as a species, by enabling us to make plans and come up with ways in which we can modify our world. By thinking about ways the world could be different, we can anticipate the future and formulate ways to modify that future, by constructing tools and so on.
Furthermore, contrary to older theories in which children were viewed as basically stupid adults (Piaget), Gopnik argues that when it comes to this most important cognitive capacity - counterfactual reasoning - children and even babies are out in front. This is best demonstrated, she argues, in their vast capacity for imaginative play. Adults, in comparison, are severely limited beings, with far fewer neuronal connections as a consequence of all the pruning that goes on in adolescence, and are therefore much less able to think outside the box.
Rather than viewing children as adults in the making, Gopnik argues that adults basically exist in order to enable the existence of children and babies who, though very vulnerable and dependent in terms of basic needs, are essentially the 'R and R' department of humanity, without which we would be stuck eking out an existence by trial and error learning like our chimpanzee kin. Without childhood, she claims, we would have no cultural advances, no ability to radically construct the world we live in according to our needs.
Children literally make the future : )