Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Jared van Cor & Grehg Hilston


Summary by Matthew Graef

Did Cognition Evolve?


P. Shaver "Cosmic Heritage" Ch. 14
R. Holmes III. "Three Big Bangs", p. 66-88

The discussion on April 4th centered primarily on the question: how/why did cognition come to be? Greg and Jared first let the class know that they had begun their work studying the evolution of consciousness, not cognition, but that they found very little difference between the two terms. They then introduced us first to their working definition of the word cognition.

 Each had his own personal definition, but they could agree that cognition required at least mental processing abilities. Greg held fast to his idea that cognition in fact needed more than mere computer-like “processing” and makes decisions regarding gathered information. It is an emergent property of organization, which is greater than the sum of its parts. The class then went back and forth arguing its own definition of cognition and again, hardly coming to any kind of solid agreement. Most supported the idea that cognition requires being somewhat aware of one’s surroundings/environment in some manner.

The discussion turned for a time toward arguing semantics. Ann brought us back to something mentioned in passing at the start: what is the difference between cognition and consciousness? Generally, we agreed that consciousness itself is a property of a system that cognition aids in the construction of. Many aspects of what we understand to be consciousness require cognitive capability or framework; cognition essentially acts as a baseline. Cognition could, for example, exist without consciousness, but it’s dubious that the reverse is possible. Also, the difference between cognition and artificial intelligence was brought up briefly, but it proved difficult to really separate the two, aside from cognition’s biological and AI’s technological origins. Both were capable of what seemingly is cognition, but one arose naturally, organically over time, whereas AI is man’s. Many believe that we are not capable of reproducing the “perfection” and complexity of the human mind, so perhaps AI would never be an equal.

Next, the class was presented with the problem of what exactly the prerequisites are for the ability to cognize. Must a cognitive entity be alive (whatever that means)? Must it be able to actively learn, or is complex repetition cognition, such as retrieving files or opening programs? Is language necessary in cognition? An overwhelming number of questions stem from trying to figure out what cognition means and what can be cognitive, and the class tackled as many as possible. We discussed whether consciousness is necessary for cognition and most agreed, however, Prof. deVries pointed out that we have unconscious faculties, which are very much cognitive, such as language. Next, it was brought up that experience must be necessary for cognition, as without it, the brain would lack stimuli to cognize.

 Without experiences, which senses are able to provide, cognitive entities wouldn’t be able to acquire information and act on it. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that anything which undergoes sensory experiences is cognitive, as even animals like jellyfish are able to sense light and feel objects, but arguably lack cognition. In fact, discussing animals brought up many great points of contention, which only deepened the debate. Humans are the apex of intelligent life, and this has historically driven us to separate ourselves from animals on a very basic, often spiritual level. However, it’s hard to ignore that not only do we share much DNA with animals like chimps, but that we also share many cognitive characteristics. Chimpanzees have learned to use sign language; they use tools, live in complex family groups, and engage in a wide range of sexual experiences. With animals like dolphins and elephants around, it’s harder still to argue that cognition isn’t a continuum. We may be the smartest, but we are far from being the smart ones.

In discussing language and consciousness, we once again returned to the property of emergence. It is not difficult to see that in nature, the more complex a species’ ability to communicate is, the more cognitive ability it is likely to have. Again, chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, even some birds, like the African grey parrot, exhibit very complex communicative skills and also happen to be some of the most intelligent animals on Earth. So, does more organized communication = more cognitive ability? The more complex (yet streamlined) a language is, or the more various forms of language there are, more information is able to be conveyed and understood. It is also thought that the evolution of both our hands and upright posture allowed for a complex and hands-on/engaged consciousness. The class generally agreed and failed to really argue against this point, hinting strongly that cognition is in fact at least partially an emergent property.

Next, Jared and Greg moved our conversation to the issue of instinct. The arguments concerning nature versus nurture have been around forever and for good reason; it’s very difficult to tease apart what aspects of a being’s cognition are instinctual or natural or bred into them via the environment in which they were raised. Many animals do not experience much tender love from mom or dad and they, such as many species of shark or reptiles, have innate abilities to hunt and survive on their own, after being born mere hours prior. These decisions to hunt or create dens in which to live are not conscious or cognitive decisions, in fact, they aren’t decisions at all; while animals are hardly computers, the creature has little choice in the matter. They are born knowing what to fend for and what to avoid, where to live and where to hunt. So what, if any, are instincts in adult human beings if we are able to alter our behavior by complex cognition? The line is not very clear.

Lastly, the class tossed around the topic of human cognition what makes us “special”. Firstly, we discussed how group organization and superior intellect has allowed us to diverge from what is classically thought of as Darwinian evolution in our own species. We figured that gone are the days of survival of the biggest, meanest most cunning beast; rather, we live in a world where enough technology allows humans with sub-par eyesight to survive and pass on the trait or complicated pregnancies to result in both healthy child and mother, instead of losing both of them, as once was the case. It is true, however, that what “fit” is has changed as well. We’ve adapted to a life of general safety, security and comfort; the most fit animal in a world like that might need to be the most clever or most wealthy.

We talked about how humans, unlike many species, continue to learn and develop virtually until death. While babies are basically sponges for any and all information, especially language, adults are still able to learn and change greatly throughout their lives. It could be thought that many species plateau in ability to learn and gather information, simpler animals, if they were able to “learn” at all. There are many higher-functioning animals which are capable of learning vast amounts of information, but even they fall far, far short of a human adult.

A last and final point discussed before class ended was the place of technology in our lives. In our modern Western society, technology is everywhere; it’s in our bodies, it’s on our bodies, it’s in our pockets, our homes, and cars. Does constant exposure to technologies like smart phones or computers alter us, or our future evolutionary patterns, in any way? The class was unsure, but felt that tech has changed our minds hugely. No longer do we need to see friends or even hear their voices to get in touch (and even the word “friend” doesn’t mean what it once did, at least on the internet). Virtual contact is becoming more and more prevalent; will it ultimately become the only contact?

 Again, with the advent of search engines, Wikipedia, and smart phones, we can now be required to know or memorize very little information, as it can be looked up in the blink of an eye. Is there a chance that our memory will change to focus on different aspects of life, or even fully integrate into virtual memory? To all these questions, we will at least begin to see some answers, as we progress into the 21st century.