Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Jared van Cor & Grehg Hilston


Summary by Tegan O'Neill

Did Cognition Evolve?


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

Jared van Cor and Grehg Hilston’s discussion of cognition began with a disagreement over the definition of what it is to be “cognizant.” This disagreement set the stage for the rest of the class’s discussion, which returned several times to the uncertain nature of cognition. Grehg defined cognition as an entity’s interaction with its environment based on “objective goals,” or goals that arise from a sense of purpose. Grehg emphasized the importance of systems and organization in cognition. An ant, he argued, is not cognizant by itself, but a colony of ants has cognition. Jared saw cognition as a being’s mental ability to acquire, process and make decisions regarding its environment. According to Jared, cognition is the ability to process input and generate a meaningful output.

Jared’s definition gave rise to a discussion about cognition in living versus non-living entities. After all, a sophisticated computer system such as “Big Blue,” is highly capable of processing input and interacting with its environment. Big Blue can even learn. Most discussants, though not all, felt that mechanical entities, plants, and highly simplistic organisms were incapable of cognition, due to the lack of intention in their actions. There was debate over the importance of this concept of intention in terms of cognition.The example of a plant “following” the sun was given to describe the difference between “goal based” interactions and “intentional” interactions with an environment. While sophisticated computers and plants may interpret input from their environment and behave based on that input, this is not necessarily evidence of “cognition.” Conversely, many cognitive activities that set beings we know to have cognition (i.e. humans) are done unintentionally, such as the interpretation of speech. As a result, intention could not be agreed upon as a measure of cognition.

The conversation quickly turned from what is not cognizant to what is. Every participant in the discussion was able to agree that humans were cognizant, and most agreed that groups have cognition separate from their individual cognition. This introduced the idea that there are different levels and kinds of cognition, rather than a binary divide between cognizant and non-cognizant entities. One participant suggested that learning and memory could distinguish cognizant from non-cognizant beings. With no memory, every interaction with one’s environment would be a reaction, rather than an intentional response.

The discussants identified two categories of cognition: single node cognition and multi node cognition. Single node cognition was described as self-centered awareness, whereas multi-node cognition was described as group-centric awareness. The discussants indicated that cognition was situational, and that specific entities could be capable of single node and multi node cognition. The example of a man stranded on a desert island illustrated that a situation could cause an individual’s awareness to shift from a group-level cognition to self-centric cognition. Finally, the presenters questioned whether or not instinctual actions were necessarily cognitive. Actions such as the interpretation of speech are not always conscious, but they represent a level of cognition. Several participants argued that humans are less controlled by instinct than by learning and cognition.

This discussion, not surprisingly, did not yield any answers regarding the nature of cognition. It did, however, present interesting questions about cognition as a spectrum rather than a binary characteristic. It was agreed that humans are not alone in being cognitive beings, but that cognition required a degree of sophistication and complexity. In the broader context of the course, this discussion of cognition explored the consequences of life and evolution on this planet.