Cognition

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Breucker, Hannah (30. Nov 2018, within the course "Odyssey of Philosophy and Information", facilitated by J.M.Díaz at HM)

Abstract

The intention of this article is to give a deeper understanding of the concept of cognition. The Oxford Dictionary defines Cognition as "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding thought, experience, and the senses” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2018). With this definition it becomes clear that the concept of cognition is closely intertwined with a variety of other concepts, most importantly the concepts of knowledge, observation, perception and of course (endogenous) information. There are many more concepts that relate to cognition, however to explain all of them would take us to far for the purpose of this article. This is why I will briefly touch up on the most important concepts that relate to cognition and which need to be understood in order to understand cognition. In the following I will explain the basics of these concepts and how they relate to the concept of cognition.

Cognition and the concept of information

If Cognition is a process of acquiring knowledge as stated above, we need to start with understanding the concept of knowledge. However, in order to reach knowledge, we require information. Therefore, it makes sense to understand the concept of information first. 

As iterated in the article about Endogenous Information, Shannon and Weaver distinguish clearly between noise and information, whereas both depend on the number of elements that differ from one another. This distinction between noise and information brings with it the problem of observation. According to Ashby, observation is a cognitive ability that allows the observer to conceive the difference between information and noise, which then constitutes in a particular order (Aguado, 2009). Here we can find the first link to the concept of cognition.

From an epistemological point of view we can differentiate between the objectivist position, which considers information as an external difference to the observer independent of him, and the constructivist position. The constructivist position evolves around self-reference within the operations of the cognitive system itself. This means that information is not seen as a noticeable external difference but a difference in the environment that is linked to a difference in the system. The third position is the radical constructivist position, which adds the notion that the environment only exists for the system as a product of its own creation (Aguado, 2009).

If we therefore view information as an endogenous emergence of the operational system, we can no longer perceive the process of selection as something external but rather as a restriction of the system operation within itself. This operational closure of the observing system makes endogenous conception of information a logical requirement and explains why the constructivist positions link to a concept of cognition that necessarily becomes epistemologically (Aguado, 2009).

Cognition and the concept of Knowledge

The concepts of information and knowledge are closely related and often information is seen as a building block to gaining knowledge. As presented in the article about “Knowledge”, the classical epistemology defines information from the notions of belief, truth and justification. I know something if if I believe in it, if it is true and if I am justified in believing in it (Gejman, Pérez-Montoro, Díaz Nafría, 2009).

Dretske introduces a concept of knowledge as informative content, wherein belief is caused by information. To know something, I should have information of that something with probability equal to 1. Therefore, Dretske sees knowledge as Information-produced belief, which always relates to a receiver´s background knowledge and he replaces the necessity for justification of belief with causality of information (Gejman, Pérez-Montoro, Díaz Nafría, 2009).

Regardless of different concepts of knowledge, it is clear that knowledge must be identified with a special kind of mental state. There are mental states achieved by the individual through a process of information assimilation or metabolism, which results in knowledge. Mental States corresponding to mere beliefs, do not reach the necessary epistemic level to count as knowledge. These mental states result in the action and conduct of an individual and therefore control the decisions made by it. But furthermore knowledge can also be considered as a critical factor that permits the holder to assimilate new information and through that create new knowledge (Gejman, Pérez-Montoro, Díaz Nafría, 2009). The necessary mental states and processing of information to reach knowledge are another indication to how the concept of knowledge refers to the concept of cognition.

Cognition and the concept of Observation

With respects to Philosophy - and as outlined in the article about observation - observation is regarded as the process of filtering information an individual receives from their senses, which then enters the thinking process (Cesar, 2018).

During the process of observation, the receiver receives input via their senses and then processes and differentiates these senses. The sense gets absorbed through the human sensory system, which includes five aspects: vision, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling and orientation. If the observation involves awareness (this means if the observation is based on what the observer thinks or believes) it can be connected to knowledge, because the observer can learn from the observation and derive information from it. This can be considered indirect observation, whereas during direct observation an individual purely collects information from its senses and is not affected by thought. It is however very difficult to clearly distinguish between direct and indirect observation or to be certain that such distinction truly exists (Cesar, 2018).

As stated in the beginning, cognition is “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”. We can again see the importance of this concept, the concept of observation, in order to understand the concept of cognition.

Cognition and the concept of Perception

The concept of perception is very closely linked to the concept of observation and again involves the human sensory system. Perception can be understood as a process of absorbing information from the environment und using it to interrelate with this environment. For example, words are composed of individual letters that together create something that an individual can perceive as something meaningful (Warntoft 2018).

Even though the concept of observation and the concept of perception are close, it is important to distinguish between them. According to Hempel, the epistemic value of an observation depends on its truth and accuracy. With regards to perception, the only thing observers can truly know is how things appear to them. Therefore, we cannot be sure an observation is true or accurate, if it describes something beyond the observers own perceptual experience (Hempel, 1952; 651–746).

This brings us to the question if there is a difference between cognition and perception. At a first glance, it seems obvious that there is a difference since they play very different roles in our mental life. Perception puts us in touch with our environment, whilst cognition enables us to form beliefs, make decisions and much more. It is however difficult to draw a strict line between perception and cognition, which becomes clear when asking the following question: Can you truly distinguish what you perceive from what you cognitively judge on the basis of what you perceive? It often is not clear what is contributed by perception and what is contributed by cognition (Sydhagen, 2017;1).

There are opposing views on whether cognition and perception can be clearly distinguished or not. Jerry Fodor represents the standpoint that there is a clear distinction. In “The modularity of mind” he explains that the mind is divided into functionally distinct systems, that can be separated into input systems and central systems. Input systems have the function of processing information that enters through the sensory system and make this information accessible to the central system. The different input systems are specified in processing different types of external stimuli and generate specific representational output which are then delivered to the central system.

The central system is responsible for cognition and conscious thought. It has access to outputs of the input system but also to information stored in the central systems (memories, beliefs, knowledge, etc.). Because the input systems are limited to the kind of information they are able to process, their operation is fast and specific. The central system on the other hand operates in a much more general way as it has the capacity to process large amounts of different types of information. This concludes that the central system is significantly slower as the input systems and that on this modular view of the mind, perception and cognition are two fundamentally different mental processes (Sydhagen, 2017; 6-11).

On the other hand, there is an increasing amount of scientists suggesting that cognitive states, such as beliefs, purposes, emotions, etc., are able to influence perceptual processes. This challenges the modularity of mind, because if the perceptual system is constantly influenced by cognition, it is not possible for either of these two systems to be encapsulated. The thought that cognition penetrates perception, has been researched extensively in the last few years. Researchers have, for example, shown that desirable objects seem closer and larger to subjects than undesirable once. Or that a water bottle appears to be closer for a thirsty subject than for a subject who isn´t thirsty. Other studies have shown that also our emotional state affects our perception, for example that heights seem higher for subjects that fear them than they do for subjects who don´t fear them. Some studies show that even language can have an effect on our perception. A study categorizing faces as white and black showed that it made them appear lighter or darker to the subjects. This evidence seems to make a possible distinction between perception and cognition rather blurry (Sydhagen, 2017; 11-14).

If perception systematically interacts with all sorts of mental states, then perception can no longer be considered a functionally distinct process. However, over the last decades the modular conception of the mind has been the dominant one in research about perception and most of our current models of perception are based on this distinction. The evidence of cognitive effects on perception could call for a revolution in our conception of the mind. If perception is not the capacity of receiving neutral information about the environment, then we have to ask the question to what extent perceptual observation can provide adequate justification for knowledge (Sydhagen, 2017; 11-14).

Cognition and Emotion

Another field that the concept of cognition is very closely linked to is the field of emotion. To understand this relationship, we need to first understand and define emotion. The question of what exactly an emotion is, has been tackled by various philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists. Looking at the approaches of these people, we can identify two key points of view (Power, Dalgleish, 2016; 19-21).

The first is the “feeling theory”, which is derived from Plato´s dualistic philosophy, which dominated Christian theology and reached its height in the work of René Descartes. The “feeling theory” states that the phenomenal or conscious “feeling” occurs in psychic or spiritual domain but is normally considered as a by-product of a bodily process or action. This means the bodily process or action, for example trembling or a faster heartbeat, is considered to be the cause of of the conscious feeling of anxiety and not the other way around. This is a stark contrast to typical psychology belief that the feeling of anxiety causes the trembling or faster heartbeat. John Broadus Watson took this approach to the extreme by stating that mental states, such as feelings, were considered outside the scope of science, which he restricted to objects or situations (stimuli) and bodily responses (behaviour and physiology). Even though feeling theories have been dominating the approach of emotion for many years, there has been a shift away from it recently, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. However, Plato has left his mark on how we view emotion as “irrational” and in conflict with reasons, as for example in the Platonic “wandering uterus” theory, which is the origin of the concept of hysteria (Power, Dalgleish, 2016; 19-21).

The second point of view stems from Aristotle, who was a student under Plato in the Athens Academy and adopted Plato´s thought regarding emotion. However, he argued that we cannot understand something, without knowing both: what it is made of (its constitution) but also its function. This means, that we cannot understand emotion by just viewing it as a set of physiological processes or a sequence of behavior. To fully understand emotion, we also need to know the function of this process or behavioral sequence. This can be considered “functionalism” and in essence states that similar functions can derive from very different physical constituents, the same way that similar physical constituents may have very different functions. Karl Popper joined Aristotle in his view and states that logical form and physical form don´t need to bear any consistent correspondence to each other. This becomes especially evident in digital computers, where the “same” physical state of a computer can represent a lot of different logical states, depending on which software is running on it. In a similar way, the “same” logical state could also be implemented on various different forms or different types of hardware. Relating this back to emotion, we can say that any approach that reduces the logical form of an emotion to its physical form is not supportable from this point of view. An emotion might have a psychological function within a system, for example to enable the individual to switch goals, or it might have a social one, such as to communicate with another individual but important is that we are not able to properly define emotion without knowing about these functions (Power, Dalgleish, 2016; 19-21).

Aristotle also observed that different beliefs can lead to different emotions, which is another important aspect of Aristotle´s view on emotion and a link to Dretske´s idea of knowledge as I described earlier. If I believe the knife I see could kill me, I will feel afraid but if I believe the knife I see can cut through a rope that ties me to something, I will feel happy about the sight of this knife. Therefore, it is my belief about the knife and the function of the knife in that specific context more than the knife in itself, which leads to these radically different emotions (Power, Dalgleish, 2016; 19-21). Here we can see the connection to Dretske who describes knowledge as informative content and states that knowledge is an information-produced belief. 

As we can see, all these epistemological concepts are somehow linked to each other and it is hard, if not impossible, to view them independently. With this in mind we can ask the question, whether cognition and emotion can be viewed independently? This has been a big debate within the fields of psychology and philosophy over the last 50 years and still has not been fully resolved. It might never be fully resolved as in essence it depends on the point of view (Power, Dalgleish, 1999; 13- 16).

If emotion and cognition are being viewed from the point of reductive causal analysis, it is necessary for these concepts to be seen as independent from each other in order to analyze them. However, as Power & Dalgleish argue, there has been a widespread failure to realize that reduction distorts the way phenomena operate naturally. A reduction and therefore artificial separation of such concepts might be necessary to analyze and understand these concepts better, however often there is no effort being made to return to the way biological and psychological systems exist in nature. So in order to fully understand these systems within their environment, the reductive analysis must be compensated by synthesis, in which the variables are being put back together into a living whole. This would be the point of view of complex but integrated systems operating in part-whole relationships. If we fail to consider the context in which a phenomenon occurs we ignore the dependency of all biological phenomena in its larger, integrated system. In conclusion this means that both, analysis and synthesis are essential to a complete science and emotion and cognition can therefore be viewed independently in order to understand them better. But ultimately they cannot be considered being independent from each other but rather both included in a larger system (Power, Dalgleish, 1999; 13- 16).

References

  • English Oxford Diaries, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/cognition [accessed on 29/11/2018]
  • J.M. Aguado (2009). "ENDOGENOUS INFORMATION". GlossariumBITri [accessed 29/11/2018] 
  • R. Gejman, M. Pérez-Montoro, J.M. Díaz Nafría (2009). “KNOWLEDGE”. GlossariumBITri [accessed 29/11/2018] 
  • K. Cesar (2018). “OBSERVATION”. GlossariumBITri [accessed 29/11/2018] 
  • P. Warntoft (2018). “PERCEPTION”. GlossariumBITri [accessed 29/11/2018] 
  • C.G. Hempel (1952). “Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science,” in Foundations of the Unity of Science, Volume 2, O. Neurath, R. Carnap, C. Morris (eds.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 651–746.
  • P.B. Sydhagen (2017). “How can we distinguish Perception from Cognition?”, from https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/58422/Sydhagen.pdf?sequence=1), [accessed on 29/11/2018]
  • M. Power, T. Dalgleish (2016). “COGNITION AND EMOTION”. Psychology Press, 3rd Edition, New York.
  • M. Power, T. Dalgleish (1999). “HANDBOOK OF COGNITION AND EMOTION”. John Wiley & Sons Ltd., England.
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