Cognition and Perception: Vagrant Commentary Upon The Subject


This is a commentary on whether the two linguistic tags – cognition and perception – allude to the same concept or not. Originally written on 10th October 2012.

Dear gentle reader, find for yourself that which is “not information” or that which is “not sign” or that which is “not signal”. Once you have done so, you will not need to read this write up any further.

My guess is that you weren’t able to find “not information” and the other things I’d requested you to find. I’m also guessing that you are still reading this… fine…

With all the humility and honesty I can muster, I testify to the following statement: you will be able to interact with information to modify it and yourself concomitantly as you are within yourself a conglomeration of information that gets modified during any interaction.

What is the nature of this interaction? How do these conglomerations arise and persist in the first place? If they change, are there stereotypical processes by which they change? Can a phenomenon be realized through multiple, different conglomerations of information? Can there be a conglomeration of information that remains immutable? Can the mutable one(s) ever interact with the immutable one(s)?

The above questions can be put forth in a different way; In current day, lay parlance, the act of interacting with something to derive information is called “observation”. So now all the above questions can be stated in terms of how, when, where and why observations are made.

However, one peculiar question remains. None of the schools of thought accepted as science during early 20th century explained how come the observer had the capacity to observe. All schools of thought from that era which recorded quantitative and qualitative judgements about happenings remained aloof of the nature of the observer. Psychology is a school of thought that is finally accepted as science which just might be jabbing at that peculiar question from the notion of what makes a human being perceive or conceive observations.

James J. Gibson and Eleanor J. Gibson who attained repute within the field of psychology actually never bothered to use the word “cognition” while working towards answering that question. They also noted that the observer cannot be observed in isolation from the observer’s environment and all processes that facilitate (afford) a change in the observer/environment are called “percepts”. This prompts me to question, is a percept an idea? Or, is a percept a thought? Is an idea a thought? Is a thought or idea, information?

At the same time as the Gibsons, in a different colloquium, a group of multifaceted people (Turing, Sussman, Minsky, Von Neumann, Shannon, etc) were hacking away at the notion of what knowledge or information was and how could something accommodate it. The idea was that if something could encode, store, decode and retrieve information then that thing had the ability “to know” the information. After a while the notion “to know” was put forth as cognition and any process that facilitated knowing also had to be a part of cognition.

Apart from those developments there has always been the tradition of inquiring about “what does it mean to know, what can be known, and how can it be known”. Such questions were were asked by people who called themselves epistemologists and belonged to the school of philosophy. Yes, they are still called the same they still belong to the same school of thought.

The notion of why is the universe observable by any being in the first place is a foundational question in the school of physics as well and it has yet to be settled though I see promise in the work done by quantum physicists who are jabbing at the notion of quantum decoherence.

Depending on which school of thought a person was initiated into and if they clung to the nomenclature of that school they would use either of the words “to think”, “to know”, “to perceive” or “to cognize” in order to allude to the answers related to the questions I have reiterated throughout this write up.

I usually use the word cognition and I believe that to be able to understand the nature of cognition one has to understand the nature of the cognitive agent and its agency in its environment which enables cognition. Again, separating the agent from the environment is fundamentally impossible because of the way the “flow of information” binds the agent to its environment. However, using an analytical frameworks one can still separate the two for the sake of discussion. In fact, Herbert Simon postulated that this ability to conceptually isolate a system while studying it, is a mental ability for coping with our complex universe. He reported in his famous publication – Administrative Behavior:

"The human being striving for rationality and restricted within the limits of his knowledge has developed some working procedures that partially overcome these difficulties. These procedures consist in assuming that he can isolate from the rest of the world a closed system containing a limited number of variables and a limited range of consequences."

But! What would we need if we did not want to make such assumptions and still study a so called system. The name given to that school which simply merges all schools of thoughts in order to focus on the concept of observation, thought and information, apart from the concept of concept, is cognitive science.

The name of this thoroughly amalgamated school isn’t “perceptual science” and I think it is merely a matter of being trendy to not call it as such. It could have been called cybernetics for that matter but I suspect that to do so would really alienate persons who are of the opinion that only homo sapiens have cognitive abilities or in other parlance, perceptual abilities.

There really isn’t a difference between the thing that  the words perception alludes to compared to what cognition alludes to. I personally use the words interchangeably and don’t encounter a problem. If one says that there is such a thing called “higher level cognition” which can be labeled as cognition and “lower lever cognition” which can be labeled as perception then I have yet to see how it isn’t a cluster of “lower level cognition” iterated in time that give “higher level cognition”. It is possible that what used to be called sensation is now called perception and what used to be called perception is now called cognition in the school of psychology. I also suppose that it just might be possible to use perception and cognition to allude to different categories of information processing mechanisms or stages. However, I’d rather just contend with information processing as the default verbiage that captures all notions regarding perception and/or cognition. I also take the word cognition to be a synonym for information processing.

I am indeed biased towards the nomenclature used in computer science and study of artificial intelligence. Both fields of study were originally and continue to be inspired by natural systems. So I am confident that some computer which manages to reproduce the pattern of information (say, M) that leads to emotions will truly harbor emotions. The only trouble is to then link that pattern to another set of patterns (say, N) which will convey those emotions to humans. The set N merely needs to have internal validity with the computer’s emotions and ecological validity with its ecological interaction with humans. I figure that such a thing is easier said than done but I am confident that the sets M and N might indeed be found by a computer or by a human or by some interactive process which includes humans and other cognitive systems.

Honestly, I am even fine with using words like “school of conceptual science” which would concern itself with all that can be conceived physically or metaphorically by or within any system, immaculately or otherwise!

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