The Process of Cognition

HeadCognition is often thought to be synonymous with thinking, but the word cognition has its roots in Latin, meaning to know. Therefore, we have to expand our basic notion of thinking to include some form of process through which knowledge is learnt and evaluated. Of course, such concepts might cause us to jump to the conclusion that such a process has to be intelligent, and possibly even sentient, and therefore restricted to humans or, at least, higher life forms. However, in the context of a wider discussion addressing biological life, and the possibility of artificial life, this assumption might be too restrictive. In many ways, our initial definition of cognition might parallel the problem of articulating what separates the simplest living cells from the cause and effect of non-living matter. The reason for highlighting the issue in this way is two-fold:

  • It requires us to reflect on what is, and is not, cognitive.
  • It then requires us to consider the cognitive process itself.

While we might accept that a degree of cognitive ability could exist at all levels of biological life, what about artificial life? Let us start with a somewhat `black and white` statement that artificial intelligence (AI) cannot be cognitive, because it remains dependent on coded human reasoning, i.e. it does not know, it simply follows instruction as argued by John Searle in `The Chinese Room`. While the debate on what is and is not cognitive can be problematic it is nothing to the problems of actually trying to describe the cognitive process, but we shall, at least, try to make an initial attempt:

Although the issue of artificial life has been raised, some of the wider issues associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the subject of a later section and therefore this section will be more focused  on the somewhat abstract concepts of cognition in terms of our own human intelligence. Surprisingly, this restriction does not necessarily make the answers any more obvious, as the notion of intelligence can still be expanded into a multitude of facets. However, when we talk about `understanding` something, we are possibly on more solid ground that lends itself to a more analytical approach, which we might sub-divide into four stages:

  • Data Acquisition
  • Information Structure
  • Contextual Knowledge
  • Interpretative Wisdom

In the case of humans, this is a hierarchical process that starts with data acquisition through our senses, e.g. eyes and ears, and ends up in some form of interpretive judgement of what to do next. In the wider context of human evolution and natural selection, the effectiveness of intelligence would have been judged in terms of survival, which obviously depended on much more than today's one-dimensional concept of IQ.