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Posts Tagged ‘cognitive models’

    Old and young

    Old, or young?

    She thought she saw a wicked witch
    A-cursing in the wood.
    She looked again and saw it was
    A damsel fair and good.

    I wrote a post earlier which shows how easy it is to mistake one thing for another ; if you like, you can find the post here.

    So, at first glance, and for particular reasons, she first saw a wicked witch ; but, at second glance, and for different particular reasons, she then saw a fair damsel.  But suppose there had never been a second glance?  Suppose there had never been particular reasons of the second kind?  Surely she would have gone on believing for ever that she had seen a witch.  She would have gone on believing in a mistake.

    Now,  it’s plain to see that an individual can easily make such a mistake.  But suppose a whole population were to make that same mistake?  Is it possible for an entire population to misconceive something?  For, surely, our most common test of truth is that everybody believes it.  In our common way of thinking, the more people who believe in a thing, the truer it is.  There are many possibilities for developing a discussion on this point.

    But, for now, I’d just like to focus attention on some thing nearer the root of this peculiarity of ours ; this peculiar ability to form two distinct and contrary concepts from the same raw material.  How can the same ink marks on a piece of paper give rise to contrary mental (cognitive) models of the material reality in front of us?  It would seem that the differences in the concepts do not arise from the world outside of us, and so they must arise from within ourselves ; from our own mental processes.

    So, the ink marks seem to be just that, nothing more ; but the concepts of them seems to be within us.  Does this mean that world outside of us is one thing, while our concepts of the world are another?  Are there, in fact, two worlds – one outer and one inner?

    Some argue that there is only one world, and that is the world as we see it ; the world of our consciousness.  But, if that is the case, then how are we to describe what is outside of us?  Perhaps the ‘world’ outside of our consciousness is only a potential world ; and it does not reach its completion until we have formed our concepts of it.  Thus, the paper with the ink marks is only potentially a picture of something real ; it becomes real when we have made a mental model of either a witch or a beauty.

    So, if this is the case, then the world is something that we create within ourselves.  But, if that is true, then it is no longer true to say that we see either a witch or a beauty in the world before us.

    But there is yet another way of understanding this.  We can say that, having made a mental model of something in the world outside of us, we then project our model on to that object.  The ambiguous object then becomes identical to our mental model of it.  Some people call this process interaction ; we are not so much passive observers of the world, are active observers who do, in fact, play our part in creating the world.  And so, as we go on discovering new things, the world becomes what we ourselves make of it.  In older times this same process was known as participation ; we participate in the material world, while the world participates in us.  As we change as a result of our participation in the world, so the world changes as a result of its participation in us.

    Much to meditate on here!

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Of all the world’s wonders there is none greater than human consciousness.  If we were not conscious, then there would be no world that we could speak of.  No doubt there is something outside of our consciousness, but it is not the world ; for the world is a construction made of distinctly human cognitive (mental) models of the information that our senses bring to us.  We are able to construct those cognitive models because we can think about the sensory data.  And we are further able to think about the relations between those models. We are able to do science, as it were.

But perhaps there is something greater than mere human consciousness.  For we also possess self-consciousness.  We are not only aware of the world, but we are also aware that we are aware of the world.  And, because of that self-awareness, we are able to think about our relations with the world.

It is interesting to ponder these things in the context of science.  As one reads scientific papers and journals, one is struck by the heavy emphasis given to the relations between the things that scientists are conscious of.  But almost no attention at all is paid to the relations between the scientist and the things that he studies.

It is as if scientists do not realise that what they are studying is their own cognitive models ; the phenomena that their own minds have constructed.

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It is, of course, well-known in the science of psychology that the world that we say we know is in fact composed of cognitive models of that other world – the world around us.  Experimental psychologists tend strongly to the view that our knowledge consists of memories ; and those memories are comprised of particular configurations of chemicals within the system of neurons that the nervous system is made of.

There appears to be no simple geometrical relation between those neuronal configurations and the outside world. Thus there must be some mechanism that ensures that the cognitive models do in fact relate accurately and consistently to the world around us. If this were not so, then each of us would perceive the material world in a quite different way to our neighbour.

So much for the material world and our modelling of it. But there is yet another world.

This is the world of what we might (to avoid getting too technical) call ideas or opinions. This world is also composed of memories ; but memories that are understood in terms of language – of words. This world seems to be almost infinitely plastic – we are free to use words fairly indiscriminately. This world of opinions or notions is important to us, because we use it to communicate with each other.

If all communications between people were of a friendly nature, then any errors of perception, or misunderstandings, could easily be resolved by discussion. But there are some who seem drawn, or maybe impelled, to be uncompromisingly aggressive towards others ; they use harsh words that seem to be intended to cause offence and even pain ; these offensive ones make scurrilous references to the characters and life-styles of others.   But it is important to remember that, since the offenders have no means of knowing the truth of the accusations they make, their word-pictures exist only within their own minds.  Such offenders have created an inner world for themselves which bears little or no relation to the world outside them. I think there is a word for this.

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According to current theories of neurology a beautiful thing, such as a rose plant, grows not only in the soil where it apparently belongs, but also in each brain of each person who beholds it.  The real physical growth of the plant is replicated, as it were, as a different kind of real physical growth in a different kind of soil.  That’s the neurology  ; but what about the psychology?

Here it is supposed that a particular neurological structure produces a particular image in the conscious awareness of the individual observer.  Thus, a particular configuration of nerve cells and all their appendages produces a particular ‘picture’ to the observer.  It also produces particular sounds, scents and so forth, directly related to the original sensory data.

Thus the growing rose plant extends its physical presence to every observer of it.  In a sense, the rose has become distributed in a much wider section of the world.  In a sense, the rose now grows in many places.  And, because we are talking here of the psychology (rather than the neurology) that new growth – in consciousness – is not material ; it is not detectable by the senses, but only by awareness.  If not material, then what?  It surely must be spiritual.

And when we think of that rose we may truly say that it lives within us.  It has existence within us.  Or, at least, its spirit does.  An aspect of Idealism?

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In the field of cognitive psychology it seems fairly well established that our knowledge is comprised of complex chemical compounds distributed within the networks of nerve cells of the brain.  Thus my knowledge of the shape of an apple, say, is actually a chemical construct which would seem to bear no geometrical  relation to the actual apple.   Similarly, my knowledge of its hardness, texture, temperature, smell and taste are said to be chemical constructs in the brain.

Somehow, between the apple on the table in front of me – and the workings of the brain – the apple has been altogether lost.  What resides in my brain is not an apple but a neuronal model of the apple ; a collection of bodily substances, chemicals.

One obvious question arises : what is the relation between the neuronal model and the apple itself?  If it were possible to examine the chemicals that comprise the particular neuronal model, would I recognize them as representing an apple?

Perhaps before plunging into such a quest, I might pause to ask another question.  If my knowledge of the apple is made of chemical constructs in my brain, then surely it follows that my knowledge of my brain and its chemicals is also a neuronal model.  My knowledge of my brain is not my brain itself.  And, of course, my knowledge of the chemicals is not the chemicals themselves.  So what is the relation between the chemical constructs in my brain and my brain itself?

It is strange to think that, as we look at the world around us and even as we look at our own bodies, we do not neurologically perceive what is actually there ; we actually make chemical models of what is there.  We simplify the situation for ourselves by making conscious pictures, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings – cognitive models – all apparently derived from the chemicals.   We assure ourselves that our conscious awareness of the world is a true representation of it.  But that assurance does not come from either psychology or neurology.

Our models – neuronal and cognitive – are evidently deficient of explanatory power.  Or perhaps our theories of perception might just be plain wrong.

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