Human and Animal Cognition
Posted by Jerry on February 19, 2008
This Harvard University study seems to suggest that scientists are finally catching up to the insights of the Objectivist epistemology.
Professor Marc Hauser recently presented his new theory, which postulates four key elements differentiating human cognition from animal cognition. Notably–as I have stressed in the past as well–Hauser regards human cognition as being not merely higher up on the same scale of cognitive complexity in comparison to that of animals, but as being of a fundamentally different nature in itself–in his words, a “great cognitive gap”:
“Animals share many of the building blocks that comprise human thought, but paradoxically, there is a great cognitive gap between humans and animals,” Hauser says. “By looking at key differences in cognitive abilities, we find the elements of human cognition that are uniquely human.”
The four key differences between human and animal cognition that Hauser identifies neatly aligns with the core elements of Objectivist epistemology. In the following, first is the element that Hauser identifies, which is then followed by the Objectivist concept that is its equivalent:
1. “the ability to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding”
Integration–a cardinal function of man’s consciousness on all the levels of his cognitive development. First, his brain brings order into his sensory chaos by integrating sense data into percepts; this integration is performed automatically; it requires effort, but no conscious volition. His next step is the integration of percepts into concepts, as he learns to speak. Thereafter, his cognitive development consists in integrating concepts into wider and ever wider concepts, expanding the range of his mind.
2. “to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation”
Principles–an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Concrete problems cannot even be grasped, let alone judged or solved, without reference to abstract principles.
3. “to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input”
Concepts and Words–Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication. The primary purpose of concepts and of language is to provide man with a system of cognitive classification and organization, which enables him to acquire knowledge on an unlimited scale. Concepts represent condensations of knowledge, which make further study and the division of cognitive labor possible.
In order to be used as a single unit, the enormous sum integrated by a concept has to be given the form of a single, specific, perceptual concrete, which will differentiate it from all other concretes and from all other concepts. This is the function performed by language. Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts. Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e., that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind.
4. “to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.”
Focus–The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make. When man unfocuses his mind, he may be said to be conscious in a subhuman sense of the word, since he experiences sensations and perceptions.
There are, of course, many more insights into human cognition that Ayn Rand identified in her Objectivist epistemology that in my opinion are not exhausted by Hauser four identifications: for example, Ayn Rand’s theory of measurement-ommission and its role in concept-formation.
However, all of the above–and the entire corpus of the Objectivist theory of epistemology–indicates a simple and self-evident fact about human cognition that is denoted by single concept: the conceptual faculty; that is, man’s consciousness is uniquely conceptual in nature.
[I learned of Professor Hauser’s study from the Objectivism Online forum. Note: All four hyperlinked Objectivists concepts and their brief descriptions are quoted directly from The Ayn Rand Lexicon.]