Cognition is measurement

by Neil Rickert

The conventional view appears to be that perception is passive.  Observations somehow pop into our heads, and we just have to apply logic to determine what it is that we are observing.  However, getting useful information about the world is more difficult than that, as I suggested in an earlier post.

We often hear variations of the slogan “cognition is computation” and sometimes people seem to be taking that as fact rather than as a slogan or a hypothesis.  It is a slogan that comes from the idea of perception as passive.  I am suggesting “cognition is measurement” as an alternative slogan and hypothesis.  I use the term “measurement” broadly, to describe activity undertaken get useful information about the world.  So I will take perception to involve measurement activity.

It seems that measurement is itself poorly understood.  In comments on some of my earlier posts, one commenter suggested that measurement is just logic.  Thomas Kuhn, in his 1961 paper “The Function of Measurement in Modern Physical Science” seemed to have some odd ideas about the teaching of measurement in science laboratory classes.  I shall probably have several future posts here about measurement, in order to discuss how I understand it.

Today, in this post, I want to give a summary of why I see measurement as important.

Perhaps I should start by distinguishing between measurement as an activity that we follow when measuring, and an individual measuremnt (which is just a number or set of numbers).  It is the activity or process of measurement that I consider particularly important.

Knowledge:  I see our measuring abilities as closely connected with our knowledge.  The activity of measuring is how we connect stated facts, such as the facts we acquire with measuring, with the real world that the facts are about.  In particular, I see our measuring activity as the basis for intentionality, our ability to maintain representations that are about something (such as about aspects of the world).

Self-awareness: As I see it, our cognitive systems are constantly measuring ourselves via proprioception.  And I see that self-measurement as part of the basis for consciousness.

Learning:  There are two important ways that I see measurement involved in learning, and those two are interrelated.  Firstly, we use self-measurement to judge our own performance.  And this provides an important feedback that allows us to improve.  Secondly, we invent new ways of measuring (or of getting information), roughly corresponding to what is described as perceptual learning.

Concept formation: I see the development of new concepts as connected with perceptual learning, and I have already indicated why I connect that perceptual learning with measurement.

Representing the world: The traditional view from philosophy of mind, is that beliefs are representations.  But we cannot have representations without a representation system in which to express those representations.  I see the acquiring of measuring abilities as providing the basis for such a representation system.

In terms of what the brain does, I see Hebbian learning as a system of cross calibration within the brain, so as to maintain consistency of measurements carried out as part of perception.

I expect to further discuss these, and other aspects of my ideas on cognition, in future posts.

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