ernst_p_ppel's picture
Head of Research Group Systems, Neuroscience and Cognitive Research, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany; Guest Professor, Peking University, China
A Cognitive Toolkit Full Of Garbage

To get rid of garbage is essential, also of mental garbage. Cognitive toolkits are filled with such garbage, simply because we are victims of ourselves. We should regularly empty this garbage can, or in case we enjoy to sit in garbage, we better check how "shorthand abstractions" (SHA's) limit our creativity (certainly an SHA). Why is the cognitive toolkit filled with garbage?

Let us look back in history (SHA): Modern science (SHA) can be said to have started in 1620 with "Novum Organum" ("New Instrument") by Francis Bacon. It should impress us today that his analysis (SHA) begins with a description (SHA) of four mistakes we run into when we do science. Unfortunately, we usually forget these warnings. Francis Bacon argued that we are — first — victims of evolution (SHA), i.e. that our genes (SHA), define constraints that necessarily limit insight (SHA). Second — we suffer from the constraints of imprinting (SHA); the culture (SHA) we live in provides a frame for epigenetic programs (SHA) that ultimately define the structure (SHA) of neuronal processing (SHA). Third — we are corrupted by language (SHA) as thoughts (SHA) cannot be easily transformed into verbal expressions . Fourth — we are guided or even controlled by theories (SHA), may they be explicit or implicit.

What are the implications for a cognitive toolkit? We are caught for instance in a language trap. On the basis of our evolutionary heritage we have the power of abstraction (SHA), but this has inspite of some advantages we brag about (to make us superior to other creatures) a disastrous consequence: Abstractions are usually represented in words; apparently we cannot do otherwise; we have to "ontologize"; we invent nouns to extract knowledge (SHA) from processes (SHA). ( I do not refer to the powerful pictorial shorthand abstractions). Abstraction is obviously complexity reduction (SHA). We make it simple. Why do we do this? Evolutionary heritage dictates to be fast. However, speed may give an advantage for a "survival toolkit", but not for a "cognitive toolkit". It is a categorical error (SHA) to confuse speed in action with speed in thinking. The selection pressure for speed invites to neglect the richness of facts. This pressure allows the invention (SHA) of a simple, clear, easy to understand, easy to refer to, easy to communicate shorthand abstraction. Thus, because we are a victim of our biological past and as a consequence a victim of ourselves we end up with shabby SHA's having left behind reality. If there is one disease all humans share, it is "monocausalitis", i.e. the motivation (SHA) to explain everything on the basis of just one cause. This may be a nice intellectual exercise but it is simply misleading.

Of course we depend on communication (SHA), and this requires verbal references usually tagged with language. But if we do not understand within the communicative frame or reference system (SHA) that we are a victim of ourselves by "ontologizing" and continuously creating "practical" SHA's, we simply use a cognitive toolkit of mental garbage. Is there a pragmatic way out other than to radically get rid of mental garbage? Yes, perhaps: Simply not using the the key SHA's explicitly in one's toolkit. Working on "consciousness", don't use (at least for one year) the SHA consciousness; if you work on the "self", never refer explicitly to self. Going through the own garbage one discovers many misleading SHA's, like just a few in my focus of attention (SHA): the brain as a net, localization of function, representation, inhibition, threshold, decision, the present, .... An easy way out is of course to refer to some of these SHA's as metaphors (SHA), but this again is evaiding the problem (SHA). I am aware of the fact (SHA) that I am also a victim of evolution, and to suggest "garbage" as a SHA also suffers from the same problem; even the concept of garbage required a discovery (SHA). But we cannot do otherwise than simply being aware of this challenge (SHA) that the content of the cognitive toolkit is characterized by self–referentiality (SHA), i.e. by the fact that the SHA's define themselves by their unreflected use.