In the past ten years, research in cognitive science has started uncovering the neural and psychological substrates of abstract thought, tracing the acquisition and consolidation of information from motor movements to abstract notions like mathematics and time. These studies have discovered that human cognition, even in its most abstract and sophisticated form, is deeply embodied, deeply dependent on the processes and representations underlying perception and motor action. We invent all kinds of complex abstract ideas, but we have to do it with old hardware: machinery that evolved for moving around, eating, and mating, not for playing chess, composing symphonies, inventing particle colliders, or engaging in epistemology for that matter. Being able to re-use this old machinery for new purposes has allowed us to build tremendously rich knowledge repertoires. But it also means that the evolutionary adaptations made for basic perception and motor action have inadvertently shaped and constrained even our most sophisticated mental efforts. Understanding how our evolved machinery both helps and constrains us in creating knowledge, will allow us to create new knowledge, either by using our old mental machinery in yet new ways, or by using new and different machinery for knowledge-making, augmenting our normal cognition.
So why will knowing more about how we know change everything? Because everything in our world is based on knowledge. Humans, leaps and bounds beyond any other creatures, acquire, create, share, and pass on vast quantities of knowledge. All scientific advances, inventions, and discoveries are acts of knowledge creation. We owe civilization, culture, science, art, and technology all to our ability to acquire and create knowledge. When we study the mechanics of knowledge building, we are approaching an understanding of what it means to be human—the very nature of the human essence. Understanding the building blocks and the limitations of the normal human knowledge building mechanisms will allow us to get beyond them. And what lies beyond is, well, yet unknown...
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Knowledge about how we know changes everything.
The essay by Boroditsky in the Edge series has the following interesting comments: