Cognition: The Difference

April 20, 2012

Cognition and consciousness, according to Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers are, intrinsic but differ in their achievable and realizable functions. Consciousness appears to be centrally located within the embodied mind, while cognition is the ability to become aware of a ‘collective conscious’ by extensions of and through the mind. Clark and Chalmers go beyond the typical understanding of externalism to explain this. They advocate a form of externalism called: active externalism.

The boundary of where the mind ends and the world begins has been the precise issue in which philosophers of mind have debated. Clark and Chalmers have a dramatic solution to the debate.  “In an explanation, simplicity is power,” they quote.  They exemplify this through a story about two museum of modern art patrons, Inga and Otto. Both agents wish to go to an exhibit, but before they can go they must locate the museum. Inga uses neural processing to recall from her memory that the museum is on 53rd street while Otto (whom unfortunately suffers from Alzheimer) must refer to a writing notebook that he keeps important information about the objects and spaces he encounters. Otto is able to determine the museum location through this notebook. Even though both agents used different means as to figuring out where the museum is, they achieve the overall desire to go.

Some pose an argument, claiming Inga’s information comes from inside the head while Otto has retrieved the same information through a notebook. Clark and Chalmers determine that the means in which information is gathered is irrelevant. Inga may have had the memory of where the location of the museum is somewhere within her mind, and can access it through a special neural process delegated to humans; Inga is only aware of this information upon retrieval. She is not always conscious of the fact that the Museum of Modern Art is located along 53rd street. Just as Otto, with his Alzheimer’s disease, is unable to recollect where the museum is without retrieving the information from his notebook. This act of retrieving information is the cognitive process. Inga’s and Otto’s abilities to reflect and examine their conscious thoughts is cognitive even if the means differ; the function is the same.

Consciousness may be realizable within the brain, but what we are conscious of depends entirely on cognitive processes must be experienced outside the brain. When writing this paper I am expressing conscious thought in real-time, but when it comes to examining it by any other conscious agent or myself at a later time, it can only be realized cognitively (primarily through the understanding of the extension of mind that has created the tool of language in this case).
Humans created tools and objects, becoming aware of their thoughts used by the conscious mind to further its cognitive abilities. These objects and tools that are externally located from the embodied mind create a loop that perpetuates and advances our cognitive abilities so that, opportunistically speaking, our conscious mind will reach far beyond any primal-animal origins in which the mind began.

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