How can we define scientific concepts such that they are inclusive of all phenomena that pertain to the concept? In the years from 1991 to 1999, I contributed to the design and development of an applied cognitive science department – what has now become the department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands)
How can we define scientific concepts such that they are inclusive of all phenomena that pertain to the concept?
What distinguishes the language of science from language as we ordinarily understand the word? … What science strives for is an utmost acuteness and clarity of concepts as regards their mutual relation and their correspondence to sensory data.
– Albert Einstein
In the years from 1991 to 1999, I contributed to the design and development of an applied cognitive science department – what has now become the department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands). In that process we discussed the meaning of terms like ‘cognition’ and ‘intelligence’ extensively. As a physicist I am uncomfortable with ill-defined terms. But on the other hand, science is about discovery and the discovery of the meaning of terms is a worthy scientific pursuit. In fact, one might say that defining phenomena is the purpose of science.
For example, Galilei Galileo discovered a key property of gravity in that it accelerated light and heavy stones – dropped from the tower of Pisa – equally. Newton expanded this by formulating a law describing how masses – as the relevant property of the stones – attracted each other (accelerate towards each other) and that the magnitude of acceleration scaled with the inverse of the mass and the inverse square of the distance between the center of the masses. Einstein refined this picture by stating that in space, acceleration and gravity were indistinguishable. Which entailed that mass, space, time, energy, and gravity were intimately and mathematically related.
Galileo’s discoveries improved the computation of the trajectories of cannon balls. Newton’s law of gravity extended this to the trajectories of planets and it led to the discovery of new planets on the basis of minute perturbations of the orbits of the known ones. And Einstein’s general relativity predicted that even the trajectory of (massless) light would be be influenced by the Sun’s gravitational field. Newton’s formulation included Galileo’s formulation and Einstein’s included Newton’s. In fact, Einstein’s formulation connected gravity, mass, acceleration, time, space, the speed of light, and even energy. Hence it integrated much of known physics at the time.
|Name||Connected concepts||Example application|
|Galileo||Gravity & acceleration||Improved cannons|
|Newton||Gravity, mass, acceleration & distance||Planetary movements|
|Einstein||Gravity, mass, acceleration, time, space, speed of light & energy||Accurate GPS in smartphones|
Table: Progressive formulations of gravity include evermore phenomena
Einstein’s formulation of gravity is the result of the stepwise improvement of approximate theories that become evermore inclusive by elucidating, until then, obscured relations between phenomena. This increased the connectedness and pervasiveness of our understanding of (physical) reality. Although Einstein’s formulation survived 100 years of testing, it is likely that it will be superseded by even better and more general formulations that connect it to the quantum reality. And perhaps from there connect to an even deeper (information?) “reality”. See the work of Erik Verlinde for example.
What Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and countless other natural scientists did is to combine concepts, to ever-better and more parsimoniously describe the outcome of experiments (and other interactions with reality). An experiment is a question posed to reality: “If I set up these and these conditions, how does reality respond?” A well designed natural science experiment leads to a consistent (time- and place-invariant) response and the same outcome when conducted by others. A well-formulated theory allows a parsimonious and precise prediction of the outcome of many experiments. A valid theory of something allows us (and all of life) to predict our real-world interactions: it allows the mind-world to predict real-world outcomes. 1
Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and simpler and will explain a wider and wider range of his sensuous impressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this ideal limit the objective truth.
– Albert Einstein
This is essential: well-designed experiments lead to results that can be predicted in the context of a proper theory. This not only defines much of science – as a way to ever-better predict the outcomes of our our interactions with reality – it also says something about reality itself: reality seems completely consistent with itself. It seems, and almost must be, internally consistent because every time we properly investigate an arbitrary aspect of it – do an experiment – we get consistent results.
Reality, in all its diverse manifestations, has a time and place invariant core that allows outcomes to be predicted if particular conditions are satisfied. Put differently: IF some real-world conditions are satisfied THEN some real-world outcome is guaranteed. A simple example is: IF you drop a stone THEN it accelerates until it meets resistance (hits the ground).
Mind-world IF-THEN combinations underly intelligence. Problem solving – the ability measured by IQ – is modelled by IF-THEN rules. And so-called cognitive models are build as “production systems” in which production-rules of the IF-THEN type “fire” when the IF-condition is met to produce a THEN-outcome. Suitable sequences of IF-THEN rules can be used to make a plan to change an undesired/problematic situation into a more desirable state where the problem is resolved or made irrelevant. This plan can then be executed in the real world, by carefully ensuring that in all steps 1) the conditions are satisfied and 2) the intended outcome is realized.
The same IF-THEN effect underlies the biochemistry of life. Life processes can only occur only IF particular conditions are satisfied. Cells create these conditions when particular life-functions need to be executed. The moment the conditions are set up correctly, THEN the outcome (e.g., some enzymatic reaction) is realized. Like with problem solving, the trick is setting up the conditions for desired outcomes. When the necessary conditions are met, a specific outcome is inevitable due to the time-invariance of reality.
This is also the way life remains alive. Life is a way of cheating death – at least for a while – through the selection of behaviors that promote survival and thriving. That selection process – and with it life – is possible, is rooted in the predictability (internal consistency and time-invariance) of reality. Life – all life – can to some degree predict outcomes of behavior in terms of positive and negative effects on self and habitat and uses these predictions to select behaviors that avoid negative (less viable) futures and promote more favorable futures. This is called adaptive behavior. The ability to select adaptive behavior – behavior promoting survival and thriving – is referred to as cognition.
And this is a definition of cognition that is more advanced and productive than the definitions we came up when we designed our cognitive science program.
The purpose of this website is to play with concepts, their relatedness, and their real-world usefulness. Dictionary defines the words of a language in terms of the other words of the language. On its own, such a dictionary is completely self-referential: it is a little self-contained universe that has disconnected itself from reality because it only refers to itself. And still it allows its users to make more sense of structures of actual reality. Somehow the relations between the dictionary entries and their definitions and examples reflect the structures of actual reality in a helpful way.
This website aims to do something similar: to define scientific concepts associated with core cognition in terms of other concepts and then work towards something that is internally by and large consistent, while helping to make more sense of actual reality because the concept’s defining properties are grounded in reality and they can be tested through real-world interactions.
Taking the example of the progression of Galilei, Newton, and Einstein that gradually included and explained more and more physical phenomena – and improved their defining qualities – we try to do something similar for the domain of life and behavior.
Text based on Andringa & Denham (2021a). The environment from which agents can derive all they need to survive (and thrive) and to which they contribute to ensure long-term viability (of self and others), Note that we use the term habitat to include other agents, but to exclude the agent.
Text based on Andringa & Denham (2021a)
|| Concepts||Core cognition key concepts with definition|
|Core Cognition||The cognition shared by all of life|
|To live||Self-maintaining being different from the environment|
|Death||End of self-maintained difference from the environment|
|Need satisfaction||Acquiring and executing the necessities (food and energy) for life (self-maintaining being different from the environment)|
|Agent||“An autonomous organization that adaptively regulates its coupling with its environment and contributes to sustaining itself as a consequence.” (Barandiaran, Di Paolo, & Rohde 2009, pp. 1)|
|Behavior||Agent-initiated and context-appropriate activities with expected future utility that counteract life’s precariousness and maximizes agent and habitat viability.|
|A need||Something that, when satisfied, protects or increases agent viability|
|Viability||Probabilistic distance from death (i.e., discontinued agency)|
|Agent viability||Agent probabilistic distance to death. To persist, all life needs to optimize viability|
|Threat||a perceived reduction of context appropriate behavioral options to include only those that allow the agent to survive.|
|Agency||The ability, or a measure of the ability, to self-maintain viability (through need satisfaction) for survival and thriving|
|Cognition||The ability to select behavior in the service of the agent’s continued existence and flourishing.|
|Coping and co-creation||Two complementary forms of cognition. Coping is in the service of continued existence and co-creation in the service of flourishing. (These two forms of cognition are opposed in the two ontologies tabel|
|Stigmergy||Building on the constructive traces that past behaviors left in the environment (increasing habitat viability)|
|Habitat||The environment from which agents can derive all they need to survive (and thrive) and to which they contribute to ensure long-term viability (of self and others), Note that we use the term habitat to include other agents, but to exclude the agent. Hence, we can speak of agent + habitat to refer to the whole of existence relevant to the agent|
|Habitat viability||A measure of the degree to which the habitat can satisfy the conditions for agentic existence (i.e., satisfies its needs)|
|Biosphere||The sumtotal of all agentic traces left in the environment. Since the biosphere grew from fragile and small, to robust and extensive we can conclude that life is a net constructive force and co-creation has been dominant|
|Carrying capacity||A measure of the sum-total of the life activities that a habitat can sustain|
|Original perspective||A perspective on the world originating as the yet undeveloped ability to separate individual viability from the combined viability of self and habitat, which allowed primitive life to optimize the whole, while addressing selfish needs and creating the conditions for more agentic life|
|Purpose of life||The (Emergent) purpose of life is to produce more life|
|Well-being||Process of co-creation leading to high viability agents, increased habitat viability, and long-term protection of the conditions on which existence depends. Note that this is a process, not a state or the evaluation of a state.|
|Context||Agent’s assessment of the (current) state of the habitat|
|Behavioral repertoire||The set of all context-appropriate behaviors the agent has access to. Appraisal activates context appropriate subsets of the repertoire|
|Learning||The process to extend the behavioral repertoire and tune the effectivity of individual behaviors to the context|
|Worldview||The set of all that an agent takes as reliable (true) enough to base behavior on|
|Appraisal||A worldview-based motivational response to the perceived viability consequences of the present that activates context appropriate behavioral options|
|Core affect||Mood level action readiness based on the appraisal of indicators of (un)safety and situationally appropriate activation of behaviors, expressed as motivations to avoid or end (coping) or motivations to perpetuate or to aim for (co-creation).|
|Resilience||“The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Walker et al., 2004)|
|Realism||A measure of whether individual behavior leads to intended and/or viability enhancing outcomes|
|Identity||A theory of me-as-actor-in-the-world|
References Andringa, T. C., & Denham, F. C. (2021a). Coping and co-creation: one attempt and one route to well-being. Psychology in Russia, 14(2), 152–170.
This is a table with two contrasting self-consistent ontologies that arise from the defining properties of coping and co-creation. Ideally the ontology of thriving dominates with continual focused contributions of the ontology of survival. But it is also possible that coping starts to dominate to the exclusion of the other ontology: a coping trap
This is a table with two contrasting self-consistent ontologies that arise from the defining properties of coping and co-creation. It complements the key concept table Ideally the ontology of thriving dominates with continual focused contributions of the ontology of survival. But it is also possible that coping starts to dominate to the exclusion of the other ontology: a coping trap
|Ontology of survival (coping)||Ontology of thriving (co-creation)|
|Languishing||Low viability state as the outcome of a pattern of ineffective or misguided behaviors||High viability state as the outcome of a pattern of broadly effective behaviors||Flourishing|
|Threat: behavioral constraints||Agent appraisal of viability threats, entailing a reduction of the set of context appropriate behavioral options to include only those that allow the agent to survive||Agent appraisal of the absence of viability threats, allowing self-guided exploration of opportunities that enlarge the set of context appropriate behavioral options||Safety: behavioral freedom|
|Problem||A perceived threat to agent viability that activates a pressing need and hence motivates reactive behavior||A perceived possibility to improve (agent or habitat) viability and hence motivates proactive behavior and the expression of novel behaviors||Opportunity|
|Coping||The reactive fallback mode of behavior aimed at protecting agent viability by ending problem states. Quick and effective deactivation of coping is the measure of success of the coping mode||The pro-active default mode of behavior aimed at producing indirect viability benefits through habitat contributions that improve the conditions for future agentic existence||Co-creation|
|Reactive behavior||Behavior in response to perceived threats to viability||Behavior aimed at setting up or protecting the conditions for co-creation||Proactive behavior|
|Coping trap (Coping failure)||The continual or predominant activation of the coping mode of behavior through ineffective or counterproductive problem-solving strategies.||Prolonged or near continual activation of co-creation.||Successful co-creation|
|Targeted optimization||Goal oriented behaviors such as problem solving and task execution||Optimize the whole of agentic existence, while addressing selfish needs and creating ever better conditions for agentic life.||Pervasive optimization|
|Social mimicry||The adoption of behaviors of effective, healthy, or otherwise attractive agents leading to sameness and oneness||Skilled contribution of self-deciding individuals that adapt and use opportunities to promote habitat flourishing||Responsible autonomy|
|Learning to become less ineffective||Mimicry based learning, where behaviors of effective, healthy, or otherwise attractive agents are copied and expressed and hence manifest shared knowledge||The adoption of new behaviors via interactive engagement with different environments. Manifested as tacit knowledge||Learning as extending the behavioral repertoire.|
|Main mode of cognition: Intelligence||The ability to solve problems and fulfill goal oriented tasks (to end states of pressing needs)||The ability to avoid problems and co-create: (Also: The balancing skills to contribute to the biosphere)||Main mode of cognition: Generalized wisdom|
|Inadequacy||The tendency to self-create, prolong, or worsen problems that keep on activating the coping mode. An inadequate agent is predominantly coping, but unsuccessful in ending the activators of coping.||The skill to avoid problems or end them quickly so that coping is rare and co-creation prevalent. An adequate agent is a predominant co-creator||Adequacy|
|Coping adequacy||The skill to solve pressing problems (ending the need to cope) or mitigate their impact through control of the environment and constraining agency (continuing coping)||The skill to avoid and end problems through harmonizing relations, (inter-agent) conflict mitigation, and promoting unconstrained innate behaviors||Co-creation adequacy|
|In-group||A group of individuals sharing similar limits on adequacy (and worldview)||A group of individuals that each freely and self-guided contribute whatever benefit their adequacy offers||Community|
|Out-group||Individuals who violate sameness and oneness and hence frustrate coordinated coping||See above||See above|
|Security||A situation or state where viability threats-to-self are brought under control||A situation or state with positive indicators of the absence of viability threats||Safety|
|Power||The ability to realize intended outcomes by effortfully shaping and controlling the habitat and the activities of the agents that comprise it. Exercising power is a way to be authoritative.||Effortless action expressing authority through harmonizing a diversity of agentic interests by promoting natural agentic dynamics and development.||Wu wei|
|Security||A situation or state where viability threats-to-self are brought under control||A situation or state with positive indicators of the absence of viability threats||Safety|
|Well-being - short term||Self-evaluation of one’s agentic viability||Holistic self-valuation of one’s own and the habitat’s viability||Well-being - long term|
|Ontological security||The secure feeling an individual derives from attaining “on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential [problems] which all human life in some way addresses” (Giddens, 1991)||Self-realizing one’s full individual potential||Self-actualization|
|Rules of ontological security||I am accepted when I contribute to sameness and oneness
I learn rules and routines of my in-group
I adhere to in-group roles
I protect the in-group against unmanageable diversity
|I can join freely
I can learn
freely I can contribute freely
I can criticize freely
|Rules of psychological safety|
|Habitualization||The consolidation of routines via reference to socially constructed rules and routines, sustaining a group identity and the security on derives from in-group membership.||The motivation to liberate oneself from imposed limits on self-guided behavior and the restoration of the safety associated with co-creative processes.||Reactance|
|In-group||A group of individuals sharing similar limits on adequacy (and worldview)||A group of individuals that each freely and self-guided contribute whatever benefit their adequacy can bring.||Community|
|Out-group||Individuals who are not in-group and hence frustrate coordinated coping|
|Othering||The process of assigning individuals with other or less limits to adequacy to out-groups (possibly disgust driven)||Unconditional acceptance||Acceptance|
|Pathological normality||Complete and symptomless adaptation to a world shaped through coping that imposes limits on individual agency and self-development||The ability to co-create and cope in the service of full self-development||Healthy normality|
|Normative threat||Threats to oneness (shared authority) and sameness (shared values and rules)||Perceivable indications of other agents engaged in unforced activities.||Indicators of safety|
Source: Andringa, T. C., & Denham, F. C. (2021a). Coping and co-creation: one attempt and one route to well-being. Psychology in Russia, 14(2), 152–170.