Sunday, September 28, 2014

Thinking about metacognition

Accompanying the funny cartoon below was an explanation by a blogger about why chimps are super-smart and we humans shouldn't think too highly of ourselves.  The cartoon itself seems aimed at reducing all human exceptionalism to a primate urge. (I think the urge for academics to outpublish each other is more easily traced to that urge.)  It makes better humor than philosophy.

Basically chimps are pretty good problem-solvers (and so are octopi for that matter) and they more or less form a sort of strategy or cognitive map of a situation to deal with or navigate a particular problem.  What the psychologists are calling metacognition in this case is recognition of underdetermination or sense of (a lack of) certainty.  In fact, any ability to revise that map of the problem space is in some sense metacognition.

Of course, many animals have brains that recognize all sorts of things:  faces, predators, disorder, direction of motion, spatial relationships.  An animal that finds a better vantage point when the view is unclear is doing something analogous; investigating when the cognitive map is hazy is a similar instinct for any problem-solver like a raven or an ape.  Can there be much effective problem-solving there without some recognition of underdetermination, without some sense of uncertainty bordering on confusion?  It seems like lumping that in with the way humans think about their thinking is extrapolation-turned-polysemy.  It stretches credulity.  

But the fact that a chimp can recognize when the cognitive map is shaky-- it seriously raises the question of whether a chimp has what it takes to do evolutionary science.  ;-)

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