The nature and origins of human cognition 

The nature and origins of human cognition

18–19 June 2015

Venue: Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Luisenstraße 56, Festsaal, 10117 Berlin

Conference Committee: Michael Pauen, Richard Moore, Anna Strasser (Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Albert Newen (Ruhr-University, Bochum), and Cameron Buckner (University of Houston)


The goal of the conference will be to examine the nature of cognition, with particular respect to its developmental stages in ontogeny and phylogeny. On the first day we will look to host a series of keynote talks and symposia that address the similarities and differences in the cognitive abilities of adult humans, human children, and animals. The second day will be dedicated to the discussion of related themes, like the nature of meta-representation and its relationship to language, and the relationship between thought and action.


18 June 2015          
Keynote: Elliott Sober, Parsimony and chimpanzee mind-reading

10:30 Break
Symposium: Continuity and discontinuity:

Cameron Buckner, Minding our models: the indispensability of kindhood to empirical disagreement
Colin Allen, A continuum of suffering?
Albert Newen (commentator)
Lunch buffet & poster session     
Symposium: Core Cognition

Stephen Butterfill, Only phenomenal expectations connect core knowledge of objects to thought
Christophe Heintz, Scaffolding on core cognition
Michael Pauen (commentator)
Keynote: Michael Tomasello,
Cooperation and human cognition                        

19 June 2015       
Keynote: Edouard Machery, Did morality really evolve     
Symposium: From Skillful Action to Reflective Thinking

Ellen Fridland, Motor Skill and Moral Cognition
John Michael, What is Social Expertise?
Anna Strasser (commentator)
Lunch Buffet & Poster Session  
Symposium: Meta-representation:

Joëlle Proust, Metacognition and metarepresentation: two styles of information management'
Richard Moore, The phylogenetic development of metarepresentation and language
Dorit Bar-On (commentator)
Keynote: Elizabeth Spelke, Core Knowledge and Conceptual Change: The Concept 'Person'


Elliott Sober (University of Wisconsin) "Parsimony and chimpanzee mind-reading"
Friends and foes of the chimpanzee mind-reading hypothesis have both appealed to parsimony considerations to defend their positions.  Here I evaluate these arguments and describe a kind of experiment that might be relevant to breaking the deadlock.

Cameron Buckner (University of Houston) "Minding our models: the indispensability of kindhood to empirical disagreement"
I begin this talk by coming clean:  yes, the theory of natural kinds is currently a bit of a mess.  However, it a mess we must confront if we are to be able to distinguish genuine empirical disagreements in psychology from merely verbal or semantic ones.  The problem is especially apparent in comparative psychology, which is undergoing a methodological upheaval.  Major figures here have urged researchers to stop deriving experimental predictions from armchair intuitions and switch to a more rigorous, mathematical, model-based practice in line with mathematical psychology.  When two models are inconsistent, mathematical modelers hope to arbitrate the inconsistency by consulting quantitative questions about the relationship between the models and the data—correlation coefficients, informational fit criteria, numbers of free parameters, and so on.  Unfortunately, the relevance of these quantitative comparisons depends upon the interpretation placed on the models, for there are many possible relationships between two different psychological models that would make such comparisons otiose:  implementation, abstraction, complementation, idealization, and fictionalization, to name a few. Especially infuriating is the foundational assumption that associative hypotheses are deflationary, mutually-exclusive alternatives to cognitive hypotheses, when clearly some associative processes can implement cognitive processes.  I will here argue that the only way for comparative psychology to survive the transition to a viable model-based science will be to acknowledge the theory of kinds’ role in helping constrain the correct interpretation of models.

Colin Allen (Indiana University, Bloomington) "A continuum of suffering?"
Humans suffer in ways that seem well beyond the limits of animal cognition. We suffer from insults and other social slights, we suffer grief over lost friends and relatives, and we suffer when worrying about the possibility of complicated future scenarios that might negatively affect ourselves or loved ones. Empathy for others is another driving factor for suffering, and this is often construed as involving theory of mind capacities that are limited mostly, although perhaps not exclusively, to humans. Only some of these forms of suffering involve somatic pain, leading some philosophers to unlink pain and suffering, conceptually. In humans and in animal models, however, the anterior cingulate cortex has been implicated in the “aversive” dimension of pain, and I will argue that various disparate and puzzling results may be unified, given better understanding of the role of the ACC as part of a risk-assessment network geared primarily to predicting the likely outcomes of specific bodily actions. This embodied/predictive approach to suffering can help us understand various phenomena, such as why pains of equal intensity may involve different degrees of suffering and the “better-end” paradox where more pain is preferred to less (Kahneman 1993), as well as providing a framework for modeling various forms of suffering that do not involve pain and nociception. The reuse of circuitry for the various forms of suffering supports a view of human and animal suffering as biologically homologous, and makes possible the development of models of human-animal continuity on this ethically and scientifically important topic.

Stephen Butterfill (University of Warwick) "Only phenomenal expectations connect core knowledge of objects to thought"
Infants have core knowledge of objects, causes, numbers, actions and much else besides (Spelke, 2003; Carey, 2009).  But what is core knowledge?  There are challenges which apply to the leading theoretical accounts (compare Butterfill, 2007; Keren and Schul, 2009; Adolphs, 2010).  A way of responding to these challenges exists for the case of core knowledge of objects, however: several researchers have conjectured that infants’ core knowledge consists in a system of object indexes (Leslie et al. 1998; Scholl and Leslie 1999; Carey and Xu 2001; Scholl 2007). One consequence of this conjecture is the existence of an interface problem.  The representations and processes which comprise the workings of object indexes have only limited influences on thought and action.  How then could core knowledge play a role in explaining the emergence, in development, of knowledge concerning physical objects and their interactions?  One possibility hinges on the notion of a phenomenal expectation, which is approximately a sensation in Reid’s sense (Reid, 1785a,b). You have a phenomenal expectation concerning an object’s movements where these are unperceived in the most straightforward sense (because they are occluded, for example) and yet your overall experience is not neutral concerning the object’s movements either.  Perhaps the transition from core knowledge to knowledge proper has such a protracted developmental course because only phenomenal expectations connect core knowledge of objects to thoughts about objects.

Christophe Heintz (CEU Budapest) "Scaffolding on core cognition"
I will argue that cultural evolution is scaffolded not just on material culture and social organization but also on innate cognitive abilities. In view of the diversity and richness of cultural productions, one might be tempted to overlook the role of evolved cognitive abilities, whose (biological) functions are restricted to domains of the environment in which they have evolved. How, for instance, could our evolved abilities for cognizing magnitudes be used for dealing with contemporary mathematical knowledge? I argue that even in these cases where beliefs and behavior go far beyond the range of the evolved function of cognitive abilities, these abilities might nonetheless act as scaffolds. In order to make my point, I rephrase the work of cultural epidemiologists as showing that culture evolves via multiple scaffolds, made of both transmitted artifacts and public representations, and core cognition — a set of nonperceptual innate cognitive abilities. I develop this point by considering the case of conceptual change in science and mathematics.
Michael Tomasello (MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology) "Cooperation and human cognition"
Great apes cognitively represent and make inferences about their experience of the world. Humans, in addition, represent their experience perspectivally and “objectively”, and they make inferences about it recursively and reflectively, regulated normatively. The Shared Intentionality Hypothesis posits that these uniquely human forms of cognitive representation and inference emerged evolutionarily as cognitive adaptations for dealing with a distinctive form of social life, specifically, a form in which individuals had to coordinate their intentional states with others in cooperative, and ultimately cultural, activities. Within these cooperative activities, early humans created shared realities (joint attention, common ground), which then enabled them to direct the attention and imagination of one another in relevant ways in acts of cooperative, and ultimately conventional, communication. Learning to coordinate and communicate with others during ontogeny creates uniquely human objective-reflective-normative thinking.

Edouard Machery (University of Pittsburgh) "Did morality really evolve?"
That morality evolved is a commonplace among evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists.  In this talk, I will however argue that biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists have failed to pay enough attention to the differences between three distinct interpretations of the hypothesis that morality evolved. Under two of these interpretations, it is fairly uncontroversial that morality evolved, while under the third and most interesting interpretation, the hypothesis that morality evolved is empirically unsupported. Philosophical implications in ethics will be considered.

Ellen Fridland (King's College London) "Motor skill and moral cognition"
According to one dominant theory of moral cognition, morality (or virtue) is a kind of practical skill.  An important commitment of a skill account of virtue is that moral cognition is learned through practice and not through study, memorization, or reflection alone. In what follows, I will argue that this way of understanding moral cognition gives us only on half the story. In particular, in focusing on outputs, or on the right actions or responses to moral situations, theorists have overlooked a crucial facet of moral cognition: namely, that through practice, virtuous agents develop a cache of perceptual skills that allow them to attend to, detect, and identify the relevant features of a perceptual array, the selection of which is central to recognizing and categorizing a situation as a moral situation of a particular type. In order to support this claim, I will appeal to empirical studies of motor expertise, which show that an expert’s capacity to attend to and recognize relevant perceptual inputs differs in important respects from the layperson’s. Specifically, I will argue that performing the right action in the right circumstances improves an agent’s ability to attend to and identify the morally relevant features of a moral situation. 

John Michael (CEU Budapest) "What is Social Expertise?"
Humans are particularly adept at – and interested in – social cognition and interaction. To a large extent, this is likely to be the result of evolutionary processes which have endowed us with core knowledge specific to the social domain, and with dedicated mechanisms for learning and social interaction (e.g. gaze following, imitation, interactive alignment). Does this mean that human social expertise comes for free, without the need for strategic thinking and deliberate control superfluous? No – drawing upon recent research on skill and expertise (Christensen et al, in press; Fridland 2014; Sutton et al 2011), I will point out several ways in which strategic thinking and deliberate control are crucial to the acquisition and exercise of social expertise. I will then use this analysis in re-assessing and integrating previous empirical work which can be, but has not yet been, conceptualized as research on social expertise (e.g. in magicians, actors, athletes and therapists), and in formulating novel questions for future research. In the second half of the talk, I will demonstrate the fruitfulness of this approach by presenting a case study on social expertise in Möbius Syndrome (MS). MS is a form of congenital, bilateral facial paralysis resulting from maldevelopment of the sixth and seventh cranial nerves. Since people with MS are unable to produce facial expressions, and are thus deprived of a central medium for the automatic communication of emotional information and t exchange of social cues, it is unsurprising that many people with MS experience difficulties in their social interactions and in terms of general social well-being. However, some people with MS have cultivated expert compensatory strategies, such as using more hand gestures and prosody to express themselves, and do not report having any difficulties in social interaction. On the basis of interviews with these individuals, we developed and implemented a social skills workshop designed to train individuals with MS to adopt alternative strategies to compensate for the unavailability of facial expression in social interactions (e.g. expressive gesturing and prosody). In order to evaluate the effectiveness of this workshop, each of the 5 participants with MS engaged in 3 interactions before the workshop, and 3 interactions afterward, with partners who did not have MS. We found several interesting results. First, the intervention increased rapport. Second, gesture and expressivity increased in participants with and without MS after intervention (even more in the latter group than in the former group). Thirdly, and perhaps surprisingly, overall linguistic alignment decreased after intervention. I will discuss these results in light of the approach to social expertise outlined in the first part of the talk, and use that approach to specify a set of desiderata to work towards in further refining the social skills workshop.

Joëlle Proust (Institut Jean-Nicod) "From self-evaluation to metarepresentation: two representational systems?"
Non-humans such as some primates, rodents, and pigeons seem to be able to reliably predict or evaluate their own performance in perceptual or memorial tasks. Comparative psychologists and philosophers have strongly disagreed about the informational basis of this capacity: is it merely based on predicted reward, or does it depend on metarepresentations of first-order states? Psychological data and neuroscientific evidence, however, suggest that neither of these views is correct.  Nonhuman metacognition seems rather to be based on activity-dependent information, i.e., on the dynamic aspects of the mind-brain activation that a given task triggers, independently of its particular cognitive content.  In humans, activity-dependent self-evaluation elicits "noetic feelings", such as the experience of effort or the feeling of knowing. Human agents, however, are also able to momentarily cancel such emotional guidance of their epistemic decisions by forming a conceptual metarepresentation of the task, of their own knowledge and ability. Based on these findings, we will propose that two different representational systems are involved, and will  examine their properties and possible interactions.

Richard Moore (Berlin School of Mind and Brain) "The phylogenetic development of metarepresentation and language"
On standard readings of Grice (defended by Bar-On, Tomasello, Sperber and Wilson, and Scott-Phillips, among others), Gricean communication requires distinctive mind-reading abilities including (a) possession of a concept of belief, (b) the ability to make complex inferences about others’ goal-directed behaviour, and (c) the ability to entertain fourth order meta-representations. Since great apes seem to possess none of these abilities, it is widely held that after the split of the Pan-Homo clade, and prior to the emergence of Gricean communication in phylogeny, our early hominin ancestors underwent a socio-cognitive revolution that made these forms of mind-reading possible and, in turn, enabled Gricean communication and the evolution of language.Although widely accepted, this view is difficult to reconcile with the view (held by Davidson and Dennett among others) that at least some of abilities (a)-(c), and perhaps meta-representational abilities in particular, are dependent on language. To the extent that these abilities are pre-requisites of Gricean communication, and Gricean communication is a pre-requisite of language, they are inconsistent with the view that language could play a role in their development.I argue that none of abilities (a)-(c) are necessary for communication with a Gricean intentional structure. As a result, Gricean communicative abilities may indeed play a role in cognitive development – in particular, by enabling language development. Moreover, I argue that there are good reasons for thinking that the prerequisites of Gricean communication, properly conceived, are already possessed by chimpanzees. If their gestures are already Gricean, then we can consider a plausible alternative to the standard view, according to which incremental changes in our ancestors’ communication facilitated the development of both early forms of language and abilities (a)-(c). I finish by sketching a story about the possible origins of high order meta-representational abilities through language development.

Elizabeth Spelke (Harvard University) "Core Knowledge and Conceptual Change: The Concept Person"
Mature human cognition is complex and variable, both across contemporary cultures and over human history, but human cognitive development proceeds in a more uniform pattern, especially in infancy.  Studies of infants' cognitive abilities in non-social domains (including object cognition, numerical cognition and spatial cognition) shed light on the starting points for human cognitive development.  Together with studies of these cognitive abilities in other animals, at other ages, and in diverse cultures, this research suggests deep properties of human physical and mathematical reasoning.  Here I ask whether studies of infants can bring similar insights into human social cognition.  Do the complex social inferences and intuitions of adults develop from, and build on, simpler systems that are functional in infancy?  If so, what are the properties of these systems, and what roles do they play in the richer social reasoning that emerges later in development?  Recent studies of human infants, using simple behavioral methods, suggest that the answers to these questions may lie within reach.  I describe some new findings and call for a multi-species, multi-leveled search for the core mechanisms by which humans navigate the social world and understand themselves and others. 

This page last updated on: 15 December 2015