Sunday, August 19, 2012

Transpersonal metacognition: it's on!

I gave myself the fake title "Chair of Transpersonal Metacognition, University of Saskatoon" (on the right column, until I get tired of it and change it) in a fit of amused randomness, but metacognition turns out to be a real thing, if not quite real enough to have its own department yet. I shouldn't be surprised. If I could only take my offhand inventions more seriously maybe I really would be occupying a loftier chair than my decrepit used Aeron.

Anyway, there are over 63K articles returned by Google Scholar with the word "metacognition" in them. The linked one above has lots of intriguing references, like to a study that showed that telling subjects that free will doesn't exist led to more cheating; and research that suggest that metacognition is located in an area of the brain called Bordmann area 10. All of that sounds fascinating but it somehow misses the main point (or at least the point that interests me), it buries the lede, hides the jewel within a bushel of plain oats. That point is that "metacognition" is not some random phenomenon to be isolated and studied, it is very close to the fundamental quality of being human. Somehow turning it into a serious (but ordinary) academic subfield seems to drain it of interest. That is no doubt a problem with me, not with any of the actual work or people working on it.

Metacognition improves upon the completely broken notion of "consciousness". Consciousness is looking at roughly the same phenomenon but in such a way as to make it mysterious. "Consciousness" suggests a magically transcendent form self-knowledge; "metacognition" by contrast suggests that we know ourselves in almost exactly the way we know everything else: partially, murkily, filtered through inadequate representations and built-in biases. We are foreign to ourselves, we take ourselves for objects just like anything else.

What about "transpersonal"? The deep idea there is that our self-cognition and our other-cognition is essentially the same, or at least generated by the roughly the same processes, and we build up our self-image by observing others, and by observing others observing our self. That is to say, our metacognition, even of ourselves, is "transpersonal", which is just another way of stating the conclusion of the preceding paragraph.

Some philosophical works that touch on this: Paul Ricoeur's Oneself as Another, and (in a fairly absurd way) Daniel Kolak's I Am You. Douglas Hofstadter has been obsessed by it in one form or another for decades and in some ways has already exhausted the topic, now that I think about it. Other computational thinkers have tried to create models that embody reflection, introspection, or self-modelling (Brian Cantwell Smith, Jon Doyle, John Batali, Marvin Minsky). But those never seemed to lead anywhere…although apparently there have been AAAI symposia on metacognition, which I am somewhat sorry I never went to (and will likely never, having once more derailed myself off the research track).

This blog post may be a personal apotheosis of meta for me, since it is about (meta) to my own relationship with both the idea of metacognition and the academic instutions of knowledge that study (are meta to) it. And of course that last sentence was one more level of meta, and so is this one.

[And to go meta on a different axis: I'm starting a new job tomorrow so it is likely that this blog might take a turn towards being more about software development and other mundane matters. Or it might get even more random as I use it to vent all the parts of my mind that do not have a professional outlet. Or it might stay just the same, or stop altogether for awhile.]

[And one more: checking my archives, I see I was thinking along much the same lines back the last time I was in the midst of a job change. Scary! Or predictable? I guess it's scarily predictable.]

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