What exactly is going on when you think? In his lecture, Analogy as the Core of Cognition, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (DH) suggests that when you think, you are really just making analogies.
We all know what an analogy is: comparing one thing (or concept) to another because they share some similar features. But isn’t that just one type of thinking process?
It turns out that our brain actually uses analogy when it does all kinds of things: choosing a word, learning a new concept, making instantaneous judgments, solving a problem, etc.
For example, word choice: When we want to express our thought of that furry animal that is cute and looks kind of like a wolf, we may choose to use the word “dog”. However, we may also say “puppy” or “canine” or some other word.
Each word is associated with different contexts. So, to decide which word to use, we compare the current context to each word’s associated contexts, and see which share the most common features with the current context. This is essentially making an analogy between one context and a group of contexts.
Another example: learning (or forming) a new concept.
When we want to learn the concept “sports”, for example, we can think of all the different things that people call a “sport”, comparing them, and finding what features they share: what makes “sports” “sports”? This, again, involves making an analogy (Tennis is like weightlifting in that they both require physical strength…etc.).
So, since all these different brain activities use analogy, analogy lies at the core of our cognition. This is the main thesis of the talk.
But wait, forming a new concept also requires making analogies? But analogies compare concepts right? So which came first? Concepts or analogy-making skills?
According to Professor Hofstadter, the answer is concepts. He thinks that we have “primordial concepts”, or basic concepts that have existed from the time when we were very little, such as hand, book, chair etc.
Then, using these very basic concepts, we form bigger concepts. For example, mom + dad + me = family.
(Note that this process involves analogy-making, because we are comparing mom, dad, and me, finding some similar features among the three, and calling the it family.)
Then, using these bigger concepts and other concepts, we can form even bigger concepts, such as: family + house = home.
The “bigger” a concept is, the more abstract it is. As we grow up, we become familiar with more and more abstract concepts.
This process of forming concepts looks kind of like this:
Little concepts form a middle concept. Middle concepts form a big concepts, and so on.
In this way, we can see concepts on a continuum from the most basic to the most abstract. The most basic ones are the primordial concepts.
Now, my question is: What exactly are primordial concepts? What is the nature of the “littlest” concepts? As a Muslim, I naturally related a verse in the Qur’an about how God taught Adam “the names of all things”:
[Qur’an 2:31] “And He taught Adam the names of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell me the names of these if ye are right.”
I guess they could be some most basic unit of thoughts possible, available only to humans. But I still don’t know what they are! Raw perception of quality? The state of our brain in one planck time?
I have no idea. However, I think this could be a good direction of research for cognitive scientists. Just as physicists try to find a Theory of Everything to reduce all phenomena of the universe to one type of particle and one type of force, so should cognitive scientists try to find a grand unified theory of cognition.
To end this post with an analogy: If Professor Hofstadter’s theory of analogy is right, then primordial concepts would serve as the fundamental “particle” of cognition, and analogy, its fundamental force.
If you want to read more on analogy, here is another post I have written about this lecture: Other thoughts on analogy