Origins of Cognition

Monkey takes selfie


We do not have any clear definition of life, but we can point to some characteristics of life that are known to be largely absent in the non-living world, such as function, aim, goal, communication, use of symbols, or cognition in general.

Traditionally, the question of Origins of Life has been studied in a one-dimensional reductionistic way, as a question of how the building blocks of non-living matter were reconfigured dynamically to exhibit life as a process layered on the more complex building blocks of the organic chemistry underlying living matter.  However, such a reductionistic model is only one approach.  It would be like studying the bits and pieces of a watch, or a computer, or an airplane, investigating how they are all connected, without a real understanding of time keeping, or algorithms, or hydrodynamics of air flow over wings.

Cognition too, has traditionally only been studied by breaking down cognitive functions to gain insight into their compositional subsystems, by introducing black boxes that fail to explain underlying mechanisms and are not detailed enough to realistically validate the model. The concept of cognition though, is information-based, and can be defined out of the frame of human abilities, in any system gathering the required properties for its emergence.

In this project, we want to add an extra dimension to the traditional study of origins of life, by including this second dimension of cognition. We present the view of abiogenesis as a top-down expression of the condition of possibility of subject-object interaction.

In order to flesh out these ideas, we are bringing together expertise in physics, computer science and A-Life, and philosophy.  The three of us have backgrounds in those three areas, respectively, while we are all three well versed in the other areas as well, enough to have in-depth conversations straddling the boundaries between these areas.


  1. Pattee, H. H. (2001). The physics of symbols: bridging the epistemic cut. Biosystems, 60(1), 5-21.
  2. Tani, J. (1998). An interpretation of the ‘self’from the dynamical systems perspective: A constructivist approach. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 5(5-6), 516-542.


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