Cause, effect, and the significance of “and”

| How does our understanding of cause and effect relationships inform our understanding of cognition? |

We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about ‘and’.

— Sir Arthur Eddington

The Harvest of a Quiet Eye: A selection of scientific quotations | A. L. Mackay

Even after a long history, the study of cognition still involves trying to define the relationship between the mind as conception and the body as perception. Are these independent processes that simply inform each other? Do they utilize the same cognitive mechanisms? Is conception a kind of higher order perception? Or do these processes represent extreme ends of a common continuum? We know conception and perception are distinct yet related; we know there is a mind-body connection. But how should we describe this connection? Perhaps, as Sir Eddington suggests, what we need to consider first is our understanding of the nature of relationship.

Our physical experiences of the world are limited to the level of our own existence on earth. These experences are the formative basis of our reasoning about cause and effect relationships. Much like a creature existing in a one dimensional universe, the possibility of additional dimensions is beyond our immediate experience and perhaps even beyond our imagination. Having only this perspective to inform our thinking, our ideas about the relationships between perception and conception tend to feature flat, one-dimensional, linear processes.

Fortunately, scientific study helps us explore the world outside our own limited first person experiences of it. Telescopes and the scientific fields they gave rise to have taught us how our planet is part of a solar system, which is part of a galaxy, which is part of a universe, which may be part of something even bigger. Likewise, microscopes and the scientific inquiries they supported have taught us how our bodies are composed of cells, which are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of sub-atomic particles, which are composed of even smaller parts. The fundamental mechanics of the universe may exist beyond our own personal frames of reference, but science has literally provided us with a lens for enhancing our perception of things both bigger and smaller than we will ever be able to directly experience ourselves.

Through the many advances in science, we see with increasing clarity how dynamic, multi-dimensional, and complex our reality really is. What we are learning about that reality can also serve as a metaphor to inform our understanding of cause and effect in any context. This understanding is part of the foundation for how we interpret the world. As it shifts, so do our ideas about the nature of relationships among things like cognition, perception, and conception. This, in turn, changes the questions we ask, the answers we find, and the meanings we give to them.


Rationalism vs. Empiricism | Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy