Waterloo Ignorance Day a transdisciplinary success

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"You're all used to speaking about what you know, but the idea behind this event is to have people speak about what they DON'T know," stated the researchers’ invitation to Waterloo Ignorance Day held on December 6th.

Paul Thagard of the Department of Philosophy and Director of the interdisciplinary Cognitive Science program developed the idea for a day discussing ‘What I Wish I Knew About the Mind, Brain, and Intelligence’. Randy Harris of the Department of English Language and Literature dubbed it ‘Waterloo Ignorance Day’, contrasting the annual speaker event known as Waterloo Brain Day.

"Brain Day and Ignorance Day are separate," explains Thagard, although "both attempt to stimulate interdisciplinary research concerning the mind."

And stimulate it did.

It seems that when we admit what we don’t know but want to know about the workings of the mind, different disciplines have a lot to share with each other. Hence, the packed program of discussions on ignorance and inquiry by eight Waterloo researchers represented perspectives of Philosophy, Biology, Systems Design, English, Psychology, German and Computer Science.

With at least 38 Waterloo faculty from across campus with cognitive science interests, there is much potential for cross-disciplinary fertilization on the topic of the mind. And this is also evident by the wide range of student participation at Ignorance Day. After each speaker presented their points of ‘ignorance’, the questions and discussion could have gone well beyond the allotted time. “I was delighted by the good attendance (70+) and the high level of discussion” comments Thagard.

Paul Thagard awards Jessey Wright his $100 prize.The winner of Ignorance Day’s student competition for the most creative connection between topics was Jessey Wright, an MA candidate in Philosophy focused on philosophy of quantum field theory (physics). Judged ‘blind’ by three faculty members, Jessey connected the presentations of: Chris Eliasmith (Philosophy/Systems Design), How is biologically-based cognition coordinated and integrated across the whole brain?; Matt van der Meer (Biology) Are there alternatives to the two-stage model of decision making which separates perception and action?; and, Randy Harris (English) Where is metaphor?.

Impressively synthesizing complex questions ‘on the spot’ at end of the Ignorance Day event, Jessey proposes that an alternative to ‘functional models’ of inquiry into mind/cognition might be a broader ‘analogical model’ (i.e. metaphor).

"For example, a metaphorical process could provide means for a system to develop, adapt and learn by relating what it doesn’t know (the desire to learn) to what it does," wrote Jessey in his winning entry.

Of course, there’s more to it, but you may have to wait for the book. And that’s just the point of Ignorance Day, to spark new ideas from across campus that can grow.

by Wendy Philpott
Arts Communications

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