The Innovation Circle: Emergent Order in Cognition and in the World

In 2013, Piet Hut and Eric Smith initiated a dialogue about the correspondence between patterns that humans can recognize in the world and that humans find in their own cognition. Starting from their shared background in theoretical physics, they asked themselves the question: “What is the world we live in, and who are we that we can ask this question?”


We are currently working on a manuscript for a book, tentatively titled The Innovation Circle: Emergent Order in Cognition and in the World, with four parts: Innovation, Life, Cognition, Reflexion. Starting with a description of the many phase transitions that in succession led to the world we know, from the first second of the Big Bang to the origin of stars, planets, and life on Earth, we follow these emergent phenomena leading up to the origin of language, concepts, and systematic scientific inquiry. Given our rapidly growing insights in machine learning as well as neuroscience, we are exploring the consequences for our understanding of both self and world.

We are particularly interested in metacognition, what happens when cognition is applied in an open-ended way to cognition itself. Metacognition is related to the more abstract notion of reflection in computer science, wherein a computer program can represent itself and thereby modify itself while it is running. In philosophy, it is related to the notion of “know thyself.”

When an agent gains cognitive insight into itself, it effectively turns itself into a model of itself. We will call this process ‘reflexion.’ Two essential points of reflexion are, on the one hand, the enormous power that it can bring in accelerating cognition into totally novel directions, yet on the other hand also a built-in limitation, in that a model of itself inherently is an information-losing model. It is ultimately the process of reflexion that enables us to close the circle we traverse in our book, from world to life to mind back to world.


Eric Smith