Cognitive Science Osnabrück 2019 Graduation Speech

As part of the graduation celebration for the Bachelor, Master and PhD students of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück, I have been asked to hold the student's speech. If you would like to read over the speech again or if you are simply looking for some inspiration: In the following you can read the transcript of the speech. At the very bottom of this blog post, you can find a list references and sources.

Photo credit: John Berroa

To stand here tonight, is a very emotional and special thing for me. It marks the official end of a very intense and rich time. I feel very connected to Osnabrück. I feel very connected to this degree and even more, I feel very connected to its people, to you.

Not only have I been served with a whole new perspective on the world. Yes! Not a single teacher managed it during 13 years of school to open my eyes to the thing that we call “science”. Maybe they have tried hard and I was ignorant, but who can accuse a teenager to be ignorant? So, you can not imagine how thankful I am that I have been introduced, here in Osnabrück, by and besides inspiring, intelligent and wonderful people to that thing called “Cognitive Science”. I have been introduced to something that has a lot to do with curiosity, with observing, with delight, with appreciation, with the beauty of the complexity and structure of this world, human beings and the human mind.

And while I am sure, that this journey was different and special in its very own way for each and everyone of us, I think there is a lot that we share being here in this hall tonight, and have shared during the last years.

For example, there is this one question that has followed all of us, and by all of us I mean students, family members and friends equally, from day one. And that was the question: “What is Cognitive Science?”. So if we open up a textbook, we can find wonderful sentences like: “The brain’s special status comes from a special thing the brain does, which makes us see, think, feel, choose and act. That special thing is information processing, or computation [1]”, and if this leaves us confused and if we open up another textbook we might find “Cognitive Scientists aim to understand the processes and representations underlying intelligent action in the world [2]”.

And while these, may be appropriate single sentence definitions, I find them hardly convincing. For me, it does neither answer what Cognitive Science actually is nor what we actually do. And no, I am not going to try to find a more descriptive and precise sentence that is boiling down the essence and meaning of “Cognitive Science” during my speech tonight. No, rather, I will use a tool that I have acquired while being educated as a scientist here in Osnabrück: If you struggle to find a convincing answer to a question, maybe you are simply not asking the right question in the first place and then, in such a situation, asking even more questions is often a fruitful approach.

So let me tell you a short story [3] which eventually will lead to some of these fruitful questions. The whole story begins back in 1981, when the two curious back then still young biologists Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz crawled though the west of Australia and did what scientists on a field trip apparently do: First and foremost of course, they work on their research project and secondly, they drink beers.

So it happened to be September, which is the mating season of the Australian Jewel Beetle. The Australian Jewel Beetle is brown, around 4 cm long and has a dimpled, nicely shimmering and glossy back. During mating season, the male beetles fly 1 to 2 meters above the ground, scouting for the flightless females on ground. Now, what Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz observed was that these scouting beetles were heavily attracted by the shimmering, glossy and dimpled lower edge of one type of beer bottle. When one of the male beetles came across an empty bottle, they landed and started trying to mate. Probably, the male beetles mounted full of excitement, thinking that they just found the most beautiful, shimmering and biggest female ever!

In fact, the male beetles were so obsessed with the shiny, dimpled pattern of the bottles that they did ignore real female Jewel Beetles walking by, yes, even worse, they did try to mate with the bottle until they collapsed and fell of the bottle in exhaustion and died in the blistering sun of the Australian dessert. Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz quickly realized how threatening this kind of beer bottles were for the Jewel Beetles. They continued their research and figured that many of the bottles that had been thrown away carelessly in the Australian dessert, were surrounded by the bits and pieces of dead male Jewel Beetles. They published their research [4] and wrote a letter to the beer company, sharing their scientific insights and outlining the devastating consequences for the Jewel Beetle’s population. They never got a reply, but eventually, a little later, the dimples were removed from the bottles.

So what does this story tell us about life? Despite, that even in the animal kingdom the combination of mating behaviour and beers is not necessarily a fruitful one?

Why does the beetle not realize that he is sitting on a glass bottle? Does the beetle just not posses enough neurons to process the situation? Is it lacking good enough eyes with more advanced optics? Maybe, it does posses enough neurons and if we would only rewire them, the beetle would be capable to understand the difference between a female and a beer bottle? Well, what is it that the beetle knows and how does the beetle know it? What does the beetle perceive when it sits on the bottle? What is its state of consciousness?

If we think about all possible conscious experiences as a wide sea that one can sail on with a boat, which position marks the beetle on a bottle stage?

Which part of the sea is a bat in, while it is catching the glossy, brown dimpled beetle with its sense of echolocation? What are we as human beings missing to sail the bat’s sea [5]?

Where in the vast wideness of the sea are you, when you walk to the mensa for the one hundredths time? Which position is it when you walk into your dean’s or your professor’s office and you are empowered, enabled and supported in your attempt to feed your curiosity? Which wonderful part of the sea is it, when you are welcomed with the most honest smile in your examination office? Where is the boat of consciousness, when bureaucracy is still used as a tool, like a hammer, to put nails into a wall and not as the narrowly paved road that you shall not dare to leave? Even though I have to add here, well, where was your boat of consciousness, when you were 5 minutes late to sign your hiwi-contract?

Which position is it, while you get lost dancing in ecstasy to colourful lights and electronic music? Which position is the taste of a freshly cooked glutinous rice ball with peanut butter filling on a snowy winter day somewhere in the south of Germany, while you are hugged by a beloved one? Which position is it, when you hug a friend that you haven’t seen for a long time? Which position is the pain, when you have to say goodbye? Which position is love; and how do you ship your boat there in the first place? Are all these positions of the sea of consciousness interconnected and reachable by our boat, our mind?

How much of this sea have you explored and how much more is there to explore for your mind?

Well, I got a little bit lost, so, to come back to our initial story. So why is it so obvious for us that the beetle is making a mistake and sitting on a bottle but for the beetle it is a beautiful mate? In which way do our minds differ from a beetle’s mind, from a chicken’s mind, from a pig’s mind, from a macaque monkey’s mind, from a chimpanzee’s mind?

Why took it until the 16th and 17th century until Cardano, Pascal and Fermat came up with probability theory which is such a powerful tool to describe the world and its structure? Why wasn’t it explored earlier?

How many, more powerful insights are out there to be found but are just illusive glass bottles to us right now; or will stay illusive forever? Of course, there is the possibility that human intelligence is approaching the limit of all possible intelligences. But, well, if I look at me and my flaws, I doubt it. So, what happens if we take another step of the size from the beetles intelligence to Fermat’s intelligence into the same direction [6]? How many more worlds are out there, that we will never be able to comprehend? Like the beetle will never comprehend that he is sitting on a bottle and not on a female no matter how long you will try to make it clear to him.

There is always a discrepancy between our believes and reality. For example, close your eyes for a moment; and imagine how it feels to hug a tree.

The stronger our believes become and the less often we test them, the smaller becomes the variance in our expectations, and even worse, in our perceptions. It is a sad reality that we do not have to do anything special in order for the variance in our expectations and perceptions to shrink. It happens automatically; with everyday day that we do not actively challenge our perceptions and preconceptions. We literally stop perceiving, if we stop doing it actively. We stop seeing how a tree looks like because we think we know it, and this assumed knowledge then makes us stop looking, which increases our believe in our knowledge. And here the sanity of the rational human being goes.

Hey you! Hey you! You are losing you are losing your mind! [7]

What do we think we know and how do we think we know it? I am not talking about the mere epistemological perspective here. No, the philosophical perspective on this question is bound to an armchair. Eliezer Yudkowsky says that “What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?” is the fundamental question of rationality [8, 9]. I think it is so much more. It is a way of living, being an approaching the world.

The Cogscis I had the honour to get to know during my four years here, I mean, you are, a lot more than people that think about thinking and how that thinking is limited until each and every thought gets so convoluted that you start thinking you shouldn’t have started with thinking in the first place. Even though, I have to say, we for sure, have all been there during our studies.

No, what I mean by saying that for me “What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?” is so much more than a question of rationality, is, that you are seekers, you are adventurers that go out in the world and try to find evidence for your hypothesis and your believes. You challenge your believes each and every day, again and again, even if this includes facing some of your biggest inner fears and questioning your most natural and strongest believes.

We can close our eyes and imagine how it feels to hug a tree. We can come to the conclusion that we know how it feels; or we can be a Cogsci, go out, and just do it. I have seen this skill, to break out of the everyday numbness and madness into a curious, open lively and beautiful human being so often during my time here in Osnabrück. Please, don’t lose this magnificent skill to go out there and to observe and interact, carefully and in love with the world around you [10]. Don’t stop to get evidence for your believes and never get tired to test them. How are we otherwise ever going to realize that we are sitting on a big, glossy and dimpled glass bottle. Not only us as individuals, no, but also as friends, as family, as partners, as colleagues and as a society.

I had many conversations and discussions about why Cognitive Science here in Osnabrück is such a special degree. Why there is this “Cogsci-Spirit” and what this “Cogsci-Spirit” is in the first place?

I think; you are a magnificent crowd of curious people. You break boundaries. You question the common. You question the known. You are the sailors and explorers of the big wide sea of consciousness, always ready and eager to set sail.

How it was for me to be a part of all this?

I do experience this as an immense treasure right now, standing here in front of you. And I know that this will remain as a treasure with me for the rest of my life. Thus, there remains only one thing for me to say, from deep inside my heart: Thank you!

  1. Pinker, Steven. "How the mind works." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 882.1 (1999): 119-127. 

  2. Green, David. Cognitive science: An introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 1996. 

  3. I first stumbled upon this story in Donald Hoffman's Ted talk "Do we see reality as it is

  4. Gwynne, D. T., and D. C. F. Rentz. "Beetles on the bottle: male buprestids mistake stubbies for females (Coleoptera)." Australian Journal of Entomology 22.1 (1983): 79-80. 

  5. Nagel, Thomas. "What is it like to be a bat?." The philosophical review 83.4 (1974): 435-450. 

  6. This was inspired by Sam Harris' Ted Talk "Can we build AI without losing control over it". 

  7. Adapted from "Your Mind" by Adam Beyer and Bart Skils, 2018 

  8. Eliezer Yudkowsky is author of the blog and founder of the community "Less Wrong" which is devoted to "refining the art of rationality". Wiki entry: "The fundamental question of rationality

  9. Eliezer Yudkowsky has further written the fan fiction "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", which advocates methods of rationality and rational decision making 

  10. This part of the speech (and the speech in general) was heavily inspired by the magnificent (and probably by now classic) graduation speech: "This is water" (or listen to it on YoutTube) by David Foster Wallace. If you do not know it: This is a must read!