John Vervaeke’s Brilliant 4P/3R Metatheory of Cognition

John Vervaeke finally answers what we mean by "cognition."

Posted Jan 07, 2021

Professor John Vervaeke has developed a brilliant metatheory of cognition (see here, here, and here). This is quite a feat. As I note in this post, “cognition” is one of the most complicated concepts in science. Indeed, it refers to things like knowing or being aware or thinking. However, it also overlaps with things like “information processing,” and it is sometimes broadly equivalent to what is meant by the mind. The nature and breadth of the confusion can be seen in considering how the disciplines of “psychology,” the “behavioral sciences,” and the “cognitive sciences” are defined and related. It is safe to say there is much confusion about the meaning of these terms. (If you are curious, see here).

From the vantage point of the UTOK, the reason that there is profound confusion is because of the Enlightenment Gap. This gap refers to the fact that the models of science and philosophy that emerged from the Enlightenment failed to provide a coherent framework for thinking about the proper relationship between matter and mind and social and scientific knowledge. As such, it should come as no surprise that there is much confusion about the concept of cognition. As someone trained in both philosophy and cognitive science, Vervaeke is aware of the knotty conceptual issues at play in tackling the concept of cognition.

His "4P/3R" model makes a crucial distinction between cognition as “knowing” and cognition as “functional information processing." When we think of cognition as knowledge, it means to be aware of things or have the capacity to do things, as in, "I know that bicycles have two wheels and I know how to ride a bike." 

However, this is not really what the term means in cognitive science. The most foundational definition comes from Neisser (1967), who defined cognitive as referring to processes where “the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations….[C]ognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon." 

In other words, it is functional information processing. This is a very different meaning, as it would include all mental processes (including sensations and emotions) rather than just those that pertain to knowing.

This shows why we need to differentiate cognition as knowing versus cognition as information processing, and it is a distinction that Vervaeke’s model makes clear. With his 4P model, he gives us a taxonomy of the different kinds of knowing: 1) participatory; 2) perspectival; 3) procedural; and 4) propositional.

Participatory knowing refers to knowing how to act in the “agent-arena” environment. It is simultaneously one of the most basic and most profound kinds of knowing. One way to think about participatory knowledge is to consider the difference between being in a state of confusion versus a state of flow. Flow is when you are in a groove and feel a natural “dance” between your actions and the environment, and an example of participatory knowledge.

Perspectival knowing refers to knowing via embodied perception. It consists of seeing the world and one’s place in it via a specific point of view, and understanding (or not) the key aspects of a situation.

Procedural knowing means knowing how to do something. This can be very complicated, like knowing how to complete surgery or something simple like tying one’s shoe.

Finally, there is propositional knowing, which is knowing that something is true. This kind of knowing is closely tied to language and justification (see here for more on the 4 Ps and their implications for modern society). 

The cognitive revolution that happened in the 1950s was a huge advance in science because it gave us a good working model of the ontology of mental processes. That is, for the first time science could model the kind of thing mental processes were. The idea was that mental processes were, functionally, a kind of information processing. And the current standard scientific model for understanding mental processes is that such processes arise out of neuro-information processing. This is what Neisser means in the quote above. This, in turn, gives rise to the question: What exactly is meant by "cognition" in neurocognitive models of mental processes?

This is where Vervaeke’s 3R formulation gives us great clarity. The 3Rs refer to “recursive relevance realization." And it provides a frame that gives us, to quote Vervaeke and Ferraro, a “theory of how cognition continually redesigns itself to fit the changing world."

The concept of relevance refers to that which is important and a key feature of neurocognition is determining what is salient and important so that one can model the situation and anticipate what is going to happen. Theorists and researchers have long known that relevance is a key aspect of the cognitive process, but there has been no general theory of relevance, and Vervaeke explains why in several writings (see here and here). And he argues that a theory of relevance realization is possible.

The concept of realization in Vervaeke’s formulation carries the twin dictionary meanings of the word. It means to realize as in to see or grasp and it means to realize as in to make or construct. That is, it is a bridging concept between perception and action. To realize relevance is to see something as relevant that enables you to move closer to your goal.

Finally, there is recursive, which refers to the nature of modeling feedback loops both within the system and between the agent and environment. Much work in cognition and neuroscience shows that there are layers of neurocognitive processing and modeling takes place across layers arranged in a hierarchy. There are also different domains (e.g., visual versus touch versus emotional valence processing versus motor movements) and modeling takes place between them. And animals model themselves as they participate in activities in the environment. Woven together, the three Rs of recursive relevance realization gives us an answer to how cognition (as in neuro-information processing) continually redesigns itself to fit the changing world. 

I have long argued that the concept of cognition was one of the top five confusing concepts in the psychological/behavioral/cognitive sciences, with mind, behavior, consciousness, and self, (not to mention psychology itself!) being the other four. Vervaeke’s brilliant 4P/3R model allows us to finally know what cognition actually means.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques


For more on Vervaeke's work and how it connects to the Unified Theory, please see this video series: Untangling the World Knot of Consciousness: Grappling with the Hard Problems of Mind and Matter.