Sila Naz Elgin/THE VARSITY

After months of planning, the Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence Students’ Association (CASA) hosted their biennial event: the University of Toronto Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Mind (UTism). The conference was titled Work in Progress: The Cognitive Science of Development. Held on February 6 and 7, each day of the conference brought together four distinguished speakers. 

Since 2004, UTism has been imagined, arranged, and hosted by students within CASA, which is also the acting course union for the cognitive science program at University of Toronto.

During the presentations and in the conversations that took place in the hallways in the time between speakers, attendees from different areas of expertise discussed the focal question of the weekend: “How does a system changing its organization over time grant it new capacities for action?”

In his opening address, University College Principal Donald Ainslie highlighted the intellectual commitment of CASA students. He pointed out how enduring projects such as UTism strengthen the argument for continuing the cognitive science program, when it was at risk of termination several years ago.

Ainslie described how this student group stands out for their vision and energy: “the CASA students show U of T students at their best… really wanting to have an intellectual experience — not simply a social one.” CASA’s commitment to intellectual and social initiative is evident in the vertical cross-hierarchical community and interdisciplinary collaboration facilitated by UTism.

The event featured Jill de Villiers, professor of psychology and philosophy at Smith College, as one of two keynote speakers. When de Villiers was asked about the value of such a conference, she noted the interdisciplinary design and notably sophisticated undergraduate questions as reasons to attend. “This was refreshing,” said de Villiers, “because… the students were clearly trying to get to first principles.”

Second-year student and first time UTism attendee, Amogh Sahu echoed this sentiment. “It’s sort of part of the appeal of conferences like this… This is possibly slightly [a] romantic [way of putting it], but [the conference organizers] provide some kind of level plane where the ideas are privileged,” he said. “The hierarchies of authority are broken to some extent.”

The experience afforded to undergraduates through initiatives such as UTism is clear, as is the role of the host organization: “I think that everything I’m talking about in terms of integration [and] approaching things from different perspectives… was really crystallized [for me] as kind of a method of practice in the culture of CASA,” said Amogh. 

The inclusion of different perspectives was a key goal achieved through the equal efforts of the speakers. The energy at the conference peaked after the final panel question, when speakers addressed a question on presuppositions on the nature of change in discussions of development and emergence.” 

Day two keynote Linda Smith, Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington spoke up to ground the discussion, saying, “We’re just scientists just trying to come up with an explanation. And we’re trying to come up with an understanding that includes both prediction and control… We are all, often, when we are talking about these issues, trying to find words that do not justice to the ideas. That’s why math is good. No matter what I call it, you can see what I said is happening.”

As is sometimes the case with interdisciplinary inquiry, theoretical contemplation continued and time constraints compelled moderator Cory Lewis to close the conference with an appropriately comedic quip, “Unfortunately we’ll have to leave it there, on this bizarre philosophical note. This was fantastic. Thank you.”

Editor’s Note (March 7th, 2016): This article has been updated from an earlier version.

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