[text in process]

l.e. 12.18.08

[Note: The term cognition is normally used to refer to ‘higher order thought’ which is generally presumed to involve language, axioms, logic, poetics, etc. It is my experience and belief that all organismal experience is fundamentally (pun intended) cognitive, and that human ‘thought’, rather than being entirely unique, is a specific order (a ‘higher’ or more sophisiticated order) of processes which are common throughout the many dimensions and orders of organismal function and experience. Some call the organismal experience ‘sentience’ rather than ‘cognition’. For scientists, this distinction is crucial and to discard it is absurd. For this reason, I have coined the term biocognition, and am generally using a specialized definition of the term ‘cognition’ in this essay. I have heard many arguments against this, and I understand and respect them. At some point in the future I may discard this usage, or change the term to biocognition, or coin a new term. For now, this essay remains in its original state.]



Some biologists might ask us to believe that cognition is an epiphenomenon or product of biology itself, but it’s not really possible to separate the two — effectively the they refer to the same thing from different perspectives and in general I doubt we could locate any isolated instance of either. If we could, I believe we would discover that if one of them exists in isolation from the other, cognition is the likely candidate. The likelihood that there are non-biological cognitive entities is almost infinitely greater than the potential for non-cognitive organisms. Biology is — in large part — cognition.

The reason I bring this up has to do with precedence — the ‘which came first’ question so common in our polarizing models of our universe. If we get confused such that it appears biology generates cognition, we will be ignoring the fact that this is not possible. Non-cognitive biology — in a changing material universe — is dead biology. Perhaps more interestingly, given any sort of reasonable opportunity, biology will — as it has on Earth — establish ever-more complex and integrated vehicles of cognition. This would tend to portray biology as having an obvious goal far beyond those implied by our common models of organisms as vehicles for the expression of competition and niche dominance.

Cognition is so general that it acts as a transport connecting all of the instances and moments of biological experience and relation across any barrier we might invent or notice, and it is here that we begin to see the potential for a cognitive ‘organism’ whose basis lies in connectivity rather than any group or specific individual organism. What we’re talking about when we use this term is very different from what we consider it to be — it is an ancient and magical game of creating new universes in which to connect dots, and the place of competition in this game is somewhere down near the base of the pyramid, not near the top as our sciences popularly require us to believe.


All ‘organisms’ are cognitive organisms, which is to say that they modulate their activity according to stimuli, and that this is a process of establishing, attenuating and conserving relational linkages with other organisms and environmental circumstance. Fundamentally, this is relational activity; thus the concept can be fruitfully applied to vastly differing sectors or scales of organismal relation. It can also be applied to contexts, assemblies of any kind, and transports — which themselves become functionally organismal in co-emergence and ongoing relation with biologies.

But there is a feature of organisms we ignore, perhaps particularly in the shadow of the nearly malignant models we somehow drew from Darwin’s insightful research and speculation. Organisms in environmental linkage comprise hypercognitive symmetries — and this means they are as unified as they are discrete, cognitively and physically. We might liken this to a form of co-ignition, where proximity and relationship generate new and ever-more complexly connective embodiments of Life. The ‘embodiments’ are as much alive in the environment as they are in any local participants, which means the environment of any living world becomes a cognitive organism comprised of the assembly of its constituents and their relational and sentient activity. Environment and organism are transunified, and comprise a complete and inseparable entity in every possible case.

Our ideas of competition are so absurd that if they were enacted in our own bodies we would be dead before we knew what happened. What led us to depict our world as a disunified battleground? In part, it is a primitive understanding that places biocognition into separated vehicles and then demands this is the fact of Nature. The ‘fact’ in this case is that they are just as unified as they are distinct, and our interpretations depend on the scale of perspective we adopt, as well as the scale of a circumstance we follow as a guide to translating what we encounter in our quests into information, stories, data, or theory.

Feedback between an individual organism or group and any given scale or assembly of environment consistently results in modulations of activity and character in both. These modulations are a source of identity as well as a generator of future relational schemas, because successful relations will impart the potential for creative repetition upon every involved or connected symmetry. This recombinant co-emergence of relational symmetries forms the basis of organismal development (at any temporal scale), as well as the lens with which more elementary sensing-awareness is assembled into complex organismal awareness. In this sense, an organism is as much a complete instance of its environment, as it is a distinct embodiment of a given form or scale of Life.

This ‘recombinant relation-dance’ also the basis of how we ‘learn’, remember, communicate, create and link metaphors, and attach meaning to experience.


Capturing an enlightening definition of ‘cognition’ is challenging because the thing we speak of is profoundly more elegant and complex than our abilities or modes of modeling are likely to empower us to understand. We are in the position of attempting to describe our Sun to a being who cannot discriminate temperature and has no eyes — the root elements we need to communicate about the topic are missing, and must somehow be invented.

We must for this reason reach toward models that lift us above our ideas of separation toward an individuality which is a unique instance of many scales of individuals, assemblies and transports. Yes, each organism is uniquely cognitive according to generally shared schemas and circumstance including its specific form and complexity — but the scale we select to limit our perspective on what an organism is must not be allowed to define cognition. Additionally, each organism is as uniquely cognitive as it is in accordance with any schema — it cannot be elsewise for this is the reality of having distinct organismal history, lineage and experience — which every organism we may name ‘possesses’ in toto.

Instead of defining, we must explore — with new eyes.


Different scales — Different modes

To aid our exploration, we will sketch a three-tier model of cognition which supposes that the scale (degree of magnification or distance) of our perspective changes what the meaning of what cognition is. As a preliminary, it is useful to note that regardless of the organism in question, sentience — or active sensing — is limited to a few ‘scales’ (given positions of size and or speed) of relational perspective which almost invariably lie extremely close to those of the creature or assembly in question. Every organism at any size or speed is primarily relationally aware in this ‘near-to-my-own-scales’ way, as are assemblies of organisms such as animals, persons, ecosystems and planets. It is not that more subtle or significant transports and opportunities do not exist, but rather that sentience assembles itself in scales and most of the momentums to which an organism or assembly might respond lie at or near their own.

The exception is when we move away from the idea of a physical organism to that of a connectivity-organism. An organism founded in connectivity rather than hard biology is actually a prerequisite for sustaining an atmosphere on a living world. We don’t have metaphors for or terms to describe this sort of entity because, in general, both our sciences and our religions stand steadfastly in opposition to its existence. This places us in a position where one portion of our understanding is vastly superior to that of our ancestors, and the other portion — in truth the most important — is so vastly misconstrued that it will consistently result in atrocities far outweighing any benefit our sophistication may have thus far conferred upon us.


A bubblePlot from Walrus, an java application which maps relational emergence in spherical trees.



Biocognition is the most general and inclusive of our modeling-terms, and is the source and inspiration of its children. It generally describes the local and distributed activity and elaboration of cellular and protocellular organisms, in unity and in comparative isolation. It is an active and relational momentum exhibited at any scale of perspective we may explore. Biology is elementally cognitive, and thus biocognition is the ‘knowing-relation’ that is the ceaseless activity of any organismal assembly or entity.

Though it may at first appear that the addition of bio- to the term cognition is merely spurious complexification, the emergence of mechanical metaphors in our human cultures requires that we strongly differentiate between ‘the knowing that machines do’ and that of organisms. The danger in not doing this is obvious: we will in time use the machine as the metaphoric comparator of our own intelligence and sentience if we have failed to establish them as profoundly reductive anomalies of their sources. The outcome of failing this differentiation is similar comparing the Sun to a charred matchstick, where one desires the Sun to more closely match the shriveled artifact that was merely a representation of one aspect of its sources.


On any world with a single form or a limited set of forms of cellular or proto-cellular life — the active relational goals of organisms are constantly pressed toward survival against impossible odds. As the community of forms differentiate and complexify, the opportunities for re-assembly in co-operative relation transform from a few stark potentials to an explosively self-generating tree of novel opportunities. Many of these newly available paths of explorative elaboration will lead away from competition with self and environment toward the incredible symbiotic prowess that has enlivened and sustained our living world for thousands of millions of years.

It is in assembly that biocognitive co-operants obtain the relational momentum to create and sustain the prerequisites for the ongoing emergence of seemingly impossible feats of awareness and conservation. The co-elaborative generation of ever-more unified communities of ever-more distinct participants results in a magical lens — what it magnifies is the cellular and relational sentience of populations and its product is the awareness of complex organisms.


The coupled polarity of our environment and the current population of surviving organisms represent the conserved relational sentience of a unified animal — ‘a vastly distributed organism’ which is, in biocognitive terms, many factors the age of the physical universe. At the scale or perspective where Earth is clearly revealed as a unified organism we can directly observe a living animal who is far more complex and venerable than our linear age-models of the universe she inhabits — in part because she is multiply temporally present. This is to say that ‘the animal’ of Earth is ‘located’ in a vast multiplicity of dimensions and positions of temporal presence, and there are features of ‘the where that she exists in’ which by their nature completely defy our understandings of what Time is. Some of these features are actually ‘cultivating cognitive time’ at a speed that makes the fastest things we can imagine appear to be immobile in comparison.

In attempting to gain a clearer understanding of the significance of a living planet which is more inclusive of the real natures and potentials of biological relation, we must somehow advocate an idea we are scripted to think of as impossible — an organism who is growing into common presence at multiple assemblies, positions and speeds of temporal location.

Models which deny the presence or primacy of multiply located temporal organisms are in fact denying the basis of biocognition, which is at least in part the re-assembly of the experience of temporally and physically disparate evolutionary circumstance and participants. Our hard-headed belief that time is a single linear stream is amongst the most absurd of our modern fallacies, and springs from the mechanically-oriented flatness of abstract learning-modes. Temporal location is no obstacle to organismal sentience. The fact of terrestrial cognition is that there are so many ways of assembling contact across seemingly impossible gaps — that any gap we can possibly name or invent has already been thoroughly explored, transcended, and sometimes even colonized — long before we began to consider it ‘an obstacle’ in formal terms. Organismal relation is vastly older than our languages and sciences. It long ago translated all of the things we consider obstacles into opportunities. The fact that our representational sentience has lagged far behind dallying with tokens has no bearing upon the observable realities of sentience: as cognitive participants in a sentient hyperstructure, organisms are, in general, translocally temporal.


We might accurately speculate that biocognition is the establishment and truly miraculous ongoing elaboration of a unified living library — a library extant and alive in every position ever inhabited or experienced by any organism at any scale. This would situate our own awareness as a position of expression, rather than possession. We would be expressers of the living complexity inherent in our lineages as well as unique instances of the sentient moment and history of the entire planet.




We’ve got a problem when we think of any living entity as distinct, because the very meaning of organism has to do with recursion: a kind of doll within doll within doll effect that furiously magnifies all local dolls with any gesture of any doll anywhere. This effect creates new kinds, speeds, sizes and forms of doll at impossible speeds. When it runs out of dimensions, it invents new ones.

From one perspective, this begs the question: was there an original ‘living doll’ from which the incredibly diverse symphony of dolls that form our experience and reality was cloven? If not...what is the source of all this incredible character, and all this amazing identity...with(in) and around us?