[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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.