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The Cognitive Singularity: Pleasure, Agreement and the Nature of Mind

Posted By Robert DePaolo On January 16, 2014 @ 1:02 am In Psychology | Comments Disabled

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses cognition as a broad phenomenon, not restricted to brain function or organic complexity but rather as a process that is pervasive throughout nature. The argument is put forth that traditional definitions of cognition might be anthropocentric, that cognition and decision making occur even in the simplest biological configurations and that a more fundamental description of cognition can be developed by examining the roles of informational agreement and pleasure in the pre-cephalic natural world.

Cogito Ergo Sum…

Belief in the idea that cognition emanates from a specific organ (the brain) and can only result from a higher consciousness (the mind of homo sapiens representing the apex of such a capacity) has been passed down through the generations. While this discussion will ultimately attempt to refute that notion, it is not without face validity. Of course we are able to think, make decisions, predict and to an extent control our environment. Some have said that is what makes us human, and in some sense, biologically transcendent, (Bronowski 1973).

On the other hand, human cognition is a funny thing. The same capacity enabling us to think about ourselves, or own immortality, strengths and flaws also leads us to internalize experience and funnel it back into an egocentric mode beyond the concrete world. That can lead to flawed ideas on how nature really works. The trick to understanding nature is to divorce ourselves from that mindset, and in order to do that requires an operational as well as linguistic definition of knowledge.

For example, it was a human who conjured up Special Relativity Theory and made it available through literary communication. Yet birds seem capable of adapting to and operating on the principles inherent in it. Thus they can be said to have non-linguistic knowledge about this phenomenon. Similarly, while the architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Christopher Wren are of human origin, a spider could also lay claim to a non-symbolized but similarly operative capacity. And, while paleoanthropologists have long believed that human civilization resulted from the discovery of agriculture, leaf cutter ants figured out long ago how to plant fungi, wait for it to ferment, then consume it. Furthermore, well before man, insects developed highly complex societies, with fixed roles, social hierarchies and threat-negating group cohesion (anyone who has been attacked by a swarm of wasps after disturbing a nest can attest to that). And while

Tycho Brahe’s and Galileo’s invention and advancements on the telescope made navigation more effective, birds were navigating to far off distant lands well before the 16th century.
Also despite man’s claiming pre-eminence in the area of cognitive anticipation (based on the idea that only we can anticipate the future) birds and reptiles were building nests in preparation for family expansion at a time when early humans were relegated to pre-made cave dwellings. All of which prompts discussion on the mental capacities of various organisms.

Cognition and Rank Order…

Current thinking on cognitive ability among various species holds that the larger the brain relative to body mass the more intelligent the creature (Haier, Jung et al 2004). That argues for the idea of an intellectual hierarchy among organisms. For example the word “primate” signifies that our genus is primary within the phylum.

In some instances the notion of hierarchies makes sense, even within certain evolutionary families. For example it seems apparent that while Neanderthal was not inclined (or able) to capture the outside world through the filter of imagination, evidence within the caves of Lascaux clearly indicate that the Cromagnons were. Having such skill could have been adaptive, since imagination (a capacity to experience and indeed control things in lieu of direct interaction) would have facilitated foresight, planning and danger-anticipating skills that not only would have made avoidance and social organization more efficient but also set the stage for human initiative, exploration and the trans-generational and trans-cultural accumulation of knowledge.

From this one could reasonably assert that homo sapiens is not on par with all other organisms, and frankly, given a choice this writer would much rather be a human than an alligator (if for no other reason than that the former is more adept at hunting down the latter than vice versa).

Obviously the human capacity for grammatical language enables us to pass knowledge down through the generations, which creates a cumulative effect on culture. Still, the question of what comprises a true definition of cognitive ability remains.

No Brain – No Problem…

One of the more frustrating aspects of science is that it is concerned more with the question of “what,” than “why.” In most instances that is not particularly problematic. “Let theologians and philosophers handle that question”….they might say. Yet strict adherence to an empirical method leaves a knowledge gap not typically filled by other fields. For instance theology precludes for the most part investigatory activities (notwithstanding the contributions of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas). Meanwhile philosophy deals primarily with logic and human sentiment. If there were fields such as bio-philosophy or bio-theosophy we might be on to something. Unfortunately, aside from a handful of thinkers, there really aren’t.

That gap becomes especially important with regard to the origin of life – and more specifically the actions and decisions emanating from a macro molecule known as DNA. For the beginning student of biology, the functional aspects of DNA as pertains to life’s origin and propagation is fairly cut and dry. The DNA molecule is comprised of a double helix constructed of four chemicals, Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine and Guanine. For some reason these chemicals pair up stubbornly in exclusive manner. Adenine joins only with Thymine, Guanine only with Cytosine.
Under certain circumstances (for example, fertilization) the double helix unzips and the AT and GC alignments are rejoined. In effect this suggests a memory process, in which each chemical “knows” its subsequent location. But the brainless knowledge does not stop there. Each side of the double helix dictates the structure of the other side. In effect, the two entities are structurally separate yet driven by a recombinant rule. By any definition, and in accord with information theory principles, the strands and rungs can be said to be in communication with one another. This is reminiscent of the physics experiment, whereby photons seem so be able to rejoin despite being separated by light beam splitters, i.e. know where they should end up, have some teleological sense and always end up in the original, integrated state.

Some aspects of the replication can be explained by a natural, non-cognitive process. For example, the cross rungs connecting A and T are of exactly the same length. The same goes for the cross rungs connecting G and C. However the AT and GC strands differ in length so that if by chance A became aligned with C and G with T the rungs would clash and reunification of the helix could not occur consistently. The length differences between the pairs could not, in that instance, maintain enough structural integrity over time to set life in motion. There might have been random pairings among this group of chemicals in the course of organic history but they would have clashed (disagreed) and/or become extinct for lack of structural stability in the earth’s primordial, tumultuous atmosphere.

The fact remains however that in accord with an idea suggested Dawkins (1976), replication seems to involve chemical compounds issuing instructions to each other in a complex manner reminiscent of cognition.

DNA not only dictates how to build proteins (i.e. provide the “body” for cellular/ organic substance, it also communicates with a half ladder structure (RNA) that uses the DNA as a template and sends signals to the cells to produce more proteins by stringing together the main ingredients of protein – amino acids.

As if this weren’t fishy enough with respect to the notion of primordial cognition, the accepted description of the process by anthropologist Ian Tattersal is even more interesting. He writes: “Each sequence of RNA bases acts like a “word” specifying a particular amino acid and thus a length of DNA equivalent to a sentence, and contains all the instructions needed for assembling a complete protein” (1993).

Even if one attributed this to a billion year old, fixed quirk of nature, the fact that some segments of DNA contribute to the process of replication, while others stand back and provide oversight/regulatory functions, and still others seem to have no purpose at all – the so-called junk DNA (Castillo-Davis 2005) sounds like cognitive mechanisms usually attributed to complex life forms. Clearly there is selection perception, exclusion, inclusion, memory, communication, supervision, editing – all things one might expect to see in the offices of the New York Times but not necessarily in a proto-organic chemical configuration.

It raises an interesting question, to wit: Is this mechanism a prototype of what we now call cognition or is it an analogous but completely separate process?

Three Views of the Natural World…

The historical clash between science and religion as explanations of nature’s origin and course has fueled debate for centuries. The scientific explanation holds that various natural phenomena result from cause and effect mechanisms obeying the laws of nature. It is a sequential model based on the idea of change by interaction. An underlying aspect of this approach (particularly in the field of biology) is that deterministic factors create changes in organisms leading to clear distinctions among them – thus Linnaeus’ taxonomy. The labels inherent in science compel us to view various entities as distinct (for example homo habilis vs homo sapiens, or a proton vs an electron).

The theologian offers an alternative view which in itself entails broad ramifications. By saying a single God created all natural phenomena, the cleric sidesteps the differentiation model of the scientist by proposing that all things, regardless of their apparent variations were produced by a single, albeit omniscient mind. One could argue that the act of creation by a God of so many things, living and non-living, must have derived from a central purpose. In the case of Judao-Christianity, to serve mankind and perhaps test his moral fiber. Manna, fish and fowl to feed him, the winds, floods and foreign armies to test and re-direct him toward higher levels of morality and faith. Theological notions of nature thus are centralized, the variations among objects, forces and life forms rendered less important than their central role in shaping the moral actions of mankind. Despite a centuries-old conflict there is a semblance of agreement between the two views, in that both espouse a deterministic view of nature.

While much of the debate has been between these two schools of thought, another possibility exists. It lies more within the domain of physics and it is an extension of an idea known as non-locality. It is typified by the fact that in apparent defiance of the laws of gravity objects ostensibly too distant from one another to exert gravitational influence still seem to do so. The are in effect both separate and unified. (Feynman 1965) was so perplexed by this scientifically validated phenomena that he was moved to say that that all aspects of nature – including protons, electrons, forces and everything else are really a single entity. Bohm suggested similarly that the universe consists of a singularity which he referred to as the Implicate Order. (1981).

It is as if the universe is really a kind of mother ship, with dependent satellites tied to it, analogous to the gravity of a massive object, yet governed by a central memory, with central functions.

If that is the case, then all derivatives of nature, including cognition could be said to emanate from a primal origin, thus not be indigenous to mankind or any other “higher organism.” One way for that to be possible is for the universe and all its derivatives to be an information, rather than a strictly material or spiritual system. Still, that leads back to the original question of why a singular cognitive function might govern the behavior of both macro-molecules, primates – and perhaps photons as well.


To address this question, let us take license by proposing a new field of inquiry, and call it hedonolgy. It is not the same as esthetics, which is the study and description of beauty and symmetry by human beings. Rather it is a biological (possibly a universal) constant providing an underpinning of structure, function and cognition that enables all things, particularly biotic things to “decide.”

One need not relegate hedonics to an emotional state; otherwise we’d have to say macromolecules have a capacity to feel happy or sad. Rather one can define this broader concept of hedonics as an “attractive juxtaposition” based on a structural and functional agreement that exists on all biological levels.

The Central Theme of Life…

Before offering examples of how agreement and hedonics coincide, it is important to discuss an essential aspect of evolution.

One critical necessity for all biological phenomena is the pleasure response. It really doesn’t matter what traits evolve in any given organism or even how they coincide with the demands of the environment. A lioness with the muscle mass and social organizational skills to trap prey, and the large canines with which to sustain a fatal choke hold would be totally meaningless without the appetitive satisfaction derived from eating. Thus the sine qua non of evolution – the most independent of variables in the Darwinian equation is not mutation or adaptation but ultimately the perception of satisfaction, and more specifically the process of attraction.

Assuming that pertains to cognition in even proto-organic entities, pleasure must be defined on the most fundamental level so as to accommodate both the intelligence of man and the decision making apparent in biochemical replication. While this might seem a Herculean task it might actually be rather simple, especially if one equates attraction with the notion of agreement.

In systemic terms agreement is synonymous with congruence. The latter refers to a process where one entity fits into or can be assimilated into another with minimal discord, so that a good fit-Gestalt can occur. The agreement between the AT and GC rungs on the DNA ladder and the structural and chemical good fit between DNA and RNA are examples of agreement on the most basic level. While none of these proto-biotic components can be said to feel pleasure in the human sense, they can be said to overcome structural and chemical conflict by virtue of their congruent relationships. The dynamics of this and human satisfaction are the same.

On a human scale the pleasure derived from knowledge seeking or artistic appreciation is also due to agreement, i.e. congruence between expectations and inputs (Berlyne 1960). A song, a painting, a novel – that entails ultimate resolution or recognition leads to a perception of pleasure.

The agreement need not be immediate or perfect. In fact, As Berlyne and Freud have pointed out, having to work a bit prior to attaining closure seems to enhance the pleasure response. And while humans experience a visceral pleasure response, it is not essential as per this argument, and can be considered an enhancement of a more primal process.

With respect to the cerebral basis for pleasure, the neurons of the brain operate via a matching process, i.e. pathway congruence in which prior memories and expectations are juxtaposed on subsequent inputs. Whether or not there is agreement between the two will determine whether the experience is pleasurable or not. The juxtaposition and agreement model can also be seen in human relationships. For example, a man and woman with ideas, traits and feelings in common will tend to develop emotions leading to a bond. To the extent that they have to work their way to solidarity the attraction will, like an initially confusing but ultimately resolvable joke or riddle, be that much more pleasurable – the bond made even stronger.

Since structural and functional juxtapositions can occur in many facets of the natural world and since some juxtapositions will be congruent, an attracting force can be said to occur. In a sense this defines pleasure in an upside down but nonetheless essential manner. One does not have to assume mere molecules can think or feel like humans to make the point. One merely has to say the process that governs the perception of pleasure, facilitates decision making and broad cognitive ability is derived from a primal process that permeates the phylum and ultimately sets the stage for human cognition. It is simply a way of saying we are not transcendent but rather derivative.

In summary, the hedonic model presented here; consisting of juxtaposition, agreement and attraction is presumed to comprise the fundamental aspect of all forms of cognition. As a corollary, the idea that brain mass, or even the existence of a brain is needed for cognition is refuted in favor of a broader definition. It is in line with the contention of James Olds, who demonstrated that even pre-cephalic organisms can learn, memorize and decide (1974) and brings to mind certain questions. Is the brain a prerequisite to cognition or merely an enhancement of a pre-existing capacity that did not require a brain or even anatomical complexity? If the latter, and if the driving force behind evolution and nature itself can be described in terms of informational congruence, then current assumptions about consciousness, thought, motivation, and experience per se might be called into question.


Berlyne. D.E. (1974) Studies in the New Experimental Aesthetics; Steps Toward an Objective Psychology of Appreciation. Journal of Experimental Psychology 103: 240-244

Bohm, D. (1981) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London, U.K. Routledge.

Bronowski, J. (1973) The Ascent of Man. Little Brown and Co. Boston/Toronto

Castillo-Davis (2005) The Evolution of Non-coding DNA; How Much Junk, How Much Funk? Trends in Genetics 21 (10) 533-536

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. London, Oxford Press

Feynman reference: Ferris, T. (1998) The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe Report. Touchstone.

Haier, RJ. Jung, RE, Yeo, RC, Head, K & Alkired, MT (2004) Structural Brain Variations and General Intelligence. Neuro-Image Vol. 23 Issue 1 Sept. 2004

Miller, F. Vandome, A. McBrewster, j (Ed) (2010) Brain to Body Mass Ratio; Intelligence, Organism, Thermoregulation, Motor Skill, Cognition, Human Correlation. Alphascript Publishing

Olds, J. (1974) Phylogeny of Behavior In: Brain Mechanisms and Behavior. London Heineman Educational Books

Tattersal. I. (1993) The Human Odyssey: Four Million Years of Human Evolution. Prentice Hall.

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