This post is a pointer to a great article from Michael Levin, just published in Frontiers in Systems Neurosciences
All known cognitive agents are collective intelligences, because we are all made of parts; biological agents in particular are not just structurally modular, but made of parts that are themselves agents in important ways.
There is no truly monadic, indivisible yet cognitive being: all known minds reside in physical systems composed of components of various complexity and active behavior.
However, as human adults, our primary experience is that of a centralized, coherent Self which controls events in a top-down manner. That is also how we formulate models of learning (“the rat learned X”), moral responsibility, decision-making, and valence: at the center is a subject which has agency, serves as the locus of rewards and punishments, possesses (as a single functional unit) memories, exhibits preferences, and takes actions.
And yet, under the hood, we find collections of cells which follow low-level rules via distributed, parallel functionality and give rise to emergent system-level dynamics. Much as single celled organisms transitioned to multicellularity during evolution, the single cells of an embryo construct de novo, and then operate, a unified Self during a single agent’s lifetime. […]
The hypotheses about
– how bioelectric networks scale cell computation into anatomical homeostasis,
– and the evolutionary dynamics of multi-scale competency,
can be explored without accepting the “minds everywhere” commitments of the framework.
However, together they form a coherent lens onto the life sciences which helps generate testable new hypotheses and integrate data from several subfields.
[…] “cognition” refers not only to complex, self-reflexive advanced cognition or metacognition, but is used in the less conservative sense that recognizes many diverse capacities for
– learning from experience,
– adaptive responsiveness,
– decision-making in light of preferences,
– problem-solving, active probing of their environment, and
– action at different levels of sophistication
in conventional (evolved) life forms as well as bioengineered ones.
Every intelligence is a collective intelligence, and the modular, multi-scale architecture of life means that we are a holobiont in more than just the sense of having a microbiome —we are all patchworks of overlapping, nested, competing, and cooperating agents that have homeostatic (goal-directed) activity within their self-constructed virtual space at a scale that determines their cognitive sophistication.
The partial wiping of ownership information on permanent signals makes gap junctional coupling an excellent minimal model system for thinking about biological mechanisms that scale cognition while enabling co-existence of subunits with local goals (multiple levels of overlapping Selves, whose scale and borders are porous and can change during the lifetime of the agent).
However, many other substrates can no doubt fulfill the same functions.