Cognition not Consciousness

February 26, 2019

by Bruce Clarke

—for the panel “Scale” at the Crafting the Long Tomorrow conference, Biosphere 2, February 21-24, 2019

The scale of the individual—the level at which the notion of consciousness is appropriate—is a world away from the scale of the planet. At this moment, Gaia or the Earth System in its own right confronts us with states of operation and response that threaten long-term habitability for many species. To bring the world back together, phenomena at massively different scales need mediation—insofar as that may be possible—through the worldwide infrastructures of communication. What are the forms of communication necessary to produce or induce or conduce to a planetary society—that is, to a system of global social inclusions that could successfully deal with our planetary issues for the majority of the biota?

However, in thinking about this goal, we should not default to notions such as "global mind" or "planetary consciousness," since the phenomena these phrases combine do not operate at the same scale, cannot be bridged at the same level. Instead, a grasp of planetary cognition can scale up our thinking about the global communications that could produce a planetary society, a world society in fact, distributed in being and locality but sharing a common Earth. As Bruno Latour puts it in Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime, “It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world, share the same culture, face up to the same stakes, perceive a landscape that can be explored in concert.” This is the epistemological problem we face: how to construct or entrain a world in common for myriad minds that operate in private and in ensembles that may otherwise never connect.

A grasp of planetary cognition can scale up our thinking about the global communications that could produce a planetary society, a world society in fact, distributed in being and locality but sharing a common Earth.

Our image of a world society has long conformed in some measure to McLuhan’s media prophecy of total human connection: “we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace,” he wrote in 1964, “abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.” Yet it is clear by now that this passage is a lyrical evocation mixing desire and impossibility. Enraptured for over a century in the modern media embrace, we have asked our technological intercourse to abolish what cannot be eliminated—the infinite spatiotemporal coordinates of material existence, including all the mundane infrastructures that communications move through. A related metaphysics of desire sees the artifices of technique arising to machine intelligences mustering McLuhan’s “creative process of knowing” toward a putative societal consciousness—brought into being by “the technological simulation of consciousness.” The abstract we we use in sentences like this would now become the artifice of a sentient collective I.

For a related example of questing for a planetary mind, observe the rhetoric of global humanity in David Grinspoon’s Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future. To avert climate catastrophe, Grinspoon envisions the imminent need for multi-century cultural agendas he calls “planetary changes of the fourth kind.” These would be deliberate rather than inadvertent alterations to the Earth system—not necessarily massive geoengineering schemes but certainly massive ecological do-overs of the technosphere. The way toward such long-term investments “begins with our mass awareness of our role as world changers.” Long-term global adjustments must not be imposed upon humanity or Gaia prior to receiving some form of collective buy-in or planetary response indicating viability. Grinspoon admits the doubtful existence at the moment of a “coherent ‘we’ who is responsible for our behavior on a global level.” Nonetheless, he affirms “a sense in which global humanity is trying to make up its mind about something important for the very first time,” because global warming “is awakening us to our planetary nature” (my italics). Grinspoon’s splendid call for global humanity to awaken to its planetary nature is a contemporary astrobiological echo of McLuhan’s holistic media consciousness.

But here’s the thing. Consciousness and thought—whether organic or even, perhaps, eventually, artificial—are bounded functions. To come into being they have to produce operational closures. At whatever level of instantiation, they constitute and maintain a distinct self or signature for whom or which the experience of consciousness must remain on the interior of the system. If awareness as such can arise only from a bounded psychical processing of sensory and semiotic mediations, then the phrase “mass awareness” is an oxymoron. Yet, now that Gaia is fully in crisis, many seem to think that we must expect an autonomous and transcendent technosphere to form a collective mind that brings the Earth system under its rule.

Before we cede deliberative consciousness to any form of global technological mind making mass awareness manifest, we might reconsider the equally commonplace phrase “mass communications.” The global communications going on all around are a function of cognition, not consciousness. Social cognition, the mediation of awareness through social systems, is the thing to seek—and specifically, social cognition entrained toward planetary society. Cognition allows for systemic responses beyond awareness and without consciousness. This conceptuality forms an idea of the planet’s own agency—a sense of planetary agency that does notget confused with idealistic images regarding “planetary consciousness,” “planetary identity,” “worldwide mind,” and the like. Rather, if we can form and distribute images of Gaia’s planetary cognitions of the Earth’s contemporary ecological situation, we might then create a mobile nexus around which convictions can coalesce.

If we can form and distribute images of Gaia’s planetary cognitions of the Earth’s contemporary ecological situation, we might then create a mobile nexus around which convictions can coalesce.

Consequently, recognizing that Gaia is indeed in crisis for us, we must perfect social mediations to produce and maintain networked individual sentience concerning planetary connectedness. David McConville, Dawn Danby, and I have launched the research program Gaian Systems: The Planetary Cognition Lab at Gaian Systems is a transdisciplinary research project to cultivate new forms and practices of planetary cognition by developing and curating narratives, media, and digital artworks that catalyze recognition of systemic-environmental embeddedness within a living or autopoietic planet. We think that Lynn Margulis’s autopoietic Gaia theory in particular offers a highly refined set of conceptual mediations by which to produce human-style planetary awareness in individuals regarding the forms of planetary cognition manifested by the Earth system and its self-regulatory loops.

While we try to think like a planet, let us also operate, co-operate like a planet by distributing and deepening cognitive relays that structurally couple the semi-autonomous operations of multiple Gaian systems. Thinking is one form of cognition, to be sure, but cognition also occurs both above and below the level of thought. It is not a shared consciousness but a massively parallel suite of cognitive processes that must connect human and nonhuman bodies and minds to the planet where they live. Exploring sensory-immersive and conceptual-speculative ways of grasping the role we have brought upon ourselves of actively enhancing Gaia’s viability for the long term, the Planetary Cognition Lab will experiment with comprehensive and compelling mediations that convey states of stress and wellbeing for the planetary processes upon which human activities have now encroached. Gaian Systems will house research and practice that reorients our view of Earth, from a collection of open resources to a systemic complex of dynamic and interconnected processes. Fashioning media technologies to integrate planetary science with immersive art, digital humanities, and popular culture, we hope to enhance collective affirmations of our planetary place and bond.

Bruce Clarke

Bruce Clarke is the 2018-19 Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology and the Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science in the Department of English at Texas Tech University.

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