The Mystery of Intelligence: Organic and Inorganic Foundations

Reference & EducationCollege & University

  • Author Robert Depaolo
  • Published June 5, 2022
  • Word count 2,591


This article discusses a possible aspect of the natural world that transcends the functions of brain and mind, facilitates decision making and intelligent behavior and operates according to electro-information principles. At the root of what could be referred to as cosmic intelligence is the tendency for all systems with information content to operate in two phases. One is the extrapolation of information from states on uncertainty. The other is the tendency among all entities with essence (molecular and otherwise) to maintain systemic integrity. The assumption here is that free floating bits of information permeate the universe. That includes both neurons in the brains of organisms and interactive particles, in a cosmos that resembles a vast communications network resolving mismatches and sustaining the homeostatic operations of formed systems.

The natural world presents as a mystery, not just because of its wonders, its variety of life forms or the unique manner in which it developed over the course of time, but also because, despite our fascination with its laws we do not seem able to completely understand how it works.

For example, in the aftermath of Newton's calculations and Einstein's General Relativity Theory we thought we could come to understand how gravity worked. and in a larger context how the universe came to be. Some, particularly Einstein believed we might ultimately be able to predict, and to an extent control many aspects of nature through the precision of classical physics. Then along came quantum mechanics which revealed that the universe is too elusive and probabilistic to allow for human prediction and control.

We also thought - as per our anthropocentric proclivities, that there was a correlation between mind and intelligence, more specifically between 'brain' and 'learning.' Now that idea has been all but debunked. It has become clear that intelligence (or the behavioral components by which it is often described) transcends brain structure and function. For example, research on slime molds (one celled amoeba known as physarum polycephalum) has shown brainless entities can make decisions, remember, change their behavior patterns in light of changing stimuli and even solve the armed bandit problem (Reid, MacDonald et al. 2016).

While recent findings have shed new light on the fact that brainless intelligence exists in virtually all organisms, the idea has a long history. For example, in a 1972 article entitled The Phylogeny of Behavior noted psycho physiologist James Olds wrote: "It is apparent that prior to the emergence of the brain as we know it there were many important behavior mechanisms. In animals without nervous systems without neurons, with only one cell making up the whole animal there is evidence for approach reactions toward some things, withdrawal from others, consumptive reactions which put particles which were on the outside of the animal on the inside to digest them, and there are also mechanisms for behavior change."

Moreover, various others have chimed in with a pan-natural explanation of intelligence, one very interesting example was espoused by Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane in their book Design in Nature. In this book they asserted that energy dispersion is the quintessential determinant in all aspects of nature and that there is a kind of intelligent flow of energy from greatest to the least resistance. Examples they offered range from the flow of a river to traffic patterns in a big city to the path taken by veins and arteries and neuronal transmission in the human brain and body (2013) Their view of natural intelligence pertains more to the flow of energy based on electrical properties and derivative physical laws than with decision making per se, but they do include intelligent behavior as deriving from this basic process.

Others have opted for more cognitive explanations. For example, Morris has stated that plants make decisions despite being brainless, and can change their behavior in the face of changing circumstances.

On one hand, all of this makes the question of intelligence murky. What is it? An electro-mechanical process that has always existed in the universe and was simply enhanced with the advent of nerves and brain, or perhaps something so uncertain - like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle that we cannot really define it in a classical sense?

It involves interesting points. One has pessimistic overtones. For example, does uncertainty about the nature and source of intelligence say something about the inability of human beings to define how nature works without resorting to self-reference? Another is rather positive and illuminating because that same uncertainty virtually calls for a broad, universal and unified theory of "mind" and that is an exciting prospect.

In order to broach the subject of root intelligence one must begin with fundamental questions. First, by asking about qualities that pervade all of nature, tying the brainless and the inorganic to the encephalized and organic. What do all of nature's entities have in common?

There are several possible answers to that question. One is that all have either manifest or potential energy. That means all are composed of petrochemical properties that behave in lawful ways; ranging from laws of resistance to the relationship of force to mass and differences in charge by which particles and cells are activated - for example as seen in the sodium-potassium pump, "all or none" principle of brain activation (Forest 2014)

A second possible answer pertains to the fact that for entities to be 'entities' they must exist (pardon the tautology) and to do, so they must have tangible, measurable and constant properties. Despite being composed of numerous atoms they are systemic. Somehow, the atomic configurations in all things with structural and functional essence have been able to blend together into a cooperative process. A third factor is that, except for photons, all of these entities have some degree of mass, which provides a feedback mechanism by which to gauge their constancy, i.e. determine whether any given entity is maintaining its stability (and mass), diminishing or flying apart.

The idea of stability, i.e. systemic integrity can be defined in the broadest (non-anthropocentric) sense as a kind of memory. As a crude example, being systemic (bound together as a unified whole separate from the outside world) the atoms embedded in a rock will know something about its mass and will tend to sustain its mass, absent some compelling outside force. While looking at a rock does not involve anything fascinating or cognitive, its very stability is testimony to its capacity to hold together in a structurally stable manner. Since its binding, systemic property is the result of electrical charges attracting or repelling one another, the rock - like the principle of inertia, will tend toward stasis once its atoms align systemically to create a form. Once that happens, the rock can be described as an information system in which components are in effect communicating with each other with regard to charge, spatial and mass interactions. As with any form of communication there must be agreement among all those components for the rock to remain a rock. The question is whether such a crude example can extend to intelligence and life forms.

An analogy can be seen in the concept of the self - of human identity. If one believes he is smart but contradictory information challenges that assumption the self won't simply sway toward acceptance of that contradictory input. Rather, defense mechanisms will be enacted to restore the idea of the intelligent self. In other words, both the self and the rock will tend to adhere to a systemic understanding of itself and opt for maintenance.

That characteristic seems to typify everything in nature. For example, physicists Richard Feynman, David Bohm, Simon de Broglie and quantum originator Max Planck have essentially described the universe as being entangled., i.e. inter-related and pan-communicative. In collaboration with Karl Pribram, David Bohm viewed all the cosmos as being much like one giant electron, all parts of which influenced the overall properties and structure of the cosmos (2020). In applying this to human cognition Pribram wrote that the brain is a hologram rather than being separable into distinct functions and circuits relegated to speech, motor control, emotion etc. He contended that the rather mysterious, unfathomably voluminous ways in which human memory can be stored and overlap in retrieval proves the point (1972)

If there is an implicit oneness in nature, if this oneness has as its fundamental backdrop the transmission of energy and information - both of which tend toward oneness in the form of conservation and systemic integrity (homeostasis) that might have relevance to what is referred to as intelligence.

Does that in the broadest sense mean intelligence is really just a mechanism facilitated by the contained petrochemical interactions by which to sustain systemic integrity - brains being modifications and enhancements of that process while deriving from the same electro-informational source? An interesting parallel can be drawn between that idea and Freud's notion of the psyche.

In discussing the ego - the component of mind responsible for apportionment of need and social probity, (in other words the intellectual aspect of mind that predicts, measures and channels energy) Freud wrote that its main operational purpose was to maintain psychic stability, i.e. psychological homeostasis. It was his belief that the mind, as part of the human body functioned in much the same way as the soma - thus the description of his theory as the "medical model." Freud viewed the ego as an intellectual faculty - indeed in clinical circles it is assumed ego strength is a function of general intelligence. Yet the purpose of this cognitive function was not to enhance knowledge per se but to maintain psychic integrity.

If these various examples of intelligence are tied to electro-informational stasis, all intellectual/cognitive aspects of the natural world could be presumed characterized by an overriding tendency to continue to exist - to maintain stasis. This implies that anything described as having intelligence would have to operate on two levels; first by addressing the outside world to meet needs, solve problems, etc. Second, would have to render decisions that serve the purpose of sustaining organic integrity, i.e. constitutional, informational, cellular constancy.

Both of these purposes can be applied to inorganic systems, which might not demonstrate the kind of intelligence that leads to invention of the printing press but do act and decide in ways that keep the entity on track systemically.

That leads to the heart of the matter, i.e. the factor connecting all aspects of nature under the rubric of cosmic intelligence. What common quality exists among slime molds, Kantian philosophers, leaf cutter ants (who engage in a proto-agricultural behavior) and various forms of plant life that bend in the direction of sunlight and burrow deep enough underground to secure water? It would seem to be the capacity to process feedback to determine when stability is either sustained or threatened. That in turn means all these entities must have above all else, a signaling capability, i.e. be above all else communication systems.

It turns out that property is quite available to all entities regardless of the complexity of the entity/organism. All information - all signals are transmitted through electro-information processes. Electric stimulation is one critical component of that process, which suggests anything with electrons, photons or other particles embedded in their composition will have a capacity to send and receive signals.

That makes the "it from bit" theory of John Wheeler seem quite relevant. He, along with various other physicists tried for decades to explain how a celestial body in one part of the universe could correlate its behavior i.e. interact with another so far away as to seemingly (in line with the restraints of light speed) preclude the possibility of communication. Many of these scientists have been forced to conclude that somehow the entire universe is connected, as if, in the words of David Bohm it is one giant electron.

Whether such a super-unification idea makes sense, it does seem evident that since a general definition of intelligence would include the capacity to send and receive signals as a means of testing for systemic integrity and adjusting to change. Electro-informational properties are all that is needed to accomplish that.

In that context it might be important to ask what the benefit is in having nerve nets and central nervous systems if they are not absolutely needed to maintain stasis. The answer can be provided in a Darwinian context. Brains are simply an augmentation of that basic process - not the source of intelligence but a mechanism by which intelligence can be enhanced. The same process that led to a conversion from gills to lungs, fins to legs. Claws to fingers possibly led to the subtle electrical components built into cells and smaller a-cephalic organisms expanding into brains.

A prototype example of that process can be seen in the evolution of seahorses. Prior to their emergence, organisms in the oceans moved toward light sources, warmth etc. by drifting according to currents. These organisms had needs, had a homeostatic essence but had little movement independence. They were at once separated from the outside environment by virtue of their unique cellular makeup, yet still woven into it for lack of internally driven electrical decision making capacities.

Then along came the sea horse, with a new cluster of neurons - extensions of the electrical elements situated in back of their heads, like the motor in a speed boat. With that, they became able to voluntarily move from one place to another in search of prey beyond current influence (Gemmell. Shang et al. 2013). That influx of neural matter provided a final separation between them and that world around them.

In that sense the evolution of increasing neuronal complexity - all the way up to brains, might have been nature's way of providing increasingly independent movement, increased organic information and what we now refer to as motivation, or the "will." In a somewhat whimsical sense, one might extrapolate from that by proposing that the ultimate "separation" in nature arose within the vast human brain, which not only enables us to further separate ourselves from the outside world but also to control it to an extent. The final stage of this evolutionary distinction process would be arguably, the advent of personal identity and of the self.


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Robert DePaolo, M.S. Clinical Psychology, Retired practitioner in fields of clinical, education and neuropsychology. Former adjunct prof psychology NH University System

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