The Extended Mind

One of the current debates in Philosophy of Mind is the Extended Mind debate. The debate begins with David Chalmers and Andy Clark’s article “The Extended Mind”, which argues that a cognitive process can extend beyond the brain into an external artifact. This extension happens when an external artifact also aids a cognitive process. So, if writing down numbers and equations on a piece of paper aids my cognitive process of calculating, then it is also an extension of calculation. This extension forms a coupled-system in which a cognitive process is distributed between two entities. Chalmers and Clark would give several examples, but one notable example is Otto’s notebook. Otto suffers from a mild case of Alzheimer’s, so he relies on his notebook to write down and remember the directions to his favorite museum. When Otto uses his notebook to remember the directions, he is able to go to his favorite museum. Inga, on the other hand, does not need to rely on her notebook, since her memory works just fine. Inga is able to go to her museum, because she already remembers the directions. Chalmers and Clark argue that two cases of Inga and Otto are analogous insofar as both rely on something to store and retrieve information. Chalmers and Clark conclude that Otto and his notebook form coupled-system that functions as his memory, since it functions similarly to Inga’s internal memory.

There are many proponents for the Extended Mind, but there are relatively few critics. The outspoken and well-known critics are Adams and Aizawa. In their article “The bounds of cognition”, Adams and Aizawa argue that Clark and Chalmers need to identify the mark of the cognitive before they can conclude anything about the Extended Mind. Adams and Aizawa think that the mark of the cognitive has to be non-derivative content and the causal mechanisms that process it. As far as Adams and Aizawa are concerned, Otto’s notebook does not constitute as his memory, since it does not process non-derivative content. Instead, Otto’s notebook merely possesses a derived content that derives from Otto’s mind. Furthermore, they argue that it needs to be shown that the external process must be continuous with the internal process such that both process the same non-derivative content in a similar way. So, if an external artifact really is an extension of my cognitive process, it also needs to process a non-derivative content in a similar way that my brain does. Otherwise, its not really an extension.

I honestly side with Adams and Aizawa in this debate. I think they’re correct that as far as we know cognition remains as processes of the brain. My main problem with the whole Extended Mind debate, as far as I’ve read it, is there are too many careless analogies and examples. In my opinion, I think the Otto’s notebook argument is a horrible one. The underlying process that stores and retrieves information in Otto’s head seems fundamentally different from Otto writing down information in his notebook. Chalmers and Clark used the tetris thought experiment to argue that a tetris computer is an extension of our mind. They argue that if we accept that mentally rotating a shape with or without a brain implant is a cognitive process, then why can’t we accept using a tetris computer as a cognitive process? After all, both the brain implant and the tetris computer are computational process that we rely on. My mentor Georges Rey personally pointed out to me that we are only beginning to learn how the process of mental rotation works, whereas we have a good understanding of how the process of rotating an object in a computer screen works. I think he has a point. So, not only is it too early to say whether or not a tetris computer is an extension of our cognitive process of mental rotation, but also we have very good reasons to suspect that the process of mental rotation is fundamentally different from how we rotate an object in a computer screen.

I lost some interest in the Extended Mind debate, since there really isn’t that much debate anymore. From what I learn from Elizabeth Schechter, the Extended Mind proponents mostly talk among themselves. Most philosophers who disagree with the Extended Mind aren’t very interested in the debate anymore except Adams and Aizawa. Nowadays, the Extended Mind proponents are just writing about what it means for a cognitive or mental process to be extended. Some believe that mental states can also be extended, whereas others think that only process can be extended.

I admit that this is a biased blog post about the Extended Mind. I personally lost some interest in the debate, but I’m writing about it since it’s one of the first philosophical debates I read about fairly well. I’m writing a critique against the Extended Mind as my honors thesis with my mentor Georges Rey. Rey pretty much dislikes the Extended Mind position. I recall that he even cringed reading Andy Clark’s arguments against the distinction between non-derivative content and derived content. But I digress. My honors thesis is basically about how our cerebral hemispheres (right and left) constitute a coupled system, since there is an inter-hemispheric communication between them. I assumed throughout my paper that our cerebral hemispheres is an unified agent that consist of two minds. I go further to argue that under the Extended Mind if two cognitive agents (let’s say conjoined twins) communicate with one another, then they also form a coupled system. I argued that this coupled system is analogous to the cerebral hemispheres as far as the Extended Mind is concerned. If this is the case, then wouldn’t that coupled-system constitute as a unified agent? After all, if a coupled system is analogous to the cerebral hemisphere, then why can’t a coupled system of two cognitive agents constitute as a unified agent?

This is pretty much my reductio ad absudum argument against the Extended Mind. I argued that someone who isn’t an Extended Mind proponent like Adams and Aizawa would suspect that the process of interhemispheric communication is fundamentally different from that of personal communication between two normal cognitive agents. Georges Rey pretty much wants me to spell that out and explicitly emphasize it from a theoretical point of view. I have yet to spell out that difference.

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2 thoughts on “The Extended Mind

  1. Matt Bush

    Suppose I get a neuromorphic integrated neuroprosthesis that allows me to basically have a Google Glass HUD in my field of vision that I can switch on and off in the way I can decide to pay attention to some area of my body or not to pay attention to some area of my body. It takes information i/o from my neural activity. It then becomes part of my cognitive toolkit and integrated with my mind.

    Now say there was an older version that did more or less the same thing, but instead of being electrochemically integrated with my neural circuits, neural signals are mechanically detected by a plate that transduces the information into a way that the prosthesis can read. Then the device uses optogenetics (a neuromodulation technique) to manipulate V1 into producing the Google Glass HUD.

    The devices do the same thing; the latter would do so with lower fidelity, but they’re both thoroughly integrated into the user’s mental life. If you accept that, then it seems that this entails:

    The mechanical output and visual input of information involved in my electrochemical bits when manipulating my Android smartphone makes it the same species of neuroprosthesis. It functions like an additional computational device integrated with my cognitive prosthesis. The phone is a part of my extended mind, just as my working memory is.

    Reply
  2. Matt Bush

    I accept the Extended Mind thesis. What would make neuroprostheses that did some of what my smartphone does not a part of my mind? Objections to cyborg minds just strikes me as protein chauvinism.

    Suppose I get a neuromorphic integrated neuroprosthesis that allows me to basically have a Google Glass HUD in my field of vision that I can switch on and off in the way I can decide to pay attention to some area of my body or not to pay attention to some area of my body. It takes information i/o from my neural activity. It then becomes part of my cognitive toolkit and integrated with my mind.

    Now say there was an older version that did more or less the same thing, but instead of being electrochemically integrated with my neural circuits, neural signals are mechanically detected by a plate that transduces the information into a way that the prosthesis can read. Then the device uses optogenetics (a neuromodulation technique) to manipulate V1 into producing the Google Glass HUD.

    The devices do the same thing; the latter would do so with lower fidelity, but they’re both thoroughly integrated into the user’s mental life. If you accept that, then it seems that this entails:

    The mechanical output and visual input of information involved in my electrochemical bits when manipulating my Android smartphone makes it the same species of neuroprosthesis. It functions like an additional computational device integrated with my cognitive prosthesis. The phone is a part of my extended mind, just as my working memory is.

    As I’ve alluded to, I accept the mind as the totality of integrated cognitive functions. It’s a very scientifically and metaphysically useful concept; particularly in demarcating between cognitive science and straight computer science.

    Interestingly, when I showed an engineer friend Chalmers’ TEDx talk on the Extended Mind thesis, he took it as obvious, trivial and unremarkable. It actually took me explaining the age gap between us and Chalmers before he got that it was an interesting thing in philosophy.

    Reply

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