Saturday, November 06, 2010

Amplifying thought

An article in Science magazine reviews The Extended Mind (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology) by Richard Menary. That book in turn focuses on "The Extended Mind" by Andy Clark and David Chalmers with responses to Clark and Chalmers' thesis.
There they defend the idea that the mind "extends" into the environment in cases in which a human organism and the environment become cognitively coupled systems. Their by now iconic illustration of cognitive coupling involves "Otto," a "slightly amnesic" person, who uses a notebook to write down important facts that he is otherwise likely to forget. Unlike a person who remembers the address of the Museum of Modern Art by relying on natural memory, Otto recalls it by accessing his notebook. If one supposes that the notebook is constantly available to Otto and that what is written in it is endorsed by Otto, it becomes plausible—so Clark and Chalmers argue—that Otto's memory extends to include the notebook. After all, they notice, Otto's notes seem to play exactly the same role as memory traces in other people. Wouldn't it be chauvinistic to restrict the mind's extent to what's natural and inner?
It seems to me that it is better to consider Otto's notebook as an aid to thinking with one's brain as comparable to a lever as an aid to the flexing of one's muscles in achieving a human purpose. Certainly computers seem to me to be artificial means to amplify our thinking very comparable to the way that motor driven machines are are artificial means to amplify our physical ability to manipulate our environment.

The review also states:
Recently, this idea of the mind not being confined to the head has been reinvigorated by philosophers and cognitive scientists, who see the mind as "spreading out" or "extending" into the world. "How do you know the way to San José?" philosopher John Haugeland has famously asked (2). Chances are you don't have some inner analog of a printed map. Rather, you know where you should enter the highway, and then you get there by following the road signs. Your knowledge seems to be partially "implemented" in the environment. There is now a blooming field of research into "situation cognition," which explores how cognitive or mental phenomena such as problem solving or remembering can be strongly dependent on interactions between subjects and their environments.
If the mind is what we perceive as the program of the computing device called the brain, then perhaps the reflex is a program for the control of our muscles. If you were to run a complex and physically demanding maze again and again it seems to me you might well develop muscular reflexes that would help you to run it faster and more safely. Would you call the maze an extension of the reflex? I think not.

The mind is that with which we think we think, but the brain is actually that with which we think. The brain is, of course, not just a logical device but a living organ that is also (among other things) what we emote with, what we metabolize nutrients with and what we fill our skulls with. We may think we think logically, but all too often our thinking is emotional and illogical. (Or perhaps just often enough, or not often enough!)

It seems to me useful to consider the ways in which we amplify our "mental abilities". There are ways which, like Otto with his notebook, a person augments his/her own memory. Similarly, a person might use paper and pencil to do arithmetic or algebra, augmenting his/her analytic ability. Computers are machines which one can purchase to augment one's mental abilities in a number of ways, as loud speakers are machines which one can purchase to augment one's ability to communicate at a distance.

I suppose that Homo sapiens as a social species has evolved to solve problems in small groups better than the individual can solve them alone. We have developed a lot of technology to allow us to think collectively in larger and more disperse groups, and we have developed social institutions which seem to allow us to think better collectively than we did with simple historical institutions.

The Internet and the World Wide Web are extending such developments. Think of Wikipedia as a developing technology-based institution that allows millions of people to record, organize and retrieve information.

Of course maps, street signs, and now the GPS are aids to finding one's way. They depend on institutions and technology. But why would it be helpful to think of them as parts of the mind, or even the "extended mind"?

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