Gee Whiz!: Extensive Exuberance and Cognitive Confabulation

The dynamic duo! Hmm, they sure do look happy…

Andy Clark and David Chalmers present a view of the mind in their appropriately titled article, The Extended Mind, that is, in a word, incredible.  It is my aim in this paper to demonstrate why one should find their view to be so, in terms both of its functionalist foundations and for its strongly counter-intuitive consequences (particularly as these concern personal identity).  Before I can present my criticism, however, the view itself must be presented.

Put succinctly, Clark and Chalmers’ view is that cognition and the mind literally extend beyond the boundaries of our physical bodies and out into the surrounding environment – as they put it, “[c]ognitive processes ain’t (all) in the head!”  One may, at this juncture, be tempted simply to proclaim their insanity and to leave it at that (I certainly am) but the pair has a reasonable seeming set of conditions for their view that, when satisfied, makes it much less obviously crazy seeming.  The first condition states that “[i]f, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, [sic] we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is… part of the cognitive process.”  However, it is not simply that there is something outside the skull that performs a cognitive function that is then employed by another entity1 that makes external thing a part of the entity’s mind.  In order for this to be so, a second condition must be met – if any feature of the external world is to be considered a part of a mind, then it must be integrated with other components (some of which might be, for instance, a human mind as ordinarily understood) into a ‘coupled system’.  These coupled systems are characterized by dynamic, two-way interactions among their constituent parts, all of which “play an active causal role” (Clark and Chalmers 8).  These are, of course, functionalist criteria – whatever plays a certain functionally defined role for a system just is whatever that role picks out (e.g. pain) (Putnam 161 -163).  Examples help to make clear how this might work and the dynamic duo is kind enough to indulge their readership with two.

The first is a study conducted on the mental rotation of objects by human subjects with and without the aid of Tetris.2  The upshot of the study was that although players are capable of altering the positions and rotations of the game’s variously shaped blocks, when the game itself was used to do these tasks at the behest and on behalf of the human player, the speed at which these tasks were accomplished improved dramatically.  This is all to say that, insofar as a human subject of the study was instructed to manipulate shapes and the Tetris program was used to facilitate that task, the program itself became part of the subject’s cognition (Clark and Chalmers 7-8).

The second example is a story about two people, Inga and Otto, who want to visit the Museum of Modern Art.  Inga is a neurotypical human being and so, when she decides that she wants to go to MOMA, she simply remembers (perhaps with a little effort) where it is located (53rd Street) and is off on her merry way.  Otto, too, wants to go to MOMA, but it is not so simple for him – he (sadly) has a strange disorder that prohibits him from remembering information like telephone numbers or addresses.  Fortunately, he has a notebook that he uses to store just this sort of information, so when the urge to go strikes him, he looks up the address and then is also off on his merry way.  Clark and Chalmers assert on the basis of this example that both Inga and Otto have the belief that MOMA is located on 53rd Street – the only difference between the two cases being that Inga’s belief is stored internally and Otto’s is stored ‘externally’in his notebook (Clark and Chalmers 12-13).  Not to belabour the point, but the externality of the belief that is referred to here must be interpreted as ‘physically external to the organism Otto’ and not ‘external to Otto’s mind’, since the point that Clark and Chalmers are trying to make precisely is that the belief is still internal to Otto’s mind, never mind where it’s physically stored.

If these examples prove Clark and Chalmers’ view right, then they do so by demonstration that the functionalist criteria that the view rests upon can be satisfied by external objects.  On first glance, they appear to do just this, but looks can be deceiving.  First, there is the matter of the functional roles these facets of the external world are supposed to play in the examples.  Secondly, there is the question of whether these external features of the world do in fact form dynamically coupled systems with human agents.

From the Tetris case, although the program is doing some of the shape-rotating for the subject, it’s not clear that when she uses the program she is anymore engaged in the mental rotation of shapes – instead, it seems she has shifted to doing something rather like manipulating physical blocks.  The key to understanding this, I think, is that she is only aware of the blocks as ‘objects’ in her visual field (one of the ways we are aware of physical objects we can’t touch) and that when she presses the ‘rotate’ button, the program represents them as reoriented in physical space.  It is unclear to me how this is substantially different from moving physical shapes with her own two hands.  On this analysis, the program actually satisfies the functionally defined role of physical manipulation and not that of mental rotation.  Moreover, if I am correct about this, then the seemingly ‘dynamic’ mutual causal interaction no longer seems so dynamic.  This is so because the subject is relating to the program as though she were relating to actual physical objects instead of to a dynamic computational mechanism and as physical objects specifically of the sort that do not initiate causal sequences on their own.

A dynamically coupled system!

Then there is the matter of Otto and his notebook.  Clark and Chalmers insist that Otto, just like Inga, has the belief that MOMA is on 53rd, only that his belief is relevant to what is written in his notebook.  What seems important about this example, however, is that the notebook stands in for Otto’s memory, not his beliefs3, so the question is really a matter of whether what is written in the notebook counts as memories – that is, does it perform the functionally defined role of memories?  On the one hand, it is stored information authored by Otto, so it actually seems like the notebook might be a good candidate for memories.  However, there are some common counter-examples that belie this appearance.  For example, if someone were to unearth a piece of work one evidently did but has no recollection of (say, old papers from grade school), it would seem incorrect to say that, in reading it, one is ‘remembering’ what he wrote – it seems more accurate to say that he is ‘learning’ what he wrote.  This example exactly parallels Otto’s since Otto has no recollection whatsoever of what he has written and (presumably) only knows that he is its author precisely because it is in his notebook.  So there is something strange about the contents of the notebook being memories.

Furthermore, there is the problem of whether Otto and his notebook truly comprise a dynamic coupled system.  Again, it is not at all clear that they do – especially since all the obvious causal activity comes from Otto’s side, whether that means his writing in it, searching through it to find pertinent information, etc.  Clark and Chalmers might respond that, nevertheless, what is written in the book causes some effect or other in Otto’s brain, which effect plays the role of ‘memory’ and forms the basis of statements about belief.  However, what is written in the notebook is mere ink on paper and requires interpretation before it can do anything like direct Otto to 53rd Street.  Thus for human infants, the illiterate, non-English speakers, and animals (to name a few) the notebook and its contents would not have this sort of causal efficacy.  The question seems to be whether the effect ostensibly ‘caused’ by what is written in the notebook can really be substantially attributed to it in light of the fact that practically all the action is taking place within Otto’s brain.  Once the words have been taken in and fed to the brain’s interpretive faculties (via the visual processing centres, etc.) the notebook has no further essential causal role to play in Otto’s ‘remembrance’.  I think that, while it is necessary to have causal inputs to have meaningful engagement with the external world, it makes little sense to say that the external world becomes a single thing with any agent.

This last brings me, finally, to the view’s consequences.  Leaving behind the matter of whether the functionalist criteria gives us what Clark and Chalmers suppose, if it is granted that they do, truly bizarre results emerge.  Firstly, say that Otto and the notebook have formed a dynamically coupled system and that the notebook is serving as his memory.  This raises an important question – who exactly is ‘remembering’?  It is unclear whether it is Otto, the notebook, or the whole system that is ‘remembering’ MOMA’s location, or which has beliefs about it.  It does not follow from Otto’s being a necessary part of the cognitive system that he has the memory, just as it does not follow from the eyes being a necessary part of the visual system that they see anything at all.

That explains a lot.

Secondly, the view makes a complete hash of personal identity.  If someone is using a search engine, the computer will have become part of his mind, until he stops using the computer and moves on to playing music (say), at which point a musical instrument might well count as part of his mind.  There no longer remains a clear or meaningful boundary that delimits self from not-self on this view, but experientially it does not seem that way – he and the computer very much ‘feel’ like different things to him.  Then there are cases where two or more minded beings could plausibly be said to be dynamically coupled systems – say, in a predator-prey relationship.  The fox and the field mouse are definitely mutually causally efficacious and dynamically so.  Furthermore, they could plausibly be construed as playing a functionally defined mental role for the other (‘predator’ or ‘prey’).  If this works, it has two very strange consequences.  One, the predator and prey actually don’t have any clearly distinct identities, but sort of bleed into one another.  Two, part of the prey’s own mind is trying to kill it!  Obviously, these are not good consequences for the view.

In this paper, I provided Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ view that cognition and the mind literally extend into space.  I explored their functionalist account of how this might work and attempted to demonstrate that these criteria actually cannot be met by such external features of the world.  I then provided some considerations of the counter-intuitive consequences the view would have, were it correct.  On the basis of these arguments, I believe I have proven true my thesis that their position is incredible.


1 Although it is not discussed by Clark and Chalmers, it is not obvious that there is any reason why some other species of animal could not also have its mind or cognitive states extend into the environment.  Indeed, it is probable that, should the view pan out, there are species known to us for whom this is the case.

 2 Tetris is a popular video game in which the player “arranges the blocks that fall endlessly from up above.”  See:

3 I must admit some perplexity why they decided to focus on Otto’s beliefs.  In more cynical moments, I suspect it is because beliefs are slippery things to functionally define in a way that memories are not and, as such, allow lots of problems to go unnoticed.