Mind the Mind Gap

supersizeme_v21Isn’t trying to understand how the mind works difficult enough that we shouldn’t be trying to “extend” it outside of our heads?  Of course not, because philosophy occasionally needs a novel twist to keep people from entirely blowing it off.  Such is the role of David Chalmers’ and Andy Clark’s “Extended Mind Theory” (EMT), featured  in Clark’s new book, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension.

I haven’t finished the book, so I’ll hold back on anything resembling a full review. But I will direct your attention to an exceptionally entertaining review by philosopher Jerry Fodor in the London Review of Books.

If you’re unfamiliar with EMT, the basic premise is that things we conventionally think of as tools residing outside of our minds (notebooks, laptops, iPhones, etc) are actually parts of our minds. In other words, the mind/world dualism that most of us, without thinking about it, consider obviously correct is actually quite wrong — just as untenable as mind/body dualism.  Chalmers’ now famous example used to make sense of this is the “Otto and Inga” scenario, which goes like this:

Consider the cases of Otto and Inga, both of whom want to go to the museum. Inga remembers where it is and goes there; Otto has a notebook in which he has recorded the museum’s address. He consults the notebook, finds the address, and then goes on his way. The suggestion is that there is no principled difference between the two cases: Otto’s notebook is (or may come with practice to serve as) an ‘external memory’, literally a ‘part of his mind’ that resides outside his body. Correspondingly, Otto’s consulting his notebook and Inga’s consulting her memory are, at least from the viewpoint of an enlightened cognitive scientist, both cognitive processes.

Fodor, with his trademark wit, takes on EMT at its foundation: it’s the content, stupid.  

The mark of the mental is its intensionality (with an ‘s’); that’s to say that mental states have content; they are typically about things. And (with caveats presently to be considered) only what is mental has content. It’s thus unsurprising that considerations about content are most of what drives intuitions about what’s mental.

Even very clever tools like iPhones – aren’t parts of minds. Nothing happens in your mind when your iPhone rings (unless, of course, you happen to hear it do so). That’s not, however, because iPhones are ‘external’, it’s because iPhones don’t, literally and unmetaphorically, have contents.

But what about an iPhone’s ringing? That means something; it means that someone is calling. And it happens on the outside by anybody’s standard.  And also, come to think of it, what about iPhones that have had numbers programmed in? So, even if shovels and the like can’t be parts of minds, how does insisting on the intensionality of the mental rule out notebooks and iPhones?

That’s a fair question, and part of what I’ve been saying wasn’t quite true. What I should have said isn’t that only what’s literally and unmetaphorically mental has content, but that if something literally and unmetaphorically has content, then either it is mental (part of a mind) or the content is ‘derived’ from something that is mental. ‘Underived’ content (to borrow John Searle’s term) is the mark of the mental; underived content is what minds and only minds have. Since the content of Otto’s notebook is derived (i.e. it’s derived from Otto’s thoughts and his intentions with a ‘t’), the intensionality of its entries does not argue for its being part of Otto’s mind.

In other words, our minds, and only our minds, can possess “underived” content.  iPhones can’t possess it — content must be put into the iPhone.  Same applies to any external gadget or tool you can think of; content must be entered into the tool for it to be of any use to your mind. Therefore, iPhones and the like are repositories for content that must be derived from elsewhere. They are, to beat the dead horse yet again, external tools.

This is the mind gap, and as Fodor points out in his review, Clark stumbles around it with various metaphors but never soundly addresses it. He also attempts to boil the entire distinction down to what he apparently sees as an internalist red herring:  internalists, he says, take “one step too many” when explaining how content is accessed by the mind.  For example, Inga, when she remembers the directions, does not need an extra step to reach the information — it’s there in her mind. So, Clark argues, is the case with Otto — we needn’t believe that he is taking another step to reach the information in his notebook, because it’s right there ready for him to use.

Fodor dismantles that position handily:

There is after all, a built-in asymmetry between Otto’s sort of case and Inga’s sort. Otto really does go through one more process than Inga: consulting his notebook really is a link in the causal chain that runs from his wanting to go the museum to his getting there. By contrast, Inga’s ‘consulting her memories’ is a fake; and it’s a particularly naughty fake because 1. it makes Inga’s case look more like Otto’s than it can possibly be, and 2. it obscures the critically important fact that the (derived) intensionality of what happens on the outside depends ontologically on the (underived) intensionality of what happens on the inside. Externalism needs internalism; but not vice versa. External representation is a side-show; internal representation is ineliminably the main event.

It seems as though Chalmers and Clark are really positing a sort of neuro-philosophical mysticism, fueled by vivid metaphor and capable of conjuring interesting theoretical arguments, but short on evidence and failing, as Fodor shows, to address basic issues that have been part of philosophical discourse for years.

I think EMT has an appeal for the same reason that well written science fiction has an appeal: it engages the imagination with a challenging vision. The problem is that when our feet come back down on the ground, the vision can’t really hold up. Though, to Chalmers’ and Clark’s credit, it does influence us to think in new directions.


1 Comment

Filed under Books and Ideas

One response to “Mind the Mind Gap

  1. Great question. I think of a professor years ago who said that medical should not be about memorizing the phone book, but rather about learning how to look up stuff in the phone book efficiently (sounded good at the time–so why wasn’t the exam open book?).

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