February 8th, 2009


Supersize mind

One of the more interesting topics that came up in yesterday's three-hour livecast from the Loophole was the question of whether humans, in future, will have computers actually implanted into their brains. I thought they would, and imagined a semi-comical scenario in which a man defaulting on his broadband bills gets notice from his provider that his entire brain will be temporarily short-circuited until he pays up. Despite this sort of nightmare scenario, I said that I'd probably be someone who'd sign up for the "internalised computer" scenario, because I've largely externalised my brain. Click Opera, for instance, is a sort of externalised memory for me now, and I find it quite difficult to give a lecture without having it beaming and searchable on a screen behind me.

Today I read an interesting and related article in the London Review of Books on the same subject. Jerry Fodor's Where is my mind? is an explanation -- and attempted refutation -- of the position I adopted yesterday, which is (I learn) called the Extended Mind Thesis, or EMT. Fodor's article is a review of Andy Clark’s new book, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension.

In a preface (co-written by David Chalmers), Clark lays out a simple example of EMT; David's new iPhone. "I bought an iPhone. The iPhone has already taken over some of the central functions of my brain... My iPhone is not my tool, or at least it is not wholly my tool. Parts of it have become parts of me... When parts of the environment are coupled to the brain in the right way, they become parts of the mind."

Fodor doesn't buy this, and doesn't accept Clark's argument that, where person X remembers an address and person Y consults an iPhone to find it, the iPhone is an extension of person Y's mind. Clark says that an opponent of mind-supersizing (or EMT) would have to show there was a significant difference between person X and person Y in this example. The argument then takes in something called "the parity principle" and the slippery slope between the terms of a dualism -- at which point I lose patience with the philosophical hair-paring (everything in philosophy hinges on arbitrary definitions, and I tend to take the Pirandellian view; "right you are -- if you think so").

Fodor's big argument against EMT is that minds have contents, and can make decisions. He thinks that an iPhone can't have contents or make decisions, but what would he say about Click Opera? It surely does have contents -- the past activities of my brain and the brains of my interlocutors. And sure, it can't make decisions, but decision-making isn't the only brain function; there's also the storage of information in memory. Click Opera stores information that I no longer have in my brain; when I connect to this information, I have a way to remember. Click Opera can't substitute my brain, but it can extend it.

Fodor then modifies this by saying that the mind has "underived content" whereas an iPhone (and presumably Click Opera) has "derived" content -- content derived from the mind. I think this underestimates how much of the content of our minds is derived from other minds. In other words, if the mind extends into the world, by the same token the world impinges into the mind. Mind and world are really not distinguishable.

Fodor's arguments get too technical for me towards the end of his piece -- and when I arrive at the bottom I discover that his main intellectual enterprise seems to be pointing out Darwin's mistakes, which worries me somewhat. The general thrust of his argument seems to be posited on a belief in the absolute independence of the individual brain, a Cartesian insistence of its a priori separation from culture, body, world. I would be inclined much more to cultural determinism -- I'm entirely happy with the idea that our national cultures, our software, our media, and even our philosophical traditions (Mr Fodor!) think us. I don't think this determines us absolutely, but I do think it takes conscious effort to escape the patterning of, say, the way a music sequencing software engineer makes us think about music, or the way a British newspaper editor makes us think about current events in the world. I also think that one can't ever entirely escape structurations like these, only swap them for other structurations (improv jazz, a Japanese poet's take on current world events).

Most of all, though, I feel that Clark and Chalmers' supersizing idea -- the Extended Mind Thesis -- fits my life intuitively. I feel that both technology and media extend my mind, and mingle it with other minds. This is why I do what I do; I like that promiscuity, that cultural reproduction. Rinus said an interesting thing when we were talking about this yesterday. "If you wrote two entries a day, and scheduled them, you could keep blogging daily thirty years after you're dead," he said. It was a joke, but not really so far-fetched, and the perfect refutation of Fodor's case here. Even after the brain itself dies, the mind can live on thanks to culture, that fantastic extender and supersizer.