Monday, February 25, 2008

My notebook + my brain = my mind?

{ Podcast this essay } If you were to ask someone to find the exact location of their mind, they would be unable to reliably do so. Obviously, there would be the common sense response that the mind is in the head; and, true enough, we are not completely lacking information about the brain. Still, the precise location of the mind is unknown, for there is not some special part the brain (the cerebellum, hypothalamus, or the like) wherein is held the location of "the mind." But of the many attributes which are often associated with the mind, relationships with physical components of the brain have been noted -- i.e., firing of neuron set X in some particular pattern has some correlation with varying beliefs, desires, or actions.

Since observation locates the mind as somehow in the brain (due to its relationship to the brain), it seems allowable that we could make similar claims regarding the mind’s location if it participated in similar relationships with (or within) other objects. There are some philosophers who have considered the possibility at length. In their article “The Extended Mind,” authors Andy Clark and David Chalmers take up this possibility seriously. They conclude that this relationship between the mind and various external objects is such that we should believe “the mind extends into the world."[1] In some ways this is obvious. The mind is in the brain, and the brain is in the world; therefore, the mind is in the world. Yet Clark and Chalmers have something a bit more radical to offer. Yes, we might agree that the mind is in the brain, but does the mind have to be completely and only in the brain? They think it does not, but the issue isn't so clear, as I'll try to suggest in a moment.

I. Otto and Inga

The authors argue their point in regards to the beliefs of two hypothetical people, Inga and Otto, who are described in the following way: Inga hears from a friend that there is an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. She thinks for a moment and recalls that the museum is on 53rd street, so she walks to 53rd street and goes to the museum. On the hand, there is Otto, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which necessitates him carrying a notebook around with him everywhere. When he learns new information he writes it down. (Otherwise, he's likely to forget the information.) Like Inga, Otto also hears about the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. So he consults the notebook, which says that the museum is on 53rd Street, so he walks to 53rd street and goes into the museum.[1]

At this point a philosophical question arises -- Is Inga’s relationship to her beliefs sufficiently the same to Otto’s relationship to his notebook (an external object) to warrant calling both an extension their mind? The notebook fulfills an informative role for Otto that Inga’s beliefs fulfill for her, so the two cases are analogous in this respect. There are some other minor differences between the two cases but these are shown to be shallow differences that should not hinder one from drawing the conclusion that the notebook is, somehow, an extension of Otto's mind. Granted, Inga's beliefs are somehow coded in gooey material called brain matter, while Otto's beliefs are encoded in paper within a spiral notebook. But that doesn't make any relevant difference. Imagine a friend arguing that since you recorded your piano recital on a laptop's hard drive, but that since he recorded it on a .mp3 player; therefore, he has the real recital recorded, but you don't. You would rightly chide him by saying the media doesn't make a difference. Perhaps Otto mumbles such rebuttals under his breath about his friends and their so-called "real beliefs."

The similarities do tempt us to say Otto has (some of) his beliefs about an art museum in a notebook, and Inga has some of her beliefs about an art museum in a brain. Yet, there is one problem which might be considered a “deep difference.” This difference is in regards to the directness of the relationship between Otto and his notebook. Clark and Chalmers incorrectly believe that Otto’s notebook contains his beliefs but in reality Otto’s belief is about the notebook. To see this consider the following scenario: Suppose you were to sneak over to poor, unaware Otto, momentarily filch his notebook, and then write in it a completely untrue fact -- i.e., 2+2=5. Nothing changed with Otto at the moment we did this. It's uncontroversial that someone who believes 2+2=5 is irrational. If Otto’s notebook really does contain Otto’s beliefs, and among the list of his beliefs is '2+2=5', then we are forced, after the filching incident, to call him irrational. But Otto is not irrational because of a change we made to his notebook! Thus, it seems Otto’s beliefs are not contained in the notebook after all.

This difference between Otto and Inga hinges upon the very location of the notebook: its external relationship to the brain. Due to this relationship, the notebook is not linked in the right way into the rest of Otto's beliefs. Consider how this is different from Inga's beliefs and their linkage. If Inga’s belief were to be change from 2+2=4 to 2+2=5 she too would believe the latter equation. And we would thereby consider her irrational for holding such a belief.

II. What is, and where is, the Mind?

At this point in considering Otto's case, is one in a place to argue that the mind is not, or even cannot, be external to the brain? Such an argument is difficult to get started, because it requires a definition of ‘mind.’ But since there is no universally agreed upon definition, this means the debate could quickly deteriorate into a battle of deciding by definition -- i.e. by finding the answer in the way the question is asked. Instead, just outright grant that Clark and Chalmers are right: namely, that given the mind’s relationship to the brain and its relationship to external objects which encode beliefs, the mind is partly external. What does this entail about our concept of the mind? The mind now could become extremely extended; because, there is in principle no limit which need ever be given to extension (excepting the limit, of course, to the volume of available space in the physical universe.) Furthermore, almost any physical object can hold information (or, in this case, beliefs) for a person; and, therefore, would be an extension of one's mind. Yet we often equate the mind, to at least some degree, with being personal property, as it were; or with being unique to an autonomous, thinking self.

Consider the more mundane course in real life: when a student's notes from a class get lost in a windstorm, we do not say that the student lost part of his mind or accumulated beliefs from the class! Likewise, we should not say of Otto's notebook that were he to loose lots of scrawled notes in a windstorm, he has thereby lost lots of accumulated beliefs from his life.

Here is the best way to look at the Clark and Chalmers case for there being an extended mind. They have merely fancied up an uncontroversial position: The mind is involved in causal chains with external objects. Very few would deny this position. But they try to extend this point by claiming that this causal chain relationship between external objects and the mind entails an external component to the mind. They err in subtly slipping from talking about information channels into the mind with talking about the mind itself. Object x (a mind) being in object y’s (notebook) causal chain does not make x equivalent to y. For example, a bat hitting a baseball or a bat being hit by a baseball does not make a baseball and a bat the same kind of thing.

III. Conclusion

So here is the overall summary of the issue. Clark and Chalmers start with commonly accepted notions about the mind’s interaction with the physical, brain-external world. Their whole argument is set around the claim that there are not enough differences between Otto’s relationship to his notebook from Inga’s relationship to her brain to warrant the two cases being distinct. Though the cases have similarities, and though external objects can have causal effects on the mind, these philosophers take things too far in saying that the mind is external. The mind can be in causal relations with objects, but need not be accounted as wholly identical or even partially composed of those objects. This is often the problem with philosophers -- they just bewitch us with their thought experiments and subtle confusions about things which are already difficult enough on their own.[2]


[image] from Terrami blogsite. (Accessed Feb 24, 2008)

[1] Andy Clark and David Chalmers “The Extended Mind” in Brie Gertler and Lawrence Shapiro Arguing About the Mind (Routledge, 2007) , 185.

[2] This essay is substantially indebted to ideas and analysis put forth by Chris Schafer.


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At 1:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this while Googling for replies to Otto and Inga, and I just wanted to say that the last sentence of this work was absolutely delicious and is very, very true.

At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting a summary of this. It's very clear and helpful. However, I'm concerned about your objection--"Object x (a mind) being in object y’s (notebook) causal chain does not make x equivalent to y. For example, a bat hitting a baseball or a bat being hit by a baseball does not make a baseball and a bat the same kind of thing." Firstly, you assume that Object X is a mind. The words in Otto's notebook are his beliefs (not his mind), written down. Since he accesses these beliefs in the notebook in the same way in which he might access beliefs in his mind, the notebook is functionally equivalent to his mind. It seems like you're concerned with functionalism itself. There are different ways in which objects can acquire identity--functionally and culturally. So while a baseball is culturally very different from a baseball bat, if we were to functionally use it in the same way it does not entail that it ISN'T a bat. I think this analogy is more difficult because a baseball doesn't function WELL as a bat. However, if someone handed you a wooden rod instead of a hammer, you would not suddenly not know what to do, or have qualms about calling the rod a hammer.

As Gertler points out in her essay "Overextending the mind," it's actually much more detrimental to her counter-argument against C&C to dismiss functionalism altogether. If we dismiss functionalism we have to deny standing beliefs (i.e., ideas about the world that are not immediately in consciousness) which is absurd. Gertler instead says that standing beliefs have other characteristics besides their functional role.

One extra thing--thought experiments are perfectly helpful and legitimate ways of arguing. Although I do not agree with C&C I don't think they are using subversive tactics.

Thanks again for posting this.


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