The Extended Mind

Friday, April 15, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Our topic this week is The Extended Mind Hypothesis.   If you haven’t followed certain literature, you might be puzzled by today’s topic – especially if you just go on the meanings of the individual words involved.  Most people are pretty clear what the mind is.  It’s the seat of thought, consciousness, emotion…  Stuff like that.  And we know what it means to say something is extended – it’s   stretched out through space or maybe over time.   But I don’ think it is obvious what it means when we combine these two things, and say the mind is extended.

Descartes, for example, distinguished what he called thinking substance –the mind -- from what he called extended substance – material objects that occupy space.  So you could read the claim that the mind is “extended” as just the denial of Cartesian Dualism, just the claim that, contrary to Descartes, the mind occupies space after all.  Of course, that topic has been beaten to death by now.   Plus,  even if we grant that the mind occupies space, there’s still a big question.  Just where in space is the mind?

You might think that there’s an easy answer to that question, especially if you are a thoroughly modern materialist.  Materialists think that the mind is simply the brain working and that  The brain resides in the skull.  Hence the mind resides in the skull.  QED.

But friends of the extended mind hypothesis think that this way of looking at the mind entails a kind of vestigial Cartesianism.  It construes the mind as a little black box, locked up inside our heads, as something separate and distinct both from the body in which it's contained, and from the environment that surrounds the body.   Except for the part where the materialist grants that the mind is a material thing, it remains Cartesian in the sense that it takes the mind to be entirely separate from (the rest of) the body.

I know that’s a pretty big “except.”  And maybe it’s even part of common sense to think of the mind as something “contained in”  the body, but still separate from it.   But it’s just this way of looking at mind that proponents of the extended mind hypothesis wish to question.   They take it to be part of the essence of mind to be embodied and situated.  The mind, body, and environment are not three separate and distinct things, on this view,  but one massively interactive, massively interconnected whole.

Poppycock, a skeptic  might say.   Consider the following analogy. I live in a house.  Couldn’t live nearly so well without one.  But that doesn’t make me and my house one massively interactive and interconnected whole.

But maybe a little experiment will help you skeptics out there get force of the claim. Probably there’s an object you can reach out for an grab while you are reading this – maybe a cup of coffee or a bottle of water.   So do something for me. Reach for that bottle of water – or whatever it is --  and take it into your hand.   I am going to assume that you pulled that off quite effortlessly.  Now the reason you were able to do so, is because the human hand is a really cool thing.  And I am not just thinking of the opposable thumb, here.     Rather, I'm thinking of the collapsibility of the hand.  Because of the way the hand naturally collapses, you didn’t have to do a lot of calculating to grab that bottle.  You didn’t have to independently calculate the trajectory of each individual finger, for example.    All your brain had to calculate was a trajectory that got my hand into the rough vicinity of the bottle and with the right orientation toward it, and from that point on, the hand just sort of took over, by automatically collapsing around the bottle.

The point is that when the body moves, some of the work of making it move is done by that little computer we call a brain and some some of the work is done by the body itself.   So If you think of the mind as whatever is ultimately responsible for movement, then you can’t just identify the mind with the brain, with the inner computer.    At the same time it would be just as wrong to identify the mind with the body and ignore the inner computer.  That’s what behaviorists did.  It’s not an either-or thing.  When we’re talking about the mind, we’re really talking about the brain-body complex.  There is no fixed boundary between the mind and the body. 

And if  you start down this route, there won’t be any reason to stop at the boundaries of the body.   The structure of the environment is at least as important to the nature of cognition as the body.  Think of external memory aids like my lovely little iPhone, with its sync-able calendar.   Technology enables us to offload onto the environment cognitive tasks that in earlier times the brain had to perform all on its own.  Modern technology extends the mind, right out into the world.

So now that we’ve got a feel for what is meant by the extended mind hypothesis,  I hope you’ll agree that this will be a fun topic to think about.  And we’ve got a really fun guest to help us do the thinking.  We’ve extended our collective mind to include George Lakoff,  co-author of Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought.

Comments (9)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 16, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

USE OF THE DUALITY There are so many rational a

USE OF THE DUALITY
There are so many rational and descriptive difficulties with the ?mind/body duality,? as illustrated by the conceptual conundrums complained about by the guys and the guest on today?s show.
But many of these difficulties and rational dead ends can be cured by considering those same issues as ?consciousness/matter duality? questions. Try it with ?color,? for instance ? suggested on the show: atomic explosions on the sun send out particles (or waves) called light, which bounce off objects on earth. They are broken up by the bounce off the objects into particles with a revised wave frequency, which then land on eye parts, setting off a discrete transmission of impulses through neural tubes, to the brain, WHERE, its physical travel over, all kinds of consciousness stuff takes place (comparison, history, ?putting two and two together,? ?seeing? ?it as? color, etc.). As the guest correctly stated, and I have pointed out here before, ?color? doesn?t really ?exist? (in a material sense); everything is actually dark; things are just bouncing off each other, making waves.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 16, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Upon reading this post, I decided to wait a bit be

Upon reading this post, I decided to wait a bit before weighing in. I wanted to think about the notion of extended mind(s). Maybe something would come to me, or perhaps, I would come to something...
I do not know how extensive the mind may be. But, I got to thinking about the Richard Dawkins books, THE SELFISH GENE and THE EXTENDED PHENOTYPE. Something came to me. I won't try to explain genotypes and phenotypes---Dawkins is the storyteller, not me. But if a phenotype describes a trait, different from genetic transfer, then the notion of extended mind may have found a home.
It seems profoundly unlikely that pre-humanity (whenever that was)would have benefited (or suffered) from extended mindfulness. No, if Dawkins is right, and if extended phenotypes result from the long view of sapient culture---what I have heard called OEOs---then the extended mind is phenotypical and another example of our evolutionary development. Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould were both right, but neither wanted to admit it to the other. Ain't that just like scientists?
Inasmuch as I do not have a pipeline to Professor Dawkins, I do not know what he might say about my musings. No matter, though. We are all acolytes, one way or another.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 17, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

It seems like Savinar and the Carpenter are on sim

It seems like Savinar and the Carpenter are on similar wave lengths. Dualism and duality(ies) have troubled philosophers for a long time. Even before Descarte. And that, in human years, is a long time. Certainly there have always been matters physical (trees, turtles,tornados (or is that oEs---I can never remember); and souls, spirits and spectres...those ethereal phenomena that we postulate but cannot slap the cuffs on. Perhaps we need to lighten up and think about Graham Martin's take on things. Does it matter?
When I read his book, I thought: what an empirical old
wafer. Then it hit me: being an empiricist is not so bad. Others have survived worse characterizations. Most successfully. Cudos to Mr. Savinar, et. al. And I doff my beret to Descartes; tip my bowler to Martin and thank evolution for the privilege of having lived as a human being. To Messrs. Taylor and Perry: you guys are pretty saavy. Keep it rolling. And have some fun, too.
May as well.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 23, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

The problem is division, The solution is unity,

The problem is division,
The solution is unity,
The equation is =,
The lion is One.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 24, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

As a Christian believer, but also a philosopher, I

As a Christian believer, but also a philosopher, I agree with the above mentioned theories, but I would like also to give my personal opinion. Since I believe in creation, I think the mind is controled by the soul, so as long as we are alive, body and sould are tied, glued together. After death, the soul goes to whatever place we call heaven, purgatory or somewhere in space, and the body, the flesh remains in this planet, so the body corrupts into the grave or is burnt to ashes in the crematory.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, May 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Oh, mama, can this really be the end? To be stuck

Oh, mama, can this really be the end? To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again*.
I have always loved Bob Dylan. He uses metaphor to slap us up-side-the-head. We may not have always known what he was saying, but we always knew what he meant.
(* Blonde on Blonde, Columbia Records---a long time ago.)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, May 4, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Huh? Christian believers tend to dogmatism: one wa

Huh? Christian believers tend to dogmatism: one way up; our way---or the highway (down). Come to that, theosophy and philosophy are pretty antithetical to one another. Pere Teilhard du Chardin tried to tie the two together. He failed because there are different forces; different rationales, behind the disciplines. Philosophy questions, theorizes and postulates truths about who and what we are. Theosophy says: We are who we are because it has already been written. How can we have it both ways? No one has solved that yet. Let me know when this changes, please?

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, May 10, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

This idea of the extended mind is much easier for

This idea of the extended mind is much easier for me to think of simply as belief in the soul. The idea that "I" am a seperate entity from this physical body. As much as I would like to believe in the souls existence, after classes in psychology and nuero-science, I am convinced otherwise. "I" am just a thought, and a thought is nothing more then the process of chemical reactions within the nueral network.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, May 16, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

The lion rests upon the elephant who rests upon tu

The lion rests upon the elephant who rests upon turtles---all the way down. That turtle at the bottom must have an indestructibly mighty shell. But---it is only a koan---a Buddhist ploy for showing us the ephemerality of existence and the insignificance of what we might think about anything. Who knows. If Buddhism had been more compelling, we might never have gotten to gunpowder, let alone nuclear energy. Come to that, however, we might never have gotten from there to here. We only have purpose to the extent that we believe such.If there is a meaning to life, that would be it.
As a lighter aside, if Christians and Muslims were not so hateful and competitive towards one another, they might just be able to truly co-exist. There is much to be said for the wisdom of age. But you did not hear that from me. The camel sleeps.

 
 
 

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