An increasing number of psychologists and philosophers believe that to understand how the mind really works, we must understand it as both embedded in a body and as situated in an environment.
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.