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The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark - Printable Version

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The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark - C C - Apr 17, 2018

EXCERPT: Where does the mind end and the world begin? Is the mind locked inside its skull, sealed in with skin, or does it expand outward, merging with things and places and other minds that it thinks with? What if there are objects outside—a pen and paper, a phone—that serve the same function as parts of the brain, enabling it to calculate or remember? You might say that those are obviously not part of the mind, because they aren’t in the head, but that would be to beg the question. So are they or aren’t they?

[...] Andy Clark, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh [...] believes that the mind extends into the world and is regularly entangled with a whole range of devices. But this isn’t really a factual claim; clearly, you can make a case either way. No, it’s more a way of thinking about what sort of creature a human is. Clark rejects the idea that a person is complete in himself, shut in against the outside, in no need of help.

How is it that human thought is so deeply different from that of other animals, even though our brains can be quite similar? The difference is due, he believes, to our heightened ability to incorporate props and tools into our thinking, to use them to think thoughts we could never have otherwise. If we do not see this, he writes, it is only because we are in the grip of a prejudice—“that whatever matters about my mind must depend solely on what goes on inside my own biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull.”

One problem with his Otto example, Clark thinks, is that it can suggest that a mind becomes extended only when the ordinary brain isn’t working as it should and needs a supplement—something like a hearing aid for cognition. This in turn suggests that a person whose mind is deeply linked to devices must be a medical patient or else a rare, strange, hybrid creature out of science fiction—a cyborg. But in fact, he thinks, we are all cyborgs, in the most natural way. Without the stimulus of the world, an infant could not learn to hear or see, and a brain develops and rewires itself in response to its environment throughout its life. Any human who uses language to think with has already incorporated an external device into his most intimate self, and the connections only proliferate from there.

In Clark’s opinion, this is an excellent thing. The more devices and objects there are available to foster better ways of thinking, the happier he is. He loves, for instance, the uncanny cleverness of online-shopping algorithms that propose future purchases. He was the last fan of Google Glass. He dreams of a future in which his refrigerator will order milk, his shirt will monitor his mood and heart rate, and some kind of neurophone connected to his cochlear nerve and a microphone implanted in his jaw will make calling people as easy as saying hello. One day, he lost his laptop, and felt so disoriented and enfeebled that it was as if he’d had a stroke. But this didn’t make him regret his reliance on devices, any more than he regretted having a frontal lobe because it could possibly be damaged.

The idea of an extended mind has itself extended far beyond philosophy, which is why Clark is now, in his early sixties, one of the most-cited philosophers alive. His idea has inspired research in the various disciplines in the area of cognitive science (neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, A.I., robotics) and in distant fields beyond. Some archeologists now say that when they dig up the remains of lost civilizations they are not just reconstructing objects but reconstructing minds. Some musicologists say that playing an instrument involves incorporating an object into thought and emotion, and that to listen to music is to enter into a larger cognitive system comprised of many objects and many people.

Clark not only rejects the idea of a sealed-off self—he dislikes it. He is a social animal: an eager collaborator, a convener of groups. [...] Clark seeks fusion with the world in everything he does.


Perhaps because Clark has been working so closely with a neuroscientist, he has moved quite far from where he started in cognitive science in the early nineteen-eighties, taking an interest in A.I. “I was very much on the machine-functionalism side back in those days,” he says. “I thought that mind and intelligence were quite high-level abstract achievements where having the right low-level structures in place didn’t really matter.” Each step he took, from symbolic A.I. to connectionism, from connectionism to embodied cognition, and now to predictive processing, took him farther away from the idea of cognition as a disembodied language and toward thinking of it as fundamentally shaped by the particular structure of its animal body, with its arms and its legs and its neuronal brain. He had come far enough that he had now to confront a question: If cognition was a deeply animal business, then how far could artificial intelligence go?

He knew that the roboticist Rodney Brooks had recently begun to question a core assumption of the whole A.I. project: that minds could be built of machines. Brooks speculated that one of the reasons A.I. systems and robots appeared to hit a ceiling at a certain level of complexity was that they were built of the wrong stuff—that maybe the fact that robots were not flesh made more of a difference than he’d realized. Clark couldn’t decide what he thought about this. On the one hand, he was no longer a machine functionalist, exactly: he no longer believed that the mind was just a kind of software that could run on hardware of various sorts. On the other hand, he didn’t believe, and didn’t want to believe, that a mind could be constructed only out of soft biological tissue. He was too committed to the idea of the extended mind—to the prospect of brain-machine combinations, to the glorious cyborg future—to give it up.

In a way, though, the structure of the brain itself had some of the qualities that attracted him to the extended-mind view in the first place: it was not one indivisible thing but millions of quasi-independent things, which worked seamlessly together while each had a kind of existence of its own. “There’s something very interesting about life,” Clark says, “which is that we do seem to be built of system upon system upon system. The smallest systems are the individual cells, which have an awful lot of their own little intelligence, if you like—they take care of themselves, they have their own things to do. Maybe there’s a great flexibility in being built out of all these little bits of stuff that have their own capacities to protect and organize themselves. I’ve become more and more open to the idea that some of the fundamental features of life really are important to understanding how our mind is possible. I didn’t use to think that. I used to think that you could start about halfway up and get everything you needed.”