4EA skeptic Ken Aizawa is always asking for clear examples of extended cognition that do not violate the coupling-constitution fallacy. In a recent post, he challenges the following premise from Wilson:
(e) External cognitive resources often play the same or similar functional roles in the detection and creation of meaning as do internal cognitive resources, or complement, compensate for, or enhance those roles.
Ken’s claim is that the evidence shows that external resources play only a causal role rather than a constitutive role. In other words, external resources are merely causal inputs into the cognitive system and do not themselves play a functional or constitutive role. In Clark and Chalmer’s well-known thought experiment involving a man with Alzheimer’s using a notepad to aid his impaired navigation skills, Ken famously rebutted by claiming the notepad is not literally a “a part” of the cognitive system, but rather, just a causal resource to lean on. If it were actually a part of cognitive system, Ken thinks that it would be impossible to stop a “cognitive bloat” wherein the cognitive systems gets extended into everything that cognition causally depends on. With the notepad, Ken responds that we are at best entitled to say that the notepad is causally coupled to the cognitive system, and that we cannot conclude from such coupling that the notepad is literally a part of the cognitive system rather than just an input or “resource” to lean on.
We would need a better example or a prior theoretical reason to believe that cognitive systems do in fact extend into the environment, one that outweighs the theoretical reasons for believing the orthodox story about internal representationalism. I think there are such theoretical reasons, but I also have a concrete example of extended cognition that I want to try out. It’s not based on a thought experiment, but rather, anthropological research into ancient decision-making processes. I refer, of course, to sortilege or cleromancy.
I was turned onto this example by Julian Jaynes. He called sortilege an “exopsychic decision-making process”. This is, in my mind, the first stated argument for extended cognition in the literature (1976). Does anyone have an earlier reference? He describes sortilege as follows:
Sortilege or the casting of lots differs from omens in that it is active and designed to provoke the god’s answers to specific questions in novel situations. It consisted of throwing marked sticks, stones, bones, or beans upon the ground, or picking one out of a group held in a bowl, or tossing such markers in the lap of a tunic until one fell out. Sometimes it was to answer yes or no, at other times to choose one of out a group of men, plots, or alternatives. But this simplicity – even triviality to us – should not blind us from seeing the profound psychological problem involved, as well as appreciating its remarkable historical importance. We are so used to the huge variety of games of chance, of throwing dice, roulette wheels, etc., all of them vestiges of this ancient practice of divination by lots, that we find it difficult to really appreciate the significance of this practice historically. It is a help here to realize that there was no concept of chance whatever until very recent times. Therefore, the discovery (how odd to think of it as a discovery!) of deciding an issue by throwing sticks or beans on the ground was an extremely momentous one for the future of mankind. For, because there was no chance, the result had to be caused by the gods whose intentions were being divined. (1976, p. 240)
I’m fairly confident that this example of sortilege doesn’t violate the so-called “coupling-constitution” fallacy. I think it is reasonable to first define cognition as a regulatory or coordinating process that serves to select effective neural pathways out of internal variability. In other words, cognition is about making decisions and controlling the sensorimotor system to get things done in the world. I think this is a fairly theory-neutral definition of cognition that can accommodate both representational and dynamic systems approaches to behavioral control.
With that said, I think casting lots is a clear case of “off-loading” cognitive decision making processes onto the environment. The casted lots are not just “causally coupled” to the ultimate sensorimotor decision, but rather, constitute the decision making process itself. The lots serve a functional role similar to that of internal neural-neural control. It serves as a regulatory resource that is used in novel situations to deal with complex environmental variables. It serves the functional, constitutive role of coordinating behavior and simplifying the task parameters. As Clark would say, you could imagine that a random “casting-lots” mechanism had evolved inside a brain that would be utilized in the same way so as to regulate and coordinate behavior.
The only way to avoid the conclusion that cognitive decision making processes are “offloaded” into the environment during sortilege would be to disagree with the definition of cognition as behavior regulation. If you defined it differently, I suppose you could come up with a model of the mind wherein the casted lots serve as mere “input” into the functional system rather than genuinely playing a cognitive role.
But I think such an approach is phenomenologically flawed. If you were to get inside the minds of these ancient people, I think the lots would be experienced as a genuine behavioral authority that is external to the agent. That is, the lots would be “authorized” by the nervous system to serve a direct role in the coordination of behavior, similar to the authorization of verbal control in hypnosis. The experiential aspect would include an “absorption” into the external world such that the chance results are directly taken as significant for social control. I think it would be difficult for representational models to replicate this thrownness or absorption.