Tag Archives: extended mind

The Extended Mind Theory in Two Sentences

We use objects in the world to help us get things done e.g. Andy Clark’s example of a bartender under stress lining up different kinds of glasses as a visual reminder of their upcoming drink orders. Since it is arguable that getting things done is at the heart of cognition, using objects in the world is an important species of cognition.

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Some thoughts on the coupling-constitution fallacy and the mark of the cognitive

In Adams & Aizawa’s (A&A) recent paper in Menary’s anthology The Extended Mind (2010), they put put forward a relatively straightforward (and by now, well-rehearsed) objection to the extended mind argument:

[The coupling-constitution fallacy] is the most common mistake that extended mind theorists make. The fallacious pattern is to draw attention to cases, real or imagined, in which some object or process is coupled in some fashion to some cognitive agent. From this, one slides to the conclusion that the object or process constitutes part of the agent’s cognitive apparatus or cognitive processing. If you are coupled to your pocket notebook in the sense of always having it readily available, use it a lot, trust it implicitly, and so forth, then Clark infers that the pocket notebook constitutes a part of your memory store. If you are coupled to a rock in the sense of always having it readily available, use it a lot, trust it implicitly, and so forth, Clark infers that the rock constitutes a part of your memory store. Yet coupling relations are distinct from constitutive relations, and the fact that object or process X is coupled to object or process Y does not entail that X is part of Y . The neurons leading into a neuromuscular junction are coupled to the muscles they innervate, but the neurons are not a part of the muscles they innervate. The release of neurotransmitters at the neuromuscular junction is coupled to the process of muscular contraction, but the process of releasing neurotransmitters at the neuromuscular junction is not part of the process of muscular contraction…

So, if the fact that an object or process X is coupled to a cognitive agent does not entail that X is a part of the cognitive agent’s cognitive apparatus, what does? The nature of X , of course. One needs a theory of what makes a process a cognitive process rather than a noncognitive process. One needs a theory of the “mark of the cognitive.” It won’t do simply to say that a cognitive process is one that is coupled to a cognitive agent, since this only pushes back the question. One still needs a theory of what makes something a cognitive agent. This is another weakness of extended mind theories. Yet, in all fairness to Clark and other extended mind theorists, it must be admitted that one of the shortcomings of contemporary cognitive psychology is that there is no well-established theory of just exactly what constitutes the cognitive.

A&A’s objection is clear enough, but does this spell disaster for Clark and friends? I don’t think so.

First, I think that the recent Extended Mind literature has, for some reason, forgotten about the debates about anti-representationalism in the 90s that focused, I think, on the “mark of the cognitive” in terms of Heideggerian Cognition (embodied doing) versus Classic Cognition (explicit symbol manipulation). In light of these debates, I think Clark has already given a modest sketch of the mark of the cognitive. However, it seems like Clark does not like to self-consciously engage in this particular exercise of concept construction since in most of his responses to A&A he seems skeptical of the very idea of coming up with a “mark of the cognitive”. This puzzles me, because I am of the opinion that Clark has ample philosophical resources at his disposal for coming up with a mark of the cognitive that would adequately deter A&A from making their above objections. I am thinking of one paper in particular: Clark and Toribio’s “Doing without representing?” Here is a nice passage that, I think, can be construed as laying out a sketch of the mark of the cognitive:

On our account, the notion of Representation is thus re-constructed not as a dichotomy but as a continuum. At the non-representational end of that continuum we find cases in which the required responses can be powered by a direct coupling of the system to some straightforwardly physically specifiable parameters available by sampling the ambient environment in some computationally inexpensive way (eg. a toy car with a ‘bump’ sensor). Moving along the continuum we start to find cases in which the system is forced to dilate and compress the input space : to treat as similar cases which (qua bare input patterns) are quite unalike and to treat as different cases which (qua bare input patterns) are pretty similar. At this point, the systems are trafficking in ‘modest representations’. In addition, where such dilation and compression is achieved by the creation of a systematically related body of intermediate representations (as in the connectionist learning of such representations at the hidden unit level (see eg., P.M.Churchland, 1989) we begin to witness the emergence of full-blooded representational ‘systems’, albeit ones which remain quite unlike the classical vision of such systems as loci of moveable symbols capable of literal combination into complex wholes. (It is this classical vision of moveable symbols prone to engage in text-like recombinative antics which corresponds most closely to the vision of explicit representation which is, we claim, the proper target of many of the ‘antirepresentationalist’ arguments). And at the far end of the continuum we find cases in which the system is able to invoke various kinds of intermediate representations even in the absence of ambient environmental stimuli (ie as a result of ‘top-down’ influences.). At this point, we find systems capable of reasoning about the spatiotemporally remote etc.

Here, Clark and Toribio are giving a layercake mental taxonomy that starts with simple sensorimotor cognition, ramps up with moderate representational cognition, and achieves maturity with full-fledged representations that allow for “mental time timetravel”. I am particularly interested in the first layer: the powering of responses. This seems to me compatible with my earlier thoughts about the mark of the cognitive, where I said “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.”

What do “effective neural pathways” do? First and foremost, they subserve the control of motor responses. Why should we accept this as true? Michael Wheeler asks us to consider “a compelling evolutionarily inspired thought: biological brains are, first and foremost, systems that have been designed for controlling action” (2005, p. 12). A fine example of this principle is the life cycle of the famous sea squirt. During the larval stage of its development, the sea squirt’s cerebral ganglion (the equivalent of its brain) is used to coordinate motor control for the task of finding a suitable resting place on a rock. Once attached to the rock, the sea squirt does not need its brain for controlling action and promptly digests it for sustenance and crucial energy savings. We thus have an answer to the question, “If brains are so costly to develop and maintain, what is their evolutionary usefulness?” The answer is that brains allow for a higher degree of what Wheeler calls online intelligence. “A creature displays online intelligence just when it produces a suite of fluid and flexible real-time adaptive responses to incoming sensory stimuli” (ibid.).

Accordingly, we can interpret the first layer of “powering responses” in terms of online intelligence. I believe this represents an adequate sketch of the mark of the cognitive. Coming back to A&A’s objection to the Extended Mind thesis then, I think we can plausibly argue that some of the typical case examples in the Extended Mind literature can be seen as helping regulate the production of fluid and flexible real-time adaptive responses to sensory stimuli. Otto’s notebook, for example, helps regulate his behavioral responses in a fluid and flexible way. Pen and paper helps the mathematician regulate and control his production of mathematical work. My laptop helps me regulate and control my adaptive behaviors (as a student, I must do research and write papers in order to be adaptive).

A&A’s response to these examples is that they are mere crutches, but do not constitute the cognitive process. But this objection only works if our proposed mark of the cognitive excludes the cases. I am of the opinion that these cases of extended cognition are compatible with our fundamental mark of the cognitive: the powering of responses in a functionally adaptive manner. If anything helps regulate and control the powering of behavioral responses in a reliable and automatic way, then it should be considered part of the cognitive system. The “control” criterion excludes “mere causal couplings” such as our reliance on oxygen in the air around us, since this does not control the cognitive system, but rather, causally supports its existence. I believe this criterion adequately stops worries about “cognitive bloat”. This neobehaviorist-functionalist definition of cognition is compatible with the Heideggerian paradigm of cognition. However, given the 2nd and 3rd layers of the cake that invoke representational prowess, any mature science of mind must also talk about how representations qua representations also help to regulate and control the powering of responses. In modest cases, this might involve topographic representations modulating and regulating sensorimotor connections in semisophisticated perceptual cognition. In more extreme and human-specific cases, this would involve the integration of linguistic-cultural representations into the cognitive system to help modulate and control sociocognitive behaviors. This would be a case of narratological cognition (See Dan Hutto’s Narrative Practice Hypothesis).

It seems to me then that 4EA theorists shouldn’t shy away from trying to define the mark of the cognitive. I think there are significant philosophical resources at hand sufficient for such a conceptual enterprise. My recent paper in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences defending Julian Jaynes could be seen as an attempt to lay out a mark of the cognitive, starting with what I call “the reactive mind” and ending with what I call “Jaynesian consciousness”, which Jaynes defines as ““[T]he development on the basis of linguistic metaphors of an operation of space in which an ‘I’ could narratize out alternative actions to their consequences”.

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A Phenomenology of Driving


It’s late. You’re tired, but you need to drive home.You also need to maximize safety by utilizing less attentional resources on steering so as to maintain vigilance in respect to road hazards. What do you do? Offload the task of steering onto the roadlines. This constitutes a use of cognitive technology. That is, environmental props that lighten the computational load for the achievement of goals. A seemingly complicated affair such as driving, once learned and made automatic, is achieved effortlessly by the brain-body system through the use of cognitive technology. With sufficiently developed road networks, the problem of steering can be reduced to following the lines. Accomplishing this task is not much more complicated than following a wall or path, something a simple robot could learn. By greatly reducing the complexity of the problem at hand through cognitive technology, the computational load of driving is made tractable.

When travelling the highway, one can automate the task by hitting cruise control and allowing your hands and vision to couple with respect to keeping a certain distance from the solid sidelines. The subtle back-and-forth motions of our hands is reciprocally connected to the very structure of the road itself. If you need to exit, you simply wait until there is a break in the line and you continue following the sideline off the ramp. In the dark, the only relevant detail are the reflective lines, the roadsigns, and the other cars. Everything else can be attentionally ignored.

When we first start driving, we haven’t learned to ignore details by relying on cognitive technology to reduce the computational load.  We need to ignore a massive amount of information if we are to couple our attention with the road guidelines. Forgetting information is thus more important in driving than storing it. Doing so reduces the computational load and allows us to deploy our attentional resources on defensive driving and vigilance. Everytime I drive on the highway I am amazed at how easy it is to drive a 2 ton heap of metal at 80 miles per hour in the dark with maybe 160 ft range with lowbeams on. The cognitive unconscious effortlessly couples our hands with the guidelines such that can keep our conscious mind on other activities, such as talking with the passenger, changing the music,  or looking for an exit.

If we examine the phenomenology of driving, we can extract a general principle of cognitive computation: we simplify by externalizing. This principle is ubiquitous in everyday human dwelling. We externalize problems onto pen and paper, calculators, computers, GPS navigation, iphones and ipads, recipes, blueprints, books, etc. Cognitive technology can be found at all levels of human-world interaction. Even language itself can be seen as a form of cognitive technology. According to Andy Clark, linguistic scaffolding has at least three interlocking effects:

First, the simple act of labeling the world opens up a variety of new computational opportunities and supports the discovery of increasingly abstract patterns in nature. Second, encountering or recalling structured sentences supports the development of otherwise unattainable kinds of expertise. And third, linguistic structures contribute to some of the most important yet conceptually complex of all human capacities: our ability to reflect on our own thoughts and characters and our limited but genuine capacity to control and guide the shape and contents of our own thinking.

In conclusion, the principles at work in driving indicate that cognitive technology is omnipresent in human affairs. We surround ourselves with props and aids which act to reduce the computational load of everyday tasks and allow us to automate tasks and devote our cognitive resources for more abstract decision making.

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The consciousness of Self involves a stream of thought, each part of which as ‘I’ can 1) remember those which went before, and know the things they knew; and 2) emphasize and care paramountly for certain ones among them as ‘me‘ and appropriate to these the rest. The nucleus of the ‘me‘ is always the bodily existence felt to be present at the time.
-William James, Principles of Psychology

Before, I have discussed the self, but in this post I want to ruminate on the consciousness of the self. What does it mean to be conscious of your own self? Doesn’t this concept first need to define the self in order for it to be coherent? Since we started with William James, we might as well use his phenomenal analysis of what the Self is and run with it:

In its widest possible sense, however, a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account.

I really like this broad definition of the self, because it reflects the increasingly influential work of Andy Clark and his concept of the extended mind. Under this conception, the mind is can be said to not just be the internal processes going on in the brain, but also, the external processes useful for cognition. Thus, the writing pad that you furiously scribble your thoughts on would rightfully be considered as part of your mind. This concept isn’t supposed to reflect any fancy metaphysical notions, but rather, it just views the mind as being coupled to the environment. When you are driving your car, your self diffuses into the various driving apparatuses and your mind becomes coupled with the environment in a very real way. You feel in tune with the car as you subtlety perceive the vibrations of the road through the steering wheel. Your mind is extended into the environment.

Going back to the James, the self can be divided into three parts:
1. Its constituents, which include the material, social, and spiritual aspects of the self. The material and social aspects of the self are mostly self-explanatory and explained by the above quote. By spiritual, James merely means the “inner or subjective being”.
2. The feelings and emotions the constituents arouse (Self-feelings)
3. The actions to which the constituients prompt(Self-seeking and self-preserving behaviors)

Furthermore, these constituents aggregate into an “empirical self”, which consists of all things objectively known to be “yours”(Your house, your loved ones, your body, etc). The “I” which knowns these objective aggregations can be considered as a Thought, which is different from moment to moment, with the present moment including or appropriating the previous moments. James concludes that if this stream-of-thought can be said to exist, which most psychologists wouldn’t deny, then the Thought itself is the thinker. By this, he means that it is not necessary to formulate some transcendental or spiritual soul to be the possessor of the various thoughts, because the momentary Thought by itself, by virtue of it appropriating the previous moments, can be said to be the “I”, or thinker.

This is but a brief summary of James ideas on the self and consciousness, hopefully giving you an abbreviated picture of the depth of his thinking. Because of such piercing insights into the structure of the mind, William James was a pioneer philosopher and psychologist in his time and to this day remains relevant and influential to many modern schools of thought, including the extended mind philosophy of Clark that was mentioned. James’ insights into how the self bleeds into the external environment is a philosophical precursor to the most current movements going on in philosophy today,  a testament of to the clarity of his insights.

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