A post by Samer Nour Eddine

Every day of our lives we manipulate objects outside our physical bodies to perform various functions for us, and some of these include cognitive functions, such as when we use our phones to save a memo or when we use a pen and paper to solve an equation. It can be argued that if my cognition is actively and reliably coupled to my phone, then it is meaningful to say that my phone and I constitute a single, extended cognitive system in its own right (Clark & Chalmers, 1998). However, that an extended cognition implies an extended mind – that the memory in a phone that I’m reliably coupled to should count as no different (in principle) than my biological memory – seems like an inaccurate claim. The interaction between external cognitive resources (such as a smartphone) and the rest of an agent’s cognitive system fully depends upon the agent’s volition; this dependability sets important limits on the role that an external cognitive resource can play within a cognitive system. While the memory on a cognitive agent’s phone represents an extension of her cognitive system, the phone memory is not part of her mind because it lacks the involuntary interaction that her biological (i.e., brain-contained) memories have with her perceptions, beliefs and other internal cognitive resources.

I will illustrate the view of an “extended mind” in the context of Chalmers’ and Clark’s “The Extended Mind” characters: Inga has a healthy memory and Otto is an Alzheimer’s patient who writes down his memories in a notebook that he always carries. The authors propose the following scenario: there is an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that Inga and Otto want to attend. Inga reflects for a moment and remembers that the museum is on 53rd Street and goes there; Otto opens his notebook, successfully looks up where the museum is and walks there. The authors argue that since Otto’s notebook functions in an absolutely analogous manner to Inga’s biological memory – he carries it around just like Inga carries her brain around – the contents of his notebook are literally his memories, even before he looks them up. In other words, since beliefs are defined in terms of their explanatory roles in guiding behavior, the authors argue that Otto does not merely believe that the location of the museum is whatever happens to be written in his notebook; rather, Otto believes that the Museum of Modern Arts is on 53rd Street. It is in these ways, the authors argue, that Otto’s notebook isn’t just part of his extended cognition, but rather part of his mind (Clark & Chalmers, 1998).

One possible objection to this claim is that Otto only has access to the information in question by perception, whereas Inga has more direct access (through introspection), and this is what allows us to attribute to Inga her belief of the Museum’s location but not to Otto. The authors reply that “…Otto’s internal processes and his notebook constitute a single cognitive system. From the standpoint of this system, the flow of information between notebook and brain is not perceptual at all; it does not involve the impact of something outside the system. It is more akin to information flow within the brain” (Clark & Chalmers, 1998). While it is true that the information flow between Otto and his notebook is within the cognitive system, there is at least one important way in which it differs from information flow between structures within Otto’s brain: the interaction between Otto and his notebook-contained information is strictly voluntarily initiated by Otto. In order to completely carry out their everyday function in the mind, cognitive resources such as memories and beliefs must be allowed to communicate – with other cognitive resources as well as with each other – voluntarily (e.g. during conscious memory recall) as well as involuntarily (e.g. when a certain stimulus reminds you of something else). This involuntariness of belief (and memory) formation and retrieval is required for some of its functions. Imagine Otto reading a philosophical article that strongly conflicts with his latest notebook-beliefs; would he even notice? Can Otto ever say, during a conversation, “Ah! This reminds of that time when…”, where he recites a notebook-memory? Do the notebook-memories/beliefs provide a framework for Otto to look at the world through?

To the extent that involuntary memory (and belief) formation and retrieval is an important role that our biological memory plays, Otto’s notebook-memories (and notebook-beliefs) are of a functionally different type than Inga’s biological memory (and beliefs) and are not merely less efficient. This drawback of notebook-memories should apply to all external cognitive resources that require volition in order to be coupled to a human; that is, neither laptops nor smartphones should fare any better than notebooks insofar as they require the human’s volition to perform their functions. But perhaps the line between voluntary and involuntary becomes more blurred from notebooks to smartphones: I have personally removed beeping notifications from my smartphone because of how good they are at grabbing my attention and forcing me to interact with them, almost involuntarily. But how interesting are notifications and reminders as cognitive resources? To the extent that they aren’t interesting, their blurring of the voluntary/involuntary line can be dismissed. As technology becomes more and more advanced, perhaps more interesting functions could be taken up by computers that can interact involuntarily with the rest of our mind, such that our volition merely regulates the interaction rather than initiates it.

Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis58(1), 7-19.