November 06, 2005

Research Notes: how radical can extended cognition be?

Follow-up to Research Notes: social–machinic thinking, the 'mangrove effect', the 'diagram', the 'rhizome' from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

How radical is the extended cognition thesis proposed by Andy Clark in Being There? Is his argument trivial or with huge consequences?

Page 215 sees both an indication of just how radical its implications might be, followed by a clause that is perhaps an attempt to avoid an engagement with a whole set of possibly esoteric philosophical issues.


Firstly, there are significant ethical implications of an argument that sees a persons mind being extended into the environment. Hurt that environment and you hurt the mind. This goes a little beyond the arguments of human rights lawyers, who could safely say that long term deprivation may affect the development and sustanance of the mind. Clark's argument clearly indicates that damaging the extended cognitive apparatus has an immediate and damaging effect on their mind.

If, for example, a human rights court assessing the actions of the regime at Guantanamo Bay were to accept that abuse of the Quran were a direct physical attack upon the minds of the inmates, then the range of crimes would be greater and more extreme.


The first point opens up a radical debate. The second is just as dramatic in closing one down. Clark makes a threefold differentiation:

  1. brains;
  2. minds;
  3. consciousness.

He also talks about "self", and seems to be referring to the totalized singularity of the collection of factors that make a person individuated. That, I think, is closely tied to what he wold call "consciousness", but the issue is not properly explored.

His argument clearly shows that minds are more than brains, being extended out from the brain into the environment (or perhaps coming in from the environment and parasitising the brain). But he is careful to say that there is something called consciousness that is not extended into the environment. Individual consciousness, my attentional experience, is packaged back inside the individual. It is philosophically safer to say that there is still something, some inelliminable feature of being human, that is not dissipated out into the apparatus of extended cognition.

The clause avoids some very difficult philsoophical ground, but only at the risk of begging a very big question. This clause has the following effects:

  1. a separate set of apparatus must be implicated in consciousness;
  2. this apparatus cannot be reducible to, dependent upon, and part of the environment, as being such would again make it porous and subject to an extended cognition argument.

Obviously the second of these points is hugely controversial, and heading towards the kind of mind/body separation that Clark set out to dispel. But I would say that it is essential to Clark's attempt to keep some kind of separation between subject and object (individual and world). Without some kind of absolutely non-porous subjectivity, his thesis gets increasingly radical. The supposition of an individual consciousness, for example, provides some limitation to the damage that extended cognition could do to our established legal and ethical assumptions.

How to escape from this? Phenomenology leading out from Kant has recourse to time. In fact once can see the predominately spatial way in which much of the extended cognition debate is framed. We have a bounded, territorialized layout of minds and environments. One could argue that consciousness is the experience of this layout in time. The link between "self" and "consciousness" seems to rely upon this, with time, history, evolution and its experience from a specific perspective being the individuating feature:

…the flow of reason and thoughts, and the temporal evolution of ideas and attitudes, are determined and explained by the intimate, complex, continued interplay of brain, body and world. p.217

We could investigate how the environment/mind relationship unfolds differently to an individual consciousness. A kind of "pure time", a "duration", could be the inelliminable fact of consciousness. But what are the origins and effects in the world of this pure time? It can't be an organizing super subject, because that would be subject and hence porous to the world it organizes. As you can see from the passage given above, Clark does actually acknowledge that the experience of being a singualrity in time is the result of a complex dynamical coupling.

There's another possibility. Rather than being an organizer, a Kantian transcendental rationale, perhaps it is exactly the opposite, a hesitation at the core of conscsiousness, the force that holds the folds of time open and inelliminable. A chaotic attractor at the core of being in the world?

My argument is that the "chaotic attractor" of consciousness, and its temporal incarnations, is in fact crucial to perception and cognition. It is the drive behind inquisitiveness and the dynamical engagement of minds and environment. Far from being outside of cognitive science, it will prove to be the key.

But perhaps to obtain this key we have to accept that our ethical and legal assumptions need to be re-thought?

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