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November 15, 2005

Research Notes: porous minds and cracked–up agents

Follow-up to Research Notes: how radical can extended cognition be? from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

I just found this in a text file whilst tidying up my laptop. It doesn't seem to have been published yet. There may be a reason why I abandoned it. But here it is anyway...

Section 10.6 of Andy Clark's book Being There is entitled with the question "Where does the mind stop and the world begin?". For philosophy this is a very significant question. For cognitive science and AI, much less so (its just a design issue). Why not just adopt the latter position? Would that be such a scandal?

Clark's answer to the question is both pragmatic and realistic, whilst promoting a proportionate, specific and sufficiently detailled investigation of real minds and environments. This is quite a contrast to the vague generalizations of some phenomenological models.

For someone with an AI/cog-sci background (that I in part share), the identification of a boundary (even a porous one) should only be significant when it could contribute to our understanding of the capabilities, limitations and developmental process of real cognitive processes. Our boundary marking conditions would have to be ones that really make a difference to the cognitive process itself. For example, one interesting boundary marking condition would be:

how replaceable or otherwise is a specific (internal or external) cognitive artefact? Could the individual agent simply swap the artefact with another similar or even totally different artefact? And to what extent would this change the character of the agent?

A related, equally important, but different question is:

how dependent is the development of an agent upon a specific artefact, such that it's abscence makes a significant difference to that agent?

This gets close to our understanding of what an agent actually is: it has a relatively consistent and pervasive character existing over time and to some extent surviving changes to the environment in which it exists. Whilst at the same time, its development and continuation is dependent upon the existence of key artefacts within that environment. It is as Clark says, closely coupled. Furthermore, the agent tends to influence the environment in which it exists so as to promote the continuation of these characteristics, so that an agent tends to be associated with an environment (reverse evolution), whilst the environment tends to promote certain characteristics in the agent and classes of agents (evolution).

This, to readers of recent dynamical systems theory (and the likes of Deleuze and Guattari), is quite an obvious model: 1) there are arangements of mechanisms that interact with and consume other mechanisms through processes of ordering, selection, managed preservation and controlled degradation; 2) these mechanisms have selective principles (the character traits) that are repetetively applied over time; 3) some of these repetitive mechanisms reproduce the conditions of their own production and reproduction; 4) and fewer still reproduce the conditions that make their own reproduction more likely, more desired by the environment in which they exist. Or in shore: they are desiring machines.

I would say that this is stating the obvious. Certainly there is a degree of convergence towards such a model in evolutionary biology. And I'm sure there will also be such a convergence in AI development. So why is it likely that philosophers will still consider it to be controversial? Why does it seem OK in biology, but radical when applied by, for example, the psychotherapist Felix Guattari, to the problem of fixing broken minds and bodies?

Thinking is selecting, is doing.


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.

Ethics

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.

Consciousness

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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