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Cognitive Systems and the Extended MindReview - Cognitive Systems and the Extended Mind
by Robert D. Rupert
Oxford University Press, 2009
Review by Joel Parthemore
Mar 16th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 11)

Reading Rob Rupert's book is a bit like watching the freight trains I remember from my childhood: slow to get moving and never moving all that high speed, but with a certain impressive momentum once they got underway.  Rupert may not be quite so entertaining to read as Andy Clark.  It is Clark whose recent book Supersizing the Mind Rupert is largely responding to, within the whole larger debate over the so-called extended mind hypothesis: the idea, as Rupert expresses it, that "human cognition -- to some substantial degree -- literally includes elements beyond the boundary of the human organism" (p. 3). Nor, for all the care of his arguments, do I think he is ultimately right: I am one of those crazy philosophers who believes that some version of the extended mind hypothesis has to be correct. Still, for my money he argues the anti-extended case both more soberly and more effectively than Fred Adams and Ken Aizawa, who also have a recent book out on the same topic, The Bounds of Cognition.

A word of caution: Cognitive Systems may not be suitable for the philosophically uninitiated or faint of heart. It is the sort of reading that requires background reading, unless you are already familiar with the underlying debate: at the least the (brief) 1998 paper by Clark and David Chalmers that started things off with its opening question: "Where does the mind stop and the world begin?" (1998, p. 7). At the same time, underneath all the intricacies of argument are issues that should matter to all of us, about the basic relationship between self and mind and environment.

On first reading Clark and Chalmers' paper several years ago, and in re-reading it recently, I found myself with some of the same concerns Rupert has about what one might call "cognitive bloat" (ironic, given the title of Clark's book and the association of "supersizing" with obesity-encouraging marketing practices in the US). To wit: even with the conditions that he puts on it, too many things end up being potentially cognitive on Clark and Chalmers' account.  Consider this passage, for example:

One can explain my choice of words in Scrabble, for example, as the outcome of an extended cognitive process involving the rearrangement of tiles on my tray.  Of course, one could always try to explain my action in terms of internal processes and a long series of "inputs" and "actions", but this explanation would be needlessly complex.  If an isomorphic process were going on in the head, we would feel no urge to characterize it in this cumbersome way.  In a very real sense, the rearrangement of tiles on the tray is not part of action; it is part of thought (1998, p. 9).

Rupert is rightly skeptical of this: in what sense, really, are the tiles part of my extended mind?  What explanatory advantage is gained by assuming that they are?  Input-output "cognitivist" models of cognition aside (here, my own intuitions are with Clark and Chalmers), is the extended account really any simpler than any non-extended account one might give? Otherwise, one might appear to be dressing a fairly traditional account in new clothes, and as Rupert writes, "Any revisionary principle for delineating cognition should offer more than new labels for existing categories" (p. 17).

Nonetheless, I cannot help feeling that Rupert is being somewhat disingenuous about his metaphysical leanings and their implications -- in particular, what I take to be his assumption that realism and materialism do not pull apart. I see this lurking behind all his carefully, almost legally precisely delivered arguments.  Realism we can understand as the idea that the apparent transparency of the world should, in most instances at least, be taken at face value.  Materialism is the position that the world is built of one substance (not two, as a Cartesian dualist would hold), and that that substance is ultimately to be understood as physical (as opposed to, say, mental).

So far as I can tell, no one in the extended mind debate is seriously questioning materialism.  However with respect to realism, Clark, I think, is holding his cards in his hands, and Chalmers is best understood as an antirealist:  someone who believes there is no sense to be made of a fully mind-independent world.   That is to say, the world we experience is always in some way touched by mind or, at least, never guaranteedly free of mind.  So for example enactive philosophers like Evan Thompson (2007) write of the co-emergence of agent and environment, each responsible for the creation of the other in a way that is ultimately impossible to disentangle.  Extended and enactive philosophers are inclined to the view from phenomenology where, e.g. on Husserl's account (1970), objectivity is not denied but rather grounded in subjective and inter-subjective experience:  the objective derives from the subjective, rather than the other way around.

Of course antirealism should no more be taken for granted than realism should.  But an antirealist will be predisposed to see mind bleeding out into world, and a realist (as I take Rupert to be) will be predisposed against.

Rupert uses the word "literal" a lot, the quote that opened my review being a case in point.  He hangs a great deal on the question of whether cognition literally extends into the world.  But an antirealist would reject a strict literal/metaphorical distinction, because she would deny that there could be any strictly literal, pre-interpretive readings of the world.

Rupert's realism leads him, I believe, to misunderstand and too quickly reject the phenomenologist project.  Yes, first-person reports should not be taken at face value:  no phenomenologist would deny this.  But in some cases first-person reports may be all we have, and in no case is it clear that the first-person perspective, with any distortions it may bring, can simply be removed.  At the least, the phenomenologist would argue, a case needs to be made for how this is to be done; it cannot simply be assumed.  That science has gotten as far as it has by minimizing the influence of mind does not for me, as apparently it does for Rupert, make a strong argument that it should continue on that basis. That science has generally proceeded by leaving the observer out of the equation does not necessarily make this any more than a useful fiction -- one that, like all fictions, at some point might be expected to break down.

Why this so important is that Rupert does not want his fixing of the cognitive boundaries of the organism at its physical boundaries to be a priori, a mere "fetish for the bodily boundary" (p. 45).  Rupert's position is dependent on having a clear and untendentious notion of boundary, and I'm not convinced that he (or anyone else) has one.  Notions of "internal" and "external" may be reasonably straightforward when it comes to physical systems like the biological organism; it is much less clear how they are meant to apply to functional systems like the mind -- unless we assume a straightforward mapping of functional to physical (and Rupert, wisely, does not want to do that).

I have a few other small complaints.  Although Rupert makes quite a valiant attempt to say what a symbol is, he does not, so far as I can see, make any similar attempt to define "representation", despite again using the term quite liberally.  He is far from alone in this.  But without a definition, one might worry that the term is hopelessly vague.  On this point I am with Inman Harvey of the University of Sussex, who writes (1992, p. 5), "In practice, the role of the observer in the act of representing something is ignored" and (1992, p. 7), "The gun I reach for when I hear the word representation has this engraved on it:  'When P is used by Q to represent R to S, who is Q and who is S?"

I do not find Rupert's division of embedded from embodied approaches (which he compares and contrasts to the extended approach) to be either well-motivated or useful.   Embedded we can take as the view that the agent is situated in a particular environment, with which it non-trivially interacts; embodied is the view that the agent takes a particular physical form that non-trivially shapes its interactions with its environment.  Of course there are subtle differences from researcher to researcher; but by my reading of the literature, the embedded and embodied views generally go together, like two sides of a coin.  Of course, Rupert's main purpose is to contrast these views with the extended one -- and here my impression is that he lumps together views that might best be separated, notably Alva Noë's "actionism" (2004) with Clark and Chalmers' extended mind.

One final quibble:  the book does not appear to have been well proofread.  There were more than the usual number of typos, making an already cognitively demanding read that much more difficult, as I stopped to mentally insert a word that had been left out.

None of this is meant to detract from my overall impression of the book, which certainly helped me to a better and more critical understanding of Clark and Chalmers' position.  Although I think his rejection of the extended mind hypothesis is ultimately flawed, nonetheless the difficulties he raises for it are real and cannot be lightly dismissed.

 

References

Adams, F. and Aizawa, K. (2008) The Bounds of Cognition, John Wiley and Sons.

Clark, A. and Chalmers, D. (1998) "The extended mind", Analysis, 58: 7-19.

Clark, A. (2008) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford University Press.

Harvey, I. (1992) "Untimed and unrepresented:  Connectionism and the computer metaphor", Cognitive Science Research Paper 245, University of Sussex, UK.  Available from ftp://ftp.cogs.susx.ac.uk/pub/reports/csrp/csrp245.ps.Z

Husserl, E. (1970) The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press.

Noë, A. (2004) Action in Perception, MIT Press.

Thompson, E. (2007) Mind in Life:  Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind, Harvard University Press.

 

© 2010 Joel Parthemore

 

Joel Parthemore is finishing his thesis write-up as a visiting research student of the University of Lund in Sweden, and hopes to submit this summer.  His primary affiliation is as a member of the Philosophy of AI and Cognitive Science research group of the School of Informatics, University of Sussex, UK.  His thesis concerns enactive philosophy and theories of concepts, in particular Peter Gärdenfors' conceptual spaces theory.  In his spare time, he plays with Linux systems.


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716