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The New Science of the MindReview - The New Science of the Mind
From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
MIT Press, 2010
Review by Olle Blomberg
Jan 25th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 4)

Mark Rowlands' The New Science of the Mind is a book that attempts to provide a conceptual foundation for recent (and not so recent) cognitive scientific research that defines itself in opposition to a traditional neurocentric cognitive science. Its intended audience is "philosophers, cognitive scientists, and any interested lay persons who want to know what is being talked about when people throw around phrases like 'situated cognition,' 'embodied cognition,' [and] 'the extended mind' [...]." (p. ix) With the exception of the second empirically focused chapter, entitled "Non-Cartesian Cognitive Science", the book deals squarely with philosophical questions about the nature of cognitive processes. It introduces, and contributes to, an ongoing philosophical debate about whether the processes underpinning perception and cognition merely unfold in our brains or if they sometimes extend into our bodies and our environment. Proponents of the extended cognition/mind view argue that when people are skillfully using tools (notebooks, sketchpads, slide rules, mobile phones, etc), then their cognitive processes are not merely scaffolded by these tools but that the tools actually become proper parts of them. In a similar manner, proponents of embodied cognition argue that cognitive processes do not merely occur in the brain, but are sometimes partly constituted by bodily processes. For example, it is sometimes argued that gestures are not merely symptoms of brainbound cognitive processes, but are themselves vehicles of thought.

The book's eight chapters can be divided into three parts (this is my division, not the author's). In the first three chapters, Rowlands introduces philosophical and empirical work associated with embodied, extended and enactive cognitive science. In book's second part which consists of chapters 4 and 5, Rowlands first analyses various arguments against embodied and extended cognition, and then provides a response to them in the form of a criterion of what is to count as a cognitive process (a criterion according to which the embodied and extended cognition views are true). However, the criterion contains a philosophically puzzling condition, that a cognitive process must belong to, or be owned by, a subject. In the third part of the book, chapters 6 to 8, Rowlands suggests how to unpack this idea of ownership.

I will now describe and comment on each of the three parts in more detail.

The first part gives a useful and clear overview of some different strands in contemporary philosophy of mind and cognition that deviates from traditional neurocentric cognitive science. It will work as informative introduction to contemporary Non-Cartesian philosophy of mind and cognition which is accessible to the interested lay persons of the book's intended audience. Interspersed throughout the first three chapters are text boxes that provide the reader with background information on, among other things, type and token identity theory, procedural, semantic and episodic memory, neural networks, and necessary and contingent truths. Rowlands quickly homes the reader in on the crucial issue of whether cognitive processes are partly constituted by processes in the body and/or the environment or if they are merely dependent on them. He sets out to defend what he calls "the amalgamated mind" view, according to which cognitive processes are sometimes constituted not only by neural elements but by also by extraneural elements. This view thus subsumes both embodied and extended cognition. Chapter 3 also contains an interesting discussion of whether Alva Noë's (2004) enactive view of perception implies that perception is embodied and/or extended (with the conclusion that it may be embodied on Noë's account, but not extended). 

Rowlands distinguishes his view from Andy Clark and David Chalmers' (1998) well-known "extended mind" thesis in two ways. First, his view is "a form of process rather than structure externalism" (p. 63). Instead of focusing on structures underlying certain dispositional states like beliefs, Rowlands focuses on processes of thinking, perceiving or remembering. "Properly understood," he says, "the thesis [of the extended mind] makes no claim about cognitive states at all." (p. 67) The second distinguishing feature of Rowlands' view is that he wants to disentangle the extended mind thesis from the idea that cognitive processes have a precise or determinate location. He instead wants to focus on the issue of composition of cognitive processes, and he even suggests "the spatially indefinite mind" (p. 83) as an alternative title for the extended mind thesis. I am sympathetic to this idea, but Rowlands does not mention why one should embrace it until the reader has gotten into the book's third part (and then only very briefly, on p. 156).

The second part of the book is in my view its best part (see also Rowlands 2009). In chapter 4, Rowlands elegantly shows how the various arguments directed against the embodied and extended cognition can be condensed into two problems: an apparent incompatibility between embodied and extended cognition ― the former requires a fine-grained type of functionalism, while the latter seems to depend on a much more coarse-grained type of functionalism ― and the lack of a criterion of what is to count as a cognitive process. With regard to the first problem, how to reconcile functionalism with the amalgamated mind, I wish Rowlands had spent some more time explaining why one must settle for only one level of grain at which one functionally decomposes a cognitive system (why not decompose at different levels of grain depending on what one is trying to analyze?). In chapter 5, he then presents a criterion of the cognitive that is supposed to solve both these problems. His strategy is to explicate a criterion that is already implicit in traditional internalist cognitive scientific research, and which accommodates much of what critics of the amalgamated mind has claimed about cognitive processes already (for example, that cognitive processes involve nonderived representations). He then uses this criterion to answer various critical arguments from neurocentric internalists.

Fans of extended cognition may find Rowlands' criterion to be too restrictive, but he offers his criterion as a set of sufficient conditions for a process to count as cognitive, not as also necessary conditions. His defense of extended cognition is incomplete, however, since there is a philosophically loaded condition built into his criterion. This condition says that a process that belongs to a subject (and fulfills the other conditions of the criterion) counts as a cognitive process. This ownership condition is needed to stop what Rowlands calls the "cognitive bloat" objection to the extended mind. According to this objection, embracing the extended mind thesis forces one to accept the allegedly unacceptable consequence that one's mind is spread all over the place: over all the entries in my telephone catalogue and all the information that a web search engine provides me with.

In chapters 6 to 8, Rowlands tries to pin down the problematic ownership condition. Rowlands gives a two-part account of ownership. Ownership of subpersonal cognitive processes is to be cashed out functionally, in terms of their integration with the cognitive subject (typically an individual but Rowlands does not exclude the possibility of it being a group). This, in turn, means that the processes must make information available to other cognitive processes (or processing stages) or the subject herself.  Personal-level cognitive processes, processes that make information available to the subject, are owned in virtue of their being doings of the subject, activities which she has authority over. However, Rowland thinks that concepts like 'authority' and 'responsibility' gives a distorted picture of what ownership is. Drawing on Heideggerian ideas, he takes authority and responsibility to only come to the fore when things go wrong: when smooth coping with the world breaks down and blame has to be distributed. Hence, authorship and responsibility are symptoms of a basic kind of ownership, but should not be taken to be criteria of such ownership. They only appear in circumstances where activity is impeded and guided by reflective thought. In chapter 8, Rowlands appeals to the phenomenology of absorbed coping (for example, of someone being absorbed in reading a book, or of a blind man using a cane to disclose his surroundings) to argue that intentional activity typically has a material basis that consists of both neural, bodily and wordly elements.

This third part is by far the most challenging part of the book. Partly, the reason for this may be that the issues involved are deep and hard, but it is also because this part is not at all as well structured as the rest of the book, and it is hard to follow whatever argument that is being made (especially in chapters 7 and 8). There are no longer any boxes with background information to help the interested lay person, even though there is some material here that I think is apt for such placement (the presentation of Frege's, Husserl's and Sartre's views of experience in chapter 7 for example). The text is also very compressed, and the turns of the argument are hard to make out. For example, it was not clear to me how the phenomenological observations about absorbed coping in chapter 8 are linked to the issue of what ownership consists in. Rowlands sometimes calls intentional activity "disclosing activity", and he claims that "[t]he idea of revelation or disclosure supplies the ultimate basis for our ownership of cognitive processes." (p. 163) He also mentions that for something to be disclosed, it must be disclosed to someone, a subject (also p. 163), but this does not help me understand the nature of ownership. In addition, unlike the rest of the book, the third part also does not contain much discussion of alternative analyses or potential objections. For example, as far as I understand the argument, it is crucial for Rowlands that he can draw conclusions about the vehicles of intentional activity from its phenomenology or content. However, this move (or at least very similar ones) has been criticized elsewhere (see Rupert 2009, ch. 8) and chapter 8 would have benefitted from some discussion of this criticism.

To sum up, The New Science of the Mind is in my view an uneven book. The first part is a brief and useful introduction to the philosophy of embodied, extended and enactive cognition. The second part is an excellent analysis of counterarguments to the embodied and extended mind (and their combination in the amalgamated mind), and an interesting response to these arguments via a plausible criterion of what counts as a cognitive process. As far as I know, critics of the extended mind (such as Fred Adams, Kenneth Aizawa or Robert Rupert) have not responded to Rowlands criterion (first presented in Rowlands 2009). It would be interesting to see what they make of it. The first two parts will no doubt be interesting and readable to the whole intended audience, including the "interested lay persons". However, the third part of the book is much less successful. Here, the text is compressed, lacks much needed critical discussion and is hard to follow. This is a pity since I think Rowlands is right to focus on the issue of ownership and what it is that makes a cognitive process belong to a subject.

 

References

Clark, Andy, and David Chalmers (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58(1): 7-19.

Noë, Alva (2004). Action in Perception. The MIT Press.

Rowlands, Mark (2009). Extended cognition and the mark of the cognitive. Philosophical Psychology, 22(1): 1-19.

Rupert, Robert D. (2009). Cognitive Systems and The Extended Mind. Oxford University Press.

 

© 2011 Olle Blomberg

 

 

Olle Blomberg is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at University of Edinburgh (UK) and a freelance journalist. He is interested in the philosophy of social and cognitive science, the philosophy of technology, as well as science and technology journalism. For information about his freelance writing, see http://www.olleblomberg.com/english.html. Information about his Ph.D. research can found on his University of Edinburgh web page [http://www.philosophy.ed.ac.uk/postgraduate/students/phd/OlleBlomberg.html]


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