To be presented at Australasian Society for Cognitive Science (ASCS09)
TITLE: The Danger of the Extended Mind
ABSTRACT: This paper accepts three claims of the Extended Mind Hypothesis (EMH): 1) External elements form part of the machinery of cognition, insofar as they causally interact with mental states. 2) The meaning of our thoughts is partly explained by reference to the external world (content externalism) and 3) Objects outside the physical brain can operate in functionally equivalent ways to many brain-based processes. I reject criticisms of EMH by Adams & Aizawa including 1) that cognition should be restricted to the domain studied by cognitive psychologists 2) that the processes of cognition are defined by the production of intrinsic or original content. Instead of engaging with these claims, I ask: What difference does it make to include external epistemic artifacts as part of the mind? I consider philosophical issues specifically relating to EMH, thus avoid issues relating to piecemeal replacement and functionalism generally. In one sense it does not matter whether we include external elements as part of cognitive processing. It does not matter if our beliefs are stored in our brains or on a notepad as long as we can access them when needed, just as it does not matter if a person’s leg is made of wood or flesh if it helps them walk.
However, in another sense it might matter a great deal to obviate differences between peripheral (e.g. edge detection in early vision, night vision goggles) and central processing. By ‘central processing’ I mean processes that lie at the core of mental life such as analyzing, understanding and evaluating, henceforth summarized by the term ‘thinking’. Thinking is a skill. Like any skill, thinking requires practice. A virtuoso thinker needs a strong capacity to concentrate and an excellent working memory. Thinking practice is internally generated and executed, even when influenced by a variety of inputs. If thinking is a skill, then failure to practice leads to cognitive atrophy. Increasing our peripheral access to data, whether via iPhones or iPlants increases the availability of information and opportunity for distraction, but not our ability to centrally process that information. Even worse, the more access we get to data, the less we bother to memorize for any particular task. This loss of mnemonic practice in turn decreases our ability to hold many ideas simultaneously and thus further decreasing our ability to think. This is the real danger of saying it doesn't matter if external epistemic artifacts are included in the 'mind'. By obfuscating the difference between peripheral and central processes, we risk confusing data for thinking