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Perspective on knowledge: Extending the mind

This article appears in the issue April 2016 [Volume 25, Issue 4]


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Where do you think? If you need to wrestle with a knotty problem, where do you do it?

Many of us will say something like we go for a walk or a run. Or perhaps we do our best thinking while driving or taking a shower. Or while gardening, woodworking or knitting. In all of these cases, we are alone with our thoughts—not just away from people, but away from the tools of thought.

While such environments are often where we have our best ideas, presumably because our minds are distracted and thus can productively churn beneath the surface, they are not where we do most of our thinking. If you’re working on a complex budget, you think by entering numbers into a spreadsheet and seeing how they add up. If you are designing a building, you do most of your thinking with a pencil or a mouse in your hand. If you are planning a conference schedule, you do most of your thinking with a white board and sticky notes.

So when we’re asked where we do our thinking, why do we tend to look at situations in which we are isolated from other people and from the tools of thought?

We think with tools

The answer is that we assume that thinking is something we do in our heads. But this is not a natural idea. It has a long and well-known history, having received its definitive formulation in the 17th century by the philosopher Rene Descartes. It has become so ingrained in us that we now often actually experience thinking as an echo in our skull.

For almost 20 years, advocates of the “extended mind” theory have been providing an explanation that seems to me to be truer to our experience and more explanatory: We think out in the world with tools. This is distinctive of our species and helps to explain our evolutionary advantages. Other species use tools to do things. Only humans (as far as we know) use tools to think.

First proposed in the late 1990s by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, the extended mind theory has gained a fair bit of traction, with supporters applying it as far as they can.

For example, usually we assume that when a human does something in the world on purpose, she has an intention to do so, and that intention is something mental that the human brings to the engagement. If you are knitting a sweater or chipping a rock into an axe head, it’s because you have a mental intention to create a sweater or an axe. But some supporters of the extended mind theory argue that even intentions are not mental.

What the rock reveals

For example, Lambros Malafouris in How Things Shape the Mind uses the extended mind theory to re-think our assumptions about how early hominins created axes 2.5 million years ago. (“Hominin” refers to all human ancestors. “Hominid” includes the Great Apes. Thank you, Wikipedia.) All agree that they banged one rock against another, chipping off flakes until they had a sharp edge. But Malafouris argues that each stroke was guided by what the previous bang had revealed of the rock: If the prior stroke had made a good edge, then the next stroke would hit next to it; if not, it might hit slightly above it or down a smidgeon. Thus, the aim—a type of intention—of the hominin wielding the banging rock is dependent on what the banged rock reveals. It would be more accurate, says Malafouris, to say that the aiming exists in the process engaged in by mind, hand and rocks.

Theories find limits

We could even say that the hominin’s overall intention of creating an axe is not entirely in his or her mind, since that intention can only be formed in a world that has rocks and things to hit with an axe. But that seems to me to be a less helpful claim. And at least one researcher, Andrew Pickering in The Mangle of Practice argues that things themselves have intentions.

So, yes, the extended mind idea can be pushed too far. But that’s the typical pattern for fruitful theories: Academic researchers have an incentive to make their mark by saying something new, and extending a theory beyond its initial boundaries is one way of doing so. That’s how theories find their limits. It’s one way our extended minds engage with one another.

 

 


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