Monday, 23 February 2009

Where is my mind?

Jerry Fodor's ‘Where is my mind?’ reviews Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension, and really doesn’t like the thesis … broadly, that our minds extend into the world around us, and aren’t just contained in our heads. The view that, as David Chalmers puts it:
I bought an iPhone. The iPhone has already taken over some of the central functions of my brain … The iPhone is part of my mind already … [Clark’s book] defends the thesis that, in at last some of these cases the world is not serving as a mere instrument for the mind. Rather, the relevant parts of the world have become parts of my mind. My iPhone is not my tool, or at least it is not wholly my tool. Parts of it have become parts of me … When parts of the environment are coupled to the brain in the right way, they become parts of the mind.
Seems a reasonable case to me. But Fodor doesn’t like it. He takes a heuristic trot through one of Clark’s thought-experiments concerning Otto and Inga ‘both of whom want to go to the museum. Inga remembers where it is and goes there; Otto has a notebook in which he has recorded the museum’s address. He consults the notebook, finds the address and then goes on his way. The suggestion is that there is no principled objection between the two cases: Otto’s notebook is (or may come with practice to serve as) an “external memory”, literally a “part of his mind” that resides outside his body.’ Fodor asks himself: ‘so could it be literally true that Chalmer’s iPhone and Otto’s notebook are parts of their respective minds?’ He answers, no. But I don’t take the force of his objections. So for instance:
[Clark’s] argument is that, barring a principled reason for distinguishing between what Otto keeps in his notebook and what Inga keeps in her head, there’s a slippery slope from one to another ... That being so, it is mere prejudice to deny that Otto’s notebook is part of his mind if one grants that Inga’s memories are part of hers. That being Clark’s argument, the parity principle doesn’t come into it; which, as we’ve been seeing, is probably just as well. But it does bear emphasis that slippery-slope arguments are notoriously invalid. There is, for example, a slippery slope from being poor to being rich; it doesn’t follow that whoever is the one is therefore the other, or that to insist on the distinction is mere prejudice. Similarly, there is a slippery slope between being just a foetus and being a person; it doesn’t follow that foetuses are persons, or that to abort a foetus is to commit a homicide.
But this really is to miss the point. The analogy (since Fodor forces it) is not that Clark is arguing the brain is ‘rich’ and the notebook ‘poor’ and that these are the precisely the same thing; but rather that they both have something in common—as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ have money in common—the difference being only that one, the brain, has lots of this (call it ‘mind’) and the other, the notebook, has very little. That seems fair enough to me. Fodor goes on to deliver what he takes to be a knockout blow:
The mark of the mental is its intensionality (with an ‘s’); that’s to say that mental states have content; they are typically about things. And (with caveats presently to be considered) only what is mental has content.
But lots of the data on my computer is ‘about’ things; indeed, arguably, the arrangement of petals on a flower is ‘about’ something (it’s about how lovely the nectar is inside; it’s about attracting insects). Fodor is surprised Clarke doesn’t deal with intensionality, but let’s say it’s a red herring and move on.
Surely it’s not that Inga remembers that she remembers the address of the museum and, having consulted her memory of her memory then consults the memory she remembers having, and thus ends up at the museum. The worry isn’t that that story is on the complicated side; it’s that it threatens regress. It’s untendentious that Otto’s consulting ‘outside’ memories presupposes his having inside memories. But, on pain of regress, Inga’s consulting inside memories about where the museum is can’t require her first to consult other inside memories about whether she remembers where the museum is. That story won’t fly; it can’t even get off the ground.
Fodor, on the evidence of this, has never heard of a mnemonic? Surely not. Or is he denying that the mnemonics I have in my mind are, somehow, not in my mind ‘on pain of infinite regress’?


peteypiefrogworth said...

I actually have some sympathy with Fodor here (surprisingly), although not so much with his specific arguments against extended consciousness perhaps. I just think that the kinds of external mnemonics and suchlike that we are using at the moment aren't really integrated into, er, the active "program" that is our mind, you know, running on the substrate of our brain/nervous system. Or something. Still, I think Clark's got a lot of really important stuff to say.

I'm more interested, though, in whether Jerry Fodor is actually a Pixies fan?

Adam Roberts Project said...

It's an interesting question, certainly. When you say 'integrated into', doesn't it imply a model of 'mind' as integral? But my Dennett-influenced sense is that minds are, particularly, integral (although they can seem that way to us, as we use them).

Adam Roberts Project said...

Gdamn. ' that minds aren't, particularly, integral ...' I should have said.

peteypiefrogworth said...

Aha, yes well I'm inclined towards the Dennetian influence too. I guess I'm not suggesting that the mind is "integral" in a Cartesian "indivisible" sense, or even necessarily "of one mind" ;)

I'm thinking of "integration", though, in the sense that's all sorts of knowledge that's available to our minds as working knowledge rather than just facts that need a conscious or semi-conscious act of recall to get used. It's like the difference between:
a) having the Chinese Room's book there in front of you, with all its rules available to follow when a slip of paper with Chinese characters is given to you, vs
b) actually memorising the whole Chinese Room book and being able to parrot all the rules in your head when given a slip of paper with Chinese characters, vs
c) actually being the book, effectively: having the rules or some human-mind analogy of them in your working brain.

Only the third alternative actually entails understanding Chinese. This isn't a vindication of Searle; quite the opposite. It's something like the Systems argument against Searle, or the Robot one (can't remember what it was initially called). I'd imagine arguments like this are part of what Clark's saying, as he's been talking about this for a while: consciousness can only arise if the whole mental system is embedded in the world.

I've probably explained the above and its relevance really badly... Thanks for letting me, though :)
Oh - and I'm looking forward to reading "Adam Robots" in WE THINK THEREFORE WE ARE, which is high on the to-read pile right now.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Hey, I hope you enjoy it! It's an original sin story.

I so follow the steps of your reasoning; they're fine. But I don't really see that the conclusion ('Only the third alternative actually entails understanding Chinese') follows. It depends, I guess, on what 'understanding Chinese' means, practically. I'm a native speaker of English and would say I understand English; but sometimes I need to consult external props (a dictionary, say) properly to understand something in that language. In that case, the argument would go, the dictionary is a sort of temporary adjunct or prosthesis of my mind ... and as such we might as well talk (in that case) of my mind encompassing both neurones firing and the pages of the book.

peteypiefrogworth said...

I do certainly agree that external prostheses can extend the mind in meaningful fashions; but the connection/interface between your mind and the dictionary (or the Chinese Room book) is still rather cumbersome, and mediated by the senses.
It's a slow way of extending your understanding of English - and indeed using the dictionary as a mnemonic isn't the same as offloading your entire understanding of Chinese into a book. I couldn't see you, say, writing a poem in Chinese if all the "Chinese you" was in a book you had to look up in a very complicated way in order to work out any specific response.

But I'm pretty sure this is just a matter of the way we're trying to explain these concepts. I doubt we have a substantive disagreement :)

I look forward to another entry into Adam Roberts' plan to write every sf story there is! I hadn't thought of "original sin" stories as a category, but it makes sense!