For years I’ve been fascinated by the “extended minds” thesis, the claim that we should regard our minds not as confined to our brains, but including brains, bodies and technologies. (Andy Clark, author of Natural Born Cyborgs, is one influential exponents of the concept.) It’s an idea that guided my book The Distraction Addiction: my contention that we shouldn’t regard technologies as inherently dehumanizing, but instead should be see the best of them as tools we use to become better versions of ourselves, builds on the idea of extended minds.
So I clicked pretty quickly when I saw an article titled “Does a Spider Use Its Web Like You Use Your Smartphone? on The Atlantic Web site. It turns out that for almost the last decade, Brazilian biologist Hilton Japyassú has been conducting experiments on spiders, learning how they use their webs to sense the world and solve unfamiliar problems. He and a colleague now argue that “a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.”
The whole article, which touches on octopus cognition, other spider species, and Haller’s Rule, is worth reading.
And here’s the abstract from the essay “Extended Spider Cognition” by Hilton Japyassú and Kevin Laland:
There is a tension between the conception of cognition as a central nervous system (CNS) process and a view of cognition as extending towards the body or the contiguous environment. The centralised conception requires large or complex nervous systems to cope with complex environments. Conversely, the extended conception involves the outsourcing of information processing to the body or environment, thus making fewer demands on the processing power of the CNS. The evolution of extended cognition should be particularly favoured among small, generalist predators such as spiders, and here, we review the literature to evaluate the fit of empirical data with these contrasting models of cognition. Spiders do not seem to be cognitively limited, displaying a large diversity of learning processes, from habituation to contextual learning, including a sense of numerosity. To tease apart the central from the extended cognition, we apply the mutual manipulability criterion, testing the existence of reciprocal causal links between the putative elements of the system. We conclude that the web threads and configurations are integral parts of the cognitive systems. The extension of cognition to the web helps to explain some puzzling features of spider behaviour and seems to promote evolvability within the group, enhancing innovation through cognitive connectivity to variable habitat features. Graded changes in relative brain size could also be explained by outsourcing information processing to environmental features. More generally, niche-constructed structures emerge as prime candidates for extending animal cognition, generating the selective pressures that help to shape the evolving cognitive system.
Another quote from Seneca:
Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow. For what new pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? They are all known, all have been enjoyed to the full. Mistress Fortune may deal out the rest as she likes; his life has already found safety. Something may be added to it, but nothing taken from it, and he will take any addition as the man who is satisfied and filled takes the food which he does not desire and yet can hold.
From Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life:”
everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things… since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.
Andy Clark argues:
[W]e seem to be entering an age in which cognitive prosthetics (which have always been around in one form or another) are displaying a kind of Cambrian explosion of new and potent forms. As the forms proliferate, and some become more entrenched, we might do well to pause and reflect on their nature and status. At the very least, minds like ours are the products not of neural processing alone but of the complex and iterated interplay between brains, bodies, and the many designer environments in which we increasingly live and work.
Ann Blair suggests, not so fast:
[We assume] that modern technology is creating a problem that our culture and even our brains are ill equipped to handle. We stand on the brink of a future that no one can ever have experienced before.
But is it really so novel? Human history is a long process of accumulating information, especially once writing made it possible to record texts and preserve them beyond the capacity of our memories. And if we look closely, we can find a striking parallel to our own time: what Western Europe experienced in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention of printing in the 15th century, when thousands upon thousands of books began flooding the market, generating millions of copies for sale. The literate classes experienced exactly the kind of overload we feel today — suddenly, there were far more books than any single person could master, and no end in sight.
In the New York Times, Edinburgh philosopher Andy Clark has a nice essay on embodied cognition. If you’re familiar with his book Natural Born Cyborgs, you’ll already know the outlines of his argument; but it includes this update:
Most of us gesture (some of us more wildly than others) when we talk… [and it seems that] bodily motions may themselves be playing some kind of active role in our thought process. In experiments where the active use of gesture is inhibited, subjects show decreased performance on various kinds of mental tasks. Now whatever is going on in these cases, the brain is obviously deeply implicated! No one thinks that the physical handwavings are all by themselves the repositories of thoughts or reasoning. But it may be that they are contributing to the thinking and reasoning, perhaps by lessening or otherwise altering the tasks that the brain must perform, and thus helping us to move our own thinking along.
It is noteworthy, for example, that the use of spontaneous gesture increases when we are actively thinking a problem through, rather than simply rehearsing a known solution. There may be more to so-called “handwaving” than meets the eye.
More on this at Contemplative Computing.
[To the tune of Keith Jarrett, “The Mourning Of A Star,” from the album The Mourning Of A Star (a 2-star song, imo).]
This 2007 Raymond Tallis essay declaring that “free will is not an illusion” can join the Chabris and Simons piece arguing against neuro-determinism, or more generally arguments that rest on the “because fMRI shows that our brains do X when we’re doing this thing that I’m interested in/think is bad, this thing/bad thing is really important:”
There are several strands of thought woven into neuro-determinism. The first is that we are essentially our brains: our consciousness, our belief in ourselves as free agents, and so on, is neural activity in certain parts of the brain. Secondly, these brains have evolved in such a way as to maximise the likelihood of our genetic material being able to replicate…. Thirdly, for a brain to work effectively, it is not necessary for us to be aware of what it is doing. Cognitive psychologists have, over the last few decades, particularly since the advent of neuro-imaging which reveals activity in the living brain, shown how we are unconscious of many things that influence what is going on in our brain and, it is inferred, the perceptions we form and the decisions we make….
[But] Neuro-determinism, though seemingly self-evident, is also wrong.
The first line of attack is to remove the hype from the neuroscience of consciousness and remind ourselves how little we know…. [T]here is not even the beginning of an explanation of our fundamental sense that we are subjects transcended by objects that are ‘out there’, that exist independently of us and have their own intrinsic properties. From its simplest to its most elaborated forms, intentionality – the property of consciousness of being ‘about’ something – remains mysterious….
Secondly, we should question the focus on the stand-alone brain. The world we live in is not one of sparks of isolated sentience cast amid a rubble of material objects. We live in a world that is collectively constructed. Our consciousness is collectivised…. It is no use, therefore, looking for human being, and its free actions, in isolated brains…. We also need a body (which, too, lights up in different ways when we are presented with stimuli); and that body has to be environed; and the environment consists not of bare, material objects but of nexuses of signification that have two kinds of temporal depth – that which comes from personal memory and the explicit sense of our private past; and that which comes from our collective history, insofar as we have internalised it. As Ortega y Gasset said, unlike other animals ‘Man is an inheritor, not a mere descendent’.
The Times reports that
When France’s most dashing philosopher took aim at Immanuel Kant in his latest book, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”, his observations were greeted with the usual adulation. To support his attack, Bernard-Henri Lévy — a showman-penseur known simply by his initials, BHL — cited the little-known 20th-century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul.
There was one problem: Botul was invented by a journalist in 1999 as an elaborate joke, and BHL has become the laughing stock of the Left Bank….
Mr Lévy admitted last night that he had been fooled by Botul, the creation of a literary journalist, Frédéric Pages, but he was not exactly contrite.
Appearing on Canal+ television, he said he had always admired The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant and that its arguments were solid, whether written by Botul or Pages. “I salute the artist [Pages],” he said, adding with a philosophical flourish: “Hats off for this invented-but-more-real-than-real Kant, whose portrait, whether signed Botul, Pages or John Smith, seems to be in harmony with my idea of a Kant who was tormented by demons that were less theoretical than it seemed.”
Granted I haven’t had any coffee this morning, but it sounds like Lévy’s argument is, “Yes the work I cite is fiction, but it says what I think, so I’ll continue to reference it.” Which sounds rather like an appeal to truthiness: it’s not true, but it kind of looks true, and confirms my own beliefs, so I’m going to find it convincing.
[To the tune of They Might Be Giants, “Lazyhead and Sleepybones,” from the album No! (a 3-star song, imo).]
One of my favorite cartoons ever: Jeff Reid’s 1989 cartoon, “Breakfast Theory: A Morning Methodology.”
Excellent long piece on George Soros and his ideas in the Financial Times. Soros, along with T. H. Huxley, is kind of a hero of mine: someone who’s seriously interested in ideas and their consequences, and who’s really successful.
Soros’s experiences in 1944 [in Nazi-occupied Budapest] laid the groundwork for the conceptual framework he would spend the rest of his life elaborating and which, he believes, has found its validation in the events of 2008. His core idea is “reflexivity”, which he defines as a “two-way feedback loop, between the participants’ views and the actual state of affairs. People base their decisions not on the actual situation that confronts them, but on their perception or interpretation of the situation. Their decisions make an impact on the situation and changes in the situation are liable to change their perceptions.”
It is, at its root, a case for frequent re-examination of one’s assumptions about the world and for a readiness to spot and exploit moments of cataclysmic change – those times when our perceptions of events and events themselves are likely to interact most fiercely. It is also at odds with the rational expectations economic school, which has been the prevailing orthodoxy in recent decades. That approach assumed that economic players – from people buying homes to bankers buying subprime mortgages for their portfolios – were rational actors making, in aggregate, the best choices for themselves and that free markets were effective mechanisms for balancing supply and demand, setting prices correctly and tending towards equilibrium….
Soros sees the current crisis as a real-life illustration of reflexivity. Markets did not reflect an objective “truth”. Rather, the beliefs of market participants – that house prices would always rise, that an arcane financial instrument based on a subprime mortgage really could merit a triple-A rating – created a new reality. Ultimately, that “super-bubble” was unsustainable, hence the credit crunch of 2007 and the recession and financial crisis of 2008 and beyond….
Soros attributes his effectiveness as an investor to his philosophical views about the contingent nature of human knowledge: “I think that my conceptual framework, which basically emphasises the importance of misconceptions, makes me extremely critical of my own decisions … I know that I am bound to be wrong, and therefore am more likely to correct my own mistakes.”
Soros’s radar for revolution is the second key to his investing style. He looks for “game-changing moments, not incremental ones”, according to Sebastian Mallaby, the Washington Post columnist and author who is writing a history of hedge funds. As examples, Mallaby cites Quantum’s shorting of the pound and Soros’s 1985 “Plaza Accord” bet that the dollar would fall against the yen – his two most famous currency trades – as well as a lesser-known 1973 bet that, as a consequence of the Arab-Israeli war, defence stocks would soar. “It’s not that reflexivity tells you what to do, but it tells you to be on the look-out for turn-around situations,” Mallaby said. “It’s an attitude of mind.”