In their extended mind article, Clark and Chalmers compare the beliefs of Inga, a woman who has ordinary bi-memory, and an Alzheimer’s patient, Otto, who suffers from memory loss. As they write,
consider a normal case of belief embedded in memory. Inga hears from a friend that there is an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and decides to go see it. She thinks for a moment and recalls that the museum is on 53rd Street, so she walks to 53rd Street and goes into the museum. It seems clear that Inga believes that the museum is on 53rd Street, and that she believed this even before she consulted her memory. It was not previously an occurrent belief, but then neither are most of our beliefs. The belief was sitting somewhere in memory, waiting to be accessed.
Now consider Otto. Otto suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and like many Alzheimer’s patients, he relies on information in the environment to help structure his life. Otto carries a notebook around with him everywhere he goes. When he learns new information, he writes it down. When he needs some old information, he looks it up. For Otto, his notebook plays the role usually played by a biological memory. Today, Otto hears about the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and decides to go see it. He consults the notebook, which says that the museum is on 53rd Street, so he walks to 53rd Street and goes into the museum.
Clearly, Otto walked to 53rd Street because he wanted to go to the museum and he believed the museum was on 53rd Street. And just as Inga had her belief even before she consulted her memory, it seems reasonable to say that Otto believed the museum was on 53rd Street even before consulting his notebook. For in relevant respects the cases are entirely analogous: the notebook plays for Otto the same role that memory plays for Inga. The information in the notebook functions just like the information constituting an ordinary non-occurrent belief; it just happens that this information lies beyond the skin.
What they wish to argue is that Otto’s notebook is literally a part of his mind. The central thesis here is that mind is not in the brain, but rather that the brain is in the mind. Brain is a necessary condition for minds– no brain, no mind –but nonetheless it is only a part of mind, an element in an assemblage, not mind as such. If Otto’s notebook serves a functionally identical role to that of bio-memory, then the things contained in that notebook deserve to be called Otto’s beliefs despite the fact that Otto doesn’t possess these beliefs in his brains. Otto just differs from Inga in that he stores his beliefs in a notebook rather than in the wetware of his brain.
This raises all sorts of questions about belief that will, no doubt, immediately come to mind for enthusiasts of Žižek. Remember that for Žižek our beliefs aren’t found in the sanctity of our inner life or interior world, but are out there in our actions and behaviors. Internally I might very well know that the dollar bill is merely a piece of paper with no intrinsic value. Yet my true belief is revealed in how I act towards my dollar bill, such that I treat it as having some sort of intrinsic value. I gasp when someone lights it on fire. Clark and Chalmers take this one step further. It’s not just that my beliefs reveal themselves in my actions– e.g., a white person might genuinely believe in his equality with blacks but reveals his belief in cringing and pulling her purse tighter when a young black man enters the elevator –but that my beliefs can be contained out there in the world in something like a notebook, an iPhone, a database I’ve compiled, etc.
As an aside, this is yet another area where we see the inadequacy of phenomenology in dealing with the nature of the world and experience. In its focus on consciousness and intentionality it’s unable to handle something like Otto’s notebook where the belief is out there in the world and is not directly given to consciousness. This, of course, would be a variation, as Morton recently points out, of Derrida’s argument from the primacy of writing.
Returning to the theme of extended belief, take the case of religion. Here in the States we like to talk about religion as a matter of an internal, personal belief. We treat the theology as being what counts. Under this model a person can be a Catholic, yet still say they don’t believe that women should have a subordinate position due to the Church’s position on birth control, abortion, divorce, etc., and that they aren’t homophobic despite the fact that the Church sees homosexality as a egregious sin. It is the bio-belief, the belief in the folds of the interior space of the brain that matters, not the positions of the Church.
Yet if the extended mind thesis is true, it would seem that matters are not so simple. If I attend and give money to the Church, does the Church’s beliefs become equivalent to Otto’s notebook? Aren’t my beliefs contained externally in the Church regardless of what I might think within my space of interiority? And wouldn’t we then be justified in saying that I’m culpable for these beliefs– even if I personally find them egregious –by contributing to their continued existence? These are functionally nonetheless my beliefs. The same would be true of the Republican that claims to detest the Tea Party and the Fundamentalist wackadoos that pervade his party, yet that nonetheless continues to vote for Republicans. Objectively he shares the belief of these people in the form of his elected representatives, even if he doesn’t share these beliefs in his interiority.
Interestingly, another possibility here would be that we have certain beliefs without knowing that we have these beliefs because of the way in which we’re entangled in an extended scaffolding. I might be a Catholic that doesn’t know their positions on women and homosexuals but still have these beliefs because of the manner in which this institution is a part of my scaffolding. Initially this might sound ridiculous, but consider the outrage we sometimes feel when we discover that an institution, philosopher, or theorist supports positions we find disgusting. We exclaim to ourselves “how could I have ever supported these things?!?!” In these cases we seem to own having supported these things even though we didn’t know it.
What we have here is a variation of something like Sartrean bad faith. The person wants to deny their belief by retreating to the interiority of their skinbag, while their true belief is out there in the world. Nonetheless, there’s something wrong with this way of characterizing things. While our hypothetical Republican’s beliefs are truly out there in the world in his party, not his interiority, that interiority, these beliefs that reside in interiority, are not nothing. Here I think we get a little boost from OOO. It will be recalled that for OOO objects are both composed of other objects and objects are withdrawn from one another. Otto’s mind is composed of Otto the skinbag and his notebook. That mind is a single object. But it is also composed of objects that are withdrawn from one another, that aren’t identical to one another, that don’t form a seamless totality. In other words, this object (Otto-notebook) is always haunted by entropy. The notebook fails to mesh with Otto’s skinbag in certain respect and Otto-the-skinbag fails to mesh with the notebook in certain respects.
What we need here is something like the Lacanian subject as void. While the Catholic Church is a part of our hypothetical Catholic’s mind, there is nonetheless a void here in our Catholic. What is egregious in our Catholic is not so much these beliefs about women and homosexuals that he externally and objectively has, but rather that he doesn’t either withdraw from that Church or religion or that he doesn’t try to change it but rather allows it to continue. His complicity lies in being a part of this mind, in participating in its autopoiesis or continued reproduction, rather than changing it.