This week my metaphysics students and I are beginning with Andy Clark’s Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Before jumping into Being There, we are first reading “The Extended Mind“, an article co-authored with David Chalmers where they first introduced the extended mind hypothesis. Chalmers and Clark are asking very basic and fundamental questions such as “what is cognition?”, “what is mind?”, “what are beliefs?”, and “what is a self?” Yet the basic nature of these questions yields answers that are, in my view, pathbreaking and of the utmost significance for not only cognitive science and philosophy of mind, but also for ethics and social and political thought. To be sure, there are others that touch on the sort of thesis that Chalmers and Clark put forward (Haraway, Stengers, and Latour immediately come to mind), but none, in my reading experience, in quite such a dramatic way as they do.

Marx famously argued that the essence of human beings consists both in production and in producing our own essence. In making this claim, Marx immediately problematized the assumption that we are all human in the same way, transforming the signifier human into– using Deleuze’s language –an “empty square” or moving target, such that we can no longer appeal to some unchanging essence of the human that would be the same under all historical periods and modes of production. To say that the essence of humans is production and that humans produce their own essence through their form of production is to effectively undermine the idea of a transhistorical and unchanging essence of humans. No doubt it is this thesis that would lead Marx to abandon the alienation hypothesis of his early work, for if there is no abiding essence of the human then it is difficult to defend a coherent concept of alienation. As a consequence, it becomes necessary to envision political engagement in terms different from those of emancipation.

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While we might argue against Marx’s restriction of productive-essence to humans, he nonetheless touches on something very close to what Chalmers and Clark are getting at in their “extended mind” hypothesis. Posing the question “where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?”, Chalmers and Clark contest the thesis that mind is demarcated by what is within the skin and in the skull. Instead, they argue for what they call an “active externalism” that is “…based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes.” In short, Chalmers and Clark argue that cognition, belief, mind, and self are not restricted to what takes place in the skull or in consciousness, but rather that often (and perhaps predominantly) they are the result of coupling of brain and environment. In this regard, cognition wouldn’t be restricted to what takes place in the head.

Chalmers and Clark provide an excellent example of what they’re getting at in terms of the game Scrabble. The… “choice of words in Scrabble… [is] the outcome of an extended cognitive process involving the rearrangement of tiles on [the] tray.” To be sure, something similar can be done in the head alone without rearranging the tiles, but the Clark and Chalmers contend suffers in its ability to do these sorts of activities. As a consequence, they conclude that “[i]n a very real sense, the re-arrangement of tiles on the tray is not a part of action [my emphasis]; it is part of thought.” In other words, given this example, we might wish to argue that the rearranging of the tiles is merely an “action” and that the real cognitive work is taking place in the head, but Clark and Chalmers argue that the tiles are themselves an integral role in the thought or cognition. As they remark, “[t]he external features of a coupled system play an ineliminable role– if we retain internal structure but change the external features, behavior may change completely. The external features here are just as causally relevant as typical internal features of the brain.”

It is not simply that these external objects change behavior, but that the very powers of cognition are variable depending on the objects with which we’re coupled. The example of body-brains coupled with Scrabble tiles is trivial; especially since there might be only a marginal difference between the person that plays the game of Scrabble entirely in his head and the other person that re-arranges their tiles as a way of finding words. Yet when we begin to explore the wide range of technologies we interact with both today and throughout history we might very well discover that there are profound differences in cognition between different tool users both today and throughout history. This, I take it, is what thinkers such as Haraway, Stengers, Latour, Marx (in his writings on technology), Deleuze and Guattari in their assemblage theory, Kittler, Ong, and Stiegler are trying to get at in their meditations of technology. We still tend to assume a transhistorical essence of human cognition behind couplings that would allow us to say that we’re all the same, but it could be that there are as many “species” of “humans” as there are systems of technology in which human bodies are embedded. If this is the case, then we desperately need a set of categories for investigating these different “species” and uncovering their various capacities. We need to develop an ontology that allows us to overcome the Aristotlean reduction of technologies to mere “instruments” where humans alone project ends on technologies without the technologies themselves being full-blown contributors to the form cognition takes.

Chalmers and Clark also extend this hypothesis to beliefs. Our folk psychology suggests to us that a belief must be something in the head, such that a person carries it about with them at all times. However, comparing a so-called “normal” person with a person who suffers from Alzheimer’s and who relies on things written down in a notebook in the world, they argue that no difference in role can be detected between the person who relies on brain-memory alone and the person who relies on the notebook. We might object that the person who relies on brain-memory alone can “pull up” their belief on any occasion. However, this isn’t true. In periods of fatigue or when suffering from a hangover or when drunk or sick the person might not be able to pull up the belief. Do we thereby suggest that the person has ceased believing such things? If not, then why do we suggest that the Alzheimer’s patient doesn’t really believe in what he’s written down in his notebook when, in fact, that notebook serves a functionally identical role to beliefs stored in memory?

In fact, their point about belief is not an “exotic” case restricted to people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. As Plato despaired long ago in Phaedrus (and as Stiegler curiously seems to repeat in his meditations on technology), there’s a very real sense in which we’re all like the Alzheimer’s patient with respect to our beliefs. Scores of my belief are not stored in the “wetware” of my brain, but rather are stored right here on this blog, in my articles, in recorded talks I’ve given, in my books, and so on. I do not have many of these beliefs recorded in detail at all, but rather offload these beliefs on to an external medium that stores them in my stead. Likewise, there are many beliefs I posses without having ever directly thought about them, without having been exposed to them, and without being able to recall them. For example, there are all sorts of things I believe about evolutionary biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, and so on, without having ever been directly exposed to these things. Howso? At a very general level I believe in the truth of chemistry, evolutionary biology, genetics, mathematics, etc., but I don’t directly know all the details of these disciplines. Nonetheless, when wondering about some specific issue, matter, or concept pertaining to these themes, I would have no hesitation consulting a book or reputable websites on the internet to discover what it is that I believe.

And when I say that I would consult the internet or a book to discover what I do believe on these issues, I don’t mean that I would gather all these competing perspectives on these issues and then judge which one I agree with, but rather, it’s likely that there are a vast number of things that I would take as being true without question based on my belief that these sciences are true. Thus, for example, I wouldn’t debate over whether iron, in fact, has such and such an atomic weight. Nor would I look for opposing points of view on the atomic weight of iron. I would simply take it for granted that what I read in this textbook is, in fact, the atomic weight of iron (and, of course, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of re-evaluating these externalized beliefs at a later point). I had never learned the atomic weight of iron before, I had never known it, it had never passed before my consciousness; yet like the things recorded in the Alzheimer patient’s notebook, it nonetheless seems that I believe that iron has such and such an atomic weight.

This point about the nature of beliefs has, I think, tremendous consequences for critical theory and, in particular, ideology critique. If it is true that 1) many of our beliefs are actually external to our internal world, off-loaded on to the internet, books, authorities we identify with, etc, and 2) that many of the beliefs that we have are beliefs that we’ve never actually learned, had before our consciousness, directly assented to, etc., then it might be that the project of “debunking” is of limited value. Here I’m always struck by the example of religion. For many hundreds of years, for example, the Catholic lay had no idea what they were hearing during their mass, what was being read to them from the Bible, what their theology was, etc. In many respects, a variant of this situation is true of many Catholics today (having grown up in a heavily Catholic context, I’ve always been struck by how my Catholic family members, relatives, and friends would joke “I don’t know the Bible, I’m a Catholic!”). Likewise, here in the heavily fundamentalist and evangelical Texas, I’m always struck by how so many of my students can be deeply involved in their churches, yet know little of the Bible, the theology of their particular denomination of Christianity, and endorse things that are directly at odds with the theology of their religion such as the ideas defended in the “documentary” What the Bleep…?. Do these people believe the doctrine of their church or not? The extended mind hypothesis would claim that they do.

Critical theory and ideology critique spends a lot of time “debunking”, while a more traditional version of Enlightenment critique spends a lot of time demonstrating that certain truth-claims are in fact false or mythological. Neither of these models of critique should disappear and they certainly have their value; however, it may be that if belief is often external in this way, then debunking and demonstrating falsehood with have diminishing returns because conscious belief is not the primary mechanism that binds people to certain social systems. Rather, it seems that identification with many institutions or social formations is every bit as much a mechanism that binds people to oppressive systems as conscious belief. If that’s the case then a major strategy for undermining certain social formations would consist in the question of how to produce dis-identification. And here, following on the tails of John Protevi and Massumi’s work on political affect, it could be that the mechanisms that preside over identification with a social assemblage have very little to do with conscious belief in the truth-value of the social formation’s “official” position. For example, the reason a person sticks with a particular church might have less to do with people actually believing the truth-claims of the religion, and a lot to do with embedded family relationships, romantic relations, friendships, job considerations, etc., within which the person is enmeshed. The person here would “believe” because they are identified affectively with these relationships, not with the doxa of theology. Along these lines, Helen de Cruz, over at New Apps, has written a fascinating post on atheist clergy(!!!) that do not leave their religion despite having lost faith in its claims. When looked at through the lens of the extended mind hypothesis, the sort of debunking advocated by a lot of critical theory and ideology critique looks increasingly limited. To this we would also have to add the way in which we become entangled in the physical objects and environment of our life around us, fully cognizant of how certain forms of life suck, but unsure of how to disentangle ourselves from the sort of world that we’ve built and been born into.