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Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Mind’

extendedmind
There’s a great new article on the extended mind, titled, “How Google Is Making Us Smarter“, in Discover Magazine’s latest issue. You should definitely check it out.

The theory of the extended mind suggests that the mind is not contained exclusively ‘inside’ the skull, but rather that it extends into the external environment. While our mind can use the structure of our brain to store information, it also uses other structures in the outside world for cognitive functioning too. The classic example for this is the use of notepads or chalkboards as extended memory. To aid in the memorization of things, like classroom lessons or a friend’s phone number, we often utilize records stored on chalkboards or cell phones to remind us later of the information. According to this theory, the mind is intricately connected to its external environment through this kind of cognitive scaffolding. In fact, this externalism is necessary for real time, efficient action in the world. It bypasses the problem of an information bottleneck that would hamper real time cognitive processing if we had to store all of the relevant information about the world internally.

The article in Discover debunks the old myth that increasingly useful technology is making us dumb and lazy because it lessens the burden on our own brains. Rather, technology like the internet is making us smarter, because it is increasing our capacity to network with the extended world.

The theory of the extended mind was first proposed by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in a short essay aptly titled “The Extended Mind” in 1998.

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Andy Clark

Andy Clark


Andy Clark is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he is also Chair in Logic and Metaphysics. Previously, he was director of the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University in Bloomington.

His extensive publications on embodied cognition, connectionist neural networking and cognitive science have made him one of the key figureheads in the field, which he has helped to popularize and make accessible. This includes the keystone book, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again, as well as Natural Born Cyborgs and Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Cognition and Cognitive Extension. He has also written a fabulous introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science, titled Mindware. You can access a list of his publications, and you can view many of them too, from his page at the University of Edinburgh.

Clark might be classified as an anti-representationalist, believing that mental representations are not detailed internal constructions of the world, as in a Cartesian theater, but rather that cognition is constructed by the world. That is, the world acts as cognitive scaffolding, and cognition is constructed through an intricate environmental interplay between mind, body and world. Clark’s position is typically referred to as the theory of the extended mind.

He also anticipates the development of cognitive prosthetics, electronic enhancements to aid the integration of the human mind with technology.

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Francisco Varela

Francisco Varela


Francisco Varela (1946-2001) was a Chilean biologist, neuroscientist and philosopher, and is on the shortlist of visionary pioneers who conceived the interdisciplinary thesis of the embodied mind.

He began his academic career studying medicine and biology but also had a wide philosophical orientation, being primarily influenced by the work of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Varela also became a Tibetan Buddhist in the 1970’s. Undoubtedly influenced by both, he was well-positioned to join an understanding of the body in nature with an internal examination of consciousness and experience. His interdisciplinary connections were extensive, which ultimately led to the co-founding of the Integral Institute, a thinktank specifically aimed at sharing ideas between different disciplines.

The ultimate accumulation of his expertise was the publication of the canonical book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, co-authored with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. He is also responsible for introducing the term neurophenomenology, which conjoins the distinct methods of inquiry from phenomenology and neuroscience; a fundamental union in the development of the embodied mind thesis.

Varela is also responsible for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology, which refers to the self-creation and self-maintenance of biological systems.

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Over at Edge, a video interview and written transcript have been posted of Alva Noë discussing many of the philosophical problems concerning consciousness, and how a paradigm shift toward an embodied understanding of mind might help to resolve those problems.

Within it, Noë notes that most modern cognitivist research about consciousness and experience within neuroscience and classical cognitive science are actually just recycling many of the old problems of consciousness within a new framework. In other words, although the framework has changed, the same ways of understanding– the same paradigms– are still in place.

He uses the metaphor of a dancer to refocus instead on the importance of movement, action and the environment in the making of consciousness. He also ponders the mysteries of pictorial paradoxes about reference and meaning, and again discusses how an embodied approach offers answers.

Alva Noë is a professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff


If any single figure could be considered the guru for the current embodied philosophy movement, it has to be George Lakoff. Although technically a linguist, he is probably best known for his extensive interdisciplinary work in cognitive science, conceptual metaphor and politics. His published work includes the closest thing to a bible in the embodiment movement, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, which he co-authored with Mark Johnson. And he co-authored the breakthrough book, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being, with Rafael Núñez, which has spearheaded the entire field of embodied mathematics.

Arguably, Lakoff’s original foray into embodiment began within his work with conceptual metaphor, which has revolutionized the importance of that subfield within the embodiment movement. His work there can be most accessed in the books, Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson) and More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (with Mark Turner). And one work which bridges many of these earlier ideas is Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. His other contributions to linguistics have included proposing generative semantics as a substitute to Chomsky’s generative syntax.

Obviously Lakoff’s work here has been canonical, but he’s also well known for his political work, which primarily regards political rhetoric and political linguistics. As a political strategist, Lakoff has often been hailed as the “liberal Karl Rove”. He is the founder of the progressive think tank, the Rockridge Institute.

George Lakoff is currently a professor of Cognitive Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972.

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This is not exactly the most engaging production, but the discussion does span a wide variety of issues related to embodiment.

Hubert Dreyfus discusses notions of embodiment throughout the history of philosophy, particularly in relation to the philosophy of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and relates it to modern research within Artificial Intelligence and the Internet.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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