Playing with the environment, playing with minds

I’m taking a final year course at the moment titled Philosophy and Cognitive Science which has been both challenging and fascinating.  This week we have been discussing Clark and Chalmers paper ‘The Extended Mind’ (I’m sure you’ll be able to find this online somewhere).  The following post deals with a particular thought I had while reading this paper and listening to the Lecture (lectures by John Sutton with Mitch Parsell).

After reading ‘The Extended Mind’, and listening to the lectures, I’m wondering whether it would be possible to influence cognition by changing our general environment? In the lecture John refers to the case of Alzheimer’s Disease (mentioned in Clark and Chalmers 1998, pp. 12 – 16) and argues that it may be a morally wrong action to alter the environment of an Alzheimer’s Disease patient. Such a patient has, in an easily observable way, an extended mind with their surroundings. To mix up the layout of their food pantry, for example, would be directly playing with their mind!

But Clark and Chalmers don’t argue that just those with mental problems posses an extended mind, we all do. For example, our visual systems have evolved to incorporate, and capitalise upon, our physical surroundings; they are more efficient because more of their limited physical resources can be focused elsewhere (Clark & Chalmers 1998, p. 11). If this is the case then, I’m thinking, that my altering of the physical environment that others are situated in would be altering with their minds too. If our external environment is regarded as a cognitive input (in a functionalist system I suppose), then playing with that external environment is playing with someones mind!  This would seem to be a morally wrong action just like the Alzheimer’s Disease case mentioned above.   But perhaps this can be utilised in such a way that is, in some ways, morally good.

There are many issues with the term meditation but, at least in Indic traditions, one very common term that is translated as meditation has a direct relationship, a coupling to use a technical term, with cognition and the environment. Samādhi means (very simply) the uniting of the mind with external matter; not in a way that leaves a distinction between the two -like with Descartes’s mind and body- but in a way that they are both, in a sense, mutually dependent, or better still, an extension of one and the same ‘thing’. Many meditation practices developed around this concept, most notably within the Ch’an and Zen traditions, where the environment of the meditator is altered to produce a certain ‘frame of mind’ and to access certain cognitive processes.

Whether for good or bad it would seem that the extended mind thesis has some quite far reaching implications.  Of course we can enhance the mind through enhancing the external environment but we can also damage the mind too (think of the Alzheimer’s case above).  I haven’t drawn any conclusions from this position yet but what sorts of interactions with our physical environment, and especially the physical environment that others are situated within, would be morally permissible (were the extended mind thesis to be the case)?  Are we, or can we be, aware of the ways that our external environment impacts upon cognition?  Also, how would the extended mind thesis impact upon Aesthetics?

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11 Responses to “Playing with the environment, playing with minds”


  1. 1 Nathan July 4, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Hmmm… somehow I think a moral case against moving some food around in a pantry is a pretty weak case for moral misgivings – Alzheimer’s or not. It seems that Clarke and Chalmers have to argue for a static ecology for there not to be moral implications: If objects in an extended environment are to have moral consequences imposed on them, (because this is essentially what they are doing), then those objects would have to remain in a permanent state of stasis not to have a morally consequential outcome. The stasis neutralizes the environment from any moral imposition. Morality,therefore, becomes a moot point. If you reverse the situation and argue that the ecology is dynamic, then you are forced to impose moral consequences on the interactions with phenomena. You end up self imposing morality on an otherwise morally neutral environment.

    The whole argument seems uninteresting to me, but then again, I’ve not read the material.

    You may have to explain an argument for extended minds and aesthetics, however.

  2. 2 Simon July 4, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    I’m not sure if Clark and Chalmers actually see there being moral implications in this way or not Nath, it was simply an observation of my own. I don’t think that I agree (or perhaps see things a little differently) about objects of an extended mind necessarily remaining static to be free from moral implication; what I want to know is to what extent such objects can be tampered with from the perspective of moral philosophy.

    Perhaps the cupboard case is too strong but I think we could see that it would be a moral wrong to tamper with the notebook of the Alzheimer’s sufferer (the one used to record important memory based information) in certain ways. Say, for example, there are two people, P1 and P2. P1 has an average memory and P2 has Alzheimer’s Disease. Now, both P1 and P2 share the same heart condition and both need to take a pill every morning. P1, by virtue of her average memory, simply remembers in an average sort of way to complete this task. P2, on the other hand, must consult her notebook. If I alter the contents of P2’s notebook then am I committing a moral wrong?

    Hmmm, I’m probably going right off track here.

  3. 4 Nathan July 5, 2008 at 7:59 am

    what if p2 forgets to check her notebook (remembering she has alzheimer’s), is there still a moral wrong? i just think imposing moral right and wrong on a situation, such as this, complicates it.

  4. 5 Brad July 7, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    I will have a read of the Clark and Chalmers paper. In the meantime, I would ask this. Does it really matter what the circumstance of the “victim” is? While it is true that P2 could suffer if YOU alter her notebook, it is equally likely that P1 could suffer if YOU hide her medication. On the face of it, it seems to me that the moral question is really a question of what the actor’s intention is. The moral worth of an intention is not likely to depend on the truth or falsity of an extended mind thesis. I think the questions you raised are good ones. I will do the reading and have a ponder. Cheers.

  5. 6 Simon July 7, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Perhaps I’ll frame my concern a little differently.

    I posted this on the Uni discussion board (names do not refer to any actual people)

    Consider the following situation:

    There exist two people, let’s call them Frank and David, who for the sake of argument are very similar individuals. There exists one important difference between them however; David has Alzheimer’s Disease. Frank and David, who are colleagues, therefore go about their daily tasks in very different ways. Frank reads his research and commits it to his biological memory whereas David records the important facts of his life on his Blackberry. Frank and David one day decide that their workload is getting a little heavy so they employ Berit to assist them. Berit insists that her take on fact F is better than David’s and, having noticed that David’s mind is coupled with his Blackberry, decides to alter a few key pieces of information that are stored within it. The next time David speaks with Frank, David begins articulating Berit’s theories.

    Now, I’m not sure if this scenario is an accurate representation of the extended mind thesis (or part of it) but I’m interested in the possibility that one’s representations can be altered. Can Berit really change David’s mind? If so is it possible to claim that if people posses an extended mind then their representations can be altered?

    This was basically a premise to where I was taking my moral thoughts on the issue.

  6. 7 Simon July 8, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    I should probably add here too that I’m interested in a particular moral case. Much of what we say about our moral actions towards the environment are in terms of what the results of such actions might cause – we are not often concerned with causing a wrong to a tree, for example, but how the result of wronging or damaging a tree will impact upon others. What I think the examples above illustrate is that if an aspect of the physical environment is also an aspect of someone’s mind then our moral position towards it would have to change too – we must become concerned with wronging a specific aspect of the environment, not because of what will follow from the conclusions of committing this action but because it is (perhaps) now wrong to commit the act in the first place.

    I’m not articulating this very well (it’s still not that clear in my head) but I hope you get the picture.

  7. 8 Brad July 9, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    After reading through the first few pages of the Clark and Chalmers paper, I started to form a few misgivings about the extended mind thesis that they have proposed. Nevertheless, whether I accept it or not, it is interesting to think about your question.

    Clark and Chalmers have asserted that an external object is a “part of [my] cognitive process” if I use that object as an aid to those processes. For clarity, I will call this the affirmative proposal. The contrary view that external objects are entirely independent of us will be called the negative proposal. The negative proposal asserts that an external object can aid us to achieve a goal, but that the object is nothing more than a tool.

    To borrow an agreeable quote from your last post, Simon – “we are not often concerned with causing a wrong to a tree, for example, but how the result of wronging or damaging a tree will impact upon others”.

    According to the negative proposal, the tree is merely a tool. There is a moral reason not to kill the tree (or move it or alter it) if the survival of the tree (as is) is essential for another’s livelihood. I can think of a few examples, but I won’t name them.

    According to the affirmative proposal, the tree is potentially a part of a person’s cognitive processes. Therefore, acceptance of the affirmative proposal would give us just one more moral reason to consider the impact of our actions upon the tree.

    The affirmative position could also lead to discussions about property rights. Is the street sign my property if I use it to direct me home?

    What do you think?

  8. 9 Simon July 9, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    These are the sort of concerns that I was thinking of Brad. A tree and a street sign are probably not the kinds of things that would be part of our extended mind but they nevertheless illustrate the sorts of interactions possible in the physical environment.

    Extending this extended mind thesis a little further, could it be argued that certain aspects of the physical environment are aspects of animals’s extended minds? I’m coming at this question from a Bentham ‘…can they suffer’ angle and wondering how our interactions with the physical environment might increase various non-human animals’s suffering, perhaps more so than human animals. Human animals, in general, have a greater capacity for reason so changes in their physical world (although not, perhaps, their extended mind?) can be ‘understood’ a little clearer. many non-human animals, however, don’t have this capacity and any interaction with their extended mind would perhaps induce quite high levels of fear and dysfunction.

  9. 10 Brad July 12, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    There is plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that animals become distressed when removed from their natural environment.
    That evidence would certainly seem to support the “idea” of an extended mind, at the very least.
    The same evidence supports the moral argument against interfering with an animal’s environment.

    I don’t think the extended mind thesis gives any further support to the moral conclusion. In fact, I think it might be fallacious to use the extended mind conclusion as support for the moral conclusion. I don’t know what category that fallacy might fall into. Any ideas?


  1. 1 Bookmarks about Environment Trackback on August 7, 2008 at 11:30 am

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