Andy Clark


Professor of Philosophy and Chair In Logic And Metaphysics at The University Of Edinburgh In Scotland, Director Of The Cognitive Science Program At Indiana University In Bloomington, Indiana, One of the Founding Members oftThe CONTACT Collaborative Research Project

Author Quotes

In sum, the project of understanding human thought and reason is easily and frequently misconstrued. It is misconstrued as the project of understanding what is special about the human brain. No doubt there is something special about our brains. But understanding our peculiar profiles as reasoners, thinkers and knowers of our worlds requires an even broader perspective: one that targets multiple brains and bodies operating in specially constructed environments replete with artifacts, external symbols, and all the variegated scaffoldings of science, art and culture. Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature's very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.

We see some of the "cognitive fossil trail" of the Cyborg trait in the historical procession of potent Cognitive Technologies that begins with speech and counting, morphs first into written text and numerals, then into early printing (without moveable typefaces), on to the revolutions of moveable typefaces and the printing press, and most recently to the digital encodings that bring text, sound and image into a uniform and widely transmissible format. Such technologies, once up-and-running in the various appliances and institutions that surround us, do far more than merely allow for the external storage and transmission of ideas. They constitute, I want to say, a cascade of "mindware upgrades": cognitive upheavals in which the effective architecture of the human mind is altered and transformed. What's more, the use, reach and transformative powers of these cognitive technologies is escalating. New waves of user-sensitive technology may soon bring this ancient process to a climax, as our minds and identities become ever more deeply enmeshed in a non-biological matrix of machines, tools, props, codes and semi-intelligent daily objects.

It is because our brains, more than those of any other animal on the planet, are primed to seek and consummate such intimate relations with non-biological resources that we end up as bright and as capable of abstract thought as we are. It is because we are natural-born cyborgs, forever ready to merge our mental activities with the operations of pen, paper, and electronics, that we are able to understand the world as we do.... Minds like ours were made for mergers.

We tend to think of our biological brains as the point source of the whole final content. But if we look a little more closely what we may often find is that the biological brain participated in some potent and iterated loops through the cognitive technological environment. We began, perhaps, by looking over some old notes, then turned to some original sources. As we read, our brain generated a few fragmentary, on-the-spot responses which were duly stored as marks on the page, or in the margins. This cycle repeats, pausing to loop back to the original plans and sketches, amending them in the same fragmentary, on-the-spot fashion. This whole process of critiquing, re-arranging, streamlining and linking is deeply informed by quite specific properties of the external media, which allow the sequence of simple reactions to become organized and grow (hopefully) into something like an argument. The brain's role is crucial and special. But it is not the whole story. In fact, the true power and beauty of the brain's role is that it acts as a mediating factor in a variety of complex and iterated processes which continually loop between brain, body and technological environment. And it is this larger system which solves the problem. We thus confront the cognitive equivalent of Dawkins' vision of the extended phenotype. The intelligent process just is the spatially and temporally extended one which zigzags between brain, body and world.

It is not at all obvious that (nonhuman) animal thought is systematic in the Fodor and Pylyshyn sense. . . . It is our experiences with public language that equip is to think such an open-ended variety of thoughts and hence cognitive systematicity may be both nonpervasive and rather closely tied to our linguistic abilities themselves.

We transcend these limits [of being ?good at frisbee, bad at logic?], in large part, by combining the internal operation of a connectionist, pattern-completing device with a variety of external operations and tools that serve to reduce the complex, sequential problems to an ordered set of simpler pattern-completing operations of the kind our brains are comfortable with.

It matters that we recognize the very large extent to which individual human thought and reason are not activities that occur solely in the brain or even solely within the organismic skin-bag. This matters because it drives home the degree to which environmental engineering is also self-engineering. In building our physical and social worlds, we build (or rather, we massively reconfigure) our minds and our capacities of thought and reason.

What is special about human brains, and what best explains the distinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with non-biological constructs, props, and aids.

A proper question to press, however, is this: since no other species on the planet builds as varied, complex and open-ended designer environments as we do (the claim, after all, is that this is why we are special), what is it that allowed this process to get off the ground in our species in such a spectacular way? And isn't that, whatever it is, what really matters? Otherwise put, even if it's the designer environments that make us so intelligent, isn't it some deep biological difference that lets us build-discover-use them in the first place? This is a serious, important and largely unresolved question. Clearly, there must be some (but perhaps quite small) biological difference that lets us get our collective foot in the designer environment door ? what can it be? One possible story locates the difference in a biological innovation for widespread cortical plasticity combined perhaps with the extended period of protected learning called "childhood". Thus "neural constructivists" such as Steve Quartz and Terry Sejnowski depicts neural (especially cortical) growth as experience ? dependent, and as involving the actual construction of new neural circuitry (synapses, axons, dendrites) rather than just the fine-tuning of circuitry whose basic shape and form is already determined. One upshot is that the learning device itself changes as a result of organism-environmental interactions ? learning does not just alter the knowledge base for a fixed computational engine, it alters the internal computational architecture itself. The linguistic and technological environments in which human brains grow and develop are thus poised to function as the anchor points around which such flexible neural resources adapt and fit.

It's always helpful to look outside of the web for your inspiration, to places where you might not at first expect to find a solution. The world is a collage of inspiration, from newspapers, magazine publishing, and advertising to product design, architecture and the fine arts.

Whatever matters about mind must depend solely on what goes on inside the biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull.

According to EXTENDED, the actual local operations that realize certain forms of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body, and world. The local mechanisms of mind, if this is correct, are not all in the head. Cognition leaks out into body and world.

Language works its magic not (or not solely) by means of translation into appropriate expressions of ?Mentalese? or the ?Language of Thought? but by something more like a coordination dynamics in which words and structured linguistic encodings act to stabilize and discipline (or ?anchor?) intrinsically fluid and context-sensitive modes of thought and reason.

Why shouldn?t [Searle?s] Chinese Room, or Block?s Chinese population, actually have real, and qualitatively rich, mental states? Our discomfort, I suggest, flows not from the bedrock idea that the right formal structure could guarantee the presence of such states so much as from a nagging suspicion that the formal structures that will be implemented will prove too shallow.

All this adds interesting complexity to those evolutionary psychological accounts which emphasize our ancestral environments. For we must now take into account an exceptionally plastic evolutionary overlay which yields a constantly moving target, an extended cognitive architecture whose constancy lies mainly in its continual openness to change. Even granting that the biological innovations which got this ball rolling may have consisted only in some small tweaks to an ancestral repertoire, the upshot of this subtle alteration is a sudden, massive leap in cognitive-architectural space. For our cognitive machinery is now intrinsically geared to transformation, technology-based expansion, and a snowballing and self-perpetuating process of computational and representational growth. The machinery of contemporary human reason thus turns out to be rooted in a biologically incremental progression while simultaneously existing on the far side of a precipitous cliff in cognitive-architectural space.

Much of what matters about human-level intelligence is hidden not in the brain, nor in the technology, but in the complex and iterated interactions and collaborations between the two.

Without language, we might be much more akin to discrete Cartesian ?inner? minds, in which high-level cognition relies largely on internal resources. But the advent of language has allowed us to spread this burden into the world. Language, thus construed, is not a mirror of our inner states but a complement to them. It serves as a tool whose role is to extend cognition in ways that on-board devices cannot. Indeed, it may be that the intellectual explosion in recent evolutionary time is due as much to this linguistically-enabled extension of cognition as to any independent development in our inner cognitive resources.

As our worlds become smarter, and get to know us better and better, it becomes harder and harder to say where the world stops and the person begins.

My body is an electronic virgin. I incorporate no silicon chips, no retinal or cochlear implants, no pacemaker. I don't even wear glasses (though I do wear clothes). But I am slowly becoming more and more a Cyborg. So are you. Pretty soon, and still without the need for wires, surgery or bodily alterations, we shall be kin to the Terminator, to Eve 8, to Cable... just fill in your favorite fictional Cyborg. Perhaps we already are. For we shall be Cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires, but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts: thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and non-biological circuitry? I believe, to be clear, that it is above all a scientific truth, a reflection of some deep and important facts about (a whiff of paradox here?) our special, and distinctively human nature. And certainly, I don't think this tendency towards cognitive hybridization is a modern development. Rather, it is an aspect of our humanity which is as basic and ancient as the use of speech, and which has been extending its territory ever since.

As users of words and texts, we command an especially cheap and potent means of off-loading data and ideas from the biological brain onto a variety of external media.

One useful way to understand the cognitive role of many of our self-created cognitive technologies is as affording complementary operations to those that come most naturally to biological brains. Thus consider the connectionist image of biological brains as pattern-completing engines. Such devices are adept at linking patterns of current sensory input with associated information: you hear the first bars of the song and recall the rest, you see the rat's tail and conjure the image of the rat.

Brains, it has recently been argued, are essentially prediction machines. They are bundles of cells that support perception and action by constantly attempting to match incoming sensory inputs with top-down expectations or predictions. This is achieved using a hierarchical generative model that aims to minimize prediction error within a bidirectional cascade of cortical processing. Such accounts offer a unifying model of perception and action, illuminate the functional role of attention, and may neatly capture the special contribution of cortical processing to adaptive success. This target article critically examines this ?hierarchical prediction machine? approach, concluding that it offers the best clue yet to the shape of a unified science of mind and action.

Our imaginative (intrinsic) capacities do indeed support ?synthetic transformations? in which components retain their shapes but are recombined into new wholes, but lack the ?analytic? capacity to decompose an imagined shape into wholly new components. This is because the latter type of case (but not the former) requires us to first undo an existing shape interpretation.

Cognitive technologies are best understood as deep and integral parts of the problem-solving systems that constitute human intelligence. They are best seen as proper parts of the computational apparatus that constitutes our minds. If we do not always see this, or if the idea seems outlandish or absurd, that is because we are in the grip of a simple prejudice: the prejudice that whatever matters about mind must depend solely on what goes on inside the biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull. But this fortress has been built to be breached. It is a structure whose virtue lies in part in it's capacity to delicately gear its activities to collaborate with external, non-biological sources of order so as (originally) to better solve the problems of survival and reproduction. Thus consider a brief but representative example. Take the familiar process of writing an article for a newspaper, an academic paper, a chapter in a book. Confronted, at last, with the shiny finished product the good materialist may find herself congratulating her brain on its good work. But this is misleading. It is misleading not simply because (as usual) most of the ideas were not our own anyway, but because the structure, form and flow of the final product often depends heavily on the complex ways the brain cooperates with, and depends on, various special features of the media and technologies with which it continually interacts.

Precise, single-digit movements actually require more [brain] activity than some multidigit whole hand actions (such as grasping an object).

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Professor of Philosophy and Chair In Logic And Metaphysics at The University Of Edinburgh In Scotland, Director Of The Cognitive Science Program At Indiana University In Bloomington, Indiana, One of the Founding Members oftThe CONTACT Collaborative Research Project