Andy Clark

Andy
Clark
1957

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

Consider this famous exchange between the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and the historian Charles Weiner. Weiner, encountering with a historian?s glee a batch of Feynman?s original notes and sketches, remarked that the materials represented ?a record of [Feynman?s] day-to-day work.? But instead of simply acknowledging this historic value, Feynman reacted with unexpected sharpness: ?I actually did the work on the paper,? he said. ?Well,? Weiner said, ?the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.? ?No, it?s not a record, not really. It?s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper, Okay?? (from Gleick, 1993, 409) Feynman?s suggestion is, at the very best, that the loop into the external medium was integral to his intellectual activity (the ?working?) itself. But I would like to go further and suggest that Feynman was actually thinking on the paper. The loop through pen and paper is part of the physical machinery responsible for the shape of the flow of thoughts and ideas that we take, nonetheless, to be distinctively those of Richard Feynman. It reliably and robustly provides a functionality which, were it provided by goings-on in the head alone, we would have no hesitation in designating as part of the cognitive circuitry. Such considerations of parity, once we put our bio-prejudices aside, reveal the outward loop as a functional part of an extended cognitive machine. Such body- and world-involving cycles are best understood, or so I shall argue, as quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world?as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason. Such cycles supersize the mind.

The conjecture, then, is that one large jump or discontinuity in human cognitive evolution involves the distinctive way human brains repeatedly create and exploit various species of cognitive technology so as to expand and reshape the space of human reason. We, more than any other creature on the planet, deploy non-biological elements (instruments, media, notations) to complement (but not, typically, to replicate) our basic biological modes of processing, creating extended cognitive systems whose computational and problem-solving profiles are quite different from those of the naked brain. Human brains maintain an intricate cognitive dance with an ecologically novel, and immensely empowering, environment: the world of symbols, media, formalisms, texts, speech, instruments and culture. The computational circuitry of human cognition thus flows both within and beyond the head. Such a point is not new, and has been well-made by a variety of theorists working in many different traditions. I believe, however, that the idea of human cognition as subsisting in a hybrid, extended architecture (one which includes aspects of the brain and of the cognitive technological envelope in which our brains develop and operate) remains vastly underappreciated. We simply cannot hope to understand what is special and distinctively powerful about human thought and reason by merely paying lip-service to the importance of this web of surrounding technologies. Instead, we need to work together towards a much more detailed understanding of how our brains actively dovetail their problem-solving activities to a variety of non-biological resources, and of how the larger systems thus created operate, change, interact and evolve. In addition it may soon be quite important (morally, socially, and politically) to publicly loosen the bonds between the very ideas of minds and persons and the image of the bounds, properties, locations and limitations of the basic biological organism .

Explicit ?thinking about thinking? appears to be a good candidate for a distinctively human capacity and one that might be directly dependent upon language for its very existence. To formulate a thought in words (or on paper) is to create an object available to ourselves and to others, and, as an object, it is the kind of thing we can have thoughts about. . . . The process of linguistic formulation thus creates the stable attendable structure to which subsequent thinkings can attach.

The neural representation of worldly events may be less like a passive data structure and more like a recipe for action. The driving force, once again, is computational economy. If the goal of perception and reason is to guide action (and it surely is, evolutionarily speaking), it will often be simpler to represent the world in ways rather closely geared to the kinds of actions we want to perform.

Human thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding.

To unravel the workings of these embodied, embedded, and sometimes extended minds requires an unusual mix of neuroscience, computational, dynamical, and information-theoretic understandings, ?brute? physiology, ecological sensitivity, and attention to the stacked designer cocoons in which we grow, work, think, and act. This may seem a daunting prospect, but there is cause for optimism. In learning, development, and evolution, trade-offs among neural control, bodily morphology, action, and the canny use of environmental resources and opportunities are regularly and reliably achieved.

I do not really "use" my brain. There is no user quite so ephemeral. Rather, the operation of the brain is part of what makes me who and what I am. So too with these new waves of sensitive, interactive technologies. 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.

We humans have indeed always been adept at dovetailing our minds and skills to the shape of our current tools and aids. But when those tools and aids start dovetailing back ? when our technologies actively, automatically, and continually tailor themselves to us, just as we do to them ? then the line between tool and user becomes flimsy indeed. Such technologies will be less like tools and more like part of the mental apparatus of the person. They will remain tools in only the thin and ultimately paradoxical sense in which my own unconsciously operating neural structures (my hippocampus, my posterior parietal cortex) are tools. What are these technologies? They are many, and various. They include potent, portable machinery linking the user to an increasingly responsive World Wide Web. But they include also, and perhaps ultimately more importantly, the gradual smartening-up and interconnection of the many everyday objects which populate our homes and offices.

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.

Author Picture
First Name
Andy
Last Name
Clark
Birth Date
1957
Bio

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