This from the latest issue of Neuroethics December 2013, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp. 593-605.
At the beginning of this year Evan Thompson whose thinking has been very influential upon me gave this lecture. Bumping into Evan the other day reminded me of the forthcoming book he mentioned then, which upon its publication, I’ll have reviewed in The Journal of Mind and Behavior where his superb Mind in Life was reviewed by Dorothée Legrand. Anyway, Evan has posted some details of the new book on his website including the introduction and the toc. I also notice that Evan’s co-authored classic The Embodied Mind is being reissued.
The central idea of this book is that the self is a process, not a thing or an entity. The self isn’t something outside experience, hidden either in the brain or in some immaterial realm. The self is an experiential process and it’s subject to constant change. We enact a self in the process of awareness and this self comes and goes depending on how we are aware.
Here is an extract from the issue’s Editorial introduction: Socializing the extended mind
by Michele Merritt , Somogy Varga, and Mog Stapleton
Research at the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science has been a dynamically evolving and rapidly growing field that has witnessed increased attention over the last decade. A particular debate that has contributed to this growth concerns the role of non-neural, “external” structures in cognition and the idea that the neural, or even organismic, boundary is a merely arbitrary stopping point for the systematic investigation of cognition. This debate is particularly stimulating for researchers across the traditional disciplinary boundaries as it indicates a gradual change in opinion about how the cognitive apparatus is to be studied. Supporters of this approach have, in various ways, opposed the view that cognition is constituted only by computational, representation-manipulating activity that finds place in the head and have argued instead that the study of cognition must acknowledge the non-trivial role of the body and external structures in cognitive processes.
This special issue expands upon the aforementioned discussion by addressing what the editors and contributors see as lacuna among the extended mind debates. The focus in this issue is on the extent to which “extended” frameworks are useful for understanding the role of social structures in cognition. This is an area of research that has until recently received little attention in the philosophy of cognitive science. The title of this special issue, and of the target paper, refers back to one of the most heavily discussed articles in this field, The Extended Mind (Clark & Chalmers, 1998) in which the authors introduce the ‘Hypothesis of Extended Cognition’. In this paper Clark and Chalmers argue that cognitive activity not only often involves the exploitation of the surrounding environment but that sometimes extra-cranial items actually figure as constituents of cognitive processes. That is to say, proper parts of cognition sometimes extend into the environment. Although this hypothesis has provoked a deluge of opponents and defenders, the debate has tended to focus on the two particular kinds of external items which Clark emphasizes in his works: tools in the environment, and actions of the morphological body. Where social cognition has been considered in the debate, it has typically been in terms of the possibility of using another person as some sort of external memory resource, perhaps betraying the prominent influence of the disciplines of artificial intelligence, computer science and robotics upon the philosophy of cognitive science. In the target paper of this volume Shaun Gallagher takes a quite different tack on this theme of cognitive extension and social cognition by arguing that certain social practices, which he calls “mental institutions”, are usefully understood as extending our minds. This proposal could have radical implications for the flow of research between cognitive systems research and the discipline of sociology and pave the way to firmly establishing sociology as one of the cognitive sciences.
Image: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
All those interested in extended mind/externalist/situated type thought should be aware of the field of Behavioral Economics (BE) in general and the work of Vernon Smith in particular. BE is a body of literature that was ploughing this trough some twenty years before the hypothesis of extended cognition took root in cognitive science. It is interesting to note that the Clark and Chalmers thesis took some inspiration from Herbert Simon (Clark & Chalmers, 1998). Simon writes:
Human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves . . . [I] would like to view this information-packed memory less as part of the organism than as part of the environment to which it adapts . . . (Simon, 1996, 53, cf.8, 62, 99, 110).
But what is remarkable about this is that Simon in turn credits and endorses Hayek for this view:
No-one has characterized market mechanisms better than Friedrich von Hayek . . . [His] defense did not rest primarily upon the supposed optimum attained by them but rather upon the limits of the inner environment – the computational limits of human beings (Simon, 1996, 34).
What Simon has grasped is the corollary to Hayek’s spontaneous order externalism – “cognitive closure” (or in Simon’s terminology “bounded rationality” was a key presupposition to all Hayek’s work and set out in its most technical form in Hayek (1952/1976). Cognitive closure is the idea that the human mind is constitutionally delimited – a condition that can be ameliorated if the social and artifactual world functions as a kind of distributed extra-neural knowledge store.
Through the work of Vernon Smith (the provenance going back to his classical namesake, Adam), ecological or situated/bounded rationality has received its most recent and finest articulation. Unlike some Nobel Laureates (no names) Vernon is not a prima donna. He is exceedingly approachable, very kind, generous, modest and open-minded. I was lucky enough to meet Vernon in Tucson and he put me at ease very quickly as did his charming wife. Recently, Vernon gave me an inscribed copy of his Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms along with his autobiography Discovery – A Memoir, the former deeply informing my work; the latter interest taking wing from my talking to him about his Kansas youth.
Here is the intro and conclusion to Chris and my paper:
To know is to cognize, to cognize is to be a culturally bounded, rationality-bounded and environmentally located agent. Knowledge and cognition are thus dual aspects of human sociality. If social epistemology has the formation, acquisition, mediation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge in complex communities of knowers as its subject matter, then its third party character is essentially stigmergic. In its most generic formulation, stigmergy is the phenomenon of indirect communication mediated by modifications of the environment. Extending this notion one might conceive of stigmergy as the extra-cranial analog of artificial neural networks or the extended mind. With its emphasis on coordination, it acts as the binding agent for the epistemic and the cognitive. Coordination is, as David Kirsh (2006, p. 250) puts it, “the glue of distributed cognition”. This paper, therefore, recommends a stigmergic framework for social epistemology to account for the supposed tension between individual action, wants and beliefs and the social corpora: paradoxes associated with complexity and unintended consequences. A corollary to stigmergic epistemology is stigmergic cognition, again running on the idea that modifiable environmental considerations need to be factored into cognitive abilities. In this sense, we take the extended mind thesis to be essentially stigmergic in character.
This paper proceeds as follows. In Section 2, we set out the formal specifications of stigmergy. In Section 3, we illustrate the essentially stigmergic characteristics of social epistemology. In Section 4, we examine extended mind externalism as the preeminent species of stigmergic cognition. In Section 5 we illustrate how the particle swarm optimization (PSO) algorithm for the optimization of a function could be understood as a useful tool for different processes of social cognition, ranging from the learning of publicly available knowledge by an individual knower, to the evolution of scientific knowledge. In Section 6, we offer some concluding remarks.
A great deal of ground has been covered in the course of which we have made a case for two central claims:
1. Social epistemology has the formation, acquisition, mediation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge in complex communities of knowers as its subject matter. Such knowledge is, for the most part, third party and as such it is knowledge that is conditioned and modified. Understood thus, social epistemology is essentially stigmergic.
2. One might conceive of social connectionism as the extra-cranial analog of an artificial neural network providing epistemic structure. The extended mind thesis (at least the Clarkean variant) runs on the idea that modifiable environmental considerations need to be factored into cognitive abilities. This notion of cognition is thus essentially stigmergic.
With 1 and 2 in mind, two disclaimers are in order. First, a stigmergical socio-cognitive view of knowledge and mind should not be construed as (a) the claim that mental states are somewhere other than in the head or, (b) the corollary, that as individualists, we do not think that what is outside the head has nothing to do with what ends up in the head. A stigmergic approach, necessarily dual aspect, does not require one to dispense with one or the other. There is no methodological profit whatsoever to throwing out the Cartesian baby along with the bath water. Second, a socio-cognitive view of mind and knowledge be not be mistaken as a thesis for strong social constructivism, the idea all facts are socially constructed (a denial that reality in some way impinges upon mind) – again, it would be inconsistent with the environmental emphasis entailed by stigmergy.
For Clark, “[M]uch of what goes on in the complex world of humans, may thus, somewhat surprisingly, be understood in terms of so-called stigmergic algorithms.” (Clark, 1996, p. 279). Traditional cases of stigmergic systems include stock markets, economies, traffic patterns, supply logistics and resource allocation (Hadeli, Valckenaers, Kollingbaum, & Van Brussel, 2004), urban sprawl, and cultural memes. New forms of stigmergy have been exponentially expanded through the affordances of digital technology: we’ve expounded upon Google’s RP and Amazon’s CF but of course include wiki, open source software, weblogs, and a whole range of “social media” that comprise the World Wide Web. These particular examples serve to make the wider stigmergical point that the Janus-like aspect of knowledge and cognition must be set against a background fabric of cultural possibility: individuals draw their self-understanding from what is conceptually to hand in historically specific societies or civilizations, a preexisting complex web of linguistic, technological, social, political and institutional constraints.
It is no surprise then that it has been claimed that stigmergic systems are so ubiquitous a feature of human sociality, it would be more difficult to find institutions that are not stigmergic ( Parunak, 2005 and Tummolini and Castelfrananchi, 2007). If stigmergy were merely coextensive with “the use of external structures to control, prompt, and coordinate individual actions” (Clark, 1997, p. 186), then the concept would amount to a claim about situated cognition in all its dimensionality Solomon, 2006b. While stigmergy includes these aspects, it distinctively emphasizes the cybernetic loop of agent → environment → agent → enviro nment through an ongoing and mutual process of modification and conditioning, appearing to dissolve the supposed tension between the self-serving individual and the social corpora at large through indirect interaction. Though this process of behavior modification has long since been identified by both PSE and SSE theorists, only recently has there begun a concerted effort ( Turner, 2001 and Turner, 2003) to, as Ron Sun puts it (Sun, 2006) “cognitivize” human sociality. Social theory and cognitive science must now recognize the virtues of a “cognitivized” approach to all things social.