Extended mind thesis  

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This page Extended mind thesis is part of the philosophy of mind series.Illustration: Diagram of the human mind, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica by Robert Fludd
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This page Extended mind thesis is part of the philosophy of mind series.
Illustration: Diagram of the human mind, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica by Robert Fludd

"Gilbert Ryle supposedly once said that when I use an abacus, I am not counting with my mind, but with my fingers, that the abacus is my extended mind."--Sholem Stein


"It is customary [to say] that the things and events which belong to the physical world, including his own body, are external, while the workings of his own mind are internal. This antithesis of outer and inner is of course meant to be construed as a metaphor, since minds, not being in space, could not be described as being spatially inside anything else, or as having things going on spatially inside themselves."--The Concept of Mind (1949) by Gilbert Ryle


"The statement that every organism is an embodied theory about its environment must be taken literally."--Philosophical Darwinism (1993) by Peter Munz

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In philosophy of mind, the extended mind thesis (EMT) says that the mind does not exclusively reside in the brain or even the body, but extends into the physical world. The EMT proposes that some objects in the external environment can be part of a cognitive process and in that way function as extensions of the mind itself. Examples of such objects are written calculations, a diary, or a PC; in general, it concerns objects that store information. The EMT considers the mind to encompass every level of cognition, including a physical level.

The EMT was proposed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in "The Extended Mind" (1998). They describe the idea as "active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes."

For the matter of personal identity (and the philosophy of self), the EMT has the implication that some parts of a person's identity can be determined by their environment.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In recent years several philosophers have broached the idea that mind should not be considered to be something which is just in the head but in various ways can be spread out onto the world.

This is a materialist rather than spiritualist notion, the mind being thought of as extending over the brain, external language and media such as charts, diaries and indeed any material substrate that can become intimately involved in our mindful actions.

Natural-Born Cyborgs

One of the proponents of this view is Andy Clark. He illustrates the concept with an example that deals with a specific group of Alzheimer's patients in St. Louis (from p. 140 of the book Natural-Born Cyborgs):

These patients were a puzzle because although they still lived alone, successfully, in the city, they really should not have been able to do so. On standard psychological tests they performed rather dismally. They should have been unable to cope with the demands of daily life. What was going on?
A sequence of visits to their home environments provided the answer. These home environments, it transpired, were wonderfully calibrated to support and scaffold these biological brains. The homes were stuffed full of cognitive props, tools, and aids. Examples included message centers where they stored notes about what to do and when; photos of family and friends complete with indications of names and relationships; labels and pictures on doors; "memory books" to record new events, meetings, and plans; and "open-storage" strategies in which crucial items (pots, pans, checkbooks) are always kept in plain view, not locked away in drawers.
Before you allow this image of intensive scaffolding to simply confirm your opinion of these patients as hopelessly cognitively compromised, try to imagine a world in which normal human brains are somewhat Alzheimic. Imagine that in this world we had gradually evolved a society in which the kinds of scaffolding found in the St. Louis home environments were the norm. And then reflect that, in a certain sense, this is exactly what we have done. Our own pens, paper, notebooks, diaries, and alarm clocks complement our brute biological profiles in much the same kind of way. Yet we never say of the artist, or poet, or scientist, "Oh, poor soul -- she is not really responsible for that painting/theory/poem; for don't you see how she had to rely on pen, paper, and sketches to offset the inadequacies of her own brain?"


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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Extended mind thesis" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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