The extended mind surfs uncertainty with predictive processing
April 7, 2018 9:12 PM   Subscribe

Where does the mind end and the world begin? Is the mind locked inside its skull, sealed in with skin, or does it expand outward, merging with things and places and other minds that it thinks with? What if there are objects outside—a pen and paper, a phone—that serve the same function as parts of the brain, enabling it to calculate or remember? You might say that those are obviously not part of the mind, because they aren’t in the head, but that would be to beg the question. So are they or aren’t they?
Consider a woman named Inga, who wants to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She consults her memory, recalls that the museum is on Fifty-third Street, and off she goes. Now consider Otto, an Alzheimer’s patient. Otto carries a notebook with him everywhere, in which he writes down information that he thinks he’ll need. His memory is quite bad now, so he uses the notebook constantly, looking up facts or jotting down new ones. One day, he, too, decides to go to MOMA, and, knowing that his notebook contains the address, he looks it up. […]

Andy Clark, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh, believes that there is no important difference between Inga and Otto, memory and notebook. He believes that the mind extends into the world and is regularly entangled with a whole range of devices. But this isn’t really a factual claim; clearly, you can make a case either way. No, it’s more a way of thinking about what sort of creature a human is. Clark rejects the idea that a person is complete in himself, shut in against the outside, in no need of help. […]

Perhaps because Clark has been working so closely with a neuroscientist, he has moved quite far from where he started in cognitive science in the early nineteen-eighties, taking an interest in A.I. “I was very much on the machine-functionalism side back in those days,” he says. “I thought that mind and intelligence were quite high-level abstract achievements where having the right low-level structures in place didn’t really matter.” Each step he took, from symbolic A.I. to connectionism, from connectionism to embodied cognition, and now to predictive processing, took him farther away from the idea of cognition as a disembodied language and toward thinking of it as fundamentally shaped by the particular structure of its animal body, with its arms and its legs and its neuronal brain. He had come far enough that he had now to confront a question: If cognition was a deeply animal business, then how far could artificial intelligence go?
posted by Johnny Wallflower (35 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think Clark is right that intelligence as we experience it as humans is essentially embodied, but that does nothing to refute the idea of intelligence as abstract computation. It just requires us to think in terms of reactivity (we are coprograms, not programs) and a lot of realtime IO.

Part of embodied intelligence as we experience it as humans is being able to adapt to changes in our physical capabilities. Our intelligence is not completely inflexibly dependent on the particulars of our physical capabilities, and I'm sure that Clark realizes this, because he doesn't blue-screen when his arm falls asleep. There must be something of an abstraction layer that can learn new ways of accomplishing goals when presented with a changed set of physical abilities; you must have some way of realizing that this pen and notebook can expand your memory, some way of relearning how to walk when your lower leg is replaced with a prosthetic.
posted by Jpfed at 9:56 PM on April 7, 2018 [5 favorites]


Without the stimulus of the world, an infant could not learn to hear or see, and a brain develops and rewires itself in response to its environment throughout its life. Any human who uses language to think with has already incorporated an external device into his most intimate self, and the connections only proliferate from there.

This is like an extra nail in the coffin of Cartesian duality. Not only are body and mind not separate- our mind encompasses so much more than our body thanks to the external stimulus that help it form. Thanks for the kinda mind blow-y article I can totally send to half my professors. Even if Clark sounds a little nuts.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:08 PM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


Is the screwdriver also part of the body? We can't turn the screw without it.

Sorry, ridiculous idea.
posted by walrus at 10:32 PM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


People are better informed (well, yeah, that is the theory) with Wikipedia at their fingertips. We are better connected and more powerful, better able to navigate our world and find needed shit, with our phone maps and stored contacts, etc.

I am sure you've all felt it, if you are very dependent on your phone, the feeling of disempowerment that comes when you are suddenly without. How the hell do you even move about in the city? How to find your friends?

But with it, holy shit isn't life better than the old days? Remember the beforetimes when you would hear some story that sounded like bullshit, but to actually find out the truth would be such a hassle that you'd just not bother?

But in those days, you KNEW phone numbers, and you KNEW that the library was on 52nd Street. So our minds were actually better then? Huh? No, that doesn't make sense, because we all get so much more done and are so much more capable with the phone.

We are all cyborgs, with massively enhanced databases and memory banks compared to standard base humans...and that sounds like a very good thing. Or we are all like the Alzheimer's patient, but that sounds bad. Does it matter what gets labelled "mind"?
posted by Meatbomb at 11:06 PM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


FWIW, Andy Clark is the author of Mindware, which is a great introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science and covers Newell and Simon’s physical symbol system approach as well as Clark’s own computational and embedded-mind framework too. It’s a great book.
posted by invitapriore at 11:49 PM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


Amazing concepts, really.
posted by kingharvest at 2:29 AM on April 8, 2018


Is the screwdriver also part of the body? We can't turn the screw without it.

Screw-turning isn't regarded generally as a major part of being human. Better example: Are your glasses a part of your body? In some practical respects, clearly not. But in other respects, for example, everybody around you is aware that your glasses are an urgently necessary part of your day and that the loss thereof would be temporarily disabling in a broad way that the loss of a screwdriver would not. I guess, further--some people need their glasses only occasionally and can do without, and some people are profoundly unable to function without them, and you really don't know that to look at them? But they know.

I'm reminded a lot of the article about Stephen Hawking's voice, about how important it was for him that it remain the same because even though it was generated by a box and not by his body, his voice was that voice and it would have impeded his communication to have to use a different one. Maybe it's not an everyday concern for most people, but I'm guessing there are some more immediate questions in areas of disability accommodations, like whether you're due a way of storing and retrieving information because the thinking happens in your head either way, or whether you should have access to the way you normally think which might incorporate specific tools, even specific software.
posted by Sequence at 2:36 AM on April 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


To talk of the mind’s location or extension in space is a category error, like asking for the location of a theory or an idea. Once you’ve got that, I think the observation that we use tools other than the brain to assist cognition is relatively banal.

If anything I think it’s a residual idea of the soul that makes it seem odd that your ‘mind’ might have ‘gone into’ a calculator or notepad.
posted by Segundus at 2:45 AM on April 8, 2018 [6 favorites]


To talk of the mind’s location or extension in space is a category error, like asking for the location of a theory or an idea. Once you’ve got that, I think the observation that we use tools other than the brain to assist cognition is relatively banal.

Wikipedia lazy to look lah, but there oldest extant tally stick comes from 20,000 years ago. Is the screwdriver NOT part of the body? How much of our cognition is aided by and/or locked up in motion and its metaphors? We've been cyborgs since the moment we could use tools. Humans have a power, one that is maybe not unique in kind on earth but definitely in scale, to project infinite layers of abstraction outward. Being tool users is, I believe, inherent to that. But even symbolism, don't our symbols themselves come from the outside world? And isn't the recognition of infinite layers of abstraction a huge part of experiencing the divine? We can contemplate anything, including the existence of that which we cannot contemplate, so there must be something out there that can contemplate that which we can't, right?

My smartphone is as much a part of me as the finger that writes on it and the nerves that drive that finger, and apparently just as disposable. My mind doesn't NEED either to cognate, and it would use different tools, like a discarded shin bone, if that was what I had. Hell, I think the self is a layer of abstraction on reality. One I enjoy a lot, but... I'm just gonna let that be and enjoy this body and smartphone and the ability to cognate while I got it.

One thing experience tells me is true is that there are 7 billion other bodies like me on this planet just like me, and they suffer or feel pleasure based on material conditions I can change, and I know what I like, so I have a pretty good, if not entirely accurate, blueprint for how to make them suffer less. Seems like a worthwhile purpose, and one that can scale up or down match my circumstance, so... Cool. I'll do that with the tools I have.

After I finish this cognatin' beer. THE BEER IS PART OF MY BRAIN.

Edited for forgotten "which".
posted by saysthis at 3:18 AM on April 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


To talk of the mind’s location or extension in space is a category error, like asking for the location of a theory or an idea.

Given that instances of theories and ideas are parts of minds, that's circular reasoning.

I am personally completely comfortable with a category system that allows me to class minds as activities of humans, each of which has both location and extension.

What allows this to remain comfortable is the opinion that all category systems, along with the distinctions upon which they are based, are essentially idiosyncratic. We all share a common reality, but we don't all split it along the same seams for the purpose of understanding it.
posted by flabdablet at 3:41 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


"My smartphone is as much a part of me as the finger that writes on it and the nerves that drive that finger, and apparently just as disposable."

Speaking as someone who is missing finger - nope. When you lose your smartphone, you are without it, and you can get a new one - your brain recognizes the loss at a very high level with (really) very little impact. When you lose a finger, you will likely experience 'phantom pain' where your brain will continue to be fully convinced that the finger is still there - it can be painful, or itch. This is a very real phenomenon (I recall vividly being at parties with my first finger solidly inside my beer glass as that was its orientation in 3D and the only way the brain could make sense of it was that for it to be going right through the side of the glass).

It takes a LONG time (for me, several years) for the brain to properly adapt to "oh, yah, that digit ain't there anymore" (btw long after the phantom pain went away smoking pot would bring it back fwiw).

Anyways, this may be a digression a bit, but I am firmly convinced that we won't be able to achieve any sort of convincing AI until there's some discovery to properly bridge from the physical space to the computational space (bring the body into the duality of something).

The current state of AI is to create a disconnected brain in a vat, which, without physical stimulus and some form of purpose/need (and teleology), it won't advance much farther than "Siri, play Ghost in the Machine by the Police for me".
posted by parki at 4:37 AM on April 8, 2018 [11 favorites]


The book “assuming a body” written in 2010 comes to really interesting and challenging questions as to what a body actually is and where it begins and ends.

IMO where we mentally “end” is more like an estuary between the ocean and land and much less like a high cliff that is also the continental shelf.

I also have this idea that a teensy part of what makes us “us” lives in the minds of others who we are close with. Like, we all share in a fraternal body of sorts that has yet to be named, but that’s certainly debatable.
posted by Annika Cicada at 5:42 AM on April 8, 2018 [4 favorites]


Screw-turning isn't regarded generally as a major part of being human. Better example: Are your glasses a part of your body? In some practical respects, clearly not. But in other respects, for example, everybody around you is aware that your glasses are an urgently necessary part of your day and that the loss thereof would be temporarily disabling in a broad way that the loss of a screwdriver would not. I guess, further--some people need their glasses only occasionally and can do without, and some people are profoundly unable to function without them, and you really don't know that to look at them? But they know.

Particularly since your brain will rewire itself to adapt to your glasses. You will slow your focus roll when not wearing glasses and simply wait for the glasses to arrive or you learn to move your head to accommodate bifocals or graduated lenses. If you wear prism glasses your visual system will eventually flip upside down to accommodate the upside down visual information it is presented with and everything will appear upside down when you take your prism glasses off. So where is the mind? Does it encompass the glasses?
posted by srboisvert at 6:01 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


I've found that meditation practices have changed my sense of my body in ways that expand it beyond the physical body while also deepening my understanding of my own body.
posted by kokaku at 6:03 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


Where does the mind end and the world begin?

Three tons of flax.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:03 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


I also have this idea that a teensy part of what makes us “us” lives in the minds of others who we are close with.

Douglas Hofstadter explores this idea (among many others) in I Am A Strange Loop, a sequel of sorts to Godel, Escher, Bach. Both are good reads.

I've found that meditation practices have changed my sense of my body in ways that expand it beyond the physical body while also deepening my understanding of my own body.

I've found that during meditation, I can very occasionally find my way into a state where there exists no distinction between my body and everything else because there exist no distinctions at all; all that is left is a state of being that I can describe only metaphorically and inaccurately from the memory of it, because when actually in it there is simply no facility active that I could possibly describe it with, not even to myself.

It's not a sleep state or anything even vaguely dreamlike. It feels intensely aware, and when things happen they present themselves instantly to the attention; no time at all is spent thinking about them, or reacting to them, or even being not them. And because nothing gets labelled and in particular because there is no process of dividing the world into me and not-me, there is an overwhelming feeling of boundless expansiveness. It also feels very, very peaceful.

It's really tempting to view that literally ineffable state, when thinking about it in hindsight, as a direct and unfiltered experience of what and how reality actually is. And there are endless examples of religious and philosophical writings that actually do make the claim that the true nature of existence is that it is in fact a single indivisible One, all appearances to the contrary being mere illusions.

I've spent a lot of time musing on this, especially in the light of having learned while recovering from psychosis to doubt the reliability of feelings as a guide to what is or is not real, and it seems to me that normal waking consciousness is also a direct and unfiltered experience of what and how reality actually is.

The interesting questions then become how much of me is actually having any given experience, which leads to a followup question about what actually counts as me. Where is the right place to draw that me vs not-me distinction when I am in a state of consciousness that is capable of doing that? Does my body count as a genuine part of the essential me? If not, why not? If so, where exactly is its boundary? What about my various attributes - the labels I use for sex, gender, class, race, political affiliation? Are they definitional or merely descriptive? And so on.

Seeking sympathetic readings of other people's positions on these questions is difficult but, I think, worthwhile. Declaring somebody else's thinking on it to be Just Wrong might yield a short-lived feeling of smug superiority but I can't actually see what else it achieves. I'd rather do my best to figure out where it is that they're actually coming from and use that as a cross-check against my own understandings.

Unless of course they're a transhumanist who really really believes that one day we will be able to upload ourselves to The Cloud and thereby live forever. I'll take self-satisfied smug superiority over the Nerd Rapture any day of the week.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 AM on April 8, 2018 [8 favorites]


"The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves... You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing." --Plato, Phaedrus
posted by mfoight at 7:47 AM on April 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


Guys, don't get stuck on the ideas at the beginning of the article. The later bits about predictive processing are much more interesting, and I apologize for my poor framing.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:52 AM on April 8, 2018


Hofstadter's I Am A Strange Loop also contains quite a lengthy exploration of various classes of causality, which tie in quite neatly with the predictive processing idea.
posted by flabdablet at 8:02 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


"Screw-turning isn't regarded generally as a major part of being human. Better example: Are your glasses a part of your body?"

I struggle with this every time I have to take my glasses off to tighten the temple screws.
posted by parki at 8:11 AM on April 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


much more interesting

This seems pretty interesting too?
posted by Meatbomb at 8:13 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


The nervous system has pretty clear boundaries, but just so happens to have inputs from and outputs to the outside world. While it might be a useful framing for certain problems to expand the "cognitive system" to include some of those environmental inputs and outputs, to call that system "the mind" is making quite a few assumptions and generalizations, and it's not necessarily useful to shove this definition of "mind" into other domains where it may imply things that are really not warranted...

Now off to read the article, sorry Johnny Wallflower ;)
posted by Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer at 8:15 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


Humans are ontologically incomplete beings whose substantive content comes from our relationships and interactions with other things and people. The boundaries between "me" and "not me" are extremely hazy, really.
posted by The Horse You Rode In On at 8:24 AM on April 8, 2018 [6 favorites]


It takes a huge amount of effort to legitimately consider a world view in which a screwdriver is any less a part of me than my fingers. That this is a question thoughtful people consider controversial is fascinating.
posted by eotvos at 11:06 AM on April 8, 2018


I guess I need to take another look at my hand. I mean, really look at it.
posted by chavenet at 11:47 AM on April 8, 2018 [7 favorites]


I got a gut feeling that ain't right.
posted by parki at 12:23 PM on April 8, 2018


If a "person" is merely a sack of meat, and not that plus the sum of all of the genetic, physical, emotional, spiritual, cultural and historical artifacts and events that contributed to the creation and upkeep of that sack of meat, then one tends to arrive at a world-view that makes it acceptable for a powerful "person" to deny a less powerful "person" food, shelter, health-care, personal dignity, etc, based on essentially arbitrary rules that more or less exist to serve the purposes of those "people" who wield the power. Reductio absurdum, it's Calvinism. You are a "bad" person, thus you do not deserve things that a "good" person deserves.

So from the perspective of the centre-of-consciousness that is typing these words, this whole argument about just exactly where is the boundary between person and not-person is not a good and healthy thing to approach without a whole lot of trepidation and care.

[ kicks the pitcher over ]
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:50 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


Is the screwdriver also part of the body? We can't turn the screw without it.

Sorry, ridiculous idea.


Is it ridiculous, though, especially if the brain incorporates the screwdriver into its model of "the body"?
A common illustration of just how flexible the sense of our body is comes from changes in the brain’s representation of the body due to tool use. Humans, and some other animals, are able to use tools as additions to the body. When we use a long pole to retrieve an object we couldn’t otherwise reach, the pole becomes, in some sense, an extension of our body. Is this merely a poetic way of speaking, or does the brain actually incorporate the tool into its representation of the body? Studies of monkeys learning to use a rake to obtain distant objects show that this may be more than a mere metaphor. Multisensory brain cells respond both to touch on the hand or visual objects appearing near the hand. When the monkeys used the rake, these cells began to respond to objects appearing anywhere along the length of the tool, suggesting the brain represented the rake as actually being part of the hand.
posted by MikeKD at 1:16 PM on April 8, 2018


I'm guessing, but I'll bet that a neurological study of (say) a tennis player would reveal that there are developed structures within the brain that, in effect, make the racquet an 'extension' of the person's kinesthetic sense. But this is not to say the racquet itself is part of the player.
posted by parki at 1:22 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm guessing, but I'll bet that a neurological study of (say) a tennis player would reveal that there are developed structures within the brain that, in effect, make the racquet an 'extension' of the person's kinesthetic sense.

Well and then there are brain structures for body parts that dont exist— phantom limbs.

We are all cyborgs, with massively enhanced databases and memory banks compared to standard base humans

I used to follow a blog or tumblr or something called “prosthetic knowledge” which I thought was a brilliant coinage.
posted by mrmurbles at 5:56 PM on April 8, 2018


Guys, don't get stuck on the ideas at the beginning of the article. The later bits about predictive processing are much more interesting, and I apologize for my poor framing.

I'm sorry, I got things off on the wrong foot at the beginning. Predictive processing was totally consistent with what the perception lab I used to work in was investigating, so it didn't get the same rise out of me as stuff like (paraphrasing) [intelligence has to be made of meat].
posted by Jpfed at 9:41 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


If a "person" is merely a sack of meat [then bad things]

The only dangerous aspect of "merely a sack of meat" is the "merely" part.

No terrible consequences automatically follow from taking the view that a person is a unique and therefore irreplaceable sack of meat.

Likewise, it might well become possible to implement an engineered intelligence; but such an intelligence would never be a mere machine. It would be a considerable machine.
posted by flabdablet at 5:55 AM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


It takes a huge amount of effort to legitimately consider a world view in which a screwdriver is any less a part of me than my fingers

I would think the knife test would be a pretty simple and straightforward way to determine if a screwdriver is as much a part of your body as your fingers.
posted by happyroach at 10:55 AM on April 9, 2018


I would think the knife test would be a pretty simple and straightforward way to determine if a screwdriver is as much a part of your body as your fingers.
You mean cutting off fingers vs. removing a screwdriver? That's one way to define a body. But it's entirely arbitrary. If I could cut off fingers without pain and have them reattached with no loss of function, I'd still claim they were part of my body when attached. (And I'd happily leave them at home when running errands in cold weather.) For that matter, I'd suggest that finger nails are also a part of my body, and I happily take a knife to them weekly. (But they're not nearly as integral and intuitive a part of my body as a good pair of tweezers or a screwdriver.)
posted by eotvos at 8:30 PM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


If I could cut off fingers without pain and have them reattached with no loss of function, I'd still claim they were part of my body when attached.

Obligatory King Missile
posted by flabdablet at 1:35 AM on April 10, 2018


« Older murmuration   |   i love that saying, it applies to so many... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments