Mind my extended mind: Guarding cognition’s non-organic parts1 May 2023
Our smartphones and laptops are undeniably important. But in what sense? Are they simply valuable technological peripherals—not to be easily discarded or left behind—but complimentary devices, nonetheless? Or could they be far more than that; perhaps proper parts of who we are? Answering this question is neither easy nor inconsequential. In fact, it may make all the difference to the way we design such devices as well as to the way we legally protect them.
Is there any plausibility to the claim that devices may be incorporated to our persons? In popular culture, the idea of cyborgs is widespread. But when we think of such entities, we usually visualise bio-technological hybrids who are the results of invasive human-machine interfaces—not every-day people staring at the screens of their phones or laptops. Yet, right before the turn of the millennium, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers published an influential paper (Clark and Chalmers 1998) arguing that minds already extend to certain technologies. A list of plausible (in my opinion) cases includes the way we use pen and paper to solve complex arithmetical problems (McClelland et al. 1986), laptops to write essays (Clark 1998), the SatNav functionalities of our smartphones, as well as sensory substitution devices (e.g., Bach-y-Rita & Kercel 2003, Macpherson 2008).
Perhaps, however, the most impressive mind-extending technology to date is Neuralink’s chips, which closely resemble the kind of technologies we imagine when we think of cyborgs: Penetrating human-machine interfaces allowing agents to control digital devices just with the power of their minds. Check it out: Far from being science-fiction, this kind of technology has already been successfully tested on macaques and aims at becoming commercially available to all of us.
Of course, over the years, the idea of mental extension has not gone unchallenged (e.g., Adam and Aizawa 2008, Rupert 2004); but the view has been remarkably successful in providing plausible responses to many (if not all) of the objections raised against it. An important worry that is always worth addressing, however, is the following one: How can we draw the boundaries of extended minds, without allowing them to overextend in ways that might render the view implausible? That is, let’s grant the assumption that minds extend to certain artifacts (such as the ones listed above)—still, we need to ask: Do minds extend to all artifacts? Does my mind extend to the desk on which I am writing? How about the lamp hanging above my head? A promising way to respond to this worry is to insist that artifacts, which we employ to complete mental tasks, may become integrated to our cognitive systems if and only if, in the process of carrying out the relevant tasks, we bi-directionally interact with the target artifacts in an ongoing way (e.g., Chemero 2009, Palermos 2014). By this logic, desks and desk lamps are (I think rightly) excluded from the list of actual mind-extensions, but many of the more plausible examples (such as the ones listed above) qualify.
With this specification in place, the idea of mind extension may still sound astonishing, but it avoids being obviously problematic—at least not to the extent that one could outright reject it. This is important, because it means that the idea may well be true, bringing with it considerable ramifications to which we need to pay close attention—sooner rather than later.
For example, if someone compromised your laptop, by physically damaging it or by installing malicious software, this would normally be perceived as damage to your property. Nevertheless, Adam Carter and I have previously argued (Carter and Palermos 2016) that, should something like the Extended Mind thesis be true, then having our cognitively integrated devices damaged—i.e., devices with which we bidirectionally interact to complete cognitive tasks—could literally count as assault: In such cases, the damage would not be to our mere property, but to an aspect of our minds and our persons.
Or consider our right to privacy: I have recently argued (Palermos 2022) that, if the Extended Mind thesis is true, then the information contained in our cognitively integrated devices (such as the information in our smartphones or laptops) may qualify as mental data that needs to be treated on a par with the information stored in our brains. This is not a small point: Traditionally, the detailed contents of our brains have been largely inscrutable by others; hence, this level of near-absolute mental privacy may not be an aspect of human psychology that we could easily do without. If we are to retain it, however, we need to offer mental data increased levels of protection—much higher than those that mere data and metadata have so far entertained. Perhaps, we should offer mental data absolute legal protection, such that there could be no circumstances under which others could lawfully access them. Or we could go even further: By pushing tech companies to design their products such that our mental data be (via encryption and other safety techniques) practically inaccessible by others—no matter what some law may demand.
Of course, the above issues cannot be easily settled. Changing the law to allow damage to certain devices to count as assault is highly contentious. And even if the Extended Mind thesis is true in principle, how can we decide which devices really do count, in each case, as a person’s extension (Milojeviç 2017)? Clearly, more needs to be said about this issue before any actual legal changes can even be contemplated. Likewise, when it comes to mental privacy, it is unclear exactly how we should proceed, even if the basic idea behind mind extension and the existence of mental data is correct. For example, it could be argued that issues concerning public safety require that under at least certain extreme circumstances (say the prevention of some terrorist attack), the law should be able to grant access to one’s mental data. The inclination to strongly protect the privacy of our minds would then come at possibly significant costs, rendering the decision of whether we should offer such devices absolute legal protection, or even higher levels of technological protection a particularly nuanced one.
Yet, neither the controversial nature of the underlying idea of mind extension nor the complexities of the above issues should deter us from bringing them in the public debate. For, if minds extend, there are real consequences for anyone who employs such technologies—consequences that can only become aggravated with the advent of increasingly diaphanous and integration-hungry new gadgets (think Neuralink again). If we are to avoid becoming mindlessly assimilated to such mind-forming technologies, we need to critically reflect on them: We ought to discuss the legal and broader socio-economic framework that supports their development, and we need to carefully assess the values embodied in their design.
Adams, F., & Aizawa, K. (2008). The Bounds of Cognition. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Bach-y-Rita, P., & Kercel, S. W. (2003). Sensory substitution and the human-machine interface. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7(12), 541–546.
Carter, J. A., & Palermos, S. O. (2016). Is having your computer compromised a personal assault? The ethics of extended cognition. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 2(4), 542-560.
Chemero, A. (2009). Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. MIT press.
Clark, A. & D. Chalmers (1998). ‘The Extended Mind’, Analysis, 58: 10–23.
Clark, A. (1998). Magic words, how language augments human computation. In P.Carruthers & J. Boucher (Eds.), Language and thought: Interdisciplinary themes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Macpherson, F. (2018). Sensory substitution and augmentation: An Introduction. In Sensory Substitution and Augmentation, Proceedings of the British Academy, Macpherson, F. (ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Picture from Pixabay https://pixabay.com/vectors/brain-circuits-cybernetics-5699425/