Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Extended Cognition and the Collective Mind

Consider this to be an addendum to yesterdays' post What is Culture that it can Evolve? The Mesh, from Individuals to the Group.
I was cruising the web this morning (23 December 2014) and came across a post about extended cognition (Carl Pierer, Extended Cognition (Part 1) in 3 Quarks Daily). Extended cognition is the notion that, to quote the post, “the tools and instruments used in cognitive processes are part of the cognitive process.” Hence cognition isn’t confined to brain within one’s skull.

I’ve been aware of this notion for some time. I take it as self-evident that, for example, written language is, in some useful sense, a tool of cognition and that that is therefore an example of a cognitive process that is in some sense extended outside the skull. There are a lot of things we use in a way similar to written language. Obviously, we have numbers and the system of calculations and we have diagrams and drawings of all sorts. Just how far we can extend this process, I don’t know. To computers? Sure, why not?

But it’s never been immediately obvious to me that anything deep depends on getting the matter right, whatever it is. The issue seems to me to be one of boundary drawing, but it seems to me that the important question about cognition has always been: What happens inside the skull? When we use computers to simulate cognitive processes, that’s what we’re doing, trying to figure out what happens inside a person’s skull. I see no reason to change this view.

What happens to this conversation, however, in the context of cultural evolution as I have been discussing it? In that context I’ve been talking about a “collective mind” that is implemented in “the mesh” of individual communicating humans. How does that conception intersect with the thesis of extended cognition? Consider this passage from Pierer’s 3QD post:
On Clark and Chalmers' view, Wolfram and the computer create a “coupled system”:
All the components in the system play an active causal role, and hey jointly govern behaviour in the same sort of way that cognition usually does. If we remove the external component the system's behavioural competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain. Our thesis is that this sort of coupled process counts equally well as a cognitive process, whether or not it is wholly in the head. (Clark & Chalmers 1998, p. 8)
Coupled systems are thus ubiquitous: the person using their smartphone to find the nearest bus stop, the pianist playing the piano to test their new piece of music as well as the writer jotting down ideas and modifying them in the process all constitute coupled systems.

The argument for extended heavily relies on an assumption known as the parity principle:
If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process.
This principle derives from the idea that it should not matter how exactly a cognitive or mental process is instantiated for it to count as cognitive or mental.
Their notion of a coupled system is tantalizing given that I talk of couplers as one class of coordinators. Couplers, in my sense, however, only link one human mind to another. Targets, however, link human minds to external objects. The targets that “cover” a spoked wheel in Ted Cloak’s classic example, however, don’t make that wheel a cognitive instrument for either the wheelwright on the wagon driver.

And then there is the case of language itself, with all those designators. The speech stream is of course external to both the speaker and the listener; that’s what allows it to link them in communication. The same is true of the written text, which can serve as a vehicle of asynchronous communication between a writer and any number of readers. The designators, that is, the content words, link writer and reader together and direct their attention jointly to, well, whatever it being designated, whether it be the apple tree under which Isaac Newton sat, or the theory of gravity that was evoked from him by an apple falling from that tree.

But the interesting processes are the ones taking place in the heads of the speaker and the listening, the writer and the reader, no? The process that conveys the signal from one to the other is not so interesting. It may be an instrument of cognition, it isn’t doing any active cognizing, is it?

* * * * *

I don’t know where this line of thought would lead and I don’t have time to follow it up now. That is to say, it’s not obvious to me at this point that the notion of extended cognition bears on cultural evolution in any deep way. It seems clear to me that they’re playing with some of the same conceptual building blocks. But what they’re building from them – the extended mind – doesn’t interest me as much as the notion of a collective mind implemented in a mesh of humans and their artifacts and interactions through the mediation of cultural coordinators: targets, couplers, and designators.

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