Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Orig/Deriv pt 2nd: When I read, must the words I’m reading have meaning for me only derivedly?

When I read written text, I am using the representations in the text for their content. Could this content be original, as opposed to derived?

Different writers have made the distinction between original and derived content in different ways. For our purposes, it will serve to make the following two points about the distinction.

  1. In general, a representation's content is supposed to be derived if it has that content by virtue of intentional agents' handling of the representation. In general, a representation's content is supposed to be original if it's not derived.
  2. Whatever the distinction between original and derived content is, that which marks the distinction can be cast in terms of the present causal powers and dispositions of representations, and not just in terms of the histories of representations.

1), or something near enough, is true, I think, of all the original/derived distinctions that people have made over the years.

What about 2)? At least in the discussion over Extended Cognition, the original/derived distinction seems to be treated as what I'll call a technological distinction. Many people think that not all distinctions in Science need to be castable in terms only of present causal powers. (So, for example, many philosophers think that the distsinction between biologically functional and nonfunctional objects rests not on their present causal powers, but on their [for example, natural-selectional] histories. Two things could be causally identical, in causally identical environments, yet one be a heart, and the other fail to be a heart.) But if we are concerned to know what we can do now, what we can build, what we can do with this or that tool, then we are going to be concerned centrally about technological distinctions and not (directly) with scientific ones. I hope I've gestured sufficiently in the direction of "technological distinction" to give you an idea of what I mean by it. For a definition, I think it will do in a pinch to say that a technological distinction just is a distinction between kinds that can't be cast except in terms of present causal powers and dispositions.

As I said, in the discussion over Ex-Cog, it seems to me that the original/derived distinction is a technological one. On this very blog, for example, Adams began his response to my first orig/deriv post by making a claim about the significance of original intentionality for the project of building (my emphasis) a mind out of a machine.

But why have written texts been supposed to be paradigmatically derived in their intentionality and not original? One idea is that they have derived content because they have had their meanings assigned to them by a community of readers. But that is to mark a distinction based on history, not based on present causal powers or dispositions.

Another idea might be to claim that when we read, as we are reading, we are assigning meanings to symbols. But is this so? Possibly not. For though we must obviously represent words as symbols and choose which meanings to apply to them as we are learning to read, once we know how to read, it's not so clear that we are applying meanings to the text anymore. Rather, it may be that by learning how to read, we've made ourselves such that texts now simply trigger meanings, rather than our in any sense assigning those meanings as we read. The assignment happened in the past, as we were learning—but that in itself doesn't make the text's meaning "derived" in the sense relevant to the Ex-Cog discussion, relying as it does only on a consideration of the history of the habit of assigning that meaning to that symbol.

If a representation has meaning for an agent without that agent representing the representation as a representation and explicitly applying a meaning to that representation, then, I suspect, that representation has its meaning for that agent originally. And I also suspect that when we read texts in our native language with facility, the symbols in those texts have meaning for us without our representing those representations as representations or our explicitly applying meanings to those representations. I suspect these texts have their meaning for us "automatically" in a way which makes them, for us, original rather than derived meanings.

These posts always turn out longer than I expect. I want to invite discussion of what I've said so far, and in a few days, I'll follow up with reasons that I suspect that when we read written texts, they have their meaning for us without our representing them as representations and applying meanings to them.

Questions that could be discussed about the present post are the following. Am I right to insist that in the discussion about Ex-Cog, the original/derived distinction must be understood in terms of present causal powers? Am I right to suggest that what it means for something to have derived content for an agent in this sense is for the agent to be representing the representation as a representation to which it might apply any of a number of possible meanings? Can my use of terms like "trigger" and "assign" be sharpened in some way in order to make it clear whether I'm onto something or off my rocker? I've set up a dichotomy between representations having their meaning via representation as representation on the one hand, and on the other hand representations having their meaning "automatically" or by a simple "triggering" for an agent. Is this dichotomy valid? Or could there be other ways for representation to have their meaning, and which count as constituting a representation as having its content derivedly?

Noë and Norm

Since there has been so much interest and informed discussion of Noe, let me venture another post on this idea that perception depends on the possession, rather than exercise, of sensorimotor knowledge.

Here’s the opening move in an objection …

Consider, Norm, a normal college student who is familiar with the game of ping pong. Take two white ping pong balls and cut a ¼” hole in one of them Set the two ping pong balls side by side on a table and have the hole facing away from the door to an otherwise empty windowless room with standard incandescent lighting suspended from the middle of the ceiling. Let Norm enter the room at t0 and stand erect on a spot marked with an “X three feet from the ping pong balls. Given his past experience with ping pong balls, at t0 Norm believes that both ping pong balls are the same and that neither has a hole in it. Presumably at t0 the two ping pong balls look the same. They will give rise to the same ping pong ball like experience. One, of course, will be experienced as on the left and the other on the right, but they will be otherwise alike. But, how can this be on Noe’s theory? Norm possesses tacit sensorimotor knowledge of one of the balls, but possesses mere tacit sensorimotor beliefs about the other. Norm knows what will happen if he moves around to the other side of one ping pong ball, but does not know what will happen if he moves around to the other side of the other ping pong ball. Differences in one’s tacit sensorimotor knowledge should give rise to differences in experience (right?), but they presumably don’t. Call this the Problem of Naïve Norm.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Does the reasoning that leads to ECH also lead to EBH?

By "ECH" I mean the Extended Cognition Hypothesis.

By "EBH" I mean something that we might call the Extended Body Hypothesis.

EBH is the hypothesis that some of the things that happen outside the boundary drawn by our skin, hair, nails and so on, are things that are happening in our body.

We could enlist something akin to the Parity Principle to argue for EBH. The Parity Principle says that: If X happens outside the head, but is such that were it done in the head, X would be cognition, then X is in fact cognition even happening as it does outside the head.

Here's a variation on the Parity Principle. If Y happens outside Z's skin/nails/hair boundary, but is such that were it done within that boundary, Y would count as Z's bodily activity, then Y is in fact Z's bodily activity even happening as it does outside the traditional body.

By "Z's bodily activity" I mean Z's normal biological functions such as heartbeats, walking, breathing, and so on.

Probably ECH is simply a special case of EBH.

My question is, if the reasoning that leads to ECH is sound, then does this suggest that a parallel line of reasoning that leads to EBH is also sound?

Would the reasoning used to arrive at ECH also suggest that Bruno's prosthetic leg in some sense really part of Bruno's body?

(A relevant text here would be Andy Clark's Natural Born Cyborgs, of course.)

I am led to ask this question because of my interest in the implications ECH has for issues in personal identity. If ECH implies (or suggests by analogous reasoning) EBH, then it seems like extending the mind must be an example of extending the self also, on both Psychologist and Somatist accounts of personal continuity. There's much more to say about that, but I'm curious to know what people think about EBH first.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Noë's new book, Out of Our Heads

I've been reading (and re-reading) Alva Noë's new book, Out of Our Heads this past week (as I'm sure many others will be in the future). It is a popular, accessible introduction to his version of embodied, extended theory of consciousness and cognition. It is a much easier, less technical read than was Action in Perception. Part of this ease lies in the fact that it is not a Darwinian “long argument,” but a series of short vignettes that illustrate one or another feature of his views. The little stories are great, though I, of course, disagree with many of the morals or conclusions Noë draws from them.

Some conclusions, however, I find just puzzling. Here is one example from Chapter 1. On the one hand, Noë tells us that

Consciousness is more like dancing than it is like digestion” (p. xii).

The phenomenon of consciousness … is a world-involving dynamic process (p. xiii).

we should be thinking about [consciousness] as something we do, as a kind of living activity” (p. 7)

On the other hand, after describing a patient in an apparent permanent vegetative state, he writes,

Obviously, the mere absence of the normal behavioral markers of consciousness does not entail the absence of consciousness” (p. 15).

The tension, to my mind, lies in his saying, essentially, that consciousness is a kind of bodily activity, but that it does not require bodily activity. How can Noë reconcile this idea of consciousness being constituted by bodily activity with his claim that behavior is a “marker” of consciousness? I'm kind of scratching my head about this one.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Original/Derived Distinction in Criticisms of EMH--Part the First

One criticism of the Extended Mind hypothesis (EMH) turns on the idea of a distinction between “original” and “derived” content. (Adams and Aizawa offer an important argument against EMH along these lines in The Bounds of Cognition.)

A representation has “derived” content inasmuch as it has the content it has because of the way intentional agents regard it. The paradigmatic example is written text. It is supposed to be that written text has its meaning derivedly, because it has its meaning as a result of intentional agents’ having developed and applied conventions to the text that are meant to determine its meaning.

Meanwhile, a representation has “original” content inasmuch as it has its content independently of the way any agent regards it. Many people suppose that brains make use of internal representations that have their content, not because someone interprets them as having that content, but rather, simply “originally.”

How there can be original content is the subject of some dispute, but most people agree that there must be original content. Haugeland (Having Thought, p128) argues for this very succinctly. “Derivative intentionality, like an image in a photocopy, must derive eventually from something that is not similarly derivative; that is, at least some intentionality must be original (nonderivative).”

Dennett, of course, argues that there is no original intentionality. (How can he answer Haugeland’s succinct argument just quoted? That’s a bit beyond the scope here but briefly, in my view, he doesn’t think there’s any such thing as derived intentionality either. Taking the intentional stance toward something doesn’t make anything exist—intentionality, representation, or anything else—that didn’t before. He’s something of a fictionalist about these things. Yet he thinks the terms can be used in a way that is responsive to real patterns in the world. I’ve said too much, and too much that is confusing, so I’ll just leave off.)

What does the original/derived distinction have to do with the Extended Mind? Take the famous example of Otto from Chalmers and Clark’s original paper. (See description in previous blog post). Otto uses his notebook by writing in it and reading from it. These are paradigmatic examples of the use of representations for their derived content. Yet many people think that it is a mark of the mental that it involves original content. Arguably, a normal person recalls the kinds of things Otto recalls using representations in her brain that have original content, and that’s why what she’d be doing would really be thinking. What Otto is doing, involving derived content in the way that it does, can’t count as real thinking. It is a substitute for thinking, but it’s not the real thing.

One might quibble over whether normal cases of remembering always involved original content in the relevant way. Can’t it be that we human organisms develop and apply natural conventions toward many of our mental states, making them into representations with derived intentionality? Wouldn’t Otto’s notebook activities be relevantly like this?

I don’t want to take that tack, though. Rather, I want to suggest that when Otto reads from his notebook (or when any of us reads naturally in our native language) he’s (we’re) using the written representations for original content, not derived content. I want to suggest, in other words, that our use of written symbols in the normal reading and writing process uses meaning had by those symbols independently of the way intentional agents treat or regard them. How can I say this? It seems blatantly wrong!

Since this post has become longer than I expected, I’ll have to beg off until I make my next post. (Preview, to maintain plausibility: It’s important in the development of scientific and technological concepts that they not turn only on the history of a system, but also on its present causal powers. This runs afoul of certain popular views esp. in the philosophy of biology, but I’ll address that too. Anyway, note that the sense in which written texts have derived intentionality might turn only on these texts’ history.)

In the meantime, the present post perhaps provides fodder for discussion of the place that these kinds of criticisms (one’s starting from the original/derived distinction) have in discussions of EMH. Or perhaps it could be interesting to discuss whether Dennett’s view escapes the kind of criticism stated succinctly by Haugeland as quoted above. Adams and Aizawa think not—they think Dennett “nowhere comes to grips” with what they call the problem of the “lone thinker.” (You can probably guess from the context what a problem like that of a “lone thinker” would amount to for a view that says there is no original intentionality. I'll clarify in comments if need be, but I don't want to take up any more space here.)

I’ll post again soon.


Welcome to the Extended Cognition Blog. (I’ve racked my mind, extending it beyond all recognition, trying to come up with a more clever title. Nothing happened. Suggestions are welcome!)

This is a blog dedicated to discussion of the hypothesis of the Extended Mind.

The basic idea concerning the Extended Mind is this: Some of our thinking is done outside the head—indeed, outside the body.

A classic example, from Chalmers and Clark’s “The Extended Mind,” is Otto, who has a degenerative disorder which affects his memory. To make up for this, he writes down everything he learns in a notebook, and always consults his notebook in order to bring these things back to his mind. If he needs to know where the museum is, he looks in his notebook, where previously he had written “The museum is on 53rd street.” Chalmers and Clark argue that by doing this, Otto is remembering where the museum is. If remembering is a kind of thinking, then Otto’s activities with the notebook, taking place as they do externally to his body, are nevertheless part of his thinking.

I’ve got a few things to say about the hypothesis, and I’ll be posting them in the next few days or weeks in order to kick of discussion. I will be inviting others who work in this area to also join the blog as authors, and post their own current thoughts. The blog is supposed to act as an informal forum for discussing ideas about the Extended Mind. This is both for the edification of readers of and authors on the blog, and also just for the development of the ideas themselves.
Welcome once again to the blog. Please enjoy!