When is a thing or process a part of a person’s body or bodily process? It seems that though human beings are not normally born with large titanium deposits, a titanium knee implant at a certain point of one’s life is part of one’s knee, part of one’s body just as much as one’s hand, spine, or brain. Similarly, when a person undergoes heart transplant it seems clear that the ‘new’ heart is now a genuine part of her body. Having undergone the transplant successfully, it would be tremendously odd to say that her body was heartless, but connected to some other person’s heart. It is her blood that the heart is in the business of circulating.
When is a thing or process a part of a person’s mind or mental process? As technology advances, we find an increasing amount of mental processes or functions being ‘offloaded’ to external devices. Almost everyone in the developed world has a laptop, and almost everyone has a cell phone. Learning the table of multiplication, remembering your friend’s phone number, or your spouse’s birthday (embarrassing, but you know it’s true), are all becoming things of the past. One click on the phone and there it is before you. We are so comfortable with our favorite piece of technology, an iPhone, a Blackberry, a Palm, or what have you, that we hardly even notice how much we rely on them in our daily life. Nonetheless, we become more and more helpless when they are gone.
However, perhaps such mental processes, multiplication, remembering, and so many others, are not becoming things of the past, but are merely undergoing a transformation. Rather than thinking of the process of remembering a phone number as something that is necessarily done within the cranium, now that same process, remembering a phone number, involves manipulating a few buttons on a piece of technology. It turns out that remembering a phone number is not (and, presumably, never was) essentially confined to a brain. Admittedly, it is somewhat counter-intuitive at first to think that merely carrying around a cell phone constitutes remembering all those phone numbers, addresses, and birth-days. Nonetheless, it is not clear what is wrong with this way of thinking. Would the intuition that something must be wrong with it be less upsetting if we made the phone much smaller and tucked it nicely within the confines of the skull? Perhaps it would. But then it seems this same intuition is on rather shaky foundations in the first place. After all, why would location alone make any difference to something’s being a mental process?
As technology advances, it does seem that our minds are becoming more and more extended into the extra-cranial world. Is this something we should be concerned about, or should we instead embrace it with excitement?
For more, see ‘Appland: How smartphones are transforming our lives’ by Richard Fisher in this week’s NewScientist.
To read more about the extended mind, see these online papers by Andy Clark.
Semantic Externalism and Psychological Externalism
By Åsa Wikforss, Stockholm University
(Vol. 2, April 2007)