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Clark and Chalmers argued that “beliefs can be partly constituted by features of the environment, when those features play the right role in driving cognitive processes” (Clark & Chalmers, p.12). This argument is important in the world of cognitive science because for many centuries scientists were trying to understand how the mind works.
The mind is capable of a range of activities that can be described as both simple and complex. For simple processes scientists are able to provide an equally simple explanation which is linked to human adaptation.
But when it comes to certain human behavior specially those generated from beliefs there are no clear answers. It is therefore important to acknowledge the contribution made by Clark and Chalmers in the attempt to know more about the cognitive process.
Before going any further it is imperative to highlight the necessity of beliefs with regards to human behavior. Without beliefs as foundation of behavior nothing can be accomplished. Consider for instance the example wherein a man calls a woman and asks her to go on a date.
The man said that he regrets to inform her that he cannot pick her up and instead requires her to take a taxi and bring herself to a particular five-star restaurant located in the downtown area.
The first thing that the woman does is not initiate a complicated mental process but to simply access her beliefs. She could either believe that she knows where the place is or she believes that she does not know where it is and therefore requires the assistance of a phone book in order for her to inquire where the said restaurant is located.
Clark and Chalmer’s argument can only be verified if there is indeed a preliminary step that occurs before complex brain functions commences.
Thus, it is important to agree on this part that before the brain leaps to action it first access the person’s beliefs regarding a particular stimulus or challenge. In this case the problem is the need to move from point A to point B – the woman has to navigate her way from her house to the restaurant.
In developing their argument Clark and Chalmers illustrated a similar problem. A girl tried to find a museum by determining first her beliefs regarding her knowledge about the exact address and location of the museum. It is only after being certain of this belief that the girl accessed her memory to figure out that the museum is located in a certain place with a certain street sign.
A boy on the other hand does cannot access him memory because of a certain disease but he believes that the address of the museum was written down in a notebook that he carries with him wherever he goes. The next thing that he did is to consult the notebook and by doing so he was able to determine the exact location of the museum.
In the two illustrations mentioned above there is a link between the brain and the physical environment. But it must be clarified that the brain is not utterly dependent on the physical environment in order to perform all of its functions. Nevertheless, it was also made clear that the brain can indeed utilise certain aspects of the environment to solve a problem or to perform a certain action.
This argument makes sense because the mind and the body cannot exist apart from a physical world. Furthermore, the problems and challenges that human beings have to deal with on a daily basis are part of the physical world. For instance, a woman’s desire to meet up with someone has to do with time and location. These are features of the environment.
Time, distance, and direction are inputs needed by the brain to provide a specific solution. But Clark and Chalmer’s argument goes beyond the brain’s capability to utilise resources because it has more to do with the mind’s ability to extend itself outside of the human body.
Role of the Environment
The beliefs of a human being with regards to solving a problem can be partly constituted by what can be seen and sensed in the physical world. In other words the mind can be extended on certain features of the environment and utilises these objects and materials into tools that helps the person access particular information or generate a solution to a problem.
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However, not everything can be used and the mind cannot be extended to any object. The criteria to include nonbiological candidates for inclusion into an individual’s cognitive system are listed below (Menary, p.46):
- That the resource be reliably available and typically invoked.
- That any information thus retrieved be more or less automatically endorsed. It should not usually be subject to critical scrutiny. It should be deemed about as trustworthy as something retrieved clearly from biological memory.
- That information contained in the resource should be easily accessible as and when required.
The mind can be extended only on objects that can help the mind access a set of data without having to expend a great deal of resources in doing so. It must be achieved flawlessly in the same way that the brain can access biological memory.
This brings to the conclusion that what makes humans so much more cognitively capable is not merely the improved structure of their brains but their amazing capacities to create and maintain a variety of special external structures (symbolic and social-institutional) by which Clark means language and culture (Logan, p.223).
In the illustration provided the boy utilised a notebook but in other settings human utilise symbols built into language and culture. Clark clarifies by stating that:
Mind cannot usefully be extended willy-nilly into the world. The notebook is always there – it is not locked in the garage, or rarely consulted. The information it contains is easy to access and use. The information is automatically endorsed – not subject to critical scrutiny, unlike the musings of a companion on a bus. Finally, the information was originally gathered and endorsed by the current user (unlike the entries in the encyclopaedia” (Marraffa, Caro, & Ferretti, p.217).
It can therefore be argued that the mind selects certain features of the environment and locks into it to develop a system of retrieval of information and interpretation of meaning.
This is nothing new. For many decades researchers were able to prove that language and culture are symbols that the human mind can access to determine meaning and conformity to a particular set of rules and expectations (Denton, p.17).
The theory of the extended mind is plausible because of the fact that human beings live within a physical environment. Human life is impossible it is detached from a physical world. Thus, the interconnection and the overlap are very difficult to separate. It is like a fish living in the ocean.
Only someone who lives outside that system can perceive that water and fish are different entities but the fish has no idea that there is a world beyond that realm.
Human beings are more intelligent than fishes. Humans can easily make the distinction that there is an atmosphere and that there are different types of elements and chemicals present in this world. But humans cannot envision a world outside the physical reality. In other words humans cannot think, live, breathe or make conjecture outside that physical realm (Barden & Williams, p.37). Therefore, the connection is constant and occurs even without conscious thought.
The second reason why the theory is plausible is based on the findings of other researchers in the field of cognitive science. For instance one researcher made a comment that: “It would, therefore, be no great surprise if the theory of mind and the theory of symbols were some day to converge” (Fodor, p.xi).
The mind can manipulate symbols and can break codes even without prior knowledge regarding a particular set of symbols or language.
Furthermore, philosophers and thinkers of the past had discovered the power of the mind to function even beyond the context of biology. For example Descartes discovered that persons who had lost a limb could be led to think that this “limb” was being moved, or pained, merely by stimulating parts of the nervous system.
This sort of information led Descartes to the conclusion that there must be some kind of contact between the mental and physical worlds, and that the contact must take place in the brain (Popkin & Stroll, p.125). This is the challenge faced by researchers in cognitive science.
It is no longer enough to simply label the brains functions as occurring in three different levels: a) physical; b) procedural; and c) computational (Dawson, p.33). It is equally important to find out the specific action taken. This study does not attempt to explain the complex functions of the brain. It simply provides an overview of a particular action of the brain when it comes to the utilisation of the physical world in order to generate information and solve problems.
Clark and Chalmer’s argument can be understood only if it can be proven that the action of accessing beliefs comes prior to complex cognitive functioning. Complex cognitive functions can be used to describe activities like accessing memory and solving a problem. In this view, the mind looks for a correlation with regards to a particular problem and beliefs regarding that particular issue.
It is only after determining a person’s beliefs regarding that problem that brain initiates high-level functioning. Thus, Clark and Chalmers argued convincingly that in that gap, in a moment of inaction, the brain extends itself to objects that can be found in the environment to facilitate the problem solving process.
The best example is the use of language and culture. Thus, the extended mind theory is plausible because the evidence of this phenomenon does exist.
In the case of language and culture the brain requires very little effort. A child talking to his or her parents does not require a prodigious amount of brain power to complete the task. A person feeling shame because of breaking a particular tradition does not have to use high-levels of brain functioning to feel uncomfortable. The mind extends itself because it can and it is efficient to do so.
Barden, Nicola & Tina Williams. Words and Symbols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
Clark, Andy & David Chalmers. The Extended Mind. MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
Dawson, Michael. The Classical View of Information Processing. MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Denton, Robert. Language, Symbols and the Media. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2006.
Fodor, Jerry. Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. London: MIT Press, 1987.
Logan, Robert. The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.
Marraffa, Massimo, Mario de Caro, & Francesco Ferretti. Cartographies of the Mind. New York: Springer, 2007.
Menary, Richard. The Extended Mind London: MIT Press, 2010.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Popkin, Richard & Avrum Stroll. Philosophy Made Simple. MA: Elsevier, 1993.