Minds and Machines

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 115–118

Don Ross et al. (eds.), Distributed Cognition and the Will

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007, ix+369, $70.00, ISBN 978-0-262-18261-4


    • Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Pavia

DOI: 10.1007/s11023-011-9227-1

Cite this article as:
Faroldi, F. Minds & Machines (2011) 21: 115. doi:10.1007/s11023-011-9227-1

This book is a collection of different contributions: different authors, disciplines, types of approach. On one hand this is fruitful: it amplifies one’s view, it connects various disciplines (economics, psychiatry, game theory) to the classical philosophical and psychological perspectives. For this very reason I noticed, on the other hand, some lack of a definite fil rouge which, at least partially, confuses the reader.

While presenting a wide array of theories and perspectives, the question of the mutual links between the distributed cognition hypothesis and the will to me seems hardly explicitly discussed: I feel that the reader must draw his own conclusions.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters, organized in three parts. The first part is about the will: its importance, its illusional character and the consequences of (non)responsibility for the society (Chapters 2–5). The second is about cognition, the extended mind hypothesis and the general concepts of self and action (Chapters 6–10). The third is about micro-scale phenomena, and considers mind/brain problems (11–14).

After a very useful and summarizing introduction by Ross, in Chapter 2 Wegner and Sparrow confirm the Wegner 2002 thesis: the voluntariness of our actions is actually an illusion that emerged both culturally and biologically to the benefit of our species. Being highly social animals, we always have to keep track of who is doing what. They add a new argument supported by empirical data: coaction. Judgments of authorship are greatly sensitive to it and in general to environmental factors. In this particular sense the will (or our feeling of it) would be directly influenced by external circumstances; in other words, it would be the product of extended cognition. Their argument is clearly interesting, but it leaves unanswered several basic questions. First, can biological or cultural evolution develop illusions as adaptive traits? Has current research found evidence of any other adaptive illusions? Second, is man the only animal to have developed this illusion of mastering his own will? Has further research on animal cognition been conducted? Third, what are the differences between illusion and self-deception? Is a conscious illusion possible? To my knowledge the authors have not answered these questions, nor deepened the investigation.

Davies undertakes a very refined critical review of the Wegner 2002 thesis. In his view, Wegner’s discussion is conservative (p. 50) in the sense that it tries to maintain what has already been called in question (p. 51), namely conscious will. After a brief but fruitful analysis, Davies concludes that the feeling of will is not a reliable guide to actual authorship (p. 56). We have to discover which low-level nonconscious processes are the basis of our actions in order to grasp their possible relationship with our feeling of will; we cannot actually say the illusion of conscious will makes us human, not only for the controversial and dubious concept of humanity (p. 57) but also because we should try to innovate and not retain old concepts.

In Chapter 4 Sommers tries to set the basis for an error theory of free will. What we do is ultimately due to luck or nature, and indeed it is the belief in moral responsibility that leads us to the belief in free will (p. 64). In Sommers’ view we should not be held responsible for our actions: this would not be disastrous either for society or for our personal lives. This is indeed a remarkable claim, and probably it would have been enriched with some explorations of the connections of this hypothesis with the extended cognition approach.

In Chapter 5 Pettit develops a concept of freedom independent from any prior act of will. He identifies the capacity for agent-control with the capacity to give recognizable reasons (p. 83). In summary, the subject is present in the action even if she “has little to do with the production of the action, and much to do with how effectively and authoritatively [she] can speak for it” (p. 87). This feeling of responsibility is not innate, and depends on your environment. Thus, you cannot actually tell whether the agent’s will was present in a particular action (also because neuroscience explains that “the agent controlled action is produced by a neural complex to which [we] have limited access” p. 87). That account of agency would lead to a general indeterminacy with troubling implications.

Dennett’s short chapter provides a prominent philosophical insight on cognition and the problem of (extended) mind. In addition, it contains some interesting clues that can enlighten the path of future research: for example the emergence of self-monitoring (and self-representation) as a way to conceal our intentions (p. 98) and thus (self)deception as a key factor for the transition to “choice machines” or “Popperian creatures”.

Clark argues that there is no self in a classical sense. In fact we cannot find a single neurobiological element which is our central cognitive essence, our stream of conscious awareness (p. 113); otherwise we are made up of biological and also non-biological tools, each providing different senses of who we are and of our capacities (p. 112). Clark attempts to reconcile the distributed framework of cognition and the self with the classical view of humans as conscious, centralized choice-makers. He suggests, to see ourselves as “loci of multiple systems of ecological control” in a “distributed cognitive economy” (p. 118).

In the central chapter of the book (and to me one of the most interesting) Thalos proposes to dismiss the classical, motivationist account of action. In her view causing is neither sufficient nor necessary (p. 134). The only way to explain weakness of will (and hijacking for example) is to adopt a distributed model of agency as control, not as action (p. 153). The resulting unitarity of behavior is no more than “a form of organization of distributed, massively interlinked, messy processes” (p. 158). In addition there are some interesting considerations on the extended mind approach, namely on the difficulty in distinguishing between our self and the external world.

Ainslie proposes to differentiate three components of the will: the initiation of movement (which famously Ryle found unnecessary), the ownership of actions (which Wegner 2002 labelled as an illusion), and willpower or the maintenance of resolutions, which is the most important but the most neglected. The author presents several interesting thought experiments to explain his theory.

It is quite difficult to place chapter ten in the context of the book. Ross republishes here a previously appearing article and tries to explain the complex role of the self (which is the “… narrated structure[s] that enhance[s] individuals’ predictability, both to themselves and to others,” p. 203) as an intermediator between the particular tasks of cognition limited to the brain (that characterize an individual) and the ampler cognitive niches (that characterize a person). The author ponders the concepts of classical economic theory and considers the neuroeconomic approach; only the latter succeeds in recognizing that only persons (who take advantage of distributed cognition for example through the construction of niches) constitute genuine economic agents. In my view Ross’ contribution is too dense and too technical to be easily understandable by readers with limited prior knowledge of game theory. This chapter is in fact a part of another, more detailed book.

Lengbeyer maintains an account of cognitive architecture not integrated (in which the agent is complete in himself and not influenced by the environment) but perspective or “situated”. In this theory much of how one thinks or behaves does not depend on his beliefs, but on how that knowledge is organized (p. 232). In my view an advantage of this approach is explaining convincingly dissonances and inconsistencies.

Despite the distributed control process an extended cognition approach seems to require, Christensen maintains instead that evolution has favored a centralized and highly organized control system. In his view this cognitive architecture furnishes a possible account of freedom of the will as flexibility of action control.

Vancouver and Zawidzki endorse a control theory of agency, supported by a cognitive distributed approach. Both with empirical and theoretical arguments they maintain that free will (and the self, and agency) is compatible with mechanistic models.

Lloyd gives a sketchy report of schizophrenia, and uses this disease to build a convincing cognitive model. In brief, schizophrenia, in Lloyd’s opinion, occurs when “neural networks that are distributed … fail to act in concert” (p. 335).

This book is not for the casual reader. If sometimes it requires some general philosophical and psychological knowledge, more often it requires advanced knowledge. To the cutting-edge researcher on distributed cognition and (free) will it has more breadth than depth. It will broaden his horizon for sure, but it has not been conceived as a book with a very specific focus. I suggest this book to the majority of average readers, sufficiently trained in philosophy and psychology. The reader will obtain some sketches of the extended cognition theory and some on theories of will, and he will be able to formulate his own opinions about them.

The book was published 3 years ago and even if new research is going on it is still good reading.


I would like to thank Dr. K. Morris (Brown and Northern Arizona Universities) for thought-provoking discussions and valuable comments, and Professor L. Magnani (University of Pavia) for his teachings.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011