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Superdupersizing the mind: extended cognition and the persistence of cognitive bloat

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The hypothesis of extended cognition (EC) contends that parts of the world outside of the head partly comprise the vehicles of representation and mind. I consider and reject recent efforts to defend EC from the problem of “cognitive bloat.”

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  1. As noted by Rupert (2004), EC should be assessed as the claim that some mental vehicles are realized by extended states in the actual world, since even many critics of EC will agree that extended mental vehicles are metaphysically possible, such as Searle’s (1980) Chinese Room.

  2. Rupert (2004) points out that EC is logically independent of semantic externalism (the view that mental contents depend on “wide” factors). A rough summary of his reasoning is this: duplicate vehicles, narrowly individuated, might differ in their semantic content (given thought experiments about Twin-Earth) so semantic externalism does not entail vehicle externalism. Alternatively, duplicate vehicles, individuated widely (e.g. doppelgangers with duplicate notebooks) could have identical semantic contents, despite differences in their respective environments (e.g. suppose for each party “water” means “colorless, odorless, liquid, etc.…” regardless of whether it is H2O or XYZ that fills the local lakes and rivers).

  3. Giere (2006, p. 318) takes it as a reductio of EC that it implies telescopes are parts of cognitive systems. Rowlands (2009, p. 15) concedes that the telescope would be part of the astronomer’s perceptual processes save for the fact that it is not integrated within consciousness.

  4. For instance, Broad (1925, p. 376).

  5. Adams and Aizawa (2001, 2005, 2009) and Rupert (2004) have drawn attention to EC’s limitations when it comes to causal explanatory kinds.

  6. Rupert (2004, p. 424, no. 58) raises the issue of panpsychism in his discussion of Donald’s (1991) theorizing about extended memory.

  7. This is an application of Clark and Chalmers’ (1998) Parity Principle:

    If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head, we would have no hesitation in accepting as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (for that time) part of the cognitive process (Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 644).

    The Parity Principle immediately invites worries about bloat, as does Clark and Chalmers’ attempted distinction between extended processes, which are genuinely “epistemic,” versus “pragmatic” actions, which merely bring about some desired change in the world (Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 644, Clark 2008, p. 211).

  8. As in imagining a notebook is magically shrunk and integrated in Otto’s nervous system playing a memory-like role.

  9. See Dretske (1995, pp.149–150). for a dissenting opinion, and more recently, Millikan (2010, pp. 76–79), though she ignores the issue of consciousness.

  10. Adams and Aizawa (2001, p. 68, 2009, p. 80) suggest that in addition to fitting a cognitive model, a genuine vehicle must also have non-derived content. In any case, although they think there are brain specific psychological and psychophysical laws (2001, 2005, 2009, p. 87) they doubt there are intercranial laws awaiting discovery.

  11. Hence, Fodor could at one time hold that a belief about XYZ on Twin-Earth is still a belief about water, though this view is later abandoned (see Fodor 1995).

  12. Methodological Individualism, despite its name, does not automatically assume that mental states are in the head, since their causal powers might depend on wide states. It is not to be confused with Methodological Solipsism, which is incompatible with Semantic Externalism.

  13. Could some of the objections to TEC be answered by switching to a non-historical account of proper function, or, perhaps, non-genetic selection processes (involving neuron populations, memes, or whatever) as a way to individuate genuine content-carrying cognitive vehicles? I have my doubts. The first suggestion will encounter problems when it comes to some of the previously discussed counterexamples, while the second continues to advance a historical criterion that is irrelevant for the purposes of causal explanation.


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The author is grateful for discussions of this paper’s ancestors with Murray Clarke, Brian J. Garrett, Robert Rupert, audiences at the American Philosophical Association, McMaster University, Concordia University, and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. I also received thoughtful criticisms from Benjamin Baez and the anonymous referees at Philosophical Studies.

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Correspondence to Sean Allen-Hermanson.

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Allen-Hermanson, S. Superdupersizing the mind: extended cognition and the persistence of cognitive bloat. Philos Stud 164, 791–806 (2013).

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