Monday, August 20, 2012

What is in my mind and what isn’t?

Once in a blog I discussed Andy Clark’s thesis that the mind is not only in the head, a thesis that I also endorse (see my blog dated May 31, 2010). It involves that thinking and the storing of knowledge does not only take place within the head, but also outside the body. We write memos or tie knots in handkerchiefs in order not to forget things that are important for us. Or nowadays we often use digital gadgets for it. These are simple examples of a phenomenon that is common practice. The digital revolution seems to have made our storage capacity unlimited and through this our minds, too.
In a recent article, Ronald N. Giere rejects this thesis (like some others do as well in this special issue on “Extended cognition and epistemology” of Philosophical Explorations (15/2, June 2012)). He summarizes his viewpoint by relating the following personal incident:
“Some years ago, my wife and I were in Europe for an extended period. Given communication technology at the time, the best solution for mobile communication was to acquire new ‘chips’ for our phones … One day someone asked me for my wife’s number. I replied … that I didn’t know it. I had seen it, but I did not now remember it. However, I continued, ‘Not to worry. I have the number in my phone’. Whereupon I reached for my ever present phone and produced the number. It would have been very odd for me to say, ‘I remember the number’, and then reach for my phone. Even less would it have made sense to say ‘We remember the number’, where the ‘we’ referred to myself and my phone. It was not odd to say, ‘I have the number in my phone’ ”. (id. p. 205)
It seems that Giere has a point here, especially since his example is much like one used by Clark somewhere. Here it is not the place to discuss Giere’s case and article extensively, but I want to make a few comments that may cast some doubt on his conclusion. Indeed, it is odd to say ‘I remember the number’, and then reach for my phone, but take this case. I always forget my wife’s phone number but by chance it is her birthday in reverse order plus the compulsory 06. So, I know the trick how to produce it, like Giere knows the trick that he can find his wife’s number in his mobile. What’s the difference then between my case and his? I think that also in my example it is odd to say that I remember the number, even though I can produce it without an external aid.
One thing that Giere in his example does is confusing person and brain. As I see it, what Clark contends is that the physical aspect of the mind is more than what is only in the head; that it’s more than what is only in the brain. Take his example in which I put a beer can on my front doormat in order to remember that I have to buy beer (see my blog dated May 31, 2010). In this case I cannot say that I remember now that I must buy beer, for I don’t. But I have made tags inside and outside my mind in order to remember at the right moment that I have to buy beer, and it is just the fact that some of the tags are outside my mind that makes that I can say that the mind is not only in my head. Physically (bodily), I have only tags and representations of tags in my brain, but seen from the viewpoint of me as a person, we can say that the buy-beer-tags are both in my brain and on my front doormat. Just the latter adds something essential to my having to buy beer. It is a bit like this: I am a bundle of muscles, bones, neurons and a few things more. But what makes me am a Dutchman or a philosopher is the society I live in and my relation to that society.
It is difficult to say where in the brain the memory is located, for there is no exact place for it, but let’s for simplicity reasons say that it is in our temporal lobe. I think that it is as odd to say then “Yes, I remember my wife’s phone number. It’s in my temporal lobe. Just a moment, I’ll bring it up”, and after some deep thinking I say the number, as it is odd to say “Yes, I remember it. I have it in my phone” and take my mobile, whereas the first action is what we often do, usually automatically. What isn’t odd, however, is to say “Yes, I know, it is 06---” or to say “Yes, I know the number. Just a moment”, and without saying something else I take my mobile and show the number to the questioner. It is often a matter of perspective, wording and context whether we can say that we “remember” or “know” something.
As I see it, these objections show that it is not odd to say that the mind is not only in the head. I think that there is more that supports the idea than there is that rejects it. Nevertheless I agree with Giere that “ordinary ways of speaking [in this case that the mind is only in the head - HbdW] are indicative of models deeply engrained in our shared conceptual scheme and culture. To be successful, a human science should not stray too far from that shared experience”. (ibid.) And we need to keep that in our minds.

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