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Were Parts of Your Mind Made in a Factory?

photograph of women using smartphone and wearing an Apple watch

You, dear reader, are a wonderfully unique thing.

Humor me for a moment, and think of your mother. Now, think of your most significant achievement, a long-unfulfilled desire, your favorite movie, and something you are ashamed of.

If I were to ask every other intelligent being that will ever exist to think of these and other such things, not a single one would think of all the same things you did. You possess a uniqueness that sets you apart. And your uniqueness – your particular experiences, relationships, projects, predilections, desires – have accumulated over time to give your life its distinctive, ongoing character. They configure your particular perspective on the world. They make you who you are.

One of the great obscenities of human life is that this personal uniqueness is not yours to keep. There will come a time when you will be unable to perform my exercise. The details of your life will cease to configure a unified perspective that can be called yours. For we are organisms that decay and die.

In particular, the organ of the mind, the brain, deteriorates, one way or another. The lucky among us will hold on until we are annihilated. But, if we don’t die prematurely, half of us, perhaps more, will be gradually dispossessed before that.

We have a name for this dispossession. Dementia is that condition characterized by the deterioration of cognitive functions relating to memory, reasoning, and planning. It is the main cause of disability in old age. New medical treatments, the discovery of modifiable risk factors, and greater understanding of the disorder and its causes may allow some of us to hold on longer than would otherwise be possible. But so long as we are fleshy things, our minds are vulnerable.

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The idea that our minds are made of such delicate stuff as brain matter is odious.

Many people simply refuse to believe the idea. Descartes could not be moved by his formidable reason (or his formidable critics) to relinquish the idea that the mind is a non-physical substance. We are in no position to laugh at his intransigence. The conviction that a person’s brain and and a person’s mind are separate entities survived disenchantment and neuroscience. It has the enviable durability we can only aspire to.

Many other people believe the idea but desperately wish it weren’t so. We fantasize incessantly about leaving our squishy bodies behind and transferring our minds to a more resilient medium. How could we not? Even the most undignified thing in the virtual world (which, of course, is increasingly our world) has the enviable advantage over us, and more. It’s unrottable. It’s copyable. If we could only step into that world, we could become like gods. But we are stuck. The technology doesn’t exist.

And yet, although we can’t escape our squishy bodies, something curious is happening.

Some people whose brains have lost significant functioning as a result of neurodegenerative disorders are able to do things, all on their own, that go well beyond what their brain state suggests they are capable of, which would have been infeasible for someone with the same condition a few decades ago.

Edith has mild dementia but arrives at appointments, returns phone calls, and pays bills on time; Henry has moderate dementia but can recall the names and likenesses of his family members; Maya has severe dementia but is able to visualize her grandchildren’s faces and contact them when she wants to. These capacities are not fluky or localized. Edith shows up to her appointments purposefully and reliably; Henry doesn’t have to be at home with his leatherbound photo album to recall his family.

The capacities I’m speaking of are not the result of new medical treatments. They are achieved through ordinary information and communication technologies like smartphones, smartwatches, and smart speakers. Edith uses Google Maps and a calendar app with dynamic notifications to encode and utilize the information needed to effectively navigate day-to-day life; Henry uses a special app designed for people with memory problems to catalog details of his loved ones; Maya possesses a simple phone with pictures of her grandchildren that she can press to call them. These technologies are reliable and available to them virtually all the time, strapped to a wrist or snug in a pocket.

Each person has regained something lost to dementia not by leaving behind their squishy body and its attendant vulnerabilities but by transferring something crucial, which was once based in the brain, to a more resilient medium. They haven’t uploaded their minds. But they’ve done something that produces some of the same effects.

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What is your mind made of?

This question is ambiguous. Suppose I ask what your car is made of. You might answer: metal, rubber, glass (etc.). Or you might answer: engine, tires, windows (etc.). Both answers are accurate. They differ because they presuppose different descriptive frameworks. The former answer describes your car’s makeup in terms of its underlying materials; the latter in terms of the components that contribute to the car’s functioning.

Your mind is in this way like your car. We can describe your mind’s makeup at a lower level, in terms of underlying matter (squishy stuff (brain matter)), or at a higher level, in terms of functional components such as mental states (like beliefs, desires, and hopes) and mental processes (like perception, deliberation, and reflection).

Consider beliefs. Just as the engine is that part of your car that makes it go, so your beliefs are, very roughly, those parts of your mind that represent what the world is like and enable you to think about and navigate it effectively.

Earlier, you thought about your mother and so forth by accessing beliefs in your brain. Now, imagine that due to dementia your brain can’t encode such information anymore. Fortunately, you have some technology, say, a smartphone with a special app tailored to your needs, that encodes all sorts of relevant biographical information for you, which you can access whenever you need to. In this scenario, your phone, rather than your brain, contains the information you access to think about your mother and so forth. Your phone plays roughly the same role as certain brain parts do in real life. It seems to have become a functional component, or in other words an integrated part, of your mind. True, it’s outside of your skin. It’s not made of squishy stuff. But it’s doing the same basic thing that the squishy stuff usually does. And that’s what makes it part of your mind.

Think of it this way. If you take the engine out of your ‘67 Camaro and strap a functional electric motor to the roof, you’ve got something weird. But you don’t have a motorless car. True, the motor is outside of your car. But it’s doing basically the same things that an engine under the hood would do (we’re assuming it’s hooked up correctly). And that’s what makes it the car’s motor.

The idea that parts of your mind might be made up of things located outside of your skin is called the extended mind thesis. As the philosophers who formulated it point out, the thesis suggests that when people like Edith, Henry, and Maya utilize external technology to make up for deficiencies in endogenous cognitive functioning, they thereby incorporate that technology (or processes involving that technology) into themselves. The technology literally becomes part of them by reliably playing a role in their cognition.

It’s not quite as dramatic as our fantasies. But it’s something, which, if looked at in the right light, appears extraordinary. These people’s minds are made, in part, of technology.

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The extended mind thesis would seem to have some rather profound ethical implications. Suppose you steal Henry’s phone, which contains unbacked biographical data. What have you done? Well, you haven’t simply stolen something expensive from Henry. You’ve deprived him of part of his mind, much as if you had excised part of his brain. If you look through his phone, you are looking through his mind. You’ve done something qualitatively different than stealing some other possession, like a fancy hat.

Now, the extended mind thesis is controversial for various reasons. You might reasonably be skeptical of the claim that the phone is literally part of Henry’s mind. But it’s not obvious this matters from an ethical point of view. What’s most important is that the phone is on some level functioning as if it’s part of his mind.

This is especially clear in extreme cases, like the imaginary case where many of your own important biographical details are encoded into your phone. If your grip on who you are, your access to your past and your uniqueness, is significantly mediated by a piece of technology, then that technology is as integral to your mind and identity as many parts of your brain are. And this should be reflected in our judgments about what other people can do to that technology without your permission. It’s more sacrosanct than mere property. Perhaps it should be protected by bodily autonomy rights.

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I know a lot of phone numbers. But if you ask me while I’m swimming what they are, I won’t be able to tell you immediately. That’s because they’re stored in my phone, not my brain.

This highlights something you might have been thinking all along. It’s not only people with dementia who offload information and cognitive tasks to their phones. People with impairments might do it more extensively (biographical details rather than just phone numbers, calendar appointments, and recipes). They might have more trouble adjusting if they suddenly couldn’t do it.

Nevertheless, we all extend our minds into these little gadgets we carry around with us. We’re all made up, in part, of silicon and metal and plastic. Of stuff made in a factory.

This suggests something pretty important. The rules about what other people can do to our phones (and other gadgets) without our permission should probably be pretty strict, far stricter than rules governing most other stuff. One might advocate in favor of something like the following (admittedly rough and exception-riddled) principle: if it’s wrong to do such-and-such to someone’s brain, then it’s prima facie wrong to do such-and-such to their phone.

I’ll end with a suggestive example.

Surely we can all agree that it would be wrong for the state to use data from a mind-reading machine designed to scan the brains of females in order to figure out when they believe their last period happened. That’s too invasive; it violates bodily autonomy. Well, our rough principle would seem to suggest that it’s prima facie wrong to use data from a machine designed to scan someone’s phone to get the same information. The fact that the phone happens to be outside the person’s skin is, well, immaterial.

What Good Is Ignorance?

photograph of single person with flashlight standing in pitch darkness

Most of us think knowledge good, and ignorance bad. We justify this by pointing to all the practical goods that knowledge affords us: we want the knowledgeable surgeon and legislator, and not the ignorant ones. The consequences of having the latter are potentially dire. And so, from there, many people blithely assume ignorance is bad: if knowing is good, not knowing should be avoided.

What’s striking though is that people’s actions often don’t match their words: they will pay lip service to the value of knowledge, yet choose to remain ignorant despite having relatively easy access to know more or know better. The actions of these folks suggests that there is something they must value about ignorance — or, perhaps, they think gathering knowledge is more trouble than it’s worth. Part of the explanation here is no doubt that people are lazy — they are, to put the point more precisely, cognitive misers. However, we should be suspicious of one-factor explanations of complicated behavior. And knowledge looks like it is subject to the Goldilocks principle: we don’t want too little knowledge, but we don’t want too much knowledge either. Do you really want to know everything there is to know about the house you bought? Of course you don’t. While you want to know, say, whether the roof is in good condition, and the foundation is sound, you don’t care exactly how many specks of dust are in the attic. And just as we can oftentimes overstate the value of knowledge, we can understate the value of ignorance too: it turns out, there are some benefits to knowing less. We should canvass several of them.

First, consider the value of flow states: flows states are states where we have intense focus and concentration on the task at hand in the present moment; the merging of action and awareness, and the loss of self-reflection — what people often describe as ‘being in the zone.’ Flow states allow us to achieve amazing things whether in the corporate boardroom, the courthouse, or the basketball court, and many other tasks in-between. We may wonder how flow states are related to ignorance. Here we must understand what is required to be in a flow state: intensive and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment; the loss of awareness that one is engaging in a specific activity, among other things. When we’re in a flow state, while writing, say, we focus to the point of immersion into the writing process, inhibiting knowledge of what we’re doing. We do not focus on the keystrokes necessary to produce the words on the page or think too much about the next sentence to come. Athletes often describe how it feels to be in a flow state in similar terms.

Next, consider the value of privacy where we value the ignorance of others. we often value privacy — ignorance of our words and actions by others — performatively, even if we may say things dismissive of privacy. When the issue of state surveillance is broached, some retort that they don’t fear the state knowing their business since they’ve done nothing wrong. The implication here is that only criminals, or folks up to no good, would value their privacy; whereas, law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from the state. Yet their actions belie their words: they password-protect their account, use blinds and curtains to prevent snooping into their homes, and so on. They, in other words, intuitively understand that privacy is valuable for leading a normal life having nothing to do with criminality. The fact that they would be reticent to forgo their privacy says volumes about what they really value, despite their expressed convictions to the contrary. We can think about the value of privacy by thinking about a society where privacy is absent. As George Orwell masterfully put the point:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—on the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

And finally, sometimes we (rightly) value our ignorance of other people, even those closest to us. Would you really want to know everything about people in your life — every thought, word, and deed? I’m guessing for most folks the answer is no. As the philosopher, Daniel Dennett, nicely explains:

“Speaking for myself, I am sure that I would go to some lengths to prevent myself from learning all the secrets of those around me—whom they found disgusting, whom they secretly adored, what crimes and follies they had committed, or thought I had committed! Learning all these facts would destroy my composure, cripple my attitude towards those around me.”

We thus have a few examples where ignorance — in different forms — is actually quite valuable, and where we wouldn’t want knowledge. This is some confirmation for the Goldilocks principle applied, not just to knowledge, but to ignorance too (stated in reverse): we don’t want too much ignorance, but we don’t want too little ignorance either.

Immoral Emotions, Intentionality, and Insurrection

photograph of Capitol mob being tear gassed outside

Psychologists believe that emotions — those physical reactions and expressive behaviors that accompany feelings like fear, disgust, and joy — are, in and of themselves, neither moral nor immoral, and neither ethical nor unethical. Rather, we assess the behaviors motivated by, or following from, emotions as being either healthy or unhealthy for the individual. Emotions in this sense serve as coping mechanisms (or ego defenses), and are identified as being positive or negative. When these behaviors are deemed negative, they result in unhealthy outcomes for the person.

One major research question that psychologists often face when studying emotional development asks which comes first: thinking or feeling? Does our physiological activity precede conscious awareness, or is it the other way around? The current research tends to suggest the latter; research supports the idea that cognition precedes emotion. The Schacter Two-Factor theory of emotion, states that an emotion, say anger, is recognized as the emotion of anger only after we cognitively interpret it within the immediate environment, and then cognitively label it as anger. (I might label the emotion as anger, or rage or annoyance, depending on the circumstance of the immediate environment since all three of these emotions are related. Rage, for example, is an intensification of anger (the basic emotion), while annoyance is anger, but to a much lesser degree.) While anger might lead one to act immorally, the emotion itself is not considered good or bad.

But this view that cognition precedes emotion might seem to put pressure on the idea we should regard emotions as being neither moral or immoral. For example, philosopher Martha Nussbaum believes that if emotions do have a cognitive component, then they must be taken into account when evaluating ethical judgments (intentions) made that precede behaviors. Jonathan Haidt goes even further by labeling emotions as either moral or immoral depending on how prosocial the resulting behaviors are, and if the emotion was elicited by the concern for others or strictly out of self-interest. If emotions are labeled as such, then the most recent events at the Capitol can be interpreted in this context.

On January 6, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building, ransacking offices of lawmakers, hunting for specific government officials, seeking to cause them harm and do physical destruction to the building itself. They were seeking to stop the official count of the Electoral College that would certify the election of a new POTUS, even if it meant that the Vice President and Speaker of the House had to be executed. It’s easy to point to this aggressive behavior as being the result of political polarization, the in-group vs out-group phenomenon, and the effects of social media on collectives. Each of these explanations refers to group behavior, collections of people who must be brought to justice. But, what role did individuals play in the fomenting of such behaviors?

Often, when individuals moralize and then find others of kindred attitudes, a moral convergence is formed. Furthermore, it is known that when the kindling of moralization and moral convergence is present, aggressive behaviors often follow, but there must be a spark to ignite the kindling. It is important to note, however, that the opposite occurs equally as often with non-violent protest groups. There the kindling is present, but there is no violent behavior by the group or any individual within the group; the igniting spark is not present in the non-violent protest group. What makes up this so-called spark? Perhaps the answer can be found by a closer inspection of immoral emotions.

Prior to the attack on the Capitol, the mob met at the Ellipse in front of the White House where the group heard emotionally charged speeches from POTUS and his attorney Rudy Giuliani for over an hour. The speeches conveyed to the group a message that the election had been rigged and stolen from their candidate, and by extension, from them. An emotion of contempt for those responsible for this supposed theft could quite reasonably have been cognitively identified by the persons making up the mob. The speech-makers used terms like “cheaters” and “liars” to generate just such an emotional response.

Anger is elicited when one sees that something is in the way of completing desired goals. If the anger is based in self-interest, then the pro-sociality of the action tendency is low, and the emotion, by definition, is immoral. The speeches were angry ones in the sense that they conveyed the idea that the perceived common goal of re-electing the sitting president was being thwarted by cheating and lying enemies of democracy. The mob was in an environment where it was easy for the individual members to experience anger and contempt as the speeches progressed. In addition, they were under the impression, according to the speech given by the sitting president, that the theft was being carried out just up the street. Anger plus anticipation most often results in aggressive behavior. The kindling was laid, and the spark that lit it came in the form of these emotion-laden speeches filled with words indicative of the emotions of anger, fear, and contempt. Giuliani’s cry for “trial by combat” coupled with these words from their president suggesting that after the count had been interrupted that they would be “the happiest people,” and that what was required was a bit of courage “because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” could very well have lit the already-present kindling. If the group saw this as a moral issue (“save your country!”), a right issue, and an issue worth fighting for, then the mob was primed to commit these violent acts. As Milgram and others showed us long ago, humans are not above inflicting harm on others as long as an authority figure encourages them to do so.

But, do the emotions experienced by the Capitol mob need to be labeled as immoral in order to explain their egregious behavior? Do we need to follow Haidt and Nussbaum in condemning the emotion and not just the resulting act? Emotions serve as coping strategies or ego defense mechanisms that motivate behavioral responses. The coping strategies used to deal with their conflicting emotions, and the ego defensive behaviors exhibited by the mob can be explained more parsimoniously by the cognitive theory of emotion: there is an emotion present, anger, (but what to do about it?), there is behavior, attack (but whom?), the function of the attack is to destruct, and the ego defense is displacement (attacking something weaker than the perpetrator) in this case, a few unarmed lawmakers. Emotions were no doubt manipulated and contributed to the mayhem, but they also aren’t the primary suspect.

Johnson’s Mumbling and Top-Down Effects on Perception

photograph of Boris Johnson scratching head

On December 6th, in the midst of his reelection campaign, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke about regulating immigration to a crowd outside a factory in central England, saying “I’m in favour of having people of talent come to this country, but I think we should have it democratically controlled.” When Channel Four, one of the largest broadcasters in the UK, uploaded video of the event online, their subtitles mistakenly read “I’m in favor of having people of color come to this country,” making it seem as though Johnson was, in this speech, indicating a desire to control immigration on racial grounds. After an uproar from Johnson’s Conservative party, Channel Four deleted the video and issued an apology.

However, despite Tory accusations of slander and media partisanship, at least two facts make it likely that this was, indeed, an honest mistake on the part of a nameless subtitler within Channel Four’s organization:

  1. Poorly-timed background noise and Johnson’s characteristic mumbling make the audio of the speech less-than-perfectly clear at the precise moment in question, and
  2. Johnson has repeatedly voiced racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes in both official and unofficial speeches, as well as in his writings (again, repeatedly) and his formal policy proposals.

Given the reality of (2), someone familiar with Johnson may well be more inclined to interpret him as uttering something explicitly racist (as opposed to the still-problematic dog whistle “people of talent”), particularly in the presence of the ambiguities (1) describes. Importantly, it may not actually be a matter of judgment (where the subtitler would have to consciously choose between two possible words) – it may genuinely seem to someone hearing Johnson’s speech that he spoke the word “color” rather than “talent.”

Indeed, this has been widely reported to be the case in the days following Johnson’s campaign rally, with debates raging online regarding the various ways people report to hear Johnson’s words..

For philosophers of perception, this could be an example of a so-called “top-down” effect on the phenomenology of perceptual experience, a.k.a. “what it seems like to perceive something.” In most cases, the process of perception converts basic sensory data about your environment into information usable by your cognitive systems; in general, this is thought to occur via a “bottom-up” process whereby sense organs detect basic properties of your environment (like shapes, colors, lighting conditions, and the like) and then your mind collects and processes this information into complex mental representations of the world around you. Put differently, you don’t technically sense a “dog” – you sense a collection of color patches, smells, noises, and other low-level properties which your perceptual systems quickly aggregate into the concept “dog” or the thought “there is a dog in front of me” – this lightning-fast process is what we call “perception.”

A “top-down” effect – also sometimes called the “cognitive penetration of perception” – is when one or more of your high-level mental states (like a concept, thought, belief, desire, or fear) works backwards on that normally-bottom-up process to influence the operation of your low-level perceptual systems. Though controversial, purported examples of this phenomenon abound, such as how patients suffering from severe depression will frequently report that their world is “drained of color” or how devoted fans of opposing sports teams will both genuinely believe that their preferred player won out in an unclear contest. Sometimes, evidence for top-down effects comes from controlled studies, such as a 2006 experiment by Proffitt which found that test subjects wearing heavy backpacks routinely reported hills to be steeper than did unencumbered subjects. But we need not be so academic to find examples of top-down effects on perception: consider the central portion of the “B-13” diagram.

When you focus on the object in the center, you can probably shift your perception of what it is (either “the letter B” or “the number 13”) at-will depending on whether you concentrate on either the horizontal or vertical lines around it. Because letters and numbers are high-level concepts, defenders of cognitive penetrability can take this as proof that your concepts are influencing your perception (instead of just the other way around).

So, when it comes to Johnson’s “talent/color” word choice, much like the Yanny/Laurel debate of 2018 or the infamous white/gold (or blue/black?) Dress of 2015, different audience members may – quite genuinely – perceive the mumbled word in wholly different ways. Obviously, this raises a host of additional questions about the epistemological and ethical consequences of cognitive penetrability (many researchers, for example, are concerned to explore perceptions influenced by implicit biases concerning racism, sexism, and the like), but it does make Channel Four’s mistaken subtitling much easier to understand without needing to invoke any nefarious agenda on the part of sneaky anti-Johnson reporters.

Put more simply: even though Johnson didn’t explicitly assert a racist agenda in Derbyshire, it is wholly unsurprising that people have genuinely perceived him to have done so, given the many other times he has done precisely that.

Should Chimpanzees be Granted Legal Personhood?

An image of a group of chimpanzees

In recent years, advocates for animal welfare have pursued legal rights for animals in the courts.  Tommy and Kiko are chimpanzees who were once famous for their appearance in Hollywood films. Both now live in captivity in small cages—conditions that are far from optimal relative to what a flourishing life for a chimpanzee would look like.  Hercules and Leo are chimpanzees who have been the subject of invasive medical research and experimentation for their entire lives, nearly a decade.  Advocates for these animals argue that it is morally wrong to view them as mere property. There should be some legal recognition of their rights.

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The Legal Case of Elephant Personhood

An image of four elephants walking along a muddy field.

Asian elephants have been observed reassuring other elephants in distress. Elephants have also been observed behaving in ways that appear to show  grief at the death of other elephants. Evidence (admittedly sparse) has also suggested that elephants may be self-aware—that is, aware of themselves as separate from other objects and the environment. Over the years, we have learned much about the rich cognitive and social lives of elephants. Does this increasing body of evidence indicate that elephants should be treated as persons, too?

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The Artificial Intelligence of Google’s AlphaGo

Last week, Google’s AlphaGo program beat Ke Jie, the Go world champion. The victory is a significant one, due to the special difficulties of developing an algorithm that can tackle the ancient Chinese game. It differs significantly from the feat of DeepBlue, the computer that beat then-chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, largely by brute force calculations of the possible moves on the 8×8 board. The possible moves in Go far eclipse those of chess, and for decades most researchers didn’t consider it possible for a computer to defeat a champion-level Go player, because designing a computer with such complexity would amount to such great leaps towards creative intuition on the computer’s part.

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