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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Nuclear War and Scope Neglect

photograph of 'Fallout Shelter' sign in the dark

“Are We Facing Nuclear War?”The New York Times, 3/11/22

“Pope evokes spectre of nuclear war wiping out humanity” — Reuters, 3/17/22

“The fear of nuclear annihilation raises its head once more” — The Independent, 3/18/22

“The threat of nuclear war hangs over the Russia-Ukraine crisis”NPR, 3/18/22

“Vladimir Putin ‘asks Kremlin staff to perform doomsday nuclear attack drill’”The Mirror, 3/19/22

“Demand for iodine tablets surge amid fears of nuclear war”The Telegraph, 3/20/22

“Thinking through the unthinkable”Vox, 3/20/22

The prospect of nuclear war is suddenly back, leading many of us to ask some profound and troubling questions. Just how terrible would a nuclear war be? How much should I fear the risk? To what extent, if any, should I take preparatory action, such as stockpiling food or moving away from urban areas?

These questions are all, fundamentally, questions of scale and proportion. We want our judgments and actions to fit with the reality of the situation — we don’t want to needlessly over-react, but we also don’t want to under-react and suffer an avoidable catastrophe. The problem is that getting our responses in proportion can prove very difficult. And this difficulty has profound moral implications.

Everyone seems to agree that a nuclear war would be a significant moral catastrophe, resulting in the loss of many innocent lives. But just how bad of a catastrophe would it be? “In risk terms, the distinction between a ‘small’ and a ‘large’ nuclear war is important,” explains Seth Baum, a researcher at a U.S.-based think tank, the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. “Civilization as a whole can readily withstand a war with a single nuclear weapon or a small number of nuclear weapons, just as it did in WW2. At a larger number, civilization’s ability to withstand the effects would be tested. If global civilization fails, then […] the long-term viability of humanity is at stake.”

Let’s think about this large range of possible outcomes in more detail. Writing during the heights of the Cold War, the philosopher Derek Parfit compared the value of:

    1. Peace.
    2. A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population.
    3. A nuclear war that kills 100%.

Everyone seems to agree that 2 is worse than 1 and that 3 is worse than 2. “But,” asks Parfit, “which is the greater of these two differences? Most people believe that the greater difference is between 1 and 2. I believe that the difference between 2 and 3 is very much greater.”

Parfit was, it turns out, correct about what most people think. A recent study posing Parfit’s question (lowering the lethality of option 2 to 80% to remove confounders) found that most people thought there is a greater moral difference between 1 and 2 than between 2 and 3. Given the world population is roughly 8 billion, the difference between 1 and 2 is an overwhelming 6.4 billion more lives lost. The difference between 2 and 3 is “only” 1.6 billion more lives lost.

Parfit’s reason for thinking that the difference between 2 and 3 was a greater moral difference was because 3 would result in the total extinction of humanity, while 2 would not. Even after a devastating nuclear war such as that in 2, it is likely that humanity would eventually recover, and we would lead valuable lives once again, potentially for millions or billions of years. All that future potential would be lost with the last 20% (or in Parfit’s original case, the last 1%) of humanity.

If you agree with Parfit’s argument (the study found that most people do, after being reminded of the long-term consequences of total extinction), you probably want an explanation of why most people disagree. Perhaps most people are being irrational or insufficiently imaginative. Perhaps our moral judgments and behavior are systematically faulty. Perhaps humans are victims of a shared psychological bias of some kind. Psychologists have repeatedly found that people aren’t very good at scaling up and down their judgments and responses to fit the size of a problem. They name this cognitive bias “scope neglect.”

The evidence for scope neglect is strong. Another psychological study asked respondents how much they would be willing to donate to prevent migrating birds from drowning in oil ponds — ponds that could, with enough money, be covered by safety nets. Respondents were either told that 2,000, or 20,000, or 200,000 birds are affected each year. The results? Respondents were willing to spend $80, $78, and $88 respectively. The scale of the response had no clear connection with the scale of the issue.

Scope neglect can explain many of the most common faults in our moral reasoning. Consider the quote, often attributed to Josef Stalin, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Psychologist Paul Slovic called this tendency to fail to conceptualize the scope of harms suffered by large numbers of people mass numbing. Mass numbing is a form of scope neglect that helps explain ordinary people standing by passively in the face of mass atrocities, such as the Holocaust. The scale of suffering, distributed so widely, is very difficult for us to understand. And this lack of understanding makes it difficult to respond appropriately.

But there is some good news. Knowing that we suffer from scope neglect allows us to “hack” ourselves into making appropriate moral responses. We can exploit our tendency for scope neglect to our moral advantage.

If you have seen Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, then you will remember a particular figure: The girl in the red coat. The rest of the film is in black and white, and the suffering borders continually on the overwhelming. The only color in the film is the red coat of a young Jewish girl. It is in seeing this particular girl, visually plucked out from the crowd by her red coat, that Schindler confronts the horror of the unfolding Holocaust. And it is this girl who Schindler later spots in a pile of dead bodies.

The girl in the red coat is, of course, just one of the thousands of innocents who die in the film, and one of the millions who died in the historical events the film portrays. The scale and diffusion of the horror put the audience members at risk of mass numbing, losing the capacity to have genuine and appropriately strong moral responses. But using that dab of color is enough for Spielberg to make her an identifiable victim. It is much easier to understand the moral calamity that she is a victim of, and then to scale that response up. The girl in the red coat acts as a moral window, allowing us to glimpse the larger tragedy of which she is a part. Spielberg uses our cognitive bias for scope neglect to help us reach a deeper moral insight, a fuller appreciation of the vast scale of suffering.

Charities also exploit our tendency for scope neglect. The donation-raising advertisements they show on TV tend to focus on one or two individuals. In a sense, this extreme focus makes no sense. If we were perfectly rational and wanted to do the most moral good we could, we would presumably be more interested in how many people our donation could help. But charities know that our moral intuitions do not respond to charts and figures. “The reported numbers of deaths represent dry statistics, ‘human beings with the tears dried off,’ that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action,” writes Slovic.

When we endeavor to think about morally profound topics, from the possibility of nuclear war to the Holocaust, we often assume that eliminating psychological bias is the key to good moral judgment. It is certainly true that our biases, such as scope neglect, typically lead us to poor moral conclusions. But our biases can also be a source for good. By becoming more aware of them and how they work, we can use our psychological biases to gain greater moral insight and to motivate better moral actions.

Moral Philosophy Doesn’t Need a License to Cause Harm

Philosophers Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan recently wrote a very controversial op-ed in The Stone (a blog published by The New York Times) arguing that Anna Stubblefield may have been unjustly treated in her sexual assault conviction. Stubblefield engaged in multiple sexual acts with a person who was severely cognitively impaired. Continue reading “Moral Philosophy Doesn’t Need a License to Cause Harm”