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Minds & Machines (2010) 20:145–147

DOI 10.1007/s11023-009-9162-6

Andy Clark: Supersizing the Mind


Oxford University Press, New York, 2008, xvi+286, $35.00, ISBN
978-0-19-533321-3

David Cole

Published online: 14 October 2009


Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Attempts to localize cognition have a notorious history. Ancients located cognition


in the liver. Descartes tells us that in his enlightened time the received view
embraced a vaporous spirit self that was diffused throughout the body and left it on
death. Descartes’ famous revision of received wisdom was to bifurcate the
substratum, with cognition split between physical brain and immaterial soul. Much
of the battle waged by naturalism in later centuries was to get cognitive function
entirely back inside the head. Recently that battle seemed to have been won, and the
main question was whether core mental functions in the brain were attributable to
logical operations on propositional representations, or to sub-symbolic processes in
connectionist neural networks.
But throughout the last decade Andy Clark (Edinburgh currently, recently
Washington U. at St. Louis, Sussex, and Indiana U.) has been arguing that cognition
is not entirely in the head. The current book develops the theme of his earlier books
Being There (1998) and Natural Born Cyborgs (2004). Much of the current book is
extended discussion of the themes and a ‘now notorious’ thought experiment from a
paper Clark co-authored with David Chalmers in 1995; that paper is included as an
appendix to this book. The central thought experiment involves Alzheimer’s-
stricken Otto. Otto, it is claimed, continues to have beliefs (and presumably
knowledge) by recording and using information in his omni-present notebook rather
than his brain. Over time Clark has argued for a weaker thesis, the situated-
intelligence view that human and animal cognition crucially depends on the
structure of the environment, supported by examples of animals exquisitely adapted
to interaction with their environment and of (actual) Alzheimer’s patients who
distribute the items needed for their day’s tasks across their living room floor. In
recent work, including this book, he defends the claim that cognition itself is out in

D. Cole (&)
Department of Philosophy, University of Minnesota-Duluth, 369 A B Anderson Hall, Duluth,
MN 55812, USA
e-mail: dcole@umn.edu

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146 D. Cole

the world as much as in the head. A sub-theme has been that this externalization of
cognition is increasing as a result of technology.
Influences: In the acknowledgements, Clark says Dennett has influenced him
more than anyone else. The three authors most cited in this book are Dennett, Alva
Noe, and David Chalmers.
Supersizing is divided into three main sections that focus, in turn, on empirical
evidence (*80 pages), on objections (*50), and on implications for cognitive
science (*50). A main point in the empirical section is that human problem
solving, rather than planning using detailed neural representations, instead often
involves a great deal of interaction with the world and this sequences and controls
responses. Examples from robotics are cited to show that morphological design that
makes locomotion simple are more efficient than all-purpose designs with heaps of
actuators and central control (the creatures of Rodney ‘the world is its own best
model’ Brooks are heroes, whereas classic robot Shakey and Sony’s Asimo are not).
This section culminates in a summary of the Extended Mind paper, centered on
the alleged extended cognition of demented Otto. This section also includes brief
discussion of the long-standing question of the relation of public language and
thought. I would have liked more discussion of this; there has been relevant recent
anthropological evidence regarding the relation between language and the mathe-
matical abilities of Amazonian natives.
The middle part of the book replies to objections that have surfaced (or at least
been emailed to Clark) over the decade since ‘The Extended Mind’ appeared. Some
of these objections concern ‘intrinsic intentionality’ allegedly had by brain states but
not external stuff, the type of coupling required in a cognitive system, what counts as
cognition, and a host of others. For example, Fodor presses the intrinsic intentionality
criticism in his review of this book. In my view Clark does a fine job of replying.
Chapter 5 defends the extended mind thesis against objections from various
authors (e.g. Adams and Aizawa, and Sterelny). Many of these try to identify the
manner in which an external notebook differs from memory; Clark generally replies
that the differences do not disqualify the external storage as the locus of
dispositional belief.
Chapter 6 defends the stronger claim that some cognition takes place outside the
head over the obvious moderate rival that holds that the external merely facilitates
cognition.
Chapter 7 includes interesting discussion of recent work on Change Blindness,
and work by Grush on representation by emulation of the body. The chapter ends
with the unfortunate but plucky Otto reduced to an Alzheimery brain in a vat, using
simulated notebooks—as functional as ever. Clark argues, successfully I think, that
brain-in-a-vat possibilities do not show that the brain has a monopoly on cognitive
processes (the supporting computer is now just doing the work the ‘‘real’’ world did
for the embodied).
Chapter 8 turns to reject a more radical view (endorsed by Noe and O’Regan)
that makes embodiment essential to perception. Clark endorses an alternative
developed by Milner and Goodall.
The last substantive chapter, 9, argues that Clark’s extended mind view is not a
rejection of computationalism, contra Shapiro.

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Book Review 147

The bold thesis of the book—that some cognitive operations and states have a
substratum outside the head—seems very plausible to me. Why not? A butcher
carving nature at the joints will cut at the base of the cranium, but why should
cognitive science? Most of us would hold that if the brain were outside the head
(Dan Dennett’s ‘Where Am I?’), the cognitive processes are not intracranial. What
if part of the brain is outside the head? What if parts of the brain outside the head are
replaced by functional equivalents of neurons—notebooks, abacuses, computers or
the World Wide Web?
But still there are worries. It seems to me there is an obvious low-budget
objection to the Otto scenario. We are told that Otto suffers from a mild form of
Alzheimer’s, in particular, cognitive impairment in the form of memory loss. Then
the extended mind thesis is applied and it turns out that Otto has no cognitive
impairment—he is cognitively indistinguishable from normal individuals. But this is
inconsistent—either he suffers from a medical condition involving cognitive
impairment (as stipulated) or he does not (implication of the argument). In general,
prosthesis is a workaround, not a cure.
Further, it seems the extra-cranial processes argued to be components of an
individual’s cognition could in principle be in another brain. For example, Abby and
Brittany are twins living here in Minnesota. Like many twins, one finishes the
other’s sentences. But they have different personalities (one extroverted, one not),
and quite different tastes in clothes. Yet they always wear the same clothes. For
unlike any other known surviving human twins, they are dicephalous, with two
heads sharing a single body. Now suppose Brittany develops Alzheimer’s, losing
memory, and Abby goes blind and loses access to most of the information sources
she relied upon. Suppose further that they develop a workaround for their mutual
abilities—Brittany tells Abby what she has read and seen, and Abby reports back to
Brittany when Brittany needs to recall something. As I understand Clark’s
conditions, Brittany comes to have beliefs, lodged in Abby’s cranium. But this is
more than passing strange. How can one person’s beliefs be in another person’s
head? The extended mind thesis appears to imply a possible disintegration of
personal identity that is counter-intuitive and arguably best avoided.
No doubt there is a tension in our ordinary thinking about what we can do. People
with jetpacks can jump great distances, but they don’t win medals in Olympic
jumping events. In fact, we filter athletes’ urine for signs of internal performance
enhancers. Yet I’ve heard that Tiger Woods had eye surgery that gives him better
than 20/20 vision, surely a performance enhancement. These anomalies are not
limited to sports. I worked once in a US Congressman’s office. Like his colleagues,
the Congressman wrote thousands of letters, speeches, and testimony, and he
investigated and drafted legislation. OK, maybe his staff actually did much of that.
Andy Clark gets credit for his book, though spell-checkers and grammar-checkers
and friends and Google were likely important parts of the writing process.
In sum, we do not seem to be consistent in our criteria for attributing actions—
some get credit for things they at most sign-off on, others (e.g. athletes) get no credit
if they rely on artificial ability-enhancers. Clark makes a compelling case that it is
sometimes reasonable to count elements external to the head as components of
cognitive processes. Whether we are required to do so is not yet settled.

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