Artifactual mind

The close relation between human beings and the world surrounding them drove various philosophers to consider the connections between mind, body and culture; and more specifically, as respects technology, between hand, mind and artifact.

Firstly, regarding the connection mind-artifact, several authors have pointed out that external objects and technical artifacts can be considered a part of human cognition. Some of the perspectives that point to this idea are the Extended mind thesis (EMT) and the Artifactual mind thesis (AMT).

The first one maintains that cognitive processes are not all in the head because certain technical artifacts are used in such a way that they can be seen as extensions of the mind itself and can become part of the cognitive system. In this regard, EM theorists propose to revise the concept of individual as such and expand our selves to include not only our bodies but also those non-biological parts (i.e. processes and artifacts).

In accordance with this theory, biological human organism (individual’s brain) would remain the center and the starting point of cognition. For EM supporters it is assumed that cognition arises from the inside, but it’s also assumed that the brain is not affected and altered by external material influences.

Both this and other versions of the EM theory, the so-called ‘second-wave EMT’ and ‘third-wave EMT’, have been discussed by several authors.

One of the critics is C. Aydin, who argues that EMT advocates have not succeeded in overcoming the division inside-outside, a cartesian legacy that prevent them from seeing to what point our view of cognition is influenced by modern technologies. He disagrees with their view of the brain as an isolated initiator of cognition –view also disputed by empirical research that shows how socio-cultural influences can alter certain areas of the brain and the way it functions– and suggests that “Cognition should be understood as a self-organizational process in which brains, bodies and world simultaneously participate and depend on one another”.

This way, as an alternative, a step further and a contribution to the EMT debate, Aydin proposes the Artifactual Mind Theory (AMT), which defends the idea that external objects, artifacts and processes should not be conceived as inanimate and unintelligent matter external to our mind: “thought is located in a world of objects”, and objects and artifacts enable us to induce and develop certain thoughts (Aydin, 2013). Mind, therefore, has an artifactual character and, as Wittgenstein already pointed out, it’s “not extended by objects and artifacts but rather unfolds through and is shaped by them. […] Acknowledging that our thinking has an artifactual character means recognizing that external objects and technical artifacts, rather than being utilized by an inside world, have shaped and are continuously shaping the very fabric of our thinking”. That means then that “Artifacts are not neutral tools that are functionally utilized by an internal biological core, as expressed by EMT; rather they shape to a great extent what we consider as our ‘inner,’ mental realm of goals, aspirations and ideals.” (Aydin, 2013)

On this theory, Aydin follows American philosopher Charles S. Peirce’s (1839-1914), forerunner of these ideas, and his philosophy of mind:

According to Peirce, thinking is not instigated by such internal impressions but rather everything starts with what he sometimes calls “percepts,” which are “out in the open.” Peirce repudiates the idea that we have immediate access to our ‘inside realm’ and a mediated access to the outside world. That is why he can say: “It is the external world that we directly observe”. Thinking is not instigated by ‘introspection’ but by ‘extrospection.’ Although in this reversal Peirce still uses an inside–outside distinction, his argument ultimately culminates in a kind of collapse of that distinction. […]

Peirce stresses, and this is crucial, that these percepts have a mental character. This, however, does not mean that they are products of individual brain processes. Indeed, “[t]hought is”, according to Peirce, “not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the shapes, etc., of objects are really there”. Our world of objects and artifacts does not only consist of matter but also of mind (Aydin, 2013)

Peirce holds the view that the principle of individuation that allows us to talk of minds and selves in the plural is privation: “Psychological analysis shows that there is nothing which distinguishes my personal identity except my faults and my limitations”. Peirce’s belief is “that we are not detached, atomistic egos living in a separate inside world but ‘cells of a social organism’, who discover and develop themselves in an interaction with their environment”.

Other philosopher whose ideas coincide with Peirce’s view of mind is Karl Popper, who was especially interested in memory enhancing artifacts. According to him, although mind is the ultimate source of knowledge, it does not reside in mental states or inside the human mind, but rather exosomatically, in books, articles, and the like, that is, in objects and artifacts (that function then as mere storage):

Yet the kind of exosomatic evolution which interests me here is this: instead of growing better memories and brains, we grow paper, pens, pencils, typewriters, dictaphones, the printing press, and libraries. […] The latest development (used mainly in support of our argumentative abilities) is the growth of computers.

We use, and build, computers because they can do many things which we cannot do; just as I use a pen and pencil when I wish to tot up a sum I cannot do in my head. ‘My pencil is more intelligent than I,’ Einstein used to say.

Secondly, we are briefly mentioning the interesting unity and close connection between hand and head (or mind), that was already revealed by Kant: “the hand is the window on to the mind”. In his book The Craftsman, a defense of the sensibility associated to manual activities, Richard Sennet states: “such unity shaped the ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; it grounded Ruskin’s nineteenth-century defense of manual labor” (Sennet, 2008, 178). There, he makes

two contentious arguments: first, that all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; second, that technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination. The first argument focuses on knowledge gained in the hand through touch and movement. The argument about imagination begins by exploring language that attempts to direct and guide bodily skill. This language works best when it shows imaginatively how to do something. The use of imperfect or incomplete tools draws on the imagination in developing the skills to repair and improvise. The two arguments combine in considering how resistance and ambiguity can be instructive experiences; to work well, every craftsman has to learn from these experiences rather than fight them. (Sennet, 2008, 10)

He describes how, according to various thinkers, the connection hand-mind laid the foundation of human development: in 1833 Charles Bell expressed the idea of “an intelligent hand” in his book The hand, and Charles Darwin reviewed it suggesting the influence of the use of the arms on the increase of monkey’s brain size and in the long run on the emergence of human culture (Sennet, 2008, 150).

In evolution, Darwin surmised, the brains of apes became larger as their arms and hands were used for other purposes than steadying the moving body. With greater brain capacity, our human ancestors learned how to hold things in their hands, to think about what they held, and eventually to shape the things held; man-apes could make tools, humans make culture.

Until recently, evolutionist thought that it is the uses of the hand, rather than changes in its structure, that have matched the increasing size of the brain, Thus, a half-century ago Frederick Wood Jones wrote, “It is not the hand that is perfect, but the whole nervous mechanism by which movements of the hand are evoked, coordinated, and controlled” which has enabled Homo sapiens to develop”. (Sennet, 2088, 150)

As a consequence of this interaction hand-mind, also the structure of the hand has evolved, making possible the distinctive physical experience of grip thanks to the opposition of thumb to other digits combined with subtle changes in the index finger bones. Sennet underlines other complex manual actions that reflect the intimate connection between hand and mind, like letting go, prehension, coordination, cooperation between hands, force control, rhythm, etc.

Finally, we are including a general reference to the interaction between mind, body and the world and culture surrounding them, which can be schematized in the following diagram. It represents the way body and culture shape the functions and structure of the mind through perceptions, and the way our mind has an influence on the culture through the actions carried out by our body.Esquema mind-body-culture

References: Ciano Aydin, “The artifactual mind: overcoming the ‘inside-outside’ dualism in the extended mind thesis and recognizing the technological dimension of cognition”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, May 2013; Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, 2008; M. Pérez Álvarez, El mito del cerebro creador. Cuerpo, conducta y cultura, Alianza editorial, 2011.


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