Monday, April 18, 2011

A Personal Account of External Cognition: My Life as Someone Else's Wikipedia


I first heard about External Cognition while working on my MA at UBC. I found myself rapidly developing an interest in philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences, especially in modelling the mind (or consciousness). External Cognition seemed like an interesting way of questioning the mind-brain reduction, but ultimately, some of the claims made by supporters of External Cognition also seemed outlandish, too far a stretch of what we consider “thinking” or “knowing.” For the most part, I went on to disregard External Cognition as a serious model, but occasionally, events in my own life became doubts that gnawed at my skepticism.

For review, External Cognition is the view, stated originally in a paper by Clark and Chalmers, that cognition can be located “outside of the head.” For example, I cannot specify in great detail the location of the nearest shopping mall, but I can tell you that if you drive along a particular road in the right direction for long enough, you'll find it. Now, in a classical, perhaps Rylean, understanding, one would not say that I “know” that the mall sits at a certain intersection, but I do know how to get to the mall. The supporter of External Cognition would instead say that I do know the location of the mall, but my knowledge cannot be located in the head; instead, the knowledge can be located on the recommended street and direction. Another example may be helpful. Imagine a logician or mathematician working on an especially problematic proof. Intuitively, one might consider the logician as thinking through the proof, but at the same time, much of that thinking takes place on the scratch paper the logician uses to assist his figuring. Classical, or perhaps na├»ve, understandings would locate the thinking inside the logician's head, but External Cognition advocates would point to the large amount of “thought” located on the page itself. Indeed, one might even reconstruct the logician's reasoning from his notes, so why would one not say that the thinking happens outside of the head? External Cognition supporters frame cognition as a process which spans inside and outside, taking place in the head, but also on the page, the computer screen, etc. Rather than view the logician's notes as mere tools or shortcuts, External Cognition equates the mind with what would otherwise be considered its aids. If this theory seems implausible to you, then you share my initial skepticism. Now, on to how that initial skepticism transformed into tentative speculation.

I have the great fortune to have found a life-partner who shares my intellectual and academic interests (and I hers). Consequently, we have learned a great deal from one another, and we consider intellectual exchange an important pair-bonding activity and cornerstone of our relationship. As much as we consider ourselves intellectual equals, we have also had the opportunity to learn about how our intellectual capacities differ. In particular, I have the better memory, so I often find myself taking the role of prompt, providing my partner the proper names, dates, or terms to fill in the blanks in her conversations. We have engaged in such conversations, by ourselves or with others, for years, but something changed with the rise of Wikipedia.

I adore Wikipedia, and I often find myself idly browsing articles, checking back on facts I thought I knew, expanding my understanding on some topics, and researching incomplete particles of information gleaned from others in casual conversation. Given my memory, in my post-Wikipedia life, I tend to walk around with more ready facts, names, dates, theories, than I did in primitive pre-Wikipedia days. As such, I have become better capable of filling in gaps for my partner, or remembering gaps I cannot complete for later research or fact-checking. My partner shares my adoration for Wikipedia as well, so we often recommend articles to one another and discuss them by ourselves or with our friends. According to our usual pattern, I often find myself throwing in a proper name or technical term where my partner's otherwise impeccable explanation falters. At times, I find myself feeling like a living Wikipedia, always at the ready to supply the answer, and that feeling caused me to return to my initial evaluation of External Cognition.

In many conversations, I function as my partner's external memory. She knows the substance of what she wants to say, but she uses me for the occasional prompt. As a unit, we function quite effortlessly, able to hold conversations on a wide variety of topics. The unit simply distributes its functions in a very particular way; namely, spontaneous recall weighs heavily on my side. Nevertheless, the explanation, the substance of the conversation may originate from either of us (I do often hold my tongue to some extent; I've long ago learned how our unit distributes social graces, and those weigh heavily on her side).

Now, imagine my partner goes out on her own, but brings along a bluetooth headset so that I can hear her conversations, but only she can hear me. Further imagine that she has a very small, inconspicuous headset, one not readily noticeable by her interlocutors. To an outside observer, she would seem to be carrying on conversations effortlessly, with perhaps small pauses to recall some particular. To the outsider, she would simply seem to have an extensive memory. These kinds of thought experiments lend a certain plausibility to External Cognition. My partner uses my memory like she would scratch paper when solving a math problem. My memory is her tool, and she uses it effectively, so why not say that she has an efficient external memory?

“Smart” phones only push the comparison further by placing even more information at one's disposal.