Recent Posts



How We Know Ourselves: c. In the World

We know our bodies intimately. It is through our bodies and our nervous systems that we are aware of and come to know anything at all. But in a sense our bodies are a zero-point, and even how we feel about our bodies and our place in the world may depend heavily upon where we are in the world, and how the world, other people in particular, respond to us and make us feel. My body is always located somewhere, and although language and technology make it possible for me to experience and think about things far distant in space and time, I always come back here to when and where my body is actually located, in particular to what is directly available to me. Sitting in my study is much of the flotsam and jetsam of a scholarly and academic career of roughly forty years. I love my space, the book-lined walls, files and papers, journals and magazines in piles with varying degrees of categorization and organization. I am writing on a laptop on my desk, with a cup of coffee in easy reach, though I get engaged enough that it can sit mostly untouched. Visiting someone’s home, particularly the sanctum sanctorum of a space which would tell someone much about someone living a life of the mind, is always deeply informative to a visitor who has time to spend here, but it also is the background which tells me much about who I am, and who I have been, the years of education, the reading and research, and the discipline of order and organization that served me so well in my academic career. So too, the memories evoked of a corpus of work, of classes taught over decades, of colleagues and conferences, and institutional locations, both physical and abstract.

I actually found it a bit disturbing when I realized, doing an analysis of “personal projects” which I had also assigned to students, that so much of my time and energy was spent by myself sitting at a desk, or in my reading chair with books stacked on either side. Who was it, Gabriel Garcia Marquez who said “I always thought paradise was a kind of a library.” I do think my metier was in front of a classroom, my anxiety bound when I knew my class preparations were ready. My mastery of the material was sufficient to leave notes and papers only a comforting anchor as I presented myself in my own true nature, as an intelligent and long-educated, and educating man, however ignorant, thinking on his feet, working with a deep litany of ever-developing knowledge, thinking, and experience. This I could bring to bear to make material come alive for students, or for conference audiences, scholarly and otherwise. This is when I felt the most alive, the most like a god. Post-professorial, the experience is most often indirect, re-evoked in speaking engagements, but more often than not in close conversations, especially with the tete-a-tetes, as well as heart-to-hearts, full not only of the stories, but of their telling. The face-to-face of emotion and mimesis, all of the repertoire of nonverbal, emotional, and gestural overlays that make the conversations come alive, embodied and expressive, the uttering forth into the space of shared minds, shared hearts, shared bodies, including the tastes and smells it is almost impossible to evoke in memory, but are only real in the present, the physical presence of someone, of bodies seen, heard, and even touched. That is the living world of ideas and feelings that is only re-evoked in written form, re-imagined in images and stories. For me, really, much of the best of life was not only in front of a class or an audience but in close and often extended conversations that might only be interrupted for a while when each of us has other things, and other people, to attend to. Some of these, my genuine friends, still continue, or like any conversation with old friends, can pick up where they left off months, even years later. I remember once re-engaging so intensely that three years of absence evaporated like dew, and our intimacy felt timeless and unaffected, like it would transcend death.

Yes, and there are many, many spaces, many many experiences outside of the quotidian desktop, kitchen table, coffee table, seminar or consulting room. There is where I have to be, where I “gotta go,” and what I have to do which is so compelling, in the absence of which it is so hard to discipline one’s life. But there are also the symposia of eating together, along with the colloquia of conversation. There is the rapid heart rate and strain of muscles as I climb a hill on my bicycle, and see the grandeur of a landscape before me. There is the cyborg symbiosis with automobiles, speeding down the highway, a yet different set of skills in a long walk, a hike on a wooded trail, the fields of sport, the courts of competition. I can swim, I can be riding a paddlewheel down the river with my son, rowing a boat, or even, these days, riding a jet-ski across a Grand Cayman bay, or a tour boat down an African river past pods of hippopotami. I can fly across the country, or across hemispheres in a high flying aircraft, or even fall freely a mile or so above the earth, to drift with a parachute back to mother earth. I can hear a symphony, dance to rock-and-roll, drink a glass of wine looking over a Tuscan Valley, or the Indian Ocean. I can lift my shrieking son in the air to “kiss the sky,” or feel the warm embrace of my loving wife at the tired end of a long day. This is all part of the consciousness and experience, of a mind that is not just located inside of a black box in the head, but with a whole body that can be situated in a much wider world, with a much longer history. I need not dwell, for now, on the dark side of hunger, of bodies damaged by the harsh, hard edges of reality, or the frightening and deadly technologies of modern weaponry. But those, too, those experiences of pain and loss, of suffering and death, are also part of that larger mind. All of these can also be re-evoked, re-experienced, at least in part, in memory and in story, which can also evoke memory, resonance, and experience even in those who were not present, or even alive.

Embodied selves are always located in some situational context or other. Even if their minds are elsewhere, the brains and bodies doing the experiencing, the thinking, and even the dreaming have a particular place. “No body, never mind.” Res cogitans is embedded within and dependent upon res extensa. What mental activity is about is actions and events taking place somewhere and at some time, whether immediately present or not. One of my favorite quotes, displayed in the science center of the college at which I taught for 30 years, was Freud’s “Thought is action in rehearsal.” The Strange Order of Things is that nervous systems evolved in service of bodies. Even sitting here writing, I am thinking (and hearing) a simulation of what I might say to an audience, a reader, in a particular context, in a particular conversation. My thoughts aren’t just abstractions, but simulated speech acts, with a particular sound, to imagined others, in potential situations. Who I am is not just a body and a brain, but an agent interacting in and with particular situations, and people, potential and otherwise. So I do not know myself as a person isolated from all of the situations I can and have experienced, and even those I have imagined. I did imagine driving a Ferrari at high speeds around a road course during a recent visit to Las Vegas, but then I imagined what the track, and the experience, would be like when the air temperature was 114F. I am always somewhere, doing something, even in my imagination. And I act, and know that I do, quite differently in different situations. My wife may feel “at home” when we are visiting her parents, but I certainly do not, yet, so I will act differently, and know that I will. I will act differently in heavy urban traffic than I do on the open road. When we go out dancing late at night, I know that I need to be prepared for circumstances in which I may need to put myself in harm’s way to see that my wife will be safe.

So the person I know as myself acts differently in different contexts, as different situations call forth different behaviors, skills, and expectations, and have different demands to which I may need to respond in quickly unfolding physical, emotional, or interpersonal feedback. By the latter years of my teaching career, I learned to obviate the nervousness of anticipating being in front of a class by remembering, by knowing that not only would I do fine, but feel almost incandescent once I was engaged. Different situations may elicit a different repertoire of actions and feelings, but there will also be consistencies. I have the same body (though it may not have the same youthful vigor that it once did), the same background of memory and skill, and all of the different situations, and even the differences in how I might act, are part of the same biographical narrative in which I am the protagonist. I am also well aware the integrity of the narrative might vary across context, but part of being a coherent self is being aware of this, and taking some pride in having a reputation for integrity, however well or ill deserved. But that I am always, and inescapably, however they may call forth different things from me, obeisant to the demands of a particular situation.

Not only is our cognition invariably embodied and situated, but research on “extended cognition” provides data showing that the cognitive system itself may be more accurately and usefully understood as extended beyond the boundaries of the body. Hence the brain and body might be thought of as necessary but properly only parts of a cognitive system. Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs describes human beings as human-technology symbionts, and suggest that we may have been since the invention of words, our knowledge of language being a learned and internalized cognitive prosthetic, not merely generated de novum from within. The language of thought may have been social before it was individual. What distinguishes our long developmental dependency and our neuroplasticity is that we are able to have pretty thorough and complicated relationships with non-biological additions. Pens, paper, wristwatches, notebooks, calculators, phones, and internet access are just the most recent layer of our extended cognitive systems, and include wide temporal and spatial extension. “Offloading” cognitive functions to calculators, written texts, and clocks alters our brains over the course of our lives, and has a long history. It strikes me that one of the most iconic 20th century human-cyborg gestures is raising one’s arm to look at a wristwatch. When asked “Do you have the time?” we do not say “no, but I have a watch, so let me check.” We say “yes,” and look at our watches, not all that different than knowing that, with a little more effort, one can remember something that doesn’t come immediately to mind. Of course, raising one’s wrist to look at a watch in the 20th century may not be anywhere near as iconic as the gripping and bending of one’s head over a smartphone in the 21st.

Why limit our understanding of mind and person to our boundaries of skin as our sense of self and location in space and time are so malleable. Anyone who has ever awakened wondering about the ownership of a benumbed hand, or expanded their sense of self to the metal skin of an automobile, or felt personally violated by incursions into one’s property, understands this implicitly. I remember driving in crosstown traffic in Manhattan at rush hour (“so hard to get through to you”), and feeling other cars so close to mine that it felt like a violation of personal space. Or screaming at two thieves I caught breaking into my car right in front of my house (though I did not leave the front porch). One can read the work of neuropsychologists like Oliver Sacks, in A Leg to Stand On, or V.S. Ramachandran’s discussions of body integrity identity disorder, or phantom limbs in Phantoms in the Brain, to explore such phenomena in clinical depth. One of my favorite classroom exercises was to produce an illusion that a rubber hand is one’s own by covering a student’s hand, and having them look at a rubber hand being touched at the same place, and in the same way as one’s actual hand, hidden under a cloth. For an even creepier effect, try caressing a friend’s shoulder with a rubber hand as if it were your own. Even the parlor game of watching a friend’s arms, gesturing under one’s armpits while one’s own are kept behind, is funny because of the pretext of identification, which can be made even more powerful by hearing the same instructions for movement as one’s friend does (see Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will). The neural events, conscious and unconscious, that occur inside our skin are also embedded within a social and technological matrix which plays no less a role in knowing ourselves.

Now, I am well aware that it is difficult to give up the intuition that, however deeply impacted by or even interactive with outside non-personal or even non-biological objects, one is nevertheless a discretely embodied agent, and the self is bounded by the skin. Being interviewed by some hapless young journalist for a college newspaper, the only alternative to this seemed to be the lingering dualism of the belief that, if the self is not bounded by the skin, then it must be able to leave it behind, as I was woefully misunderstood to suggest. But the argument, and there is supporting empirical evidence, is that “the mind ain’t in the head,” but what this externalism entails is only that “the mind ain’t just in the head.” No one is claiming that the head, the brain, the nervous system and indeed, the body as a whole, isn’t necessarily included. But the idea is that a person, as a place of thinking and an agent in the world, is not entirely contained by a bag of skin. Such an internal/external boundary may be rooted in the early modern emergence of science, but there is a growing externalism within scientific and philosophical studies of mind, rejecting both the individual possession and locational internalism of Descartes, which views mind as a construction not limited to the boundaries of the individual organism. I like to think of what is “inside” a mind as not in a particular physical location, but as like being “inside” a set, as might be pictured in a Venn diagram. Again, one needs to play around with our locational intuitions a bit. You need to understand that the “intuition” that you are, say physically located inside your head, behind your eyes, may be a product of a particular history and culture. It was Greek culture that so privileged vision over the auditory emphasis of Semitic culture, where it is the voice of God heard in the desert wind. What is the empirical experience of the movement of thought when the feeling of movement in your body is in the chest, or visceral. Try drawing a “P” on your forehead. If you draw it so that it looks like a “P” to you, most people will draw it so it would look like a backwards “P” to an outside observer, but like a “P” from behind your eyes. If you move the “P” to your hairline, or the crown of your head, it’s the same. Now quickly, draw it on the back of your head. For most people, it now no longer looks like a “P” from inside your head, but behind it. So, what, are you having an out of body experience, or is our experience of location a bit arbitrary? Close your eyes and imagine yourself five inches tall, floating in the corner of the room, and then forget that you are imagining it. Because you can so easily imagine other locations doesn’t remotely mean that they would be sustained, say, if I were to run over your head with a street grader.

A generation ago, Hilary Putnam pointed out that the meaning of a mental state might require factors external to the subject. If you stipulate that a doppelganger of yours, with the exact brain and bodily state that you have when seeing a tree, existed in a universe identical except for the absence of that tree, the distinction between you seeing the tree and your doppelganger hallucinating the tree, between two mental states, could not be made without acknowledging the presence or absence of the actual tree, something external to the person. But the last several decades have seen the emergence of an even stronger externalism in which the very structures or mechanisms which make a particular mental state possible may also extend beyond the skin, making many of our mental states hybrids, spread across internal and external materials. If we allow that the mind is actually made up by the mechanisms and resources we use to think, these will clearly include states and processes external to our biological organism. This is not unlike the extended phenotype of evolutionary biology, which would include the hives of bees, the webs of spiders, or the lodges of beavers. Human beings are notorious for having a cognitive niche, including all the ways in which our minds are extended into the environment, in imitation and symbol, in tool use, and even in the social practices by which cognition may be distributed across individuals or even across generations. There are things which my children learned in high school that weren’t known even when I was in graduate school. Heads and bodies are still proper parts of minds, so their relationships are mereological (part/whole) rather than causal, a source of a vast range of confusion. Mental events will often couple events in the world to physical processes in the biology of the organism. Some of this is remarkably straightforward, as in the use we all make of pencil and paper (or electronic calculators) in complicated arithmetical operations. Or in the differences between a novice and a carpenter’s use of a hammer. There is even some fascinating data on such “soft coupling” with our technologies, wherein the same “pink noise” (1/f noise is between white noise and Brownian motion) ubiquitous in cognitive activity, is extended from your fingers to your computer mouse when you are controlling an object on the screen, but not when that control is interrupted.

We think of our higher cognitive functions as being produced by the basic equipment of the nervous system, but there are historical developments, learned through socialization, which are necessary to make them possible. As documented by Vygotsky and Luria, many of our higher cognitive functions are socially scaffolded in ways that are contingent upon historical changes in social life and organization. We learn how to read and write. We learn how to do mathematics, and both what we learn and how it is taught changes historically. Calculus wasn’t invented by Newton and Leibniz until the 17th century, but we can now learn it in secondary school. Even things like retaining a series of items in short-term memory by repeating them to yourself is not part of onboard equipment, but is learned early in development. We are evolved to have remarkably plastic brains, which are what make us historical beings, including substantial changes in how our brains are shaped developmentally to do what we take for granted as part of our intellectual functioning. Such abilities have been so shaped by our symbolically rich environment that we cannot make a principled separation between our ability to remember and our ability to exploit ambient information, a boundary made even blurrier in the age of the internet, where we find the use of technological artifacts to be increasingly indispensable. As Merlin Donald (1991, 2001) suggested several decades ago, our reliance on written text for the externalization of memory has made it all the more obvious the nature of human beings as symbolic symbionts.

The Parity Principle is that if something plays a role in cognitive activity that, if it were internal would be included as part of the mind, its location should be irrelevant. If Inga and Otto both set out for the Museum of Modern Art, Inga by recalling its location on 53rd Street, and Alzheimer-suffering Otto by consulting his notebook, there is no reason to treat their memories differently, as they are just as accessible, reliable, and transparent in use. Even biologically instantiated memories are not constantly available, easily accessible, or automatically endorsed. Why not include the downloading to external artifacts which distribute the cognitive load of a task, from paper and pencil to the electronic prostheses of calculators or cell phones? Such external resources may not only duplicate internal functions, but enable the development of capacities otherwise unavailable. Different cognitive activities do have effects on the brain, as the expansion of the planum temporale in literate populations shows. The nonlinear, complex, and iterated couplings between the brain, the body, and external resources render any boundaries highly permeable. Such external couplings may be precisely what make us the kind of creatures we are, easily extending our minds into the environment, including the shared social space in which we are so mimetically engulfed. Indeed, given the evolution of our extended childhoods (Konner 2010), and the extensive shaping of our neuroplasticity by socialization and enculturation, they may make human history and civilization possible.

Since much of what matters to our identity are our cognitive capacities, if the mind is extended, what happens to self, identity, and responsibility? What kind of implications might such an extension have for autonomy and responsibility? Does violating someone’s externalizations have comparable moral significance to violating one’s body? Anyone who has felt her personal space violated, or been the victim of a theft, can feel invaded and vulnerable, so perhaps we already have a sliding-scale of ownership and identification. Could a “frail control hypothesis,” that external contingencies partially realize a behavior, alter our idea of control? If agency is distributed, than how should punishment be applied? If agency is not restricted to neural circuits and bodily experience, don’t we have to rethink ideas of normative competence, freedom, and personal identity? Or can we still appeal to a difference between agency, identified as the locus of control within an agent’s body, but allow that cognitive systems can be extended, not unlike what we do when we distinguish between the biological boundaries of an organism, like a spider, and the extended biological system, which includes the webs they spin?

From my own religious tradition, there are explicit references to us all being parts of one body, as Paul puts it in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12: 24-6). In the Buddhist tradition, the idea of “interdependent arising” may capture this same spirit, and this same kind of bodily grounding.