David Chalmers: Is Your Phone Part of Your Mind? at TEDxSydney (Full Transcript)

David Chalmers

David Chalmers – TRANSCRIPT

Hi, everyone! I want to talk to you about a new way of looking at the mind. What I call the extended mind is the idea that the technology we use becomes part of our minds, extending our minds and indeed ourselves into the world. We’ll start with something that might be a little bit more familiar: the extended body.

We are used to the idea that we can extend our bodies with technology. We know about prosthetic limbs. Here is the athlete Oscar Pistorius running on his prosthetic legs. You don’t need prosthetic limbs to extend your body. Blind people say that their canes serve as an extension of their body. You know, it feels exactly like a body from the inside, or in more mundane everyday experience, a car can feel like an extension of your body, a bike, or indeed, a musical instrument. You saw a great illustration of that a few minutes ago with Tjupurru with his didjeribone, a real extension of his body.

Well, so it is with the body, so it is for the extended mind, where technology gets incorporated into our human minds. You might think that to incorporate technology into your mind you’d have to turn yourself into a cyborg. Something like that! A whole bunch of, you know, of pipes and tubes inside your head, or at least you need a whole bunch of fancy technology like this on your head, but I actually think there’s a more ordinary kind of mind extension, which is happening to us right now, all the time, as we move into the technological future.

So take our friend the iPhone. I’ve had one of these now for maybe three or four years, and it’s basically started taking over a whole bunch of the functions of my brain. Things my brain used to do are now done by my iPhone. I mean, there’s a million examples, take memory: How many people use their brains to remember phone numbers anymore? Not me! You know, my iPhone does all the work. It used to be, the biological memory used to carry the load, now the iPhone is carrying the load for me, acting as my memory. The iPhone serves to control planning functions that my brain used to do. Spatial navigation, offloaded from my brain into Google Maps.

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The iPhone even stores as the repository of my desires. I’ve got a program on the iPhone that tells me my favorite dishes at the local restaurant. I go there and just look it up and say this, this, this. The iPhone is controlling my desires for me. It even makes decisions for me. Here’s the executive decision maker. Am I going to go speak at that TED conference? Oh, definitely! You might say, “Okay, well, this is all a big metaphor, and it’s a little bit like a mind in someways.”

But I think there’s actually an interesting philosophical thesis here that I want to defend, that in some sense the iPhone is literally becoming part of your mind. Your mind is extending from your brain into the world, so the iPhone is actually part of it. The iPhone hasn’t been implanted into your mind, but you might think it’s as if it were in.

Here’s an iPhone implanted into your mind, it’s as if it was implanted into your mind, although it’s actually out there in the world. That’s the extended mind thesis. So the iPhone’s memory is basically my memory. The iPhone’s planning or navigation is basically my planning and navigation as if it had happened inside the brain.

Now for me as a philosopher, this is really interesting because one of the central philosophical problems about the mind, maybe the central philosophical problem about the mind, is what we call the mind-brain problem. How does the mind – your thinking and your feeling – relate to your brain, this bunch of mushy neurons you have inside your head? Is it something more or is it something less? If you ask most people, “Where is your mind?” they’d point and say, “Well, it’s somewhere in there.” This extended mind thesis, I think it’s some transformed vision of the mind, but the mind is not just in the brain, it’s partly in the world around us, in the environment that we interact with.

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Now, I don’t know. You might think this is kind of crazy or even totally mad. When my collaborator, Andy Clark, and I first put this thesis forward back in the mid 1990s, we came across a bit of resistance then; a lot of people made objections. Back then, we didn’t have iPhones. Our central example was a notebook. People writing stuff down in the notebook and using that as a memory. And indeed, you don’t need high-tech to get the idea of the extended mind going.

The very first time somebody counted on their fingers, that was a kind of mind extension. A kind of addition that could have been taking place in your head is happening on your fingers, but technology really amplifies this extension of our mind. And I think it’s made the thesis ring true for more people as well, because we experience this actually happening to us. But still you might object in various ways. This iPhone is just a tool, it’s not really part of your mind. For it really to become part of your mind, you’d have to implant it like this. To be in your mind it’s got to be on the inside of your skull. Or maybe, it can’t be part of your mind: it’s metal. Minds are biological. They involve a soul or something.

Now, I think it’s a tricky issue, but I think this kind of reaction which you get involves a kind of a brain chauvinism. It’s like a gender chauvinism, or race chauvinism, or species chauvinism. What’s so special about the brain? What’s so special about the inside of the brain, compared to the outside? For a start, it’s like, if you’ve got stuff that’s going on on the inside of the brain, the same stuff could in principle go on on the outside of the brain. We want to say there’s no difference in principle as long as it’s driving the processes inside the brain, the action, the consciousness, in the same way that would happen otherwise. There’s no principle barrier about the skull; that would be skull chauvinism.

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Likewise, metal versus biology. If the metal does the same job the biology is doing, that would also count as part of the mind. Otherwise it would be biology, DNA chauvinism. So I think that objection can be rejected. You might think that – Somehow consciousness is at the very center of the mind, and I’ve got some sympathy with this. Consciousness is this deeply internal state. But I think what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling right in the present moment is at the core of the mind, but there’s always a whole lot to our minds which is outside our consciousness. What we think, our innermost desires, our hopes, our fears, our personality traits, most of this is not passing through your mind at any given moment. Any given moment is just a tiny little snapshot. What makes you you is a whole bunch of stuff which is outside your consciousness available to affect us.

So your memories are mostly outside your consciousness. The view here is it doesn’t matter whether it’s stored somewhere deep in your brain or out there in the world. If it’s out there, accessible to you, driving your state, then it counts as part of your mind. There is still a brain at the core of all this. I’m not saying the iPhone is itself a mind. You are still the mind with your brain and your consciousness at the core. But the iPhone is part of it. It’s kind of an extension, if you like. What was that? That’s right, my iPhone begs to differ. It thinks it’s the mind and I’m the extension.

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