Sunday, 8 November 2020

inherence

Andy Clark
Does anyone know what - if anything - extended mind pundits mean by the mind's inherence in this or that part of the brain or local environment?

Here's the kind of thing they tend to say:

Is the mind contained (always? sometimes? never?) in the head? Or does the notion of thought allow mental processes (including believings) to inhere in extended systems of body, brain and aspects of the local environment? The answer, we claimed, was that mental states, including states of believing, could be grounded in physical traces that remained firmly outside the head.

That the mind is sensibly said to inhere, or be contained, or be grounded ('residing' and 'being realised' in, or 'supervening on', this or that are other favourites), is something the text just takes for granted, and we move quickly on. The only questions then on the table appear to be 'in what?' and 'can the mind really be grounded in that which is partly outside the head?' But what we're not told is what's here being envisaged by 'grounding' or 'inherence' or 'containing'. 'Consisting in' is another such term, and since reading Teichmann on Wittgenstein (Investigations §304) on sensations being neither 'somethings' nor 'nothings' (because it's not clear what 'consisting in' even amounts to when we're thinking of sensations), I've also become suspicious of the notion of the mind's 'inherence' - suspicious that we have more than an illusion of sense here.

Roger Teichmann

What does someone have in mind when she thinks of inherence? Dictionaries tell us that 'inherence' in metaphysics means "the relation of attributes, elements, etc, to the subject of which they are predicated, esp if they are its essential constituents". Well, we predicate thoughts and feelings of people, not of brains or parts of the local environment, so that doesn't help us here. Or it ends the discussion too soon, since those who know how to use the word 'person' properly distinguish people from their peri-personal environs (the clue's in the words 'peri' and 'environs'). 

A side is predicated of a triangle, happiness of a happy man, and legs of a chair. What does it mean to say that the same relation is enjoyed by all of these? Or that happiness 'inheres in' the happy man, the chair leg 'inheres in' the chair? The answer I propose is simply that inherence obtains whenever the attribute or element in question is properly predicated of the subject in question - that (in other words) it truly is 'of' it. To return to the above extract, can 'believings' (whatever they are - I suppose they're the moments of our coming to our beliefs) inhere in the body, brain, or local environment? Well, no, not on this understanding of 'inhere' - since it's only people (or certain animals), and not their parts nor features of their peri-personal environments, that can come to believe anything. (And mental processes just aren't properly predicated of our organs; to think thus is just to commit the mereological fallacy.)

Online philosophical dictionaries don't have entries for 'inherence' or 'consisting'; Stanford however has one on 'grounding' - perhaps this will help? "Frank is sick in virtue of having a cold"; "an act is lovable by the gods in virtue of its being pious"; "complexes exist because simples exist": these are examples it provides of grounding statements. So might these 'because's and 'in virtue of's help us here? Might Frank believe that he's sick in virtue of certain processes obtaining either or both inside and outside his head - in the same sense of 'in virtue of' as is met with in 'Frank is sick in virtue of having a cold'? Well, no. These Stanford-provided 'in virtue of's seem to me to have their primary role in the order of justification: they tell us what we can appeal to if we're to justify our judgements that Frank is sick, that an act is loved by the gods, etc. (Statements not justifiable by reference to anything else are what we call 'brute'.) This, however, is surely not the sense of 'grounding' which the extended mind pundits who wrote the above extract had in mind. The ascription to me of remembering to buy eggs is not justifiable by reference to states that obtain, or processes that go on, in my brain or body or shopping list.

In Defense of Otto

Perhaps we'd do better to approach our problem from the other end. It is clearly true that my occurrent thinking about eggs bears some relation to events in my brain. We might say: the brain activity enables the thinking, and have in mind by 'enable' some kind of causally necessary condition for the happening of this singular event. Our question now becomes: is the sense in which my shopping list enables my recall of the eggs relevantly similar to the sense in which this or that in my brain enables my remembering of the eggs?

The authors of the above-quoted extract tell us "yes, sometimes", and this in part relies on their suggestion that the sense in which the information is stored on the shopping list is the same as that in which information is stored in the brain of he who does not rely on a shopping list. But what now does it mean to say that information is stored in the brain? It's not as if we store anything in our brains, in any normal sense of 'store' (as when we talk of a drugs mule storing cocaine up his butt). All it means here, I suggest, is that having a brain is causally necessary for retaining and recalling what one needs to buy from the shop (so that destroying some part of the brain will also result in the memories being lost). And for some people - forgetful people like me - a shopping list is equally necessary. 

So shall we now say that the answer is 'yes, we can make sense of the idea of the extended mind, and it seems a highly plausible idea'? Well... no. For it's news to nobody that some of us need shopping lists to get the right things from the shop. What motivated the extended mind pundit was not the notion that our need of shopping lists can be equal to our need of brains when it comes to getting the right produce. What motivated her was rather the idea of thought equally inhering in, being grounded in, being realised in, supervening on, residing in, brains and shopping lists... and we've still not arrived at any clear idea of what that is. The only clarification of some such relation that got us anywhere pertained to grounding, and in the sense of 'grounding' that then became clear, our recollections are properly said to be grounded neither in the brain nor in shopping lists.

This is why it seems to me that the thesis of the 'extended mind' ultimately amounts to nothing. Not, to reiterate, because really the mind is all safely stashed away in the head. But rather because we've not yet had a sense of 'stashing' ('being realised in' etc.) be put on our conceptual table that does any meaningful work, whether we're envisaging it to obtain only inside or also outside the head.