Friday, June 04, 2004

Extended Minds or Mindtools

Inspired by reading Jonasson on Mindtools (esp final sections)

The idea behind the extended mind is that we offload cognitive processing onto the environment.
The fact that we can do this suggests that cognitive processing is not inherently internal.
The tendency then is to demolish the biological notion of cognitive identity which treats the brain/skin barrier as the grounds of cognitive identity.
From there, it is tempting to abandon cognitive identity altogether (meme theory).
But, since we attribute intelligence to cognitive identities, this move involves abandoning the attribution of intelligence.

One way of resisting this tendency is to distinguish between intelligence and its tools.
However, a hard distinction between intelligence and its tools, which are ultimately its means of expression, is problematic, not least because we do not know what intelligence could be in the absence of its expression.
We can't treat intelligence as that which is common to intelligent expression without blurring the boundaries between distinct knowledge domains; boundaries which reflect differences in means as they do differences in form.

The distinction between intelligence and its tools is about preserving our ability to ascribe intelligence to someone - which we need for coordination of projects and scorekeeping practices (such as those Brandom describes) - and the question is: what sort of cognitive identity do we actually have?

"Our goal as technology-using educators, should be to allocate to the learners the cognitive responsibility for the processing they do best while requiring the technology to do the processing that it does best. Rather than using the limited capabilities of the computer to present information and judge learner input (neither of which computers do well) while asking learners to memorize information and later recall it (which computers do with far greater speed and accuracy than humans), we should assign cognitive responsibility to the part of the learning system that does it the best. Learners should be responsible for recognizing and
judging patterns of information and then organizing it, while the computer system should perform calculations, store, and retrieve information." (15)

Notice the different verbs used here: learners are responsible for their tasks, computer systems perform theirs. This distinction is amplified in the following quote:

"Derry and LaJoie (1993) argue that "the appropriate role for a computer system is not that of a teacher/expert, but rather, that of a mind-extension "cognitive tool" (p. 5). Mindtools are unintelligent tools, relying on the learner to provide the intelligence, not the computer. This means that planning, decision-making, and self-regulation of learning are the responsibility of the learner, not the computer. However, computer systems can serve as powerful catalysts for facilitating these skills assuming they are used in ways that promote reflection, discussion, and problem solving." (14, orig. emphasis)

It is almost ironic that the very offloading of cognitive processes that inspires the extended mind hypothesis and its concomitant notion of distributed intelligence should motivate educationalists to emphasize the importance of unintelligent learning tools. What this suggests is that while intelligence can be considered as a property of the mind-world system, improving the sophistication of this system does not a fortiori imply improving the intelligence of its participants. So, it is just as inappropriate to collapse the distinction between participant and system, between intelligence and its means of expression, as it is to uncritically assert their independence. Simply put, the cognitive identity we ascribe intelligence to - participant or system - makes a difference. If it didn't, then smarter computers would make for smarter students, which is exactly what the educationalists reject.

This has some surprising consequences for embodied, embedded cognitive science. It suggests that intelligence is attributable to neither the body nor the total environment. We cannot attribute intelligence to the environment because intelligence not devolve from system to individual. It is as little a characteristic of the environmental totality as it is a feature of some Kantian transcendental unity of apperception. Nor can we attribute intelligence to the biological body, and this is because the body is embedded and its processes are meaningless in the absence of a background, and similarly meaningless in abstraction from the way they couple to this background.

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