Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Andy Clark and the Problem of Advanced Cognition

I just presented a paper on Andy Clark at the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa's annual conference. Basically my argument in the paper is that the voguish notion that "embodied cognition" is sufficient to account for all human mental feats has not been demonstrated.

The abstract of the paper (which will hopefully get published in the conference proceedings):
Andy Clark (1989, 1993, 1997) is a leading philosophical exponent of a new view of mind as an "associative engine", or connectionist pattern-completer, composed of multiple special-purpose modules (composed of neural networks) that communicate in only limited ways and eschew detailed forms of internal representation. The modules, Clark and his allies argue, are both coordinated and integrated by the environment whilst 'off-loading' onto it by calling on external computational resources ("external scaffolds") to reduce cognitive load. Defenders of this position further maintain that even examples of sophisticated and distinctively human cognition such as long-term planning or running a multi-national company emerge from connectionist pattern-completing brains in the "constraining presence of public language, culture and institutions". This constellation of ideas, Clark argues, amounts to a completely new science of mind that radically reforms "our whole way of thinking about intelligent behaviour". Unfortunately, this rhetoric far outstrips the evidence: while a reasonable case can be made that external scaffolds are necessary for many types of cognition, the assertion that pattern-completion plus external scaffolding (etc.) is a sufficient explanation of all human cognition has not been demonstrated. The insufficiency of the Clarkian view is particularly evident in the case of advanced cognition.

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