Andy Clark’s and David Chalmers’ article “The Extended Mind” (1998) marked a turn in contemporary philosophy of mind. Clark and Chalmers argue for active externalism, that is, the view that external objects function as extensions of our minds. If external object o and mental capacity m have the same function, then o is a mental capacity in the same way that m is. The mind is thus extended into the external, physical environment.

Clark and Chalmers support their External Mind Thesis by the following thought experiment. Otto wants to go to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 West 53 Street, Manhattan. Yet Otto suffers from dementia, which is why he cannot actively remember the directions. However, Otto has written them down into his notebook. That notebook in fact serves the same function as his memory, with the only difference that Otto’s memory is here processed externally by the interplay between brain and notebook, rather than internally by the brain alone. That is, Otto’s memory has been extended to include the notebook as the source of his memory. More generally, Otto’s mind has been extended to include the notebook.

Nowadays, about 30 years later, Otto would most likely use the internet and, in particular, the Google Maps application on his smartphone to find his way to the MoMA. In Clark’s and Chalmers’ scenario, external devices such as smartphones with mobile internet data successfully compensate for the lack of memory. Are such digital devices, then, a cure for dementia? In turn, one might want to ask whether our ubiquitous reliance upon external sources such as smartphones is not itself a certain form of dementia. What is it that gets extended when replacing mental capacities by external sources: the mind, or the dementia?



Submitted by Benjamin Wilck

20th May, 2022