Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Extended Mind and the Coupling-Constitution Fallacy

The extended mind hypothesis (EMH) holds that the mind isn’t all in the head. While it is no doubt true that the majority of our cognitive processes are situated in our brains, this need not be the case. For example, when performing the cognitive act of remembering, I may rely entirely on the internal activation of particular neural networks, or I could rely on some external prompt or storage device to assist my internal neural network. According to some philosophers, the extension of cognitive processes into the external environment is what gives rise to the EMH. As Andy Clark puts it, we are all “natural born cyborgs” - agents whose minds are jointly constituted by biological and technological materials.

Some philosophers dispute the EMH. Two of the most vociferous critics are Fred Adams and Kenneth Aizawa. They take particular umbrage at Clark’s claim about the possibility of joint-constitution. They believe that cognitive processes are more than likely confined to the brain (or particular subregions of the brain). They argue that the best currently-available psychological and neurological theories support this view. Central to their critique is something they call the coupling-constitution fallacy, which holds that proponents of the EMH mistake coupling relationships for compositional relationships.

In this post, I want to do two things. First, I want to try to explain the coupling-constitution fallacy and how Adams and Aizawa make use of it in their critique of the EMH. Second, I want to look at a response to their critique from the philosophers Don Ross and James Ladyman. As we shall see, Ross and Ladyman use this response as an opportunity to make some interesting points about the relationship between philosophical metaphysics and scientific theory-building.

1. An Outline of the Coupling-Constitution Fallacy
Metaphysicians are fond of classifying the different types of relationship that can hold between different ontological entities. Some relationships are causal, some are acausal. Some relationships are temporal, some are atemporal. Some relationships are contingent, some are necessary. And so on and so forth — the metaphysical game continues, forever refining, analysing and reclassifying.

Two of types of relationship are central to Adams and Aizawa’s critique:

Coupling relationship: This is a causal relationship. One entity or event is said to be coupled to another whenever there is a causal connection between them. For example, there is a coupling relationship between the light switch on my wall and the lightbulb in my lamp. Pressing the switch causes the bulb to light-up.

Constitutive relationship: This is a compositional relationship. One entity or event is said to be composed of another type of entity or event whenever the latter makes up the former. The classic example here is the relationship between the substance we call “water” and the chemical molecule we call H2O. The former substance is said to be composed of (or constituted by) the later.

Another way of understanding the distinction would be the think of vertical and horizontal relationships. Coupling relationships are, in effect, horizontal because they involve ontological entities interacting with one another across the same level of reality; constitutive relationships are vertical because they show how entities from lower levels make up entities from higher levels (note: this is far from perfect as there may be such a thing as bottom-up or top-down causation).

Anyway, Adams and Aizawa argue that in making the case for the EMH, philosophers like Andy Clark mistake coupling relationships for constitutive relationships. In other words, Clark thinks that just because the human brain is coupled to some external object, and because the combination of those two objects produces some cognitive result, it follows that the cognitive result is constituted by the brain and the external object. But this does not follow. The fact that A and B, when coupled, cause C, does not mean that A and B constitute C. This is true even if A and B are always coupled. Frequency and reliability of coupling does not imply constitution.

To apply this to a particular example, consider Clark and Chalmers’s famous Otto thought experiment. In this thought experiment, we are asked to imagine a man named Otto who has some memory impairment. To make up for this impairment, he always carries with him a notebook containing information that he will need. To ‘remember’ something he simply looks up the relevant page of his notebook and retrieves the information. This occurs on a regular and near-automatic basis. Consequently, Clark and Chalmers argue that Otto’s cognitive process of remembering is spread out between his brain and his notebook.

Adams and Aizawa respond by arguing that this example confuses coupling with constitution. It may be true that Otto’s brain and Otto’s notebook are closely coupled, and that this coupling helps to bring about the act of remembering (though that interpretation is itself controversial). It does not, however, follow that the act of remembering is jointly constituted by the brain and the notebook. This is the essence of the coupling-constitution fallacy.

That isn’t the end of Adams and Aizawa’s critique. They go on to state that in order to make a proper constitutive claim, we would need a proper theory of the “mark of the mental”. They offer some proposals in this regard that they think lend support to the brain-bound view of the mind. But I don’t want to focus on those proposals here. Instead, I want to limit my focus to the coupling-constitution fallacy and consider a possible response.

2. Ross and Ladyman on the Containment Metaphor
Don Ross and James Ladyman are two philosophers of science. They wrote a book called Everything Must Go a few years back which critiqued traditional metaphysics and defended a theory called “ontic structural realism” (OSR). This is an interesting theory which, if I could crudely summarise it, argues that structures and relations (mathematically described) are more fundamental than objects or substances. In other words, when thinking about the nature of something like the hydrogen atom, what is really important are the dynamic and mathematically described relationships between entities we call electrons and protons, not the electrons and protons themselves. At least, I think that’s what the theory holds.

Ross and Ladyman expound this theory at considerable length in a series of papers and books, and try to illustrate how it applies to various fields of scientific inquiry. In a paper entitled “On the Alleged Coupling-Constitution” fallacy, they transfer some of their insights to the EMH debate, in particular arguing against Adams and Aizawa’s use of the coupling-constitution fallacy. This is not because they are staunch defenders of the EMH, but because they object to the attempt to use a poorly-defined metaphysical relationship to limit the scope of cognitive science.

In the paper itself, they offer several arguments against Adams and Aizawa. I just want to focus on one of them. Ross and Ladyman argue that the coupling-constitution distinction is attractive to philosophers reflecting upon the nature of the world from ivory-towers; it is not one that finds any real purchase in practical scientific inquiry. Indeed, the distinction is largely based on an inaccurate and metaphorical view of the world. We shouldn’t let such a view contaminate our approach to the science of cognition.

The problem is that metaphysicians (and others) approach their investigation of the world with a set of biased cognitive frameworks (metaphors) already in place. These frameworks have been explored by cognitive scientists such as George Lakoff. Lakoff has famously used these frameworks to explain different styles of political argument. For example, he suggests that people approach their relationship with the state using the frame of parent-child relationships. That is to say, they view themselves as being like the children of the state. And since different groups have different evaluative assumptions about what is appropriate in parent-child relationships, they also have different assumptions about what is and is not appropriate behaviour from the state. For example, conservatives might view the state as akin to an authoritarian father figure; whereas liberals might view the state as being akin to a nurturing mother.

I am not sure how credible Lakoff’s political theories are. I know that he has used his analysis of cognitive ‘framing’ to make claims about how liberals and progressives should pitch the policy proposals. But I believe he has found relatively few supporters. In any event, that’s all by-the-by. What’s important here is how the theory of cognitive frames applies to the debate about the extended mind.

One of the main cognitive frames — and one that Ladyman and Ross thinks infects the scientific worldview — is the containment metaphor. This views the world as though it were akin to a bucket (or container) that is filled with objects which change their properties over time. In the simplest terms, the world is a container filled with tiny billiard-ball type objects that collide and bounce off one another. The emergent properties of all these ‘microbangings’ is what gives rise the world which we know and understand.

Ladyman and Ross think that many scientists and philosophers of science are seduced by the containment metaphor when trying to offer explanations of the phenomena that are studied and described by modern science. Thus, when they talk about atoms or sub-atomic particles, they appeal to ‘homely’ metaphors about small little things encircling one another, bonding with one another and repelling one another. The problem is that these homely metaphors are misleading. The world as described by fundamental physics is nothing like a container filled with small objects interacting with one another. As they put it themselves:

The world as described by actual physics is in no interesting ways like a wall made of bricks in motion (that somehow manages not to fall apart), or, in the more sophisticated extension of the metaphor dominant since the rise of modern science, like a chamber enclosing the molecules of gas. Indeed, it is no longer helpful to conceive of either the world, or particular systems of the world that we study in partial isolation, as ‘made of’ anything at all. The attempt to domesticate twenty-first-century science by reference to homely images of little particles…is forlorn. The basic structure of reality as described by fundamental physics can only be accurately rendered in mathematics… 
(Ross and Ladyman 2010, 160)

So their position is clear. The containment metaphor is misleading, however appealing it may be. The fundamental structure of reality can only be captured in mathematical models; it cannot be reduced to simple metaphors. Now, I don’t know how accurate or fair Ladyman and Ross are being in this characterisation of modern physics. What they are saying sounds plausible, particularly in light of the controversy over the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics. I will simply concede this premise to them and move on to address the central question: what significance does this have for the debate about the EMH?

3. The Bounds of Cognition and the Containment Metaphor
The answer to that question lies in Adams and Aizawa’s use of the coupling-constitution distinction in their critique of the extended mind. Remember, their claim is that proponents of the extended mind confuse the plausible view that the mind is coupled to features of the external world, with the less plausible view that the mind is constituted by elements of the internal and external world.

Ladyman and Ross contend that this distinction relies heavily on the containment metaphor, i.e. the belief that there are sharp and meaningful boundaries to be drawn between different containers made up of different stuff. But since the containment metaphor is fundamentally misleading, so too is the distinction. And since that distinction is central to Adams and Aizawa’s critique, then their critique ultimately fails. That’s the bones of the argument anyway. It works something like this (though this is pretty sketchy and informal):

  • (1) The coupling-constitution fallacy relies on the containment metaphor: i.e. the belief that reality can be accurately modeled in terms of containers, comprised of little things, banging off one another.
  • (2) The containment metaphor is misleading: the fundamental structure of reality cannot be captured by homely metaphors of this sort, it can only be captured by mathematical models.
  • (3) Therefore, the coupling-constitution fallacy is misleading.

This argument has some complexities and subtleties. For one thing, its broader implications for the debate about the extended mind are left unclear. Obviously, the belief is that it undercuts one leading objection to the notion of an extended mind, but this, of course, does not mean that the extended mind hypothesis is plausible. Ladyman and Ross offer some mild endorsement of the extended mind hypothesis toward the end of their article, but it is clearly not their purpose to defend it. They are focused solely on the merits of the coupling-constitution fallacy.

The other complexities in the argument arise from the defence of premise (2) and its connection to the defence of premise (1). One of the standard examples of a compositional relationship, mentioned above, is the water-H2O example. The metaphysical claim here is that the substance water is made up of (constituted by) H2O molecules. Adams and Aizawa use examples of this sort to motivate their application of fallacy. It is pretty clear how this standard metaphysical account appeals to the containment metaphor. A bucket of water is consists of tiny little things (molecules) banging off one another in various ways.

But a deeper appreciation of the scientific explanation of water reveals why it is misleading. As Ladyman and Ross point out, the modern scientific account of water — which is still incomplete — does not imagine that the substance water is simply made up of smaller stuff. In the modern scientific account, water is not a substance at all; it is, rather, an emergent property of a dynamical process. I’ll leave them describe it:

…[T]he kind water is an emergent feature of a complex dynamical system. It makes no sense to imagine it having its familiar properties synchronically. Rather, the water’s wetness, conductivity, and so on all arise because of equilibria in the dynamics of processes happening over short but non-negligible time scales at the atomic scale. From the point of view of any attempted reductive explanation, the kind water is not held by physicists to be ‘constituted’ as opposed to ‘caused’ because it is not a substance in the classical metaphysical sense. 
(Ross and Ladyman 2010, 160)

And, as they go on to point out, this dynamical account of water applies equally well to the explanation of the atomic and sub-atomic particles of which water is said to be comprised. It is not a nested layer of containers filled with stuff, all the way down. It is a set of dynamical processes, only capable of being described by mathematical models. This is why premise (2) seems be fair.

The one potential criticism of premise (2) is that it appeals too much to the state of play in physics; and not to the state of play in other special sciences. Thus, a defender of the coupling-constitution fallacy might concede that the traditional metaphysical distinctions no longer apply to the models used by physicists, but argue in reply that this has no bearing on the models used in the special sciences. And since the human mind is described and modeled by the special sciences (cognitive science, psychology etc.), that is where we should focus our attention. Those models still appeal to causal-constitutive distinctions, and so the criticism still applies.

Ladyman and Ross argue that this is no good. There are two problems. First, it may be true that special sciences appeal to causal-constitutive distinctions, but there is no reason to think that those distinctions have any legitimacy outside of their reliance on the containment metaphor (which is alleged to be misleading). Second, we can appeal to ‘theoretically mature’ special sciences in which models are constructed but which highlight how misleading the causal-constitutive distinction can be. A good example of such a mature special science (though some may dispute the appropriateness of the label) is economics. Economists construct complex mathematical models of various phenomena of interest (e.g. the behaviour of consumers on the insurance market; the relationship between employers and employees in the employment market).

At first glance, it can appear as though the systems being described by these models rely on traditional causal-constitutive distinctions, i.e. one system is ‘made-up’ of another, or forms part of another, or is comprised by agents and actors at ‘lower levels’ of reality. But this is not quite right. The systems described are all model-relative. They are distinguished by reference to sets of endogenous and exogenous variables (i.e. variables that are ‘internal’ and ‘external’ to the models). Most economists will admit that there are multiple ways of carving up the sets of endogenous and exogenous variables, all of which can be appropriate for different explanatory purposes.

Ladyman and Ross think that the same could be true of a theoretically mature cognitive science. The scientists could construct models to explain and predict different mental phenomena. Those models could appeal to different parsings of endogenous and exogenous variables and in doing so there is no reason to think that they need treat the brain-bone barrier as a fundamental ontological barrier between what is part of the mind and what is not.

4. Conclusion
To sum up, in this post I have looked once more at the debate about the extended mind hypothesis. In particular, I have looked at one of the leading critiques of the notion that the mind can extend into the world beyond the brain. The critique came from the work of Adams and Aizawa. It claimed that proponents of the extended mind hypothesis are guilty of committing the coupling-constitution fallacy. That is, they confuse a causal relationship between the mind and the external world with a constitutive relationship between the mind and the external world.

I also looked at a response to the critique from the work of Ladyman and Ross. Applying their general philosophy of Ontic Structural Realism, Ladyman and Ross argue that traditional metaphysical distinctions — such as the distinction between coupling and constitution — have no place in modern science. They are products of a misleading cognitive frame that we apply to reality. A mature cognitive science would not rely on such on archaic distinction. Consequently, they think the coupling-constitution fallacy is no real threat to proponents of the extended mind hypothesis. This doesn’t mean that the hypothesis is correct; it just means that this particular objection to it is not enough to dissuade us from pursuing it further.

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