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Friends group having addicted fun using mobile smart phone - Close up of people hands sharing content on social media network with smartphone - Technology concept with millenials online with cellphone
Friends group having addicted fun using mobile smart phone - Close up of people hands sharing content on social media network with smartphone - Technology concept with millenials online with cellphone

Do Our Minds Really Extend Into Our Smartphones?

An Australian philosopher proposes a startling view — that our minds start to inhabit our environment via our technology
Tom Hatfield/TED Global

British tech philosopher Tom Chatfield offers a profile of the work of Australian philosopher of mind David Chalmers, who is known for iconic concepts such as the Hard Problem of consciousness and the Philosopher’s Zombie, both pointing to the fact that there is no “easy explain” for human consciousness.

Chalmers had started out in math but drifted to the study of consciousness at a propitious time; in the early 1990s, information theory was reinvigorating the field. At a time when some were looking for the consciousness switch in the brain or proclaiming consciousness to be an illusion, Chalmers suggested an alternative “non-reductive” approach to consciousness, a form of panpsychism:

… every form of information processing entails an irreducible component constituting the basis of conscious experience. According to this view, the relatively simple information-processing taking place in the brain of a mouse yields relatively simple experiences, the immensely complex information-processing taking place in a human brain yields immensely complex experiences, and, most provocatively of all, even the minimal kind of information-process taking place in a device like a thermostat may yield a minimal kind of experience. Consciousness is, in other words, an inherent property of the Universe itself: something that cannot be explained merely in terms of matter.

Tom Chatfield, “The man rethinking the definition of reality” at BBC Future (February 17, 2022)

Panpsychism isn’t really all that radical any more, perhaps because many thinkers find it preferable to naturalism, which tends to view consciousness — the very thing of which we are most sure — as simply an illusion. So both he and his book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory were well-received and he is a co-founder (1996) of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

David Chalmers/TED Talks

A somewhat more radical idea that Chalmers has espoused, working with British philosopher Andy Clark, is the extended mind. — the idea that we extend our minds into the devices we use, for example, into our smartphones. Their paper on the topic, “The Extended Mind,” went through a round of rejections, perhaps because in the Nineties, cell phones were not smart; they were dumb. And few foresaw the idea of living in a largely digital world. But later:

The speculation turned out to be prescient to a degree that has impressed even its authors. “It’s interesting,” Chalmers told me, “how some of these things go from being totally implausible, to interesting but speculative, to totally obvious.” What was once an extreme imaginative leap has, over the course of two decades, become an everyday reality. Consider the role that artefacts like smartphones play in cognition – and the ways in which, if our phones are taken away from us, both how and what we think is altered in non-trivial ways. “I often joke that an enormous chunk of my mind is constituted by Google, by Apple, by Facebook,” he noted. “Maybe Google has 30% and Apple has 20%. And that’s just ordinary mind extension. Once this applies to everything in our environment, I think the potential is that much more.”

Tom Chatfield, “The man rethinking the definition of reality” at BBC Future (February 17, 2022)

Many of us think that living online isn’t good thing. But it is significant that living online is even possible. In Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (Norton, 2022), Chalmers goes a step further — the virtual world is real too:

Onscreen words and worlds inspire ferocious passions, loyalties and hates; virtual currencies and goods change hands for millions of dollars; augmentations of everyday experience, from mapping and search software to social media and advertising algorithms, shape the contours of consciousness. In each case the point is not that such things are unreal, but rather that they are differently real. They are, Chalmers emphasises, real virtual artefacts, real mediated experiences and real online encounters: entities whose nature and consequences can only be understood if we stop treating them as abstractions.

Tom Chatfield, “The man rethinking the definition of reality” at BBC Future (February 17, 2022)

Chatfield challenges us: “Chalmers pointed out that discovering that you’ve lived your entire life inside a simulation doesn’t invalidate the ‘reality’ of that life.” Indeed, Chalmers argues in Reality+ that if we were really living in a simulation, the universe from which the simulation issues might be even grander than we thought, “an unexpectedly theological dimension.”

A couple of responses might be worth considering: First, is there good evidence that the “extended mind” is making people smarter or more caring? That’s what we might expect of a genuine extension of our minds. But isn’t it generally the opposite?

That is, the virtual world, where we only interact with what we have chosen, features an overplus of toxic environments that are not even grounded in the limitations of physical reality. Just when we should be talking to people face to face we are checking our phones for messages from someone who may be quite other than we think (if we knew them in their physical environment) or — depending on how sophisticated the system is — may not even exist.

In any event, why do we assume that abstractions are not real? Abstractions, like the number 7 or the concept of fairness, are quite real. The one is precise; the other negotiable. But both concepts are real in the sense that worldwide, humanity generally understands them and they are needed to make sense of life. By contrast, virtual worlds are only real to us if we want them to be.

Chalmers has done good work in steering the scientific study of consciousness away from crackpot theorizing around its supposed illusory nature. But he risks losing the plot if he wants to see smartphone addiction as an extension of consciousness. Like any other addiction, it’s a false transcendence that leaves the user diminished in the end.

Google Glass

But, say what we want, the idea is now a buzz. A computer scientist and video game pioneer, writing in Scientific American, has clearly picked up Chalmers’ signal:

In 2019, I wrote a book called The Simulation Hypothesis, in which I laid out the 10 stages of technology development that would take us to the Simulation Point, where we won’t be able to distinguish our virtual worlds from the physical world; or AI characters that live in those virtual worlds, from real humans. I came to the conclusion that if our civilization could reach this point, then some advanced civilization elsewhere in the real universe had probably already done so, and that we are already inside one of their Matrix-like virtual worlds.

It turns out that some giants of Silicon Valley have set their sights on building these ultrarealistic simulations, which they call the metaverse. First coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in 1992, the metaverse is a set of interconnected virtual worlds that can be used for everything from entertainment to commerce to labor. The metaverse is being called the next generation of the internet, which we will explore not with a Web browser, but via three-dimensional avatars like those in video games such as Fortnite or Roblox.

Rizwan Virk, “The Metaverse Is Coming; We May Already Be in It” at Scientific American (February 22, 2022)

Facebook, in hot pursuit of such a vision, recently changed its name to Meta. Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta world might be the Next Big Thing. But it might also be the next Google Glass, which never took off because few people wanted to be that divorced from the reality around them — or, worse yet, to look like they were.


You may also wish to read: Consciousness: Three new books, same old dilemma, still fascinating. Consciousness studies are getting markedly crazier, if we go by the traditional standards of science. Rigorous naturalism, taken seriously, brought us to this place where illusion calls to illusion about things that can, by definition, have no meaning. There is no other place naturalism can bring us to. (2019)

and

Why panpsychism is starting to push out naturalism. A key goal of naturalism/materialism has been to explain human consciousness away as “nothing but a pack of neurons.” That can’t work. Panpsychism is not dualism. By including consciousness — including human consciousness — as a bedrock fact of nature, it avoids naturalism’s dead end.


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Do Our Minds Really Extend Into Our Smartphones?