World Brain Blues, And Cheers

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-06-12 21:00:00 No comments

This article had much to nosh on, especially these grafs towards the end:

Opinion | How to Think Outside Your Brain - The New York Times (

... the theory of the extended mind, introduced more than two decades ago by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers. A 1998 article of theirs published in the journal Analysis began by posing a question that would seem to have an obvious answer: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” They went on to offer an unconventional response. The mind does not stop at the usual “boundaries of skin and skull,” they maintained. Rather, the mind extends into the world and augments the capacities of the biological brain with outside-the-brain resources.

... their claim acquired more plausibility as daily life in the digital age provided a continuous proof of concept, with people extending their minds with their devices.

... the fact is that humans have been extending their minds for millenniums [sic]. Ancient peoples frequently engaged in offloading their mental contents and augmenting their brainpower with external resources, as evidenced by objects they left behind. Sumerians employed clay tokens to keep track of livestock and other goods when trading; Incas tied knots in long cords, called quipus, to memorialize events; administrators and merchants across a broad swath of the ancient world used abacuses and counting boards. Likewise, the notes and sketches of artists and thinkers over the centuries bear testament to “that wordless conversation between the mind and the hand,” as the psychologist Barbara Tversky puts it in “Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought.” When Leonardo da Vinci sought to understand “the flow of blood in arteries and the flow of water in rivers,” Dr. Tversky observed elsewhere, he leaned on both body and space, using “the actions of his hand as he drew as if they were mirroring the actions of nature.” And of course, history offers a rich record of how groups of people thinking together have managed to do what a single person could not. The unaccommodated brain is a poor, bare thing indeed. Mental extension is involved in most of humanity’s feats, from the transcendent to the mundane.

Barrows Dunham had similar insights in Man Against Myth (1947) (!):

When Mr. [Walter] Lippmann says that "the ocean of experience cannot be poured into the little bottles of our intelligence," he is thinking of each individual man (quâ bottle) singly facing the universe. Now, it is perfectly true that no individual man can comprehend the whole of reality, although the greatest of modern philosophers, Spinoza, thought even this possible. But the case is very different when we consider not one man trying to know the universe, but mankind trying to know it. Science is a social possession; that is to say, it belongs to all scientists taken in their relations with one another. The relatively small knowledge which each has acts upon the small knowledge of the others, and generates in time a true and universal knowledge like the theory of relativity, and a true and universal application like the development of atomic energy. It may well be that no single man can know society and the physical world sufficiently to control them, but there can hardly be any question that mankind as a whole can do both. 

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One of my favorite SF tropes is the idea of individual action that becomes, in time, collective action -- Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human being one of the crowning examples, still unsurpassed (if dated in its topicality). It's the idea that our experience as an individual exists without the context of the entire rest of the human race to go with it, and how wild, stylish examples of that deliver the message better than mundane ones. And, on top of that, there ought to be some exploration of the balance, or maybe better to say the tension, between what any one of us does, what some of us do, and what all of us do.

We've been augmenting our intelligences externally for a long time, and the most basic and powerful way we've done that is with human culture itself. The whole of human society is an externalized living information system, where we bank not just passive knowledge or skill but active behavior, and where each generation grows more sophisticated in learning how to use that, either for its advancement or its retardation.

That's the problem, then: the fact that we externalize our minds into the rest of human life only guarantees a greater efficiency of offload for technical use. Not that the purpose of such offloading will be to elevate the species in its ethical and moral dimensions. It's a technology like any other: it's not good or bad, but it's also not neutral.

Small wonder one of the big insights of Sturgeon's story was that such a being, if it has no heart, will be no different from the dead matter around it. At the end of the story, the new being finds morality, and with it brotherhood not only with all the other new beings like it but within itself. And I thing one key aspect of Sturgeon's point is that this discovery of morality happens from within, by way of another part of the collective, because there is no genuine way to impose it from the outside.

Tags: morality neuroscience psychology sociology