Illusion and the embedded/extended mind hypotheses


Conditions of illusion

Three kinds of content and constitution

Appearances and good-making features of scientific theory

What does an illusion of x show?


Note: Most of the ideas here are developed further in my 2018 book, Philosophy of Time and Perceptual Experience.

What significance does the embedded/extended mind debate about mental entities have for questions about illusion? The embedded/extended mind debate concerns how mental entities are constituted. This is relevant to the question of how perceptions and perceptual experiences are constituted (see my earlier post ‘three kinds of content and one of constitution‘). The issue of perceptual constitution is, along with the issue of perceptual content, relevant to the question of whether or not a particular perceptual experience is actually an illusion.

  • Embedded mind

The embedded mind hypothesis, or what Clark has elsewhere called ‘isolationism’  is that minds are embedded (and can be dependent) on a surrounding world, which mental entities can be about/be directed toward/intend/represent, but which mental entities are not in any way constituted by. By the surrounding or external world is meant what lies outside the mind, i.e., in a broadly physical ontology, something in the brain.

[C]ognitive processes are often (and on some versions essentially) embedded in the environment. […] [S]ome cognitive processes are dependent on environmental structures in the sense that these processes have been designed to function only in conjunction, or in tandem, with these structures. […] But however tight we make [this] relation of dependence, it is still relation of dependence, not constitution.

(Rowlands 2010, pp.68-69)


Q: Where is the mind?

A(Embedded physicalist): ‘It’s in the brain.’

A(Embedded dualist (of some kind)): ‘It’s not anywhere.’ (E.g., debates found in the collection of essays The Mind-body Problem (ed.Baier, 1970). Or some variations: ‘at least, it’s not anywhere in what we might conceive of as physical space’, e.g., McGinn’s 1995.

  • Extended mind

The extended mind hypothesis is that some mental entities are at least partially constituted by external (surrounding) entities.

[S]ome cognitive processes are made up, in part, of the manipulation, exploitation, and/or transformation of information-bearing structures in the cognizing organism’s environment […]

(Rowlands, op.cit., p.59)

The general idea is that at least some mental processes – not all, but some – extend into the cognizing organism’s environment in that they are composed, partly (and, on the version I am going to defend, contingently), of actions, broadly construed, performed by that organism on the world around it […] of manipulating, exploiting, and/or transforming external structures […] the function of the action […] on these structures is to transform information that is merely present in the structures into information that is available to the organism and/or its subsequent processing operations.

(ibid, p.58)


Q: where is the mind?

A(extended mind advocate): ‘It’s in the brain and can extend into the surrounding world.’ [And also could be nowhere, too, but I’m not going to pursue that here].

Given one interpretation of naive realism(e.g., Nudds 2009, Logue, forthcoming), external entities partially constitute perceptual experience. As always with naive realism, this is because external entities seem to partially constitute perceptual experience.[1] This leads to the following way in which the embedded/extended mind relates to issues around illusion.

  1. If perceptions are mental entities and naive realism is true, then external entities partially constitute at least one mental entity (a perception).
  2. If external entities partially constitute at least one mental entity, then the extended mind hypothesis (XMH, here) is true.
  3. If XMH is not true, then (from ‘2’) external entities do not constitute at least one mental entity.
  4. If XMH is not true, then (from 3 and 1), then it is not the case that perceptions are mental entities and naive realism is true.
  5. If the embedded hypothesis is true (BMH, here), XMH is not true.
  6. Therefore, if BMH is true, then (from 4 and 5) it is not the case that perceptions are mental entities and naive realism is true.
  • From this argument, for perceptual experience, and given the assumption that naive realism is the perceptual theory which corresponds best to appearances (although perhaps not reality), XMH corresponds better to appearances than BMH does.

If we don’t like this, how might one respond?

  1. Deny that commitment to illusion is a weakness of a theory. I explain elsewhere why I don’t like that idea, but it may not bother others.
  2. Deny perceptions are mental entities. Their constituents, external or otherwise, are not cases of constituents of mental entities, external or otherwise. So, issues around perceptions and perceptual experience are irrelevant to any XMH/BMH debate.
    • A more specific form of this might be: deny that perceptions are wholly mental entities. That which is external that is a constituent of perception is not a mental aspect/part/constituent of perception. The mental part is still only internal, embedded and so on.
  3. Deny naive realism. Whether or not XMH or BMH is correct, perceptions are not partially constituted by external entities, even if they appear that way. Thus, one is denying the appearance of externality about what is perceived. One is under an illusion of externality — no matter the hypothesis about constitution.
  4. Deny that XMH or BMH are applicable to perceptual experience because XMH/BMH apply to interactive mental entities.
    • How about this: A central component to the extended mind hypothesis is that it involves manipulation of entities. (Looking at Chalmers/Clark’s original paper, we see talk of diaries accessed, etc). These entities in virtue of their capacity to be manipulated can be treated as mental, e.g., certain subsets of information encoded in the brain (and physicalists treat that as mental, if they treat anything as mental).
    • Next, one argues: the entities of naive realism and perception are not entities manipulable in this way, at least insofar as we perceive them or they play a role in naive realist theory. We can see distant stars but we do not and cannot manipulate them in the seeing of them. This is just not the right way to think about perception.
      • Further, even if we continue to call such entities constituents of mental entities(as in ‘1’) they are not targets of the extended mind hypothesis (or embedded mind hypothesis,either).
    • I think one might respond in one of two ways:
      1. Manipulation is not central to the targets of the extended mind debate; use is central. When someone looks up a notebook for an address, they certainly need to take it out of their pocket, open it and look. But the information that they are accessing, the details of the address, is not any of these things. It is not itself being manipulated, but accessed and used. If we are right, then, to say that this information in the notebook can be a constituent of a mental entity, we are right to say that a star, or other distant thing can be a constituent of a mental entity. We can certainly use such distant things, even if we can’t alter or interact with them, e.g., we can use what we see of the night sky to navigate, even though we cannot push the night sky around with our oars.
      2. Perceptual experience is a kind of action or manipulation. This puts it on the other side: even if extended/embedded mind concerns manipulable/interactive mental entities, this is no threat to perception. Perception is a kind of action. Theories such as the enactive theory of perception, etc., and other work by Alva Noe seem very like this. (This is not my preference. It seems to me such theories do not gel with phenomenology, with appearances, and so require claims of illusion or even delusion). In any case, it is an option for those who hold it or are willing to do so.

This is just an initial investigation into the relationship between illusion and these hypotheses. Let’s do something similar for what thinking about time does to thinking about the extended/embedded mind debate.


Metaphysics of time

Time and the Extended/embedded mind hypotheses I


1. I think you can put naive realism in other ways:

Naive Realism: Perceptual content = (some)* perceptual constituent = (perhaps, if you keep this terminology) (some)* perceptual vehicles.

*’some’ because I don’t think anyone naive about experience or perception, endorsing that how things seem is how things are, is denying that there may be more to experience and perception than what is apparent. Experience/perception is partial. (See Kalderon 2011 for discussion regarding colour.)


1 thought on “Illusion and the embedded/extended mind hypotheses

  1. Pingback: Time and the extended/embedded mind hypotheses I « Time and Illusion

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