Tag Archives: construction

Time and the extended/embedded mind hypotheses I


Illusion and the extended/embedded mind hypotheses

Content and constitution

Metaphysics of time

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

I think that time is relevant to the extended mind debate because of the following:

1. The extended and embedded hypotheses, and other hypotheses in the same area of discussion (e.g., enactive, embodied , Rowland’s amalgamated mind — a combination of the embodied and extended mind) — these concern the constitution of mental events:

  • Embedded (EMH): mental events are wholly and necessarily constituted by events/processes/objects inside the brain (and/or mind)[1]
  • Extended (XMH): mental events are partially and contingently constituted by events/processes/objects outside the brain (and/or mind).


2. As discussed in an earlier post, I hold questions of constitution to be questions about the real structure, elements, relations, properties, etc., of mental events; they are not about the intentional, represented etc. structure/elements/relations/properties. Put more loosely: constitution concerns what mental events are made of, not what mental events are about (unless that has implications for what they’re made of).

  • Such questions are important. Their answers prescribe what, for theories with minds in their ontology, it is that can or needs to be real. Their answers also tell you when it is you can say there is a mind involved.
    • There are further consequences that I think follow from this, e.g., thought experiments about the mind: what is necessary for the constitution of mental events determines what can you assume you have when you posit minds in imaginary situations. I am planning a later post where I discuss one such thought experiment — Davidson’s ‘Swampman’ — that I think is affected by thinking about mental constitution over time.
    • I must be brief here on this, so can only note it and put it off for later. But I also consider questions of constitution to be more important than questions of intentional or represented content. They are more important because questions about intentional or represented content divide into two parts:
      • (a) Questions about what is needed for the mental event, the vehicle, to be representing or intending. That is, how can some x represent or intend? (b) Questions about what is represented or intended.
      • ‘a’ is a question about constitution; ‘b’ is about content. But whatever you say about ‘b’, it does not commit you to anything involved.
      • A central debate in contemporary philosophy of mind, about, e.g., consciousness, attitudes, information, representation, concerns the claim that physicalism leaves something about the mind out of its range of what is real. E.g., that ‘what it is like’ to be conscious is not something physical, but is something real.
        • It is not not the claim ‘I can think about consciousness and consciousness isn’t physical’. This is just the same as saying ‘I can think about crystal spheres’ or ‘I can think of next Saturday’s lunch’ or ‘I can think of ghosts’. The physicalist can reply: ‘good’; or even, ‘so can I’. But, also, ‘none of these things you think of are real.’


3.It is plausible that (a) a debate about what is real may have implications for (b) a debate about the real constituents of something.  This is not the case if the ‘what’ in ‘a’ does not encompass the constituents of ‘b’. But if ‘a’s ‘what’ does encompass ‘b’, then it is relevant. And I think that the ‘what’ in the metaphysics of time debate encompasses, and so is relevant to, the constituents in the extended/embedded mind debate.

  • The debates in the metaphysics of time, particularly I think those surrounding eternalism and presentism, are debates about what is real. These include physical things, both internal to a human body and extending throughout the external world. The debate concerns what physical things are related to each other, and how they are related.
    • For example, I argue in my 2010b that it is plausible to hold that only real things are spatially related to one another — e.g., I am no distance from unicorns. If so, then only real things can participate in spatially organised structures together (of course, merely possible things can participate in merely possible spatially organised structures, but that’s not important).Then:
      • If one holds, as presentists do, that only present simultaneous things are real, then only present simultaneous things can participate in spatially organised structures.
      • If one holds, as eternalists do, that anything at any time is real, then — I argue in 2010b, anything at any time can participate in spatially organised structures. That is, whether a number of elements are past, present, simultaneous, non-simultaneous — given eternalism, they are real.
      • Note that the point about eternalism (which is in many ways one of my Big Ideas behind my work).
    • The question asked in the extended mind debate: how are mental events constituted, by merely internal or also external events?  — this is a question at least partly about the spatial organisation of mental events. [2]
  • The debates between extended and embedded mind are debates about physically real things, both internal to a human body and in the external world.
  • The debates in the metaphysics of time may affect what we can say about what is real in the world, and so what we can say about the physical constitution of mental events.


Here are three ways to approach this possible relationship between the two debates, and why you might pick each of them:

  1. You want to remain neutral about the metaphysics of time. So, you pick physical constituents which  (a) encompass all physical things agreed in the extended mind debate and (b) all real thingsagreed in the metaphysical debate about time.
    • This can get difficult. See next post.
  2. You commit to a metaphysical position on time, and doing so undermines some of the motivations for one of the position in the extended/embedded mind debate.
  3. You commit to a position on the extended/embedded mind hypotheses, and doing so undermines some of the motivations for the positions in the time debate.


I will spell this out a little more.


Time and the extended/embedded mind hypotheses II (in development)


1. This is not how I separately define them in the illusion and extended mind post. I haven’t decided yet which is the best way to express the differences, or even if there is a need to decide.

2. They arguably also can include non-physical things, which is why I;m being explicit here about physical things.


Three concepts of ‘content’ and one of constitution.

My friend E. is across the hall from me in the Materials Science department. She often comes by to say hi, and then argue about various differences between what philosophers should do and what material scientists should do (I am clear in my opinions about the latter, she in her opinions about the former). E. has some grasp of the terminology used in philosophy, and so can understand a lot of what I say, when I am overwhelmed by frustration and rage — in ‘High Dudgeon’, as she puts it — over some argument about properties, instantiation and possible worlds. E. is also our building’s Fire, Health and Safety Officer; she sometimes does a tour to make sure everything is good (and frequently to get into a ‘High Dudgeon’ about people propping open fire doors with extinguishers etc.).

Last week, I was struggling with a paper about the structure of perception. It was getting worse and worse, as I seemed to have found an argument for the position that, necessarily, perception could have no structure. Finally, I ROARED with mighty rage, I SHOVED my desk back, I PRINTED my paper, and then I grabbed it and TORE it to shreds, before finally flinging it into the wastepaper basket with such force that the bin fell over.

A minute later, as I sat on my desk, head in hands, there was a knock on the door. E. stuck her head in. I gazed up in mute defeat.

She looked at me, then looked at the bin.

“What’s in the bin?”

“What?”  I asked.

“The bin. What’s the bin’s content?”

“Oh –” I took a trembling breath. Hardly able to bear the answer, I spoke just above a whisper. “Its content is an argument for the simplicity of the perceptual act.” I wanted to weep.

Now, E. looked confused. She came in to the room “–No. I mean: what’s in the bin.”

I stared a moment then understood: “Oh” I gestured irritably. “Just paper. And an empty packet of Jaffa Cakes.”

E. sighed noisily and stamped over to the bin. She picked it up, ignoring everything that fell out of it, and turned it over to look at its bottom. “Right –” she read out. “Material content: 40% tin; 40% aluminium; 20% plastic.” She frowned, and left the room.

After a moment, I shouted after her:

“Hey, that’s not content!”


One talks of

1. Content = what something is about, refers to, etc., e.g., the content of the sentence: ‘The dog is in the kitchen’ is what that sentence refers to. Call this content_1.

2. Content = what something contains, but of which it neither refers to nor is constituted by. Something encompasses, engulfs, is a container for it. The container is separate to it. For spatial objects, the container is spatially separated from it. For any other cases, the distinction is less clear (which is why spatial examples are easy, and others not). E.g., paper is the content of the bin in which it’s been thrown. Call this content_2. (Siegel 2010 calls this ‘bucket content’. See below).

3. Content = what something is composed of, constituted, but of which reference need have no relevance. This content is part but not all of the thing to which it belongs. One might talk of a container, of something engulfing or encompassing the content, but the content in this sense is part of it as well. One would talk about my body containing blood, or DNA in this way.  The content of a metal ingot is mainly iron. Chocolate contains sugar and cocoa (just look at the ingredients on the packet). Call this content_3.

  • Content_1 is likely to be what most philosophers mean by ‘content’ when talking about mental content, perceptual content, and such-like. As Siegel 2010 puts it:

“When one speaks of the contents of a bucket, one is talking about what is spatially inside the bucket. An analogous use of “the contents of perception” would pick out what is ‘in the mind’ when one has a perceptual experience. In contrast, when one speaks of the contents of a newspaper, one is talking about what information the newspaper stories convey. Most contemporary uses of “the contents of perception” take such contents to be analogous to the contents of a newspaper story, rather than the contents of a bucket. This notion of content can straightforwardly accommodate the idea that there is such a thing as the ‘testimony of the senses’.”

I take it that it comes from the philosophy of language, from which a lot of contemporary philosophy of mind has developed (just consider the line from Wittgenstein, through Anscombe, through to Lycan, to the representational model of consciousness and qualia; see Lycan; for critical views, see White and Robinson).
So, Content_1 is representational or intentional content; it encompasses talk of narrow and wide content. It includes for some philosophers perceptual content and phenomenological content (which of course is relevant to what I say here), even if such philosophers deny that there is any such content, e.g., David Bain tells me that Bill Brewer, in his arguments against a conceptualisation of perception, argues that there is no perceptual content. I don’t think anyone here means that there is no content in the senses of a bin or alloy.
  • However, when combined with issues in metaphysics and ontology — with philosophy which cares about what things exist in the world, and how to explain them — there is some scope for ambiguity here. One might think that what is meant by ‘content’ is Content_2: what is in a mind in the sense that the mind is quite literally a container of some sort; thinking of the mind this way has the metaphysically interesting commitment that minds can (again, quite literally) encompass, hold or engulf something that is not mental. Or: one might think that what is meant by ‘content’ is Content_3: what is ‘in’ a mind is a constituent of it.
  • Maybe not much scope for ambiguity. But it matters, because of the different commitments and the different assumptions one can make about the relationship between the mind and content, and the ontological implications of asserting the relationship. There are very different implications for each.
  • Given ‘content_1’, one can talk about the mental event having content even if it is not the case thatthe content exists or is real. The content is inexistent, meaning it need not be real but can be real (which is why it is inexistent, not nonexistent). I can think about the argument for the necessary structurelessness of perception without there being any such argument. Better:   I can think about being chased by an angry unicorn through a Liqorice Forest without being chased by anything, or there being unicorns or liqorice (p.s., I hate liqorice).
  • Given ‘content_2’, one can talk about the mental event having content only if it is the case that the content is real. But one can also strip away all content, and still have a mental event. So the mental event does not depend on there being Content_2 for it to occur itself. As there’s still the bin, even if it’s empty, so, if a mental event has no Content_2, there is still the mental event.
  • Given ‘content_3’, one can talk about the mental event having content only if it is the case that the content is real. And if one strips away all content, we do not have that mental event. This is because Content_3 constitutes or is an element of the mental event itself. As a house cannot exist without some kind of structures like walls, roofs, foundations, etc., or a ship cannot exist without planks, sails, or some kind of constituting material, so minds cannot exist without Content_3.

The point here is not that professional philosophers ever talk any of these ways about the content of mental events. It is that people do so in everyday talk. And there are interestingly different ontological implications from each concept of content (as other philosophers might agree, e.g., Siegel writes that ‘The claim that experiences have contents in this sense[Content_1, in my terms here] is substantive’).


That perception and experiences have representational content might be substantive, and this is likely to come out as the discussion on time and illusion progresses. But I am particularly concerned here with (what I call here) ‘Content_3’. This is because I am interested in the structure of perceptions: how perceptions occur, how they are made, what elements are necessary in order that they can occur such that, if you removed those elements, you could not get a perception. I am interested in the temporal and spatial properties of perceptions and their causes. I am interested in the range of causes of perception.

But more importantly, I am interested in what Rowlands 2010 calls the constituents and constitution of perception; one might also include the relations that hold between the entities that compose a perception (these are what I have called the real perceptual structure and elements of perception). It is also what is referred to by Content_3. But I will not call it content, in order to avoid confusion with how philosophers of mind talk.

Why talk about the constitution and composition of perception? Unless one supposes that perception has no structure (see despair above) then like anything with structure, it has elements, relations between them, and so on, i.e., it is constituted in some way. Not only that: unlike ‘Content_1’, unlike representational content, which can include unicorns, monkeys with wings, and other inexistent things, such structure, such constitution involves a commitment about what is real, about what exists, about what there is, because it implies a commitment to what makes it possible for perceptions to happen. I consider this important — more important than questions about ‘Content_1’ which, unless it involves commitment to something regarding the constitution, is of less interest to me.

Many philosophers might reply here that perceptual content, in the sense of Content_1, also implies commitment: perceptual content is what we perceive; what we perceive is real; perceptual content is real. But I have found that, when it comes to debates about time, this is far less obvious in the thinkers around it. They seem to treat the temporal content of perception as intentional content that requires no ontological commitment, no positing of the contents as real, i.e., as a form of Content_1. For example, regarding the perception and general experience of time, Grush 2005 states that a lot of problems regarding it come from confusing the vehicle and content (e.g,, Grush 2005, and I’ve been told Tye has said something similar(but have no references)). I can’t see why there is too much of an issue here if one is committed to the reality of both the vehicle and content of perception. In any case, the point here is: whatever we say about perceptual content, what we say about perceptual composition involves a commitment to what is real.

Getting down here, I realise I need to make One Last Point: when I say perception is constituted, I mean it is not simple, and is composed of entities standing in relation to each other. I do not mean that it is actively constituted or fabricated, that the subject of perception makes it, or that there is any sort of intent guiding a construction of it. I am not going as far as making the claim, however true, that perceptions are constructed as wasps nests, buildings, microscopes or warrens are constructed; I am only claiming that they are constituted as a cloud, a ruin, a puddle of water or a mole hill are constituted.