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Friday, April 27, 2018

The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark

Larissa MacFarquhar
The New Yorker
Originally published April 2, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

Cognitive science addresses philosophical questions—What is a mind? What is the mind’s relationship to the body? How do we perceive and make sense of the outside world?—but through empirical research rather than through reasoning alone. Clark was drawn to it because he’s not the sort of philosopher who just stays in his office and contemplates; he likes to visit labs and think about experiments. He doesn’t conduct experiments himself; he sees his role as gathering ideas from different places and coming up with a larger theoretical framework in which they all fit together. In physics, there are both experimental and theoretical physicists, but there are fewer theoretical neuroscientists or psychologists—you have to do experiments, for the most part, or you can’t get a job. So in cognitive science this is a role that philosophers can play.

Most people, he realizes, tend to identify their selves with their conscious minds. That’s reasonable enough; after all, that is the self they know about. But there is so much more to cognition than that: the vast, silent cavern of underground mental machinery, with its tubes and synapses and electric impulses, so many unconscious systems and connections and tricks and deeply grooved pathways that form the pulsing substrate of the self. It is those primal mechanisms, the wiring and plumbing of cognition, that he has spent most of his career investigating. When you think about all that fundamental stuff—some ancient and shared with other mammals and distant ancestors, some idiosyncratic and new—consciousness can seem like a merely surface phenomenon, a user interface that obscures the real works below.

The article and audio file are here.