Where is my mind?
Jerry Fodor’s amusing, insightful, but fatally flawed review of my book, Supersizing the Mind, seems committed to the idea that states of the brain (and only states of the brain) actually manage to be ‘about things’: to ‘have content’ in some original and underived sense (LRB, 12 February). ‘Underived content,’ he says, ‘is what minds and only minds have.’ That’s why, as Fodor would have it, states of non-brainbound stuff (like iPhones, notebooks etc) cannot even form parts of the material systems that actually constitute the physical basis of a human mind. But just how far is he willing to go with this?
Let’s start small. There is a documented case (from the University of California’s Institute for Nonlinear Science) of a California spiny lobster, one of whose neurons was deliberately damaged and replaced by a silicon circuit that restored the original functionality: in this case, the control of rhythmic chewing. Does Fodor believe that, despite the restored functionality, there is still something missing here? Probably, he thinks the control of chewing insufficiently ‘mental’ to count. But now imagine a case in which a person (call her Diva) suffers minor brain damage and loses the ability to perform a simple task of arithmetic division using only her neural resources. An external silicon circuit is added that restores the previous functionality. Diva can now divide just as before, only some small part of the work is distributed across the brain and the silicon circuit: a genuinely mental process (division) is supported by a hybrid bio-technological system. That alone, if you accept it, establishes the key principle of Supersizing the Mind. It is that non-biological resources, if hooked appropriately into processes running in the human brain, can form parts of larger circuits that count as genuinely cognitive in their own right.
Fodor seems to believe that the only way the right kind of ‘hooking in’ can occur is by direct wiring to neural systems. But if you imagine a case, identical to Diva’s, but in which the restored (or even some novel) functionality is provided – as it easily could be – by a portable device communicating with the brain by wireless, it becomes apparent that actual wiring is not important. If you next gently alter the details so that the device communicates with Diva’s brain through Diva’s sense organs (piggybacking on existing sensory mechanisms as cheap way stations to the brain) you end up with what David Chalmers and I dubbed ‘extended minds’.
There is much more to say, of course, about the specific ways that non-implanted devices (iPhones and the like) might or might not then count, in respect of some enabled functionality, as being appropriately integrated into our overall cognitive profiles. Fodor seems to believe that such integration is impossible where parts of the extended process involve what he describes as the ‘consultation’ (and then the explicit interpretation) of an encoding, rather than the simple functioning of that encoding to bring about an effect. This kind of consideration, however, cannot distinguish the cases in the way Fodor requires. Think of the case where, to solve a problem, I first conjure a mental image, then inspect it to check or to read off a result. Imagining the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram while solving a set-theoretic puzzle, or imagining doing long division using pen and paper and then reading the result off from one’s own mental image, would be cases in point. In each case we have a process that, while fully internal, involves the careful construction, manipulation and subsequent consultation of representations whose meaning is a matter of convention.
As a final real-world illustration, consider the trials (at MIT Media Lab) of so-called ‘memory glasses’ as aids to recall for people with impaired visual recognition skills. These glasses work by matching the current scene (a face, for example) to stored information and cueing the subject with relevant information (a name, a relationship). The cue may be overt (consciously perceived by the subject) or covert (rapidly flashed and hence subliminally presented). Interestingly, in the covert case, functionality is improved without any process of conscious consultation on the part of the subject. Now imagine a case in which the same cueing is robustly achieved by means of a hard-wired connection to the brain. Presumably Fodor would allow the latter, but not the former, as a case of genuine cognitive augmentation. Yet it seems clear that the intervention of visual sensing in the former case marks merely an unimportant channel detail. The machinery that makes minds can outrun the bounds of skin and skull.
University of Edinburgh
A Preying Misery, a Gnawing Ache
Gilberto Perez is mistaken in thinking that Tarkovsky spelled ‘Nostalghia’ with an ‘h’ in order to gesture to the specifically Russian character of the emotion (LRB, 26 February). First, there is no ‘h’ in the Cyrillic alphabet; it’s there because he wanted to spell it the Italian way, to reflect the fact that he made the film in Italy. Second, the Russian word nostal’giia is perfectly translatable into other languages, because it was borrowed from them in the first place. The distinctively Russian emotion Tarkovsky might have chosen instead would be toska, which Nabokov defined as ‘a feeling of physical or metaphysical dissatisfaction, a sense of longing, a dull anguish, a preying misery, a gnawing mental ache’. Not to be confused with Tosca.
All Too Human
Phil Poole is baffled as to how fescue could be used as an instrument of torture (Letters, 26 February). The Imperial Dictionary of 1882 gives an alternative definition, from the Latin festuca: ‘1. A wire pin or the like, used to point out letters to children. 2. Plectrum with which strings of harp or lyre were struck.’ Perhaps a pin was used to tighten the thumbscrew?
There is no Avenida de la Libertad in Lisbon, or in any other Portuguese city, despite what Frederick Seidel asserts in the first and seventh stanzas of his poem ‘Lisbon’, since Portuguese street names are always given in Portuguese (LRB, 26 February). It is especially unlikely that the name would ever have been given in Castilian Spanish, since the liberty the road’s name celebrates is, precisely, liberty from Spain. As the Portuguese proverb has it: ‘Da Espanha nem bom vento, nem bom casamento’ (‘from Spain neither a good wind nor a good marriage’). The road that it took Seidel all day to walk down (at a very slow speed, we surmise, since it is barely a mile long, but perhaps he walked not always in a straight line) is, instead, the once beautiful Avenida da Liberdade.
The Portuguese used to be proud of their country’s main artery, but its elegance has much diminished in recent decades, on account in particular of its commercialisation. The beautiful and stately old buildings have given way to nondescript office blocks, occupied mostly by the Portuguese branches of the Spanish firms (banks, insurance companies, shipping companies etc) that have installed themselves on the banks of the Tagus – part of the economic invasion favoured by the European Union, and much resented by the locals. Perhaps Seidel was right to translate the name of Lisbon’s main avenue into a foreign tongue after all.
Ana de Resende Waissbein
Frederick Seidel’s ‘Lisbon’ refers to ‘that long-ago Inauguration Day, 1960’. He surely meant 1961.
Let me guess
A.N. Wilson mentions among various obiter dicta of Maurice Bowra his use of the phrase ‘I’ve met my Bakerloo’ in connection with an Oxford don named Baker (Letters, 26 February). The remark is better known as Edwin Lutyens’s rueful comment when he realised he had been upstaged by Herbert Baker’s government buildings on the Rajpath leading to his own Viceregal Lodge in New Delhi. It seems that Lutyens said it in 1922.
As Good as Pope
It is a pity that Neal Ascherson, reviewing the latest Burns biography (LRB, 12 March), should have ‘opposed’ the poems to the songs and found the latter more ‘successful’. The best of the songs are excellent, from the radical pith of ‘A man’s a man’ to the wholehearted passion of ‘My Luve is like a red, red rose’. So are the best poems. Has Ascherson really pondered Burns’s poems of community? I’m thinking of ‘The Holy Fair’, from the pristine verve of its opening to its cinematic sequences of zealots giving out the message to a crowd of street girls and believers; of ‘The Ordination’, likewise; of ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ with its climactic bathos, Old Testament righteousness collapsed abruptly into parish-pump rancour; of ‘To a Louse’, with its mischievous sympathy for what is happening up there on the lady’s grand new hat; of ‘The Vision’, whose opening imagery of a desperately hard working life is unequalled in our poetry; of the superabundant sexy vitality which peaked in the dance sequence of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ … Burns’s gift for concentrating the marrow of social living, its exact gestures and its seething undertow, into richly inventive phrasing is not inferior to its like in Pope or Byron. The failure of the global literati to recognise this originated in the 18th century’s patronising amazement at the ‘Heav’n-taught ploughman’ and persists in an ignorant disdain for a writer relished by millions who usually disregard poetry.
And now there’s this Julie Myerson
Everyone in our house agreed with Jenny Diski about that Gail Trimble (LRB, 12 March). Too clever, too anxious to please, and it wasn’t just Jeremy Paxman. We all agree about him, too. Too clever, patronising, and not anxious enough to please. And as for poor Jade Goody, not clever, and not anxious to please, we agree too: we don’t quite know what to think about her. There’s all sorts of clever people in the media we can’t stand. And now there’s this Julie Myerson, generating herself a good income stream, writing and talking about her lad, poor lad.
I have the good fortune not to have experienced a naked and indefensible aversion to anyone. I have no aversion to Gail, though some people do. I have no aversion to Jade, though some people do. I am 75 years old.
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
The LRB and its authors continue to have problems grasping the use of the subjunctive tense in English. Henry Siegman (LRB, 29 January) writes: ‘Even so, it offered to extend the truce, but only on condition that Israel ended its blockade.’ Does one have to be of a certain age for this to grate on one’s ears? Israel never ended its blockade. Hamas offered to extend the truce on condition that Israel end its blockade, which it refused to do.
If Timothy Barnard hadn’t called the subjunctive a tense we would have been more ashamed of ourselves.
Editor, ‘London Review’
‘She said that two words sprung to mind.’ Maybe Colin Robinson was let go because he doesn’t know the past tense of ‘spring’ (LRB, 26 February).
El Cajon, California