One can think of all kinds of examples that seem to agree with ‘Extended’. Your facial expressions, body language, and the meaning conveyed by your words trigger sympathetic responses in my brain. I model your mind, you model mine, I know that you know that I know how you feel, so both our minds are smeared across more than one brain. A pianist reads the score for Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, and her brain produces the same patterns of motor-neuron activity that makes her fingers dance over the keys in the same way that the great composer’s fingers once danced. When she performs to an audience, patterns on the page trigger patterns of brain activity that trigger patterns of finger movements that cause the musical instrument to trigger patterns of jostling air molecules that are translated by the minds of the audience into beautiful, melancholic music that, if only slightly, lets them know something of how Beathoven was once feeling.
Andy Clark’s hypothesis also raises the possibility of a meta-mind existing within and distributed across several information-processing systems. The character ‘Digi’ is not the result of one person’s mind, because other residents in the online world interact with, and therefore influence, the development of that personae. According to the Extended perspective, if Digi and Tal exist anywhere, it is in the abstract space that exists between the screen and the minds of the people who connect via the Internet to online worlds. As Philip Rosedale once speculated, ‘Second Life… could be looked at as one collective dream’.
If Second Life is artificial in the sense that it was imagined and constructed by collective human activity, the same must be true of our RL cities and countryside. The only difference is scale. SL emerged from the collective imagination of a few million people over a period of years. Cities, from the emergent activity of tens of millions over a period of centuries. The countryside, from the agricultural activities of hundreds of millions over millenia. Apply the Nested model to SL as a whole, and we discover it is a network that exists within the larger network that is the Internet. The Internet, in turn, arose from external memory devices known as cities. Essentially, society and culture are gigantic memory storage systems, a vast extended phenotype, a super-organism that emerged from the collective activity of the human race and its technologies.
Among many other things, the super-organism has introspected on questions regarding the nature of mind. We now believe that the brain should not be thought of as a single organ, but an intricate network of many regions that have specialised pattern-recognition capabilities. According to Ray Kurzweil, work in cognitive sciences, robotics, miniaturisation and biotechnology may one day enable brain prosthetics to evolve into a network of nanobots that can read patterns of brain activity, supress neurons from firing and cause neurons to fire. If my sense of self arises from the patterns rippling across the network of regions in my brain, what would happen if, say, we took several hundred people living in California with nanobot brain prosthetics, have region 1 in person 1’s brain copy activity in region 1 of my brain, person 2 copy region 2 and so on? (note that only one region in any one person’s brain is copying the patterns of activity in the corresponding region of my own brain). Suppose that each region can, thanks to prosthetic abilities, communicate with the regions in other people’s brains. If ‘I’ emerges from the coordinated activity of several hundred regions in my brain, would the same coordinated activity distributed across the brains of several hundred people mean ‘I’ am a self-awareness hovering over the State of California?
Imagine that advanced nanotechnology has resulted in dust-sized supercomputers embedded in all physical objects, and the age of ubiquitous computing realised by networking these computers together with sensors for gathering all conceivable information, is upon us. The Web has become co-existent with the world. It is everywhere, immersion achieved not merely through headsets or plugs in the back of your head, but by the now omnipresent nature of the Web, a true Digital Gaia. A child is born and his whole life experience is continually uploaded to the network where a model of the child’s body and brain is located (asking where, exactly, it is located makes no sense, since it exists in no one physical place but rather is smeared across the dust of ubiquitous computing.) The infant moves an arm, and the process of building a corresponding body map of that limb in the mind of the infant, is begun (let us assume nanobots are so ubiquitous, even babes in the womb do not evade their omnipresence). Would a perception of a phantom limb, and a phantom head, and a phantom heart, also emerge within Digital Gaia? If the child grew into a teenager who died, would downloading the emulation of that person into a convenient android shell be a realisation that the corporeal self survives physical death?
Really, these are different variations of old thought experiments. From Robert Nozik’s ‘Experience Machine’ that provides virtual but compelling experiences of one’s heart’s desires, to Descarte’s ‘Evil Deceiver’ that tricks us into believing in a world that does not exist. From ‘My Grandfather’s Axe’ (father replaced the handle and I replaced the head, but it is still regarded as ‘Grandfather’s axe’) to the ‘Ship Of Thesus’ (over the ages, it is repaired by replacing old planks but is regarded as the same ship even when not one original part remains), questions regarding identity and the nature of mind and reality have piqued our curiosity.
Roleplaying in online worlds, artificial intelligence research and cognitive neuroscience are some of the modern technologies that have been pressed into the service of answering the questions, ‘How does the mind work’ and, ‘where is the self located’? To say we are on the verge of finally answering such questions may be arrogant, given the heavyweight scientists and philosophers who have, in the past, dedicated their lives to answering these questions only to fail. But we can say that questions that have occupied our minds for millenia, stored within the external memory systems that emerged from society and culture, will not be deleted from those memory systems. Moreover, the network of humans and machines are becoming increasingly interconnected, increasingly capable of information processing, and, just maybe, edging ever closer to some kind of enlightenment.