From Sam Kriss at Atlantic:
Among philosophers, biologists, and cognitive scientists, this nightmare is an exciting new field of study, known as embodied or extended cognition: broadly, the theory that what we think of as brain processes can take place outside of the brain. In some cases, this isn’t a particularly radical idea. The octopus, for instance, has a bizarre and miraculous mind, sometimes inside its brain, sometimes extending beyond it in sucker-tipped trails. Neurons are spread throughout its body; the creature has more of them in its arms than in its brain itself. It’s possible that each arm might be, to some extent, an independently thinking creature, all of which are collapsed into an octopean superconsciousness in times of danger. Embodied cognition, though, tells us that we’re all more octopus-like than we realize. Our minds are not like the floating conceptual “I” imagined by Descartes. We’re always thinking with, and inseparable from, our bodies.
Most of all, though, a theory similar to extended cognition is present in the work of Hegel and his descendants—and, in particular, Marx. In the dialectical tradition, the hermetic and self-contained Cartesian consciousness is impossible: We only become conscious in and through the world and its history. Marx, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, describes the process of unalienated labor in familiar terms. “The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he … contemplates himself in a world that he has created.” Work, without ownership or scarcity, is a kind of play: You’re always turning the exterior world into something else, something more responsive to your needs and your being. In a liberated future, the world of objects can be an externalization of our own consciousness; it can be a true home for humanity, because it is already ourselves. But not yet; first we have to overthrow capitalism. In the 20th century, Theodor Adorno picks up this theme: The “separation between subject and object” exists—I am not the world around me, in fact for the most part I’m terrified by it while it’s monstrously indifferent to me—but this is “the result of a coercive historical process.” It wasn’t always this way, it doesn’t have to be forever. The difference is that, according to theories of extended cognition, this separation is already over and always was, that subject and object are united right now.
But not entirely. Extended cognition promises to rip up the idea of a mind that lives only in the furrows of the brain, but it doesn’t always follow through. Cognition is extended, outsourced, leaking from cranial slime into the material world—but like an octopus’s tentacle, it can always dart back in. More.
Unlike octopuses, of course, people face environments in which some people (cf Marx and Adorno) would use neuroscience to control and shape human beings. Post-modernism is always about giving post-modernists power that they could not gain in a thought structure that depends on rationality and objectivity.
That said, it may be true that much thinking takes place “outside” the brain, as Rupert Sheldrake suggests. But on that model, the thinking is still dependent on the brain. The model would be consistent with both the immateriality of consciousness and the many instances of people with brain anomalies who can think normally. But we shall see.
See also: Neuroscience: Brain training for voters
Post-modern science: The illusion of consciousness sees through itself