Thursday, October 14, 2021

Where Does My Mind Stop And The Rest Of The World Begin?



The beauty of solo hiking in nature is that it becomes a space in which my mind can wander amongst beautiful things. Oh sure, my body is along for the ride. It has a habit of going where I go. Indeed, most of us, most of the time, think of our minds as being contained within our bodies. We talk about the mind-body connection. We think we know that when our bodies die, our mind, our consciousness, dies right along with it.

The trail I set out on yesterday is a popular one, maintained these days by crews, but it was already there, even before it was designated an "official" hiking trail. It has been created by other humans like me, thousands of them, perhaps millions, over decades and centuries, step by step, bodies and minds extending themselves one after another through the landscape. I was, as I walked, literally following in the footsteps of generations whose minds were likewise wandering amongst beautiful things. 

And I asked myself, "Where does my mind stop and the rest of the world begin?"

After all, I was also one of the humans making this trail, even as I was following it. This dusty, rocky, narrow trail is an extension of countless human minds, including my own, a collaboration that was underway long before it was made official. Without all those other minds wandering in nature, this still rugged route would likely have been impassable to me or would at least require special gear, greater concentration, and physical exertion beyond my present capacity. But all those other minds came before me, extending themselves into the world making it safer and more comprehensible to my own mind. Most of the minds that hiked this trail before me are no longer contained by individual bodies, yet here their minds are, under my feet, continuing to shape and be shaped by the world.

I tried to imagine the first human to hike this way and realized that their's wasn't the first mind to extend itself into this place. It's likely that this human was picking their way along the faint trail showed to them by the minds of animals, who were in turn following the trail made by the collective minds of wind, rain, and gravity, of tectonics and volcanic activity, all of which have extended their minds beyond anything that could be called a body, unless, of course, one considers all of nature as a single body, ourselves included.

When a baby is born, it is entirely dependent upon other humans, parents and caretakers, to make the world safer and more comprehensible. Their mind is clearly not confined to their body as they seek to extend themselves into others as others extend themselves into them.

The philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers coined the phrased "the extended mind" in a paper published in 1998, in which they addressed the question of "Where does my mind stop and the rest of the world begin?" by considered the ways that both current and future technologies "extend" the human mind into the rest of the world. For instance, the smart phone I carried with me on my hike held the potential to extend my consciousness, in a moment, into any place the internet could take it, which is to say, pretty much anywhere. 


As Clark and Chalmers wrote: "It is not just the presence of advanced external computing resources which raises the issue, but rather the general tendency of human reasoners to lean heavily on environmental supports. Thus consider the use of pen and paper to perform long multiplication . . . the use of physical re-arrangements of letter tiles to prompt word recall in Scrabble . . . the use of instruments such as the nautical slide rule . . . and the general paraphernalia of language, books, diagrams, and culture. In all of these cases the individual brain performs some operations, while others are delegated to manipulations of external media."

My own individual brain was performing some operations, but much of the "work" of hiking along this particular route were delegated to the external media of this trail -- it's flatness, it's direction, it's steps up and down -- a "media" created by a collective consciousness. 

Where does my mind stop and the rest of the world begin?

When I consider that newborn baby, I'm in the presence of an individual who was, literally, only a short time before, an integrated part of another human's body, and while the two bodies are no longer physically connected, there is no doubt that those two entities continue to extend into one another through what we call the mind or consciousness. As an early childhood educator, I'm aware that it will be years before this baby fully buys into our mistaken notions of being an individual, so fully are they extended into the other humans, and I dare say the entire world, around them.

Our minds, I think, are not confined by nature within it our bodies. It is a fiction we've created, one that separates, when what our minds, or more accurately our singular mind, seeks to unite by extending itself into the world the way a baby does when it cries out upon the moment of its birth.

As I hiked that nature trail, that creation of a consciousness that is both mine and not mine, I realized that nothing I thought was wholly my own, but rather a tapestry woven from a conscious universe, one that I rely upon, like a newborn, to make the world safer and more comprehensible. 

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