Wittgenstein and The Matrix

In the movie The Matrix, future human beings live in cages where the energy from their bodies powers the robotic overlords who rule a dystopic world. While locked in their cages, however, people remain docile thanks to a grand simulator called The Matrix. The Matrix lulls these people into believing that they are citizens of late 20th century America, doing all the things normal Americans do.

The film is enjoyable hokum. Yet one might think it raises a serious philosophical question. For how do we know that we are not victims of the Matrix? That is, rather than being alive in 2018, enjoying (?) the undoubted madness of Brexit and Donald Trump, we are instead all trapped in electrified cages in some apocalyptic future. We believe the world around us is real and not simulated, so the skeptical worry goes, because this is what the Matrix wants us to believe. 

It is a frightening thought. But is it one we should take seriously? Wittgenstein shows us why we don’t have to.

Consider the following example. I remark to you, “I saw John yesterday. He looked upset.” Suppose that, unbeknownst to me, you too saw John yesterday but you don’t recall him looking upset. You might then ask me, “Are you sure? Did John say something?” If I were to reply, “he told me his wife is seriously ill”, then this should settle or end your doubt.

Everyday exchanges like this, I claim, support one of Wittgenstein’s crucial insights, namely that doubts have ends. You doubted my statement about John. My follow up then settled or ended your doubt. This is how our normal practice of doubting operates.

Contrast this with the skeptical worry. The skeptic asks: how do you know you are not a victim of the Matrix? You might respond by recounting the sorts of facts you take as confirmation that the world around you is real and not a simulation. Facts such as where you were born, who your parents were, whether or not you are married or have children etc. Yet the skeptic will reply that none of these facts answers their question. For all these facts could be part and parcel of the ‘user illusion’ constructed by the Matrix. If so, then the possibility that you are a victim of the Matrix remains a live one.

However, in his book On Certainty, Wittgenstein points out that, “[a] doubt that doubted everything would not be a doubt” (OC 450), and “doubt without end is not even a doubt” (OC 625).  The skeptical worry, at least as reconstructed above, appears to fit both of these descriptions. The worry seeks to doubt everything, in the sense that no matter what facts are offered as evidence for the reality of the world, these facts are dismissed as illusory. The worry is without end, in the sense that once raised, no facts are taken to settle or end it. Yet, if a doubt without end is not a doubt, then whatever else the skeptic is doing, their worry is not on a par with our normal practice of doubting (see our example of John looking upset). As such, it is a mistake to even call what skeptic is doing ‘doubting’.

Is it then false to claim that we are victims of the Matrix? No. But neither is this claim true. Wittgenstein’s insight into our normal practice of doubting instead reveals something else, namely the utter senselessness of the skeptic’s worry. Consequently, despite the visuals supplied by Hollywood, it is not a worry that we need take seriously.

Wittgenstein and Extended Mind

When I write, the process of writing often reveals my thoughts to me. I may start with a vague idea of what I want to say. But it is usually during the actual process of writing, that is, during the correcting, editing, re-writing etc, that the point I want to make slowly emerges. I seem to think by writing. And the more I write, the more thinking I do.

I doubt that I am unusual in this. I rather suspect that many of us think in this way. But what does this mean for mentality? For example, where does my thinking occur when I write? Two possibilities suggest themselves. On the one hand, maybe my thoughts are somehow stored inside my head and it is the process of writing that causes them to emerge. On the other, maybe it is the very act of writing itself that realises or makes happen my thinking.

Changing tack slightly, I am now old enough to remember a time when everyone was not glued to their screens – a time when I walked down the street, I did not constantly see people glancing at their iphones or holding up their tablets. (I am now no different of course. I am as addicted to new technology as the next person.)

Yet this ubiquity of technology has led some to claim that, like many other creatures, us human beings transform our environments in ways that enable us to do things that would prove difficult or even impossible without such transformations.  As Andy Clark has put it, we make the world smart so we don’t have to be.  But if this is true, and objects like iphones and tablets can indeed play an active, driving role in our thinking, then maybe such objects are not simply tools. Maybe our thinking can in fact extend to include such objects. Put another way, perhaps my iphone can be as much a part of the machinery of my mind as anything inside my skull. While it may have a modern gloss, this is an old idea. In philosophy circles, it is now called The Extended Mind.

But what exactly is the mind?

I like to read popular accounts of neuroscience. But I would be lying if I said I had anything other than a very basic grasp of brain function. Still, I often wonder, is the brain the mind? One reason to think not is that thoughts seem to be nothing like anything inside the head. For one thing, everything inside the head is spatially and temporally locatable. You can dissect the brain. You can even prize apart a neuron. Yet if you were to open up my skull and poke around in my brain, you would not find my imagined thought of, say, sitting on a beach in Greece.

However, this disconnect between the brain and the mind only seems to magnify if we accept that the mind can extend. For while iphones and tablets are obviously made of very different stuff from neurons and cellular structures, all are still spatially and temporally locatable. But then they are nothing like my imagined holiday in Greece.  So, how can the mind include both neurons, iphones, tablets and imagined holidays?

Lots of ink has of course been spilled answering this question. I won’t canvas such answers here. Rather, I am going to change tack again.  For here is another puzzling claim.

Some have suggested that the very fact that we can extend the concept “mind” to include iphones and tablets is itself an indication that something is amiss with this concept. For once we allow that, under the right conditions, a person’s iphone can be mental, then it seems to follow that as long as those conditions are met, then potentially any object a person uses could be mental. But if any object can be mental, then maybe there is in fact nothing substantial to the concept “mind”.  Perhaps the very idea of a mind is a relic of a by-gone era, a concept past its sell by date, one that now needs to be eliminated if we are to have a proper, that is, scientific understanding of ourselves.

But consider just how radical this claim is. Eschewing talk of the mental from our everyday vocabulary would, at the very least, seem to entail a full scale revision of how we understand one another. Indeed, it is hard to see how we could discard the concept “mind” without completely reframing the concept “human being”. Perhaps this is why this claim has so few admirers. But perhaps it should also cause us to reflect that maybe somewhere along the line, our thinking on these matters has become seriously confused.

A Wittgensteinian remedy

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who, in his later work, devoted considerable attention to issues about philosophical psychology. For example, he remarked:

“I really do think with my pen, for my head often knows nothing of what my hand is writing.”  (C & V, p24e).

He thus seemed to agree with the idea that we can think by writing. However, Wittgenstein also had a very distinctive approach to philosophical problems. He thought that when we sit down to reflect on a topic, we are liable to fall victim to pictures contained within our language, that is, ways of thinking that convince us how something must be. As he put it, “the picture seems to spare us this work: it already points to a particular use. This is how it takes us in” (PPF, vii, 55). Such pictures often generate puzzles (paradoxes, confusions). According to Wittgenstein, the remedy or cure for such puzzles is to remind ourselves of how we ordinarily use words, that is, “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (PI 116)

So, for example, it does seem plausible to claim that thoughts have a location. After all, it is I who imagines sitting on a beach in Greece and I clearly do have a spatial and temporal location. But if I combine this claim with the further claim that thoughts can’t have a location in the same sense as, say, neurons (if you open up my skull, you won’t find my imagined holiday), then it now seems I need to posit some sort of medium within which thoughts are stored. Yet this leaves me with a real puzzle. For the problem I hoped to avoid by positing such a medium (where are my thoughts?) now simply transfers to the medium itself. For where exactly is this medium located? More worrisome, how can it be located anywhere, since it needs to store things like thoughts, which are so unlike other spatially and temporally located objects?

The Wittgensteinian diagnosis, I think, would be that this puzzle emerges because we are in the grip of a picture, the picture that all words denote things (or what Wittgenstein calls substantives). We think that the word “thought” must denote a thing, something that I have. Since things tend to have locations, then so too must thoughts, hence we need a medium within which to locate it. The remedy for this puzzle however is not to speculate further about this medium but rather to bring words back from their metaphysical use to their everyday use. Doing so will enable us to see that not all words work by denoting things and even when some words do work in this way, not all words denote things in the same way.

For example, I often say, “I am in two minds about this”, meaning that I feel uncertain about something. I have also said, “I am losing my mind”, when I feel stressed or unduly anxious. Others have said to me,  “mind your head”, meaning watch out for the low hanging ceiling. I have watched my dad silently smooth down a surface and carefully apply a coat of paint. I thought his actions “thoughtful”, by which I simply meant that if I asked him why he was doing what he was doing, he could give me his reasons.

There is nothing exhaustive about these examples. I’m sure you could provide me with many more. Nonetheless, I think they are  illustrative of the diverse work we do with words like “mind” or “thought”, a reminder that such words can be expressive or performative, serve as part of a warning to someone else, be how we characterise someone else’s behaviour. In which case, they often do not denote anything at all.  And even if, on occasion, the word “mind” does seem to denote a thing (“my mind is full of foolish thoughts today”), this need not entail that it does so in an analogous way to how the word “table” denotes a table or how the word “writing” denotes writing. For while the concepts at work here may “touch..and run side by side” (PPF 108), this need not ensure that they also overlap. To evoke one of Wittgenstein’s many phrases, there may instead be something like a ‘family resemblance’ among their uses.

Thus, what initially appeared to be a mystery about a medium turns out to in fact be a confusion about language, one which we remedy or cure by reminding ourselves of the diversity of language and thereby loosening the hold that a picture contained within our language has over us.

Wittgenstein and Extended Mind

Now, you might think, why does it matter what Wittgenstein said? One reason I think it matters is because it casts a very different spin on Extended Mind.

As we have seen, Wittgenstein seemingly had no problem with the idea that we can think by writing. I suspect he would also have had no problem with the idea that someone can think by using their iphone or typing on their tablets. However, I think he would have had real issue with those who want to invest such everyday observations with a larger metaphysical significance.

My hunch is that Wittgenstein would criticise proponents of Extended Mind for having confused a issue about language with a puzzle about a medium (BB p6).  For underpinning  Extended Mind is a particular picture of thinking i.e. the picture that thinking is an “auxiliary activity”, a stream which must be flowing beneath the surface of our actions (Z 107). While this picture appears attractive, it encourages the thought that there must be some medium that realises such activity. And once this is accepted, then it is but a short hop, skip and a jump to claims about mechanisms, such that we can now say that the machinery of the mind can extend to include iphones or tablets. The problem however is that we are now faced with a similar puzzle as before, namely how can a causal mechanism, that is, something which quite clearly is spatially and temporally locatable, realise what equally clearly is not spatially and temporally locatable, namely thought?

As is often the way with a question like this, a vast philosophical industry has emerged to solve it. Yet where others might recommend solutions, Wittgenstein instead recommends therapy. For he would likely regard this question as one that only emerges because we are in the grip of a picture. If however we were to reject that picture, then we can also reject the question that this picture seems to generate. And we reject that picture by reminding ourselves that:

“‘Thinking’ is a widely ramified concept. A concept that comprises many manifestations of life. The phenomena of thinking are widely scattered.” (Z 110)

In other words, we remind ourselves of the sorts of work we do with the word “think”. By doing so, we will see that our everyday use of this word is not motivated by a reference to accompanying causal mechanisms. To return to a previous example, when I called my dad’s actions “thoughtful”, this word had meaning, not because it referenced some state or process currently inside or outside my father’s head, but because of the particular work the word does in that context, namely to characterise his behaviour. That is, what matters is the ‘language-game’, the ‘hurly burly’ within which words are spun and cast, not some underlying medium. This reminder should help free us from conceiving of thinking as an auxiliary activity, something flowing beneath the surface of our actions.

Thus, while you can think by writing, by using your iphone, or even by typing on your tablet, none of these commonplace observations need offer support (even indirectly) for metaphysical claims about the mind. Hence, contrary to proponents of Extended Mind, these observations need not be taken as evidence of extending mechanisms. And none of this need be viewed as a reason to eliminate the concept “mind”.

Internalisation: what exactly is it good for?


Here’s the thing. We need to know what happens inside people’s heads. Damage our brains and this will almost certainly affect our mental and bodily health. Yet looking inside people’s heads won’t tell us all we want to know about the mind. Crucially, in order to understand what we mean when we talk about mentality or cognition, we need to instead examine the sorts of things people say and do and the types of practices and contexts that shape people’s behaviours. Calling yourself an enactivist means signing up to this idea.

I’m just back from an excellent workshop on enactivism organized by Fred Muller at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Caterina Dutilh-Novaes (Groningen University) and Karim Zahidi (University of Antwerp) both gave excellent presentations which, in very different ways, raised the vexed issue of internalization, the idea that we internalize what is initially an external phenomenon.

For example, Caterina (https://sites.google.com/site/catarinadutilhnovaes/papers) defended her view that mathematical proof is a dialogical notion. The point of a proof, she claimed, is explanatory persuasion. Proofs can thus be characterized as having two participants with opposing goals: on the one hand, the prover, whose goal is to establish a conclusion, and on the other hand, the skeptic, whose goal (predictably enough) is to block that conclusion. Yet why don’t proofs look like dialogues? This is because the job of the skeptic has become part of the method of writing a proof. I understood this to mean that, according to Caterina, the role of the skeptic has been internalized during the formulating and writing of the proof.

In his talk, Karim (https://www.academia.edu/16884109/Radically_Enactive_Numerical_Cognition) defended an enactive account of numerical concepts. First, he laid out his view that concepts are particular types of abilities. Second, he challenged, among other things, the claim that a great variety of animal species have numerical abilities and numerical concepts. For example, he distinguished number sensitivity from number concept possession, and argued that while many animals certainly have the former, it is much less clear who, apart from humans, actually have the latter. He also offered a direct perception account of the ability to sum sequences of stimuli across different modalities, as well as describing how one could begin to give a natural history of number concepts.

Karim also discussed calculation. He argued that calculation is an activity constituted by the manipulation of public representations (symbols on a page, for example). Mental calculation, on the other hand, is what occurs when we leave these public representations out. So even if something is in fact internalized when we mentally calculate, this something is not representational. A question which then came up in discussion was: what then is internalized?

As a card carrying enactivist, my own view is that talk of internalization, no matter from what quarter, is deeply problematic. But it occurs to me (as it has occurred to others) that ‘going wide’ about mentality will always meet resistance as long as it is thought that some mental phenomena just have to be internal. Mental calculation looks to be a prime example of this. Later Wittgenstein however can help enactivists fight this resistance.

Wittgenstein cambridge
Your man himself, as they say in Northern Ireland: Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Consider one of Wittgenstein’s many thought experiments:

“Let us imagine a god creating a country instantaneously in the middle of the wilderness, which exists for two minutes and is an exact reproduction of a part of England, with everything going on there in two minutes. Just like those in England, the people are pursuing a variety of occupations. Children are in school. Some people are doing mathematics. Now let us contemplate the activity of some humans during these two minutes. One is doing exactly what a mathematician in England is doing, who is just doing a calculation. – Ought we to say that this two-minute-man is calculating? Could we for example not imagine a past and a continuation of these two minutes, which would make us call the processes something quite different?” (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, VI -34)

Klagge’s (1995) description of Wittgenstein is helpful here:

“By pressing the question of what various human activities consist in, Wittgenstein hopes to demystify the mental – not by denying its existence, but by diagnosing and transcending our conception of it as an invisible reservoir. Instead of looking within the person, at the moment, for (the essence of) what constitutes, e.g. intending, expecting, or reading, we should concentrate on what leads to, surrounds, and follows from the experiences and movements with which we usually associate the activity.” (p472)

The idea then is this: when we wonder what it is that makes a given activity calculating, we encounter the primitive notion that there must be something occurring now (usually in our heads) that somehow infuses that activity with ‘calculating qualities’. Yet as Wittgenstein’s two-minute-man illustrates, strip away all context, past and future, and it becomes evident that nothing happening now (in the head, in the body, or even in the environment) makes an activity an example of calculation.

Later Wittgenstein also discusses at length the differences between calculation and mental calculation. For Wittgenstein, calculating with a pen-and-paper and mental calculation are distinguished by the different things people do and say. This of course renders the difference between these two activities one of behaviour. The twist Wittgenstein adds is that the concepts ‘mental calculation’ or ‘calculating in the head’, like many other concepts, are not about behaviour. As is well known, Wittgenstein understands the link between some concepts and behaviours as logical or grammatical. One way to understand this is to say that some concepts characterize behaviour in the sense of situating that behaviour within a particular historical socio-cultural practice. Concepts, moreover, can have primary and secondary uses. The secondary use shares important resemblances (‘looks’) with the primary use. Fogelin (1977) understands Wittgenstein to be saying that this is true of calculation, such that ‘mental calculation’ or ‘calculating in the head’ are secondary uses of the primary concept of calculation.

Together, these points – anti-presentism, the logico-grammatical link between concepts and behaviour, primary and secondary uses of concepts – provide a means to deny that mental calculation is ever internal. So, for example, when I am asked to compute a sum in my head, and in response, I furrow my brow, look pensive and give an answer, nothing that has happened inside my head at that moment explains what I just did. This is not to deny that changes may have occurred in my brain (or in my body) at that moment. What it is to deny however is that such changes capture why what I just did can be called calculating. Rather my action counts as a case of mental calculation because the secondary use of the concept of calculation is applicable to it. This secondary use characterizes my action, not through the identification of some narrow characteristic happening in me or near me at that moment, but by situating my action within the appropriate set of broader practices and techniques. This is a robustly naturalist account – it is firmly rooted in what we do and say when we calculate.

Of course, this is only the beginnings of such an account. Much more still needs to be said. Still, it confirms the merit in asking: internalisation, what exactly is it good for? The answer, I would suggest, is not much. Which raises the further question: how far can we apply this anti-internalisation agenda? To all mental phenomena? What about, say, dreams? I suspect that killing cognitivism once and for all is going to require us enactivists getting really radical…..


Upcoming Conference – FEEL – A sensorimotor approach to understanding consciousness

I will be giving a talk at the ASSC satellite workshop “FEEL- A sensorimotor approach to understanding consciousness”. The schedule for the talks can be viewed here. The title of my talk will be “Sensorimotor Theory and Wittgenstein”. In my talk, I will be outlining a Wittgensteinian critique of the sensorimotor approach to conscious experience, and showing how Wittgenstein enables us to RECtify (Hutto and Myin style) our take on experiential phenomena.

Enriching Embodied Cognition conference

I will be giving a talk at the Enriching Embodied Cognition workshop, with Dan Hutto (Wollongong) and Erik Myin (Antwerp). Details about the conference can be found here. My talk will be on anticipatory mechanisms, the Hard Problem of Content and Wittgenstein.