ArgLab • Colloquium

Robert Clowes

Outsourcing Agency? The Limits of Taking Epistemic Possession of Technology

Situated and embodied approaches to thinking have proposed fundamental alterations to how we conceive of cognition, thinking and arguably practical rationality (Wilson & Clark, 2009). Cognition need no longer be thought of as a process which takes place solely within the skull. Clark & Chalmers (1998) Extended Mind proposed one of the most challenging theses within the situated embodied approach, namely that artefacts and technologies should, when used in certain ways, count as actual parts of our minds.


An (in)famous thought experiment involving Otto and his notebook demonstrated some reasons to suspect that artefacts could become so integrated in an agent’s cognitive processes that they were better understood as parts of our minds rather than the environment. Our increasingly intimate usage of mobile digital technologies such as smart-phones, iPads and more exotically Google Glass (Clowes, 2012) suggest that certain contemporary digital technologies easily meet the original “trust and glue” conditions suggested to limn the boundaries of the extended mind (Chalmers, 2007). In the context of ubiquitous internet, data centric applications and personalised gadgetry, the original conditions seem to lead to “cognitive bloat”; usually understood as a reductio ad absurdum of the original claims.


Sterelny has argued that technologies should additionally meet conditions of personalisation and entrenchment to count (super glue). Only if we personally customise technologies to ourselves and then develop cognitive processes around those customisations, should they count as part of our personal cognitive processes (Sterelny, 2010). But perhaps these conditions are again too easily met! What about Google Maps? A technology that can be highly customized and entrenched by users, should it count as part of our individual minds?  Perhaps, it is better to think of such technology as cognitive niches, or scaffolding or part of a cognitive commons (Dror & Harnad, 2008): Public resources that we can all draw upon. And yet, recent psychological work shows that many ordinary people already count internet knowledge as their own, even when, at that moment, they not able to access the Internet (Ward, 2013a, 2013b).


But even very customised and heavily relied upon technology may not allow us to have the right sort of epistemic responsibility for our gadgetry. (Clowes, 2013). In part, these problems have been revealed by the highly autonomous and socially entangled nature of much new media gadgetry. (Clowes, 2015). There are also reasons to think that Cloud-Technology will not easily meet even weak conditions for epistemic agency (Pritchard, 2010).  Clark (2015) has recently argued that the sort of epistemic agency we would need to possess for Pritchard style cognitive possession requires equipment not be transparent. But Clarks worries, this threatens to undermine basic motivations for the extended mind.


In this paper, I´ll argue the extended mind argument does not, contrary to what is generally understood, require cognitive transparency, if at least the parity principle holds. Because its seems we frequently use epistemic feelings (Arango-Muñoz, 2012) to assess and integrate even internally generated cognitive deliverances. This outlook places new emphasis on the precise nature of our epistemic interaction with our technology and raises new questions the virtues of technology usage, that I will aim to lay out if time allows.




  • Arango-Muñoz, S. (2012). The nature of epistemic feelings. Philosophical Psychology(ahead-of-print), 1-19.
  • Chalmers, D. (2007). Forward to Supersizing the Mind Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Clark, A. (2015). What ‘Extended Me’ knows. Synthese, 1-19. doi:10.1007/s11229-015-0719-z
  • Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis, 58, 10-23.  Retrieved from
  • Clowes, R. W. (2012). Hybrid Memory, Cognitive Technology and Self. In Y. Erdin & M. Bishop (Eds.), Proceedings of AISB/IACAP World Congress 2012.
  • Clowes, R. W. (2013). The cognitive integration of E-memory. Review of Philosophy and Psychology(4), 107-133.
  • Clowes, R. W. (2015). Thinking in the cloud: The Cognitive Incorporation of Cloud-Based Technology. Philosophy and Technology, 28, Issue 2,(2), 261-296.  Retrieved from
  • Dror, I. E., & Harnad, S. (2008). Offloading cognition onto cognitive technology. In I. E. Dror & S. Harnad (Eds.), Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds (pp. 1-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Pritchard, D. (2010). Cognitive ability and the extended cognition thesis. Synthese, 175(1), 133-151.
  • Sterelny, K. (2010). Minds: extended or scaffolded? Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9(4), 465-481.
  • Ward, A. F. (2013a). One with the cloud: Why people mistake the Internet’s knowledge for their own.
  • Ward, A. F. (2013b). Supernormal: How the Internet is changing our memories and our minds. Psychological Inquiry, 24(4), 341-348.
  • Wilson, R. A., & Clark, A. (2009). How to situate cognition: Letting nature take its course. In A. M & P. Robbins (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition (pp. 55-77): Cambridge University Press Cambridge.