Free Will and Its Impact on Cognitive Boundaries

by Alyssa Graham, Philosophy

Abstract: In 1998, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers introduced the Extended Mind Hypothesis, a theory that changed the way relationships between the embodied mind and its encompassing environment were considered. This theory suggests that if there is a tool or a system in the world that functions the same as a widely accepted cognitive process that is done by our minds, then this tool couples with the mind to create a cognitive system. This paper aims to disprove this theory on the grounds that the context-dependent nature of the Extended Mind Hypothesis incorrectly defines the boundaries of our cognitive systems, therefore exaggerating the role that cognitive technology plays in our processes because its use is both discretionary and expendable. Although this tool use does seem important when we want to improve our cognitive processes, to assign them parallel to the complexity of our processes underestimates our abilities. Ultimately, partial functional correspondence between the mind and the cognitive tools in the world around us does not entail equivalence.

extended mind hypothesis, cognition, cognitive technology, memory


What are the bounds of our cognition? How do we define the cognitive self? These questions have become pivotal in discussions regarding cognition since the cognitive revolution in the mid-20th century. Debate sparked from conversations surrounding ideas of compositionally, and how we can define cognitive processes as they exist in the mind. However, the idea that cognition can exist elsewhere has become increasingly prominent in the last three centuries. In 1998, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers introduced the Extended Mind Hypothesis, a theory that changed the way that cognitive scientists, philosophers, and psychologists considered relationships between the embodied mind and its encompassing environment.

Extended Mind Hypothesis

What is the Extended Mind Hypothesis? Clark and Chalmers open argumentation by explaining their belief: “If … a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process” (Clark and Chalmers 8).

What they mean by this is that if there is a tool or a system in the world that functions the same as a widely accepted cognitive process that is done by our minds, within the bounds of our physical brain, then location should not be the determining factor in deciding whether that tool or system is a part of the cognitive process. However, they do not stop there. They further their assertion, claiming that these “external entities” create a “coupled system that could be seen as a cognitive system in its own right” (Clark and Chalmers 8). This argues that everyday tools/ technologies we use are considered parts of the cognitive process. These tools, which establish a working relationship with our cognitive processes, create a cognitive system that exists outside of our mind and extends into the world. Mark Rowlands takes the Extended Mind Hypothesis one step further through the epistemological claim in his theory of environmentalism. He states, “it is not possible to understand the nature of cognitive processes by focusing exclusively on what is occurring inside the skin of cognizing organisms” (Rowlands 22). In other words, he emphasizes the necessity of our our surroundings for the existence of our cognitive systems.

How can we accept that our environment is just as much a cognitive system as the intelligent beings we uplift ourselves to be? The pursuit of extending our sacred cognition into inanimate objects is unnecessary. In this paper, I will argue that the context-dependent nature of the Extended Mind Hypothesis incorrectly defines the boundaries of our cognitive systems, therefore exaggerating the role that cognitive technology plays in our processes as its use is both discretionary and expendable.

The Importance of Cognitive Technology and the Luxury to Choose

Clark and Chalmers’s main argument draws from the Otto example, which presents two means of memory within the characters Otto and Inga. Inga is a normal human with functioning beliefs embedded in memory who wants to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). She believes that this exhibit is on 53rd street, and therefore walks towards 53rd street. Otto, on the other hand, has Alzheimer’s disease and has a notebook that functions as his memory. When Otto wants to go to MoMA, he consults his notebook, sees what he wrote previously—it is located on 53rd street, remembers (and therefore believes) this, and ultimately walks to 53rd street (Clark and Chalmers 12). The two philosophers use this tool to show a piece of cognitive technology, the notebook in this case, functioning as a cognitive process (memory) that is clearly a part of our larger cognitive system. Otto relies on that notebook, and it has become such second nature to him that it is a piece of his mind. Without it, he becomes unable to remember things—a crucial process in daily life.

However, I want to investigate the nature of such claims if given a broader perspective and overestimated role of cognitive technology. Let’s say that, hypothetically, Otto has just been subpoenaed to court to give crucial location knowledge about the whereabouts of MoMA. For whatever reason, the defense has set it up so that if Otto knows where MoMA is, their client walks free from the crimes that they committed. Otto finds this out ahead of time and as soon as he wakes up in the morning, he consciously chooses not to look at his notebook which contains the location of MoMa. He decides to leave this notebook at home, so that this person will receive justice and serve time for their crimes. When on the stand, Otto testifies that he does not remember the location of MoMA. Is this an act of perjury, where he willfully tells an untruth on the stand after taking an oath, or is it the truth? Is it illegal for him to choose to leave his so-called “mind” at home? Although shady, it couldn’t technically be perjury or illegal, because he does not explicitly know at that moment where MoMA is. He could use his notebook to relearn this fact, just like anyone could use any resource to learn this fact, but at that moment has no memory of the location, therefore cannot be held accountable for that information. However, if Inga were in the same situation, she would not have the same luxury to choose. She would have to remember where MoMA is, because it is ingrained in her memory. She would have to tell the court the whole truth, she has no choice because no matter how hard she tries she cannot willingly forget a piece of information like Otto can. It’s the same as when someone tells me not to think about something. For example, let’s say I am thinking about what I am going to do today, and my sister comes up to me and tells me not to think about the 2023 SEC Championship. Immediately, the only thing I am thinking about is how angry I was when Georgia lost to Alabama, and I have no control over this memory. The harder I try to forget, the more I’m thinking about it. Otto, on the other hand, can just choose not to look at his notebook and never has to relive that game ever again. This choice implies that these tools can’t be a part of our mind because we can’t consciously decide to just turn off our memory whenever we so choose. Although tool use does seem important when we want to improve our cognitive processes, putting it on the same level as our internal cognition is an over-exaggeration because we have the option whether to use it or not.

Arguments in Support of the Extended Mind

An argument that supports the extended mind hypothesis is the idea that as we age, we can forget important pieces of information that we once remembered so well when we were younger. It is a fact frequently observed in the elderly: you may be talking to your grandparents, and they can’t seem to remember where they put their keys, or what they ate for dinner last week. Other cognitive processes also are known to suffer, such as problem-solving, processing speeds, reasoning, etc. Daniel Dennett notes that when the elderly are removed from their homes and placed in a long-term care facility, they seem to be incapable of taking care of themselves. However, when these same people are returned to their homes, they regain these abilities (Dennett 138). Why do their behaviors differ so much in different environments? He explains that their house is home to simple cues from their past that prompt their memory, and that “taking them out of their homes is literally separating them from large parts of their minds- potentially just as devastating a development as undergoing brain surgery” (Dennett 139). He argues that these cues, these cognitive technologies, are as necessary to the lives of these people as a piece of their physical brain.

Additionally, if something were to happen to us, we could lose memories from a specific time in our life or lose a specific type of memory. Traumatic Brain Injuries, or TBI, are widely known for causing amnesia. For example, if I were to get a concussion, I could lose short-term memory formation function for a few hours after the incident (Somerville 129). Whether it be from aging or a TBI, amnesia is commonplace as we move through life. Amnesia for Otto would be comparable for him deciding not to look at his notebook for a while, forgetting everything he had just remembered, or spilling coffee on a page, destroying what he had written. Even worse, let’s say my doctor needed to remove a part of my brain that holds a specific part of my memory, at their discretion. Clark and Chalmers would argue a parallel here, that “if we remove the external component the system’s behavioral competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain” (Clark and Chalmers 9). In this example, the external component is the notebook, and the metaphor is therefore that if Otto trashed his notebook, it would be the same as removing the part of his brain responsible for memory. Although it is an extension of Otto’s mind, Clark and Chalmers would say it functions in the same manner as its mind, so would it be principally the same?

Experiencing a TBI, concussion, or having specific memory omitting surgery are completely different from Otto making the conscious decision to hinder his cognitive abilities himself. As previously discussed, aging and TBI leaves no cognizant choice for these things to occur, they just do. We have no control over these processes, the same way we have no control over our subconscious beliefs that we endorse as our memories. Although any reasonable person would prefer to stay in their house to have these memory cues that Dennett refers to, it ultimately boils down to the option and the ability to adapt to new environments. This adaptability would be significantly harder due to the deterioration of the brain, but these people would be able to create new cues in their new environment. Maybe in this case, the family of this elder should consider other, more ethical care options for their loved one, rather than leaving them demented and drugged in a nursing home. However, no matter how virtuous or not this decision is, it is not taking a part of their mind because the cues that were once so crucial in their home have the potential to be replaced with new cues in the new environment. These tools continue to be included in a system they have no place in, since we can choose when we want to use them or not, and they can be reimplemented. In the third example, even if I had asked the doctors to perform the surgery to take out a piece of my brain to remove my past memories (not to mention the ethical concerns of this), it would not be the same as Otto throwing away his notebook because he would still be able to function as he would any other day. He could buy a new notebook and create new memories, whereas if I were to get brain surgery, I don’t think I would ever be able to retain any information as my own ever again. Cognitive technology is expendable, my physical brain is not. In fact, I have the ability to choose when I want to use it and when I don’t, therefore it cannot be included as a part of our cognitive system.


Our physical cognitive boundaries have been threatened by an over-exaggeration, however, the Extended Mind Hypothesis cannot be true because of our ability to choose when to use our cognitive tools, or even to get rid of them completely. Never will I deny the significance of these tools in our society, but to assign them parallel to the complexity of our processes is an underestimate of our abilities. In future discussions of our cognitive self, it is important to look past functional equivalency and take into account every aspect of cognition as a whole.

Works Cited

Clark, Andy, and David J. Chalmers. “The extended mind.” The Extended Mind, 2010, pp. (8-13),

Dennett, Daniel C. “Kinds of minds: Toward an understanding of consciousness.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 94, no. 2, 1996, pp. 137–139,

Rowlands, Mark. The Body in Mind, Understanding Cognitive Processes, 28 Nov. 1999,

Somerville, C.W. Concussion and Memory, 1931.

Citation Style: MLA