The Extended Mind Thesis, or EMT, is the proposal that the human mind isn’t limited to “stuff happening in your brain”, but includes parts of the external world, including tools that assist in cognitive processing. Andy Clark and David Chalmers famously[1] argued that, as far as the definition of ‘the mind’ is concerned in the following scenarios, there’s no qualitative difference between:

  • counting on one’s fingers versus counting in one’s head,
  • multiplying with a hand-held calculator versus a calculator jacked directly to the brain, or
  • memorizing a set of directions versus an amnesiac writing it down in a notebook.

Let’s assume you’ve read the paper, put some thought into it, and are convinced — you buy that your mind isn’t 100% contained within your skull. Should you accept that your mind extends out even as far as, say, the Internet? Clark and Chalmers anticipated this question. In 1998, they found it implausible, because the Internet wasn’t ubiquitous and it would be unusual for someone to rely on it to the same extent as the amnesiac’s notebook. Fifteen years later, though, we’re in the age of Google, of the cloud, of a smartphone in every pocket. It’s hard to argue that Internet-based tools wouldn’t be subsumed in the EMT nowadays.

At this point, if you’ve kept up with current events at all, you already realize where I’m going with my titular claim of psychics in the employ of the state. But let’s take a minute to run a thought experiment.

Imagine a government agency that secretly has developed the ability to telepathically listen to and record your mental processes. If you, for example:

  1. Realize you’re pregnant
  2. Calculate the due date for your pregnancy
  3. Decide your budget for next several months
  4. Make a mental note to pick up something from the store
  5. Think about all the other errands you need to run
  6. Figure out the most efficient way to get to all the stores today
  7. Wonder if you’ll have time to see a movie tonight
  8. Try to remember the name of a movie you saw last year
  9. Fantasize about a celebrity from that movie

Then this agency, with its mind reading capability, would have recorded all of it. Presumably such an agency does not exist, so let’s just call it No Such Agency, or NSA for short. If this NSA’s activities ever came to light, I suspect most people would find it morally repugnant, no matter how noble an excuse government officials offered.

Here’s the rub: If you’ve been following current events about the government’s surveillance activities, and you accept the EMT, then this isn’t just a thought experiment to you. Our cognitive processes, our thoughts, our minds are literally being read when we do a web search, set a calendar reminder for ourselves, or create a todo list saved in the cloud.

Michael P. Lynch wrote recently about how government invasions of privacy can be dehumanizing and strip people of their autonomy. For those who accept the EMT, you don’t have to settle for abstract concerns about ‘autonomy’. You arrive straight at a concrete, “crazy-but-true” conclusion: government psychics are reading our minds.

[1] Famous is relative when we’re talking cognitive philosophy.