A Betteridgian* headline in the Australian edition of The Conversation earlier this week
Weapons of maths destruction: are calculators killing our ability to work it out in our head?
“Since the 1980s we have had access to calculators of various types. Today, we can include computers and smartphones – which are attached to our hip 24/7. So does this ubiquitous access to calculators affect our ability to do maths in our heads like we used to?
…The sceptics predicted students would not be able to compute even simple calculations mentally or on paper. Multiplication, basic facts, knowledge would disappear. Calculators would become a crutch.
The controversy has not dissipated over time. As recently as 2012, the UK government announced it intended to ban calculators from primary classrooms on the grounds that students use them too much and too soon.
British technologist Conrad Wolfram said in his TED talk:
From rockets to stock markets, many of humanity’s most thrilling creations are powered by math. So why do kids lose interest in it?
Wolfram blames teaching that focuses on calculation by hand: it’s tedious and mostly irrelevant to real mathematics and the real world.
So to answer whether calculators are affecting our mental arithmetic: not as much as we would like them to.”
It’s an interesting read, and covers some interesting research but exposes some folksy ‘science’ thinking that is holding back educational development and, unfortunately, is being used as a base for important policy decisions.
Thinking beyond calculators, the idea that using external devices to help us ‘think’ will reduce our mental capacity (whatever that is), touches on a broader debate about mind and cognition and just what is (and isn’t) going on ‘in our heads’.
In 1998, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers published a paper entitled The Extended Mind (full access to an HTML version there) building on and extending the idea that “the demarcations of skin and skull” are not the limits of the mind:
“If, as we confront some task, 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. Cognitive processes ain’t (all) in the head!”
Clark and Chalmers propose what they call an ‘active externalism’:
“In these cases the human organism is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction, creating a coupled system that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right. All the components in the system play an active causal role, and they jointly govern behavior in the same sort of way that cognition usually does. If we remove the external component the system’s behavioral competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain. Our thesis is that this sort of coupled process counts equally well as a cognitive process, whether or not it is wholly in the head.”
According to Clark and Chalmers it doesn’t just stop at cognitions:
“…we will argue that beliefs can be constituted partly by features of the environment, when those features play the right sort of role in driving cognitive processes. If so, the mind extends into the world.
In his 2004 book Andy Clark extends the thesis further still – the title of the book gives it away; Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence:
“My body is an electronic virgin. I incorporate no silicon chips, no retinal or cochlear implants, no pacemaker. I don’t even wear glasses (though I do wear clothes). But I am slowly becoming more and more a Cyborg. So are you. Pretty soon, and still without the need for wires, surgery or bodily alterations, we shall be kin to the Terminator, to Eve 8, to Cable…just fill in your favorite fictional Cyborg. Perhaps we already are. For we shall be Cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires, but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts: thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and non-biological circuitry.”
Introduction Pg 3
“In embracing our hybrid natures, we give up the idea of the mind and the self as a kind of wafer-thin inner essence, dramatically distinct from all its physical trappings. In place of this elusive essence, the human person emerges as a shifting matrix of biological and nonbiological parts. The self, the mind, and the person are no more to be extracted from that complex matrix than the smile from the Cheshire Cat.
Some fear, in all this, a loathsome “post-human” future. They predict a kind of technologically incubated mind-rot, leading to loss of identity, loss of control, overload, dependence, invasion of privacy, isolation, and the ultimate rejection of the body. And we do need to be cautious, for to recognize the deeply transformative nature of our biotechnological unions is at once to see that not all such unions will be for the better. But if I am right—if it is our basic human nature to annex, exploit, and incorporate nonbiological stuff deep into our mental profiles—then the question is not whether we go that route, but in what ways we actively sculpt and shape it. By seeing ourselves as we truly are, we increase the chances that our future biotechnological unions will be good ones.”
Conclusions: Post-Human, Moi? Pg 198
Back to the calculator
Back to original article, the suggestion that the ubiquitous access to calculators might detrimentally affect ‘our ability to do maths in our heads like we used to’ is based on a false premise. Aside from the most basic calculations (for most) and rote regurgitation of times tables, the extended mind thesis would suggest that we never did maths all ‘in our heads’ anyway – the moment you introduce a pencil and graph paper the mind extends to include the cognitive tools outside the skull (however basic) too.
As a clinician, the extended mind thesis raises the notion that the patient is simply not an object to be acted on – observed, assessed, tested and treated, but is an integrated component of clinical thinking, reasoning, understanding and acting. Of course, many approaches to therapy advocate this kind of approach, whether they be called biopsychosocial, holistic, or anything else. However consider the following from Clark and Chalmers’ summary
“It may be, for example, that in some cases interfering with someone’s environment will have the same moral significance as interfering with their person. And if the view is taken seriously, certain forms of social activity might be reconceived as less akin to communication and action, and as more akin to thought. In any case, once the hegemony of skin and skull is usurped, we may be able to see ourselves more truly as creatures of the world.”
How might clinical encounters differ if they were conceptualised as forms of collective thought of two extended and conjoined minds?
– Tim Cocks
*”Betteridge’s Law” states “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” For example “IS THIS NEWLY DISCOVERED BERRY THE MIRACLE CURE FOR CANCER?” or “HAVE SCIENTISTS FINALLY DISCOVERED THE SECRET OF EATING EVERYTHING AND NOT GAINING WEIGHT?” Posing the headline as a question allows sensationalist bullshit to be included without needing to back it up with fact. The authors who write for The Conversation don’t generally choose the headline, this is often written by an editor – they really should know better…