Picture: Martin Heidegger. This paper by Dotov, Nie, and Chemero describes experiments which it says have pulled off the remarkable feat of providing empirical, experimental evidence for Heidegger’s phenomenology, or part of it; the paper has been taken by some as providing new backing for the Extended Mind theory, notably expounded by Andy Clark in his 2008 book (‘Supersizing the Mind’).

Relating the research so strongly to Heidegger puts it into a complex historical context. Some of Heidegger’s views, particularly those which suggest there can be no theory of everyday life, have been taken up by critics of artificial intelligence. Hubert Dreyfus in particular, has offered a vigorous critique drawing mainly from Heidegger an idea of the limits of computation, one which strongly resembles those which arise from the broadly-conceived frame problem, as discussed here recently. The authors of the paper claim this heritage, accepting the Dreyfusard view of Heidegger as an early proto-enemy of GOFAI .

For it is GOFAI (Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence) we’re dealing with. The authors of the current paper point out that the Heideggerian/Dreyfusard critique applies only to AI based on straightforward symbol manipulation (though I think a casual reader of Dreyfus  could well be forgiven for going away with the impression that he was a sceptic about all forms of AI), and that it points toward the need to give proper regard to the consequences of embodiment.

Hence their two experiments. These are designed to show objective signs of a state described by Heidegger, known in English as ‘ready-to-hand’. This seems a misleading translation, though I can’t think of a perfect alternative. If a hammer is ‘ready to hand’, I think that implies it’s laid out on the bench ready for me to pick it up when I want it;  the state Heidegger was talking about is the one when you’re using the hammer confidently and skilfully without even having to think about it. If something goes wrong with the hammering, you may be forced to start thinking about the hammer again – about exactly how it’s going to hit the nail, perhaps about how you’re holding it. You can also stop using the hammer altogether and contemplate it as a simple object. But when the hammer is ready-to-hand in the required sense, you naturally speak of your knocking in a few nails as though you were using your bare hands, or more accurately, as if the hammer had become part of you.

Both experiments were based on subjects using a mouse to play a simple game.  The idea was that once the subjects had settled, the mouse would become ready-to-hand; then the relationship between mouse movement and cursor movement would be temporarily messed up; this should cause the mouse to become unready-to-hand for a while. Two different techniques were used to detect readiness-to-hand. In the first experiment the movements of the hand and mouse were analysed for signs of 1/f? noise. Apparently earlier research has established that the appearance of 1/f? noise is a sign of a smoothly integrated system.  The second experiment used a less sophisticated method; subjects were required to perform a simple counting task at the same time as using the mouse; when their performance at this second task faltered, it was taken as a sign that attention was being transferred to cope with the onset of unreadiness to hand. Both experiments yielded the expected results.  (Regrettably some subjects were lost because of an unexpected problem – they weren’t good enough at the simple mouse game to keep it going for the duration of the experiment. Future experimenters should note the need to set up a game which cannot come to a sudden halt.)

I think the first question which comes to mind is: why were the experiments were even necessary?  It is a common experience that tools or vehicles become extensions of our personality; in fact it has often been pointed out that even our senses get relocated. If you use a whisk to beat eggs, you sense the consistency of the egg not by monitoring the movement of the whisk against your fingers, but as though you were feeling the egg with the whisk, as though there was a limited kind of sensation transferred into the whisk. Now of course, for any phenomenological observation, there will be some diehards who deny having had any such experience; but my impression is that this sort of thing is widely accepted, enough to feature as a proposition in a discussion without further support.  Nevertheless, it’s true that it this remains subjective, so it’s a fair claim that empirical results are something new.

Second, though, do the results actually prove anything? Phenomenologically, it seems possible to me to think of alternative explanations which fit the bill without invoking readiness-to-hand. Does it seem to the subject that the mouse has become part of them, part of a smoothly-integrated entity – or does the mouse just drop out of consciousness altogether? Even if we accept that the presence of 1/f? noise shows that integration has occurred, that doesn’t give us readiness-to-hand (or if it does, it seems the result was already achieved by the earlier research).

In the second experiment we’ve certainly got a transfer of attention – but isn’t that only natural? If a task suddenly becomes inexplicably harder, it’s not surprising that more attention is devoted to it – surely we can explain that without invoking Heidegger? The authors acknowledge this objection, and if I understand correctly suggest that the two tasks involved were easy enough to rule out problems of excessive cognitive load so that, I suppose, no significant switch of attention would have been necessary if not for the breakdown of readiness-to-hand.  I’m not altogether convinced.

I do like the chutzpah involved in an experimental attempt to validate Heidegger, though, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that bold and ingenious experiments along these lines might tell us something interesting.


  1. 1. David says:

    The use of Heidegger’s philosophy in this field is most interesting to me, so thanks for the link and analysis, Peter. I enjoyed this post a lot, and agree with what you wrote 100%.

    On the one hand, I am encouraged that some researchers are bringing H.’s philosophy into the realm of experimentation, and though this paper represents a small step, I hope others follow suit.

    However, there are real problems of terminology and interpretation with regard to any philosophy, and as you query; what was the point of this besides confirming a “phenomenon” that is intuitively accepted and already supported by previous experiments? Personally, I feel that Heidegger has suffered from misinterpretation and misapplication by his major (and vocal) proponents. The “being-at-hand” is in absolutely no sense a fundamental function of the mind, it is commonly said that what distinguishes humans (and chimps) from other animals is our cognizant use of tools… if this is the case, it seems natural to assume that this would be one of the last phenomena to emerge from a biological model of the mind, and seems a dubious subject for support for a philosophical model since it lies squarely in the field of (anthropological-)psychology.

    Though they stress Being and Time is not a psychological work, there is no doubt that parts of it are, and many people do interpret the philosophy in a psychological manner. If scientists don’t get away from this pseudo-psychological treatment and reach towards an understanding of the *ontology* of Heidegger, the foundation of Being within the mind, they aren’t going to make any more progress that before on this tangent.

  2. 2. Lloyd Rice says:

    I find it interesting that the performance changes seemingly uncovered by these experiments would also be explained by the body self image model described by Metzinger in “Ego Tunnel”. The difference between the ready-to-hand state and either of the other two states would seem to correspond to whether the tool has been incorporated into the body self image. It is not clear whether some other differences in Metzinger’s non-body image state might correspond to the difference between Heidegger’s non-ready and unreadiness states. Perhaps it is just that there is no desire to incorporate a tool in the unreadiness state, while a tool in the non-ready state is trying to be brought back in.

    I do believe a case could be made that body image incorporation of a tool would reduce the processing requirement, as suggested by the second experiment. And indeed, this view does appear to have been suggested by some of the references listed in the paper. As far as I know, Heidegger does not suggest any specific “implementation details” that might correspond to his three states.

    David: I believe we have met before, in another blog on this topic. When I saw “Heidegger” in the title above, I immediately thought of that earlier conversation.

  3. 3. Vicente says:

    Is it not all these a bit of stating the obvious?

    I miss the concept of trainning in this approach. Every tool is originally unready-to-hand, once you learn to use it “becomes” ready to hand, and once you master its use and you have developed strong networks in your cerebellum it becomes “sort of” extended anatomy for you, typical examples are: musical instruments or tennis raquets. I wonder how many thumbs have fallen under ready-to-hand hammers.

    Of course, an unexpected change in tool features will turn it back to unready-to-hand state.

    In the described experiments, they don’t mention that the subjects were already familiar with the use of a computer mouse.

    Most interesting is how a new tool or artifact is created, or how the “relevant” features of a tool are picked out, making a piece of matter become an abstract mind object (this could be related to the frame problem discussed in previous blog), for me, this should be the phenomenological analytical line.

  4. 4. Lloyd Rice says:

    Vicente: I agree that the training issue is of great significance in this. But it is also interesting how things are organized internally. That is why I was drawn to Metzinger’s approach to the issue. Even if you know exactly what the cerebellum does, it is still not clear just how that knowledge relates to the self image. His argument seems to make it clear that something else “higher up” than the cerebellum gets involved in the feeling of “ownership” when the tool is truly “ready”.

  5. 5. Lloyd Rice says:

    Also Vicente, training does not explain the feeling of beating eggs with a whisk. Actually, just hold a pencil or any small stick and rub the end lightly across a textured surface. Most people “feel” the texture, not the pencil vibrating in their fingers. It is exactly this extension of feeling that both Heidegger and Metzinger had in mind.

  6. 6. Vicente says:

    Lloyd: Yes, I believe that you are probably right. The fact that the brain can include in the self image items different from one’s body parts is very interesting. Probably cerebellum is just involved in the automation of complex and accurate movements (which in some cases involve an external item: Bicycle, instrument, hammer…). It is also interesting to understand how the self perceived image is so distorted in disorders like anorexia, this is another topic of course.

    Your comment is inducing in me a dualistic view of the case. It is like if “somebody” is driving a robot, to which you can add or remove gadgets…

  7. 7. Vicente says:

    Lloyd: regarding #5, that is different, one thing is to use a tool as and extension of your body capacity, for example a hammer, and another one is to use an instrument as an extension of your senses. The pencil transmits the vibrations caused by the texture, yes, but if you touch the surface directly the sensation will be much more accurate, in this cases the pencil has diminished your faculties. I wonder what role plays sight in the eggs and whisk case. It would be interesting to do the experiment not allowing the subject to see what he is whisking, probably the sensitivity to different viscosities is much lower than what you think. The same would probably apply to the use of a pencil on different materials…

  8. 8. Lloyd Rice says:

    Interesting. Yes, there are differences I have not considered.

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