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.