Where does the self begin and end? Do I extend no further than my fingertips and toes? Or do I exist beyond my body? Is my self bound up with and constituted by my biology or does it extend into the material artifacts in my environment?
These are inherently philosophical questions, and ones with considerable practical import. Last year, my old laptop computer was destroyed by a virus. I had had the same computer for nearly a decade. I tend to get attached to my stuff. I never backed it up. I used it write my PhD thesis; I kept years worth of calendar appointments and meeting notes stored in its memory banks; I had a vast library of research papers, complete with annotations. I used it every day. It was essential part of my cognitive landscape: I could not work without it. And it was all gone within twenty four hours. It felt like a part of me was erased from history. And yet, that is not how most people would see it. They would argue that it was not part of me that was erased; it was, rather, part of my property. That property is alienable and distinguishable from who I am. So what happened to me was an offence against my property, not an offence against my person.
But it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels like I was personally assaulted by the virus. What’s more, as I and others grow more and more attached to our technological artifacts, and as we grow more and more dependent on them to participate in everyday life, feelings of this sort can be expected to multiply. Should this change how we conceive of the boundaries between the personal and the proprietary?
In their article ‘Is Having Your Computer Compromised A Personal Assault?’, J. Adam Carter and S. Orestis Palermos take on this very question. They present an argument for an extended account of personal assault, one that would count attacks against certain types of technological artifact as personal assaults. They do so by reference to extended cognition theory. I want to examine their argument in this post.
1. The Argument for Extended Assault
I want to start by setting out the argument for extended assault that they present in the middle of the article. The argument works like this:
- (1) Intentional harm to a part of a person which is responsible for her mental and other faculties constitutes personal assault.
- (2) Our mental faculties can be partly constituted by external artifacts, so long as these artifacts have been appropriately integrated into our overall cognitive system.
- (3) Therefore, having our integrated epistemic artifacts intentionally compromised plausibly qualifies as a case of personal assault.
Obviously, premise (2) is the real centrepiece of this argument. To be persuaded of this premise requires some background in extended cognition theory. I’ll cover that in a moment. Before doing so, however, it is important to give premise (1) its due regard.
As the authors themselves note, premise (1) is not an uncontroversial definition of personal assault. Many legal systems recognise a set of offences against the person. These offences are graded in terms of their seriousness In England and Wales, for example, the following five offences form the backbone of the system of offences against the person:
Assault: The reckless or intentional causing of another to apprehend the imminent use of unlawful force.
Battery: The reckless or intentional application of unlawful force to another.
Assault Occasioning Bodily Harm: A battery or assault that causes actual bodily harm to another.
Malicious Wounding or GBH: The unlawful and malicious wounding or inflicting of grievous bodily harm against another.
Intentional Wounding or GBH: The unlawful and intentional wounding or causing of grievous bodily harm to another.*
The three most serious of these offences all explicitly require the use of force against the body and not just the person. ‘Wounding’, for instance, is defined as the breaking of the layers of the skin. And grievous bodily harm is usually clarified by reference to paradigmatic cases such as the breaking of bones or the rupturing of internal organs. The two less serious offences (assault and battery) are a little bit more ambiguous in their definitions, but they are usually interpreted as requiring some application (or threat of application) of force to the body. This creates a problem for the argument for extended assault because it suggests that the current approach to assault (in England and Wales at least) is very much body-centric. It will require quite the conceptual shift to move us away from this body-centric view.
Or will it? Carter and Orestis beg to differ. They suggest that the current approach to assault is more open to extension than might first appear to be the case. And there is something to this. Current approaches to assault occasioning bodily harm already include the infliction of a recognised mental illness within their scope. Since the mental realm arguably does extend beyond the walls of the body, this would seem to allow for extended assault. Tampering with the objects in someone’s environment could cause them considerable mental distress and so could be punishable as a form of assault under the existing approach. Furthermore, as the authors point out, extended assault is not ruled out by leading philosophical conceptions of personhood. They point, in particular, to Charles Taylor, who argued in his 1991 work The Ethics of Authenticity that we should identify the person with their biological constitution.
All of this is to say that premise (1) might appear to stretch the boundaries of existing approaches to assault, but it may not stretch them all that far, and may simply continue an expansion that is already well under way.
What about premise (2)?
2. A Primer on Extended Cognition Theory
To understand premise (2) we need to get into some of the intricacies of extended cognition theory. I’ve looked at aspects of it before, focusing in particular on Clark and Chalmers ‘extended mind’ hypothesis and the criticisms thereof. I’ll be briefer here. Carter and Orestis don’t try to defend extended cognition theory in their article. They merely offer an overview of it and consider what follows if it is true.
Let’s start with an example. Suppose you want to solve a mathematical problem involving the multiplication of two numbers (467 x 35) for example. If you are remarkably gifted (or have learned some of the mental techniques for doing so) you might be able to solve this problem in your head. If you are like the rest of us, you will rely on some external artifacts to help you solve the problem. Assuming you don’t have a calculator (and that’s an assumption we’ll work with for now) you’ll probably grab a pen and paper and solve the problem using the techniques you learned at school. So, first you’ll put something like this down on the page:
And then you’ll solve the problem by multiplying 7, 6 and 4 by 5, in that order, carrying over and writing down the answers under the line. You should get ‘2335’. You’ll then skip a line, write in ‘0’ and multiply 7, 6, and 4 by 3 (carrying over and writing down the answers as you go). You should get ‘14010’. You’ll then add those two numbers together to give you the answer of ’16345’.
Now think about how you solved the problem in more detail. You performed a reasonably complex cognitive operation (the multiplication of two numbers) but you didn’t do so inside your own head. Instead, you formed an extended cognitive loop with a set of artifacts in your environment (the pen and paper). It was that loop that performed the cognitive operation.
The essence of extended cognition theory is that this kind of thing happens quite often. Cognition is rarely a purely brain-bound phenomenon. It is, instead, an extended phenomenon - something that happens through a collaboration between a biological agent and the environment in which they live.
But surely that doesn’t mean that the pen and paper you used to solve the multiplication problem are part of you? If someone destroyed that pen and paper you would hardly be driven to say that it amounted to a personal assault? Not all cognitive loops are equal. Sometimes brain-based cognition is just ‘embedded’ in an environment: the brain performs a cognitive operation in collaboration with some set of artifacts, but the two systems remain ontologically distinct. On other occasions, the collaboration between the brain and the environment is far more intimate and interdependent. On those occasions, you no longer have two distinct systems: you have one. This is when the brain and the set of artifacts become ‘integrated’ (or truly ‘extended’). It is only on those occasions that the concept or idea of extended personhood becomes more compelling.
How can we tell the difference? Carter and Orestis (and others) appeal to a standard drawn from dynamical systems theory:
DST standard for extension: For two systems to give rise to an overall extended (coupled) system there must be non-linear interactions/interdependency (via feedback loops) between the parts of those system.
Complement: If there is only linear dependence between the two systems, there is not one overall extended system .
Why is this a good standard? Two reasons are singled out by the authors. The first is that when systems are coupled through non-linear interactions it gives rise to emergent phenomena (i.e. new properties emerge that would not emerge if the systems were not coupled) and second, it becomes impossible to decompose the inputs and outputs of the system into the two original subsystems. In the latter sense, it becomes practically and conceptually necessary to posit one system rather than two. This only really happens when there is continuous and reciprocal interaction between the two systems. This means there is a pretty high standard when it comes to claiming that you form an extended cognitive system with objects in your environment.
But maybe it’s not that high. Would the pen and paper example given earlier count? Carter and Orestis suggest that it would:
[O]ur everyday interaction with telescopes, microscopes, laptops, smartphones and pen and paper when solving complex mathematical problems, the way blind people interact with their canes and Tactile Visual Substitution Systems would all qualify as genuine cases of cognitive extension. In such cases, the completion of the relevant cognitive task does involve dense feedback loops between the individual agent and her artifact. According, in the lift of DST, in such cases, we may indeed have to talk of the presence of an overall extended cognitive system that consists of both the individual agent and her artifact.
That seems to suggest that if I snatch away your pen and paper I am (possibly) guilty of an extended personal assault. Is that not a counterintuitive result? Do we really want to push the concept of extended assault that far?
3. Is Extended Assault Too Counterintuitive?
This is probably the main criticism one can have of the argument for extended assault. If we really do form closely coupled systems with cognitive artifacts like laptops, and pens and paper, then personal assault is a pervasive phenomenon. Far more pervasive than we currently realise. It seems like more work needs to be done to convince us to be so promiscuous in the application of the concept.
One thing that might help in this regard is to highlight the expansive nature of existing, legally-recognised forms of assault, as well as some of the safety mechanisms used to limit that expansion. Look back to the definitions I gave earlier on of assault and battery. These definitions are pretty expansive on their face. An assault is anything that causes you to apprehend the application of force; a battery is anything involving the application of force. In neither case does there have to be harm in order for the offence to occur. This means that assault and battery are pervasive phenomena — they happen all the time, perhaps on a daily basis. This doesn’t result in the absurdly promiscuous prosecution of assault and battery because: (a) most people ignore minor infractions and don’t bring them to the attention of the authorities; (b) the authorities don’t bother to pursue and prosecute minor infractions; and (c) the courts limit the scope of the offences by focusing on ‘unlawful’ force, not all types of force. This latter modification is particularly important in practice because it prevents everyday bumps (e.g. in a crowded train) from counting. Presumably, similar exclusion mechanisms could operate in the case of extended assault. Not every minor interference with integrated cognitive artifacts would have to count.
There are, however, some other concerns people might have about how we integrate with physical artifacts that make assault against those artifacts quite different from assault against the body. Take my opening example of the laptop that was destroyed by the virus. It’s probably worth saying now that the incident I described never actually happened. It was just a story. The reality is that I back-up most of my important files and programs to the ‘cloud’. So even if my physical laptop was destroyed, I wouldn’t lose the important things that enable me to function on a daily basis. I’d still argue that I am cognitively integrated with the laptop, but I can easily replace the laptop and retain the same level of cognitive integration. In that case, would we really want to call the destruction of the laptop ‘personal assault’? An objection emerges here:
Fungibility Objection: Even if we form dynamically integrated systems with certain cognitive artifacts, many of those artifacts are readily replaceable/fungible if destroyed (i.e. you can substitute in an equivalent artifact and retain the same functionality). It seems wrong to label the destruction of such readily fungible artifacts a type of personal assault.
This is an intuitively appealing objection, but as Carter and Orestis point out it has a number of weaknesses. First, it may not be the case that the artifact is readily fungible. Some people might create or customise artifacts so that they are highly personalised and non-fungible. Second, accepting fungibility as a block on the application of assault could have troubling consequences. Imagine in the future that prosthetic limbs are widely available and are equivalent (possibly superior) in their functionality to biological limbs. This means that our biological limbs are readily replaceable/fungible. If someone hacked off your leg in this world, would it still count as assault? If we embrace the fungibility standard, it wouldn’t. Surely that’s a counterintuitive result? Finally, if cloud-based storage is what prevents the destruction of a laptop from being a form of personal assault, it raises the thorny question about the status of cyberattacks on those cloud-based systems. If your files and programs are deleted from the cloud, should that count as personal assault? Possibly, if you accept extended cognition theory.
Okay, that’s it for this post. Hopefully, this is enough to convince you that the concept of extended assault is, at the very least, worthy of greater scrutiny. I’ve only really scratched the surface of the issues in this post. I’d recommend reading the full paper for more. In particular, I’d recommend reading the two interesting case studies (involving actual legal trials) that the authors use to illustrate the concept in more detail.
* Students of criminal law will know that there a little bit more to this offence than I am letting on in this definition. I’m ignoring the complications associated with resisting arrest for the purposes of this discussion.