The performance artist, Stelarc, created a motorized “third arm.” Stelarc’s “third arm” was a robotic arm that he attached to his right shoulder and was operated through a series of electric wires that connected to his abdomen and thigh. When he wanted to move the “third arm,” he would contract his abdomen and thigh in particular ways allowing him to move it around.
This was a pretty neat trick and the kind of thing one might expect from a performance artist, but what no one anticipated was that after many months of using the arm, Stelarc no longer had to “think” about moving the “third arm.” He didn’t have to consciously think about contracting his thigh and abdomen muscles as he had in the beginning. Just like you don’t have to “think” about moving your physical arms, Stelarc reached the point that he could just move his “third arm” like he moved his physical arms; it felt automatic and natural. His body had incorporated the “third arm” as if it were an actual part of his body.
Stelarc is a modern-day cyborg.
We imagine cyborgs as those functional or hypothetical people whose abilities are extended beyond their normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into their bodies. Think “Terminator” or “Robocop” and you will know what I mean. But cognitive science is now full of examples of cyborg-like realities. This has spawned the study in philosophy of what is called cognitive extension. It appears that humans are naturally wired to incorporate elements of our world (think tools), human artifacts (think computers), and relationships (think close friends) in ways that actually extend our abilities beyond our own embodied limitations.
This is why philosopher of mind Andy Clark calls humans “natural-born cyborgs.”
What Does Extension Really Mean?
Maybe it is best to begin by describing some of the ways that humans already act like cyborgs. Think of individuals with pace makers to help control their hearts or implanted defibrillators in case of heart attack. These devices enhance the person’s capacity beyond their normal limitations. Cochlear implants electronically stimulate the auditory nerve allowing many profoundly deaf people to hear. A Type-1 diabetic can wear a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) attached to her body that measures blood glucose in real time, and an insulin pump that receives Bluetooth information from the CGM and delivers the right amount of insulin to the body without her having to think about it. These are just a few of many examples of technology connected to the body in ways that enhance limitations of the body and do so in ways that we don’t even have to think about.
But being a natural-born cyborg is more than technological devices attached to our bodies. Humans are designed to incorporate, or what cognitive extension researchers call “soft-couple,” these kinds of devices in a variety of ways. Our thinking is not limited of our brains or bodies. Consider someone coming up to you and asking, “Do you know what time it is?”
You immediately answer “yes,” but in reality, you in your own physical limitations don’t really know what time it is. You only “know” because you are wearing a watch or carrying a cell phone—both of which are human artifacts that you soft-couple with to extend your knowledge. Or what about enhancing and extending your memory? If you are like me, I can’t tell you what I’m doing tomorrow without the electronic calendar on my cell phone and computer. Word processing and managing large amounts of data on spread sheets requires electronic help, too. Do you think you could do this without your computer? In the language of cognitive extension, we soft-couple to these devices in order to enhance our abilities. That is, like cyborgs, we incorporate technology that extends our capacities beyond our normal human limitations. We incorporate things in transparent ways, and yet we become deeply dependent on them; they are part of our thinking. Andy Clark says that we are so connected to our computers that for some of us, if our computer crashed, it would be like having a small stroke!
Just in case you think that being a natural-born cyborg is only related to really high-tech gadgets like computers and cell phones consider this: If I ask you to add 24 and 72 in your head you probably have little problem, but if I ask you to multiple 375 and 432 this becomes daunting. But what if I give you a pencil and a piece of paper? Suddenly your performance is extended by the soft- coupling to something as simple as paper and pencil. Brain scan studies were conducted looking at skilled carpenters as well as weekend novices using hammers. It turns out that for skilled carpenters, the brain maps the end of the hammer as part of the hand. This probably explains why skilled carpenters rarely hit their own fingers the way the rest of us often do. This mapping of a tool into the brain as part of the body has also been seen in individuals who wear prosthetic limbs.
Social Extension and the Church
So far, we have discussed the ways in which we can extend our capacities beyond our normal human limitations by soft-coupling with technologies inserted into the body (pace maker), outside the body (cell phones), and even everyday things we rarely think about (hammers and watches). But there is one other form of extension that is particularly relevant for Christians: social extension. It turns out that we also enhance our human capacities by soft-coupling with other humans. We can extend our problem-solving abilities by being a part of a brainstorming session with others. We extend our knowledge of morality and behavioral norms by being part of a family.
We can even enhance our natural healing capacities by processes of interpersonal extension such as psychotherapy. Once again, our capacities are enhanced, but this time by soft-coupling with others.
Social extension is particularly important for Christian believers. In our forthcoming book, Supersizing the Christian Life: How Religious Experience Extends Beyond the Person, Warren Brown and I argue that genuine Christian community offers the possibility of extending and enhancing one’s Christian life. Whereas much of Western Christianity today can be focused on inward, individualistic, and private pursuits of spirituality, we consider such pursuits to be limited, because they are aimed at the individual. But what if we could truly extend our Christianity into the life and artifacts of the church? We think this would supersize our Christian lives! When we truly soft-couple with others in the body (including soft-coupling to artifacts like prayer books, hymnals, theology books, written doctrines of the church, and, most importantly, the social relationships we develop), we enhance the limitations of our spiritual lives; we literally extend ourselves into the worshiping community. Of course God is at work through the Holy Spirit to bring growth, but we believe this kind of extension is the unity that Paul exhorts in 1 Corinthians 12. Christians believe better together, worship better together, sing better together, pray and read liturgies better together, and serve better together. When we do this, we literally enhance our Christian capacities and formation!
Even though we have had the church for centuries, often it doesn’t function as a form of extension. In order for true extension to occur, the objects we soft-couple with must be readily available. There must be regular ongoing engagement, and they must provide interactive feedback in important ways. In most of our churches where “regular attenders” come once or fewer times per month, it is hard to imagine that any true soft-coupling is taking place. We need to think carefully about how our religious practices are either a form of soft-coupling leading to extension, or a kind of information acquisition that doesn’t lead parishioners beyond an individualist Christian faith. To be the true body of Christ requires serious time together, regular repetition of behaviors, and the accountability of genuine interaction. When genuine soft-coupling occurs, we are able to live into our roles as natural-born Christian cyborgs.