Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Two kinds of tools

I picked up this beauty on Saturday from a generous person in Austin who was selling it on Craigslist, but gave it to me for free when it became clear that I'd be actually using it rather than reselling it. (The image on screen is a one-shot capture of the electricity generated by a DC motor when you set it spinning by hand and then let it slow down. Surprisingly linear down-slope, by the way.)

Anyway, thinking about this led me to a curious distinction between two kinds of tools. A tool is used for affecting something. We can distinguish tools into:

  • Tools designed to affect minds.
  • Tools designed to affect the extra-mental world.
An oscilloscope, a calculator, measuring tape, a book, binoculars and an anti-depressant are all tools designed to produce mental effects, of a particularly calibrated sort, whether by leading to beliefs about the results of measurements, or certain kinds of perceptions, or the like. On the other hand, a bulldozer, a vacuum cleaner, a test-tube and a roof are all tools designed to affect the extra-mental world. Of course, the affecting of the mind in the case of the first kind of tool might in some instance only be a means to affecting the extra-mental world (you might read a book about how to fix a car), while the affecting of the extra-mental world in the case of the second kind of tool might in some instance only be a means to affecting the mental world (the test-tube is used to contain chemicals in order to find out something). Nonetheless, the direct intended effect of the tools is, at least in the primary intended application, as stated.


Michael Gonzalez said...

Interesting distinction. It makes me think of certain functionalist views on consciousness (like the "sensorimotor contingency" approach of Alva Noe, Kevin O'Regan, et al). On that view, perception consists of connecting with the world in certain skilled ways, through the use of the tools with which we've been biologically endowed. Those tools (eyes, ears, etc) would normally seem to be "tools to affect minds". Call these "body tools". The question becomes: Are the other examples that you gave (like books and binoculars) actually designed to affect the body tools (as extra-mental objects), which in turn affect the mind? Or, as the aforementioned functionalists suppose, is the skilled interaction between book and eye all there is to perception?

If the former (more orthodox) view is correct, then where does it stop? If the book is just a "tool designed to affect the extra-mental eye", then isn't the eye just a "tool designed to affect the extramental optic nerve", etc?

I'm personally more and more sympathetic to some form of the latter answer.

Michael Gonzalez said...

By "the latter answer", I mean a functionalist approach like Alva Noe's. I read a really great anthology that Noe and Evan Thompson put together, with representative writings from both the orthodox tradition (dealing with "sense data" and "neural correlates of consciousness", etc) as well as the heterodox, functionalist/enactive tradition (from Merleau-Ponty and Anscombe, down to James Gibson, and now to people like Francisco Varela, John McDowell, and Noe and Thompson themselves). Great stuff.