"Mindware": Tools for Smart Thinking


The title of this course is “Upgrade Your Mindware”, and though I don’t really use the term “mindware” all that much in the rest of the course, I wanted to say something about why I chose this term, why it’s appropriate for this course, and how it’s sometimes used in psychology and the philosophy of mind.

In this lecture I’m going to distinguish two senses of “mindware”. As we’ll see, I’m using the term in the second of these senses.

(1) Mindware as Software of the Brain/Body

Here’s the first sense. The analogy of course is with computer terms, “hardware” and “software”. Software is the programs and the operating system that describes what a computer is doing when it performs a computation or some other task that we want it to do.

An important feature of a piece of software is that it’s abstract, it’s not a concrete physical thing. Windows 10 and Microsoft Word are not physical things, they’re abstract sets of instructions. Many different computers can run the same software.

The hardware, on the other hand, is the actual physical system that implements these instructions. The two computers on my desk right now are different physical systems that are running the same software programs.

So, one way that the term “mindware” has been used in cognitive science and philosophy of mind is to suggest a theory of what the mind is, and how the mind relates to the brain and the body.

The theory is that everything that we associate with the properties and activities of minds — thinking, feeling, perceiving, believing, desiring, imagining, reasoning, and so on — is best understood as a kind of information-processing activity, carried out by our physical brains and bodies. Mental activity is a kind of computational activity, implemented in the hardware of our brains and bodies.

So, when the term “mindware” is used in this context, it’s often referring to a particular theory or conception of the mind, that is sometimes called “computational functionalism”, or the computational theory of the mind. The mind isn’t identical to the brain, it’s not reducible to physical properties of the brain, but it’s not some mysterious spiritual essence either. You can organize a legitimate scientific research program around this view of the mind.

In fact, some version of this view is the dominant view of the mind in psychology and cognitive science, and has been since the 1950s. There are stronger and weaker versions of this view, and it’s not without its critics, but the dominance of some version of this view within the fields of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, is clear to any student of the field.

Consider the textbook by Andy Clark titled Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science”. This is how he’s using the term here.

(II) Mindware as Tools for Smart Thinking

The term “mindware” in this second sense, is related explicitly to questions about human rationality. The term was coined by psychologist David Perkins in his 1995 book Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence. I’ve pulled a few paragraphs from page 13 of the book, where he gives this introduction. I know it’s too small to read, so I’ll expand the quote.

“I want to outline a theory of learnable intelligence that says to what extent and in what ways our intelligence can be amplified.”

So the goal here isn’t to give a general theory of the nature of the mind. It’s to argue that it’s possible to learn how to amplify our intelligence, to make us smarter.

“One way to track the debate … is to use a metaphor, the idea of mindware. What is mindware? It is whatever people can learn that helps them to solve problems, make decisions, understand difficult concepts, and perform other intellectually demanding tasks better.”

Again, the focus here is on identifying things that people can learn, that can help them to improve them quality of their thinking.

Now, in using the term “mindware”, Perkins is also drawing on the analogy with software, obviously.

“To draw an analogy with computers, mindware is software for the mind — the programs you run in your mind that enable you to do useful things with data stored in your memory.”

As an academic psychologist trying to understand intelligence and human reasoning, the computational metaphor is going to be very familiar to him. This may sound like he’s endorsing the computational theory of the mind that I just mentioned. And maybe he does, in some form, but the analogy with computers isn’t his focus.

“Or to make a more prosaic but equally apt analogy with cooking, mindware is like kitchenware, the equipment of the mind, the pots and pans, measuring spoons and spatulas, egg beaters and corkscrews that enable people to cook up something compelling out of the information at their disposal.”

In this quote, Perkins is focusing on the more general idea of mindware as tools or resources for thinking, not literally as programs running on the hardware of our brains.

And this is made more clear in the last quote:

“Or to put it yet another way, mindware is whatever knowledge, understanding, and attitudes you have that support you making the best use of your mind.”

So, mindware is defined in terms of support for thinking, something that human beings can learn, that can help them make better decisions, better judgments, and so on.

This is the core of this second sense of “mindware”. This is not the same as endorsing the computational view of the mind. You can use the term in this sense and not commit yourself to any particular view of the ultimate nature of the mind.

This is how I’m using the term “mindware” in this course.

The term “mindware”, in this second sense, has been picked up by various psychologists working in the field of cognitive biases and human reasoning. Keith Stanovich, in particular, has developed a very detailed and influential theory of biases and errors in human reasoning, and he and his colleagues use the term “mindware” in very specific ways, that I won’t go into here (I’ll save it for another course).

I do want to point out that Stanovich has worked hard to distinguish “intelligence” from “rationality”, and he attaches the term “mindware” specifically to tools that improve rationality, rather than intelligence, but that’s a debate that we don’t have to get into.

A more recent popular book by another very influential psychologist in the area of human reasoning, Richard Nisbett, uses the term “mindware” in a looser sense than Stanovich, closer to the original sense of Perkins, as learnable tools that support smart thinking — tools for making more reliable judgments, better decisions, and so on.

And like I said, this is the sense in which I’m using the term “mindware”, in the title of this course. By “upgrade your mindware”, I mean “learn some tools that can help you improve the quality of your thinking and reasoning”.

In a sense, this is the goal of all the content I create at the Critical Thinker Academy. As an educator, I see myself as being in the “mindware business”.

Before I wrap this up, I do want to say that the information-processing, computation view of the mind does play an important role in the scientific work that psychologists like Stanovich and Nisbett are doing on cognitive biases and human reasoning, as part of the underlying theoretical framework within which they conduct this work.

But again, I’ll have to save that discussion for another time and another course.