Oscar Hill

Do you know you're not a brain in a vat? If you don't, should you be troubled?

According to Madeleine Albright, “What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.”[1], and it’s clear that although we can’t choose who we are born as, we have the ability to change who we become. ‘All humans are born free and equal’ states Article 1 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2], and without the treasured state of free will, regardless of our sentiment towards the realisation of fait, we might as well all be ‘brains in a vat’[3]. This essay will explore the chances of the reality as we perceive it being fiction and wether a world defined by fait should be feared and if so the consequences it will cause.

 

Metaphysical realists argue that a brain being in a vat will limit, not eliminate, one’s referential range[4], it seems however that we can think extensively beyond what we previously thought possible, inspiring some of the most wild theories and inventions of the modern world, thus proving proof that we have at least not reached the limit of the referential range. This however doesn’t disprove the idea of their being a limit, though our presumption of the human’s limited use of the entire brain, perhaps shows the initial impacts of a so called ‘limit’ which prevents us expanding our referential range. It is one’s capability to challenge the world as we know it that has lead to Putnam’s[5] hypothesis of self-refuting which claims that, in short, something cannot be true if we can consider whether it is true – this defies the theory of our brains being in vats. By questioning even the simplest of things we ultimately define our existence as false, throwing speculation into wether we are what we truly thing we are, thus the theory of a brain in a vat seems more realistic. A metaphysical realist’s theory of limits begs the question on the foundation of this ‘limit’: is it expanding at a faster rate than our own expansion or at a slower one? Our perception of reality could be limited in its expansion meaning that growth, development and iteration of the world that we know couldn’t occur. This could lead to the sensation of claustrophobia or anxiety and destroy self-confidence as certainty is prevented by a blockage to steady development. If our reality had the potential to expand to infinity because the rate of expansion of the limit exceed that of our reality, then no matter our development we could never reach a final destination. Although we currently presume that there is no set limit to our development and we seem to have reacted with little care, perhaps the definite answer of no-limit could cause people to experience insecurity as nothing they will ever do will make them complete as there will never be a completed goal. It is the assumption that we would never reach an end goal in our lifetimes due to death but perhaps by receiving an unwanted or unquestioned answer, many could experience catharsis and loose the motivation of life. From a metaphysical realist’s perspective one can believe that although we may be brains in vats we still have the potential to live free lives until the point of a limit, which may or may not ever be reached. Yet from a Putnam’s perspective it’s clear that although questioning wether or not we are brains in vats means that we cannot be so, it does beg the question that by questioning life’s realty itself, we can potentially provide falsehood to the belief of the existence of life – self-refuting in itself.

 

Emotions are what define human interaction, an experience with an object or person defines the way we feel.  Klaus Wilthelm states that ‘mammals are extremely flexible and as such their activity cannot just result from hardwired templates’[6], a mammal, like humans, have emotions which have to be developed through experience rather than hardwiring. Currently human technology doesn’t extent to hardwire emotions into robots though this doesn’t mean that it won’t one day be possible. Therefore it can’t be assumed that we cannot be brains in a vat just because the human race hasn’t developed to a point of hardwiring emotions. However, it should be noted that emotions develop over time, yet babies react out instinct when separated from their mother – they cry. This shows that emotion fuelled response is present from birth and so begs the question, ‘could we be brains in a vat?’ as the baby knows to cry. However, this could be preconditioned as emotions developed in the womb as a result of the mother’s experiences during pregnancy. The Little Albert Experiment of 1920, conducted by Watson and Rayner[7] showed us that at the initial stages of life one could have emotions and fears manipulate through simple repetition. Little Albert, a 9 month old infant, was forced to fear animals when brought in his proximity due to the banging of a metal pole. This shows us that emotions can be manipulated, so perhaps a ‘vat’ could manipulate the way we feel; thus providing validity of its existence. Furthermore, the ease of manipulation shows us that perhaps the scenario of an brain in the vat’ is false, as we have the free will to change peoples emotions and who they are, a subject doesn’t ‘have the capacity to choose’[8] wether or not to become fearful as it is their innate reaction, thus they don’t ‘have the ability to change’[9], rendering them helpless. It begs the question on the scenario of a brain in the vat, as it shows us that even if we weren’t a ‘brain in a vat’[10] humans have metaphorically speaking put others, including animals in their own ‘vats’, moulding them into the form that they want – obscure social persuasion. If this is the case then perhaps one could feel troubled as their free will to feel however they want is jeopardised by the realisation that it is not their autonomy making them react in this way. Yet it should be noted that if emotions can be manipulated as easily as shown in Watson and Rayner then it can be inferred that we would never feel troubled by this realisation of control as we are not the ones controlling our emotions.

 

Klaus Wilthelm refers to ‘mammals’[11] when in reference to the hardwiring of instincts which doesn’t single out humans on their own. It leads us to question wether animals too are their own autonomous ‘brains in a vat’ interconnected with our world or wether we are on our own, living in a simulation where every other person or thing is not autonomous but rather controlled by the ‘vat’. Pyrrho of Elis founded Pyrrhonism skepticism which states that if something is by nature ‘F’, then it is ‘F’ for everyone[12]. According to this we can deduce that if reality is how we see it one way than it will be the same for any other person, meaning that if we were ‘brains in a vat’ then our neighbours, friends or relatives would too be ‘brains in a vat’ in the same ‘simulation’. As a collective experiencing the same thing, at the same time it would mean that life as we know it would be the same regardless of the actual falsehood of reality. The world would seem real even though it isn’t, and if this is the case then there would be no reason to be troubled as life would continue as normal. Albert Einstein once said that ‘Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth’[13] and it is the innate instinct of humans to ignore something if it doesn’t impact their comfortable lives that supports the claim of a collective. If life was a simulation and each individual person was experiencing their own thing, a result of everyone else being simply false, then one could still believe that we were in a vat as a collective – protecting oneself from feeling alone. The ‘blind truth’ on the greatest ‘authority’, yourself, would be used to blur the ‘truth’ as to provided a sense of security. Regardless of falsity or not humans will react in a way that makes them feel comfortable, this means ignoring the potential ‘truth’ as to blind them from the repercussions. John travis states that fear is a type of ‘conditioned response’[14] and it would be the fear of being alone that causes humans to settle on a ‘blind belief’ of being a collective. If we were to be ‘brains in a vat’ there are two possible scenarios, we are alone or we are in a collective, humans will always tend to persuade themselves of being in a collective, as sited by Harriet Over in ‘The origins of belonging’[15]. This innate drive would provide security for many and so some may be less troubled than perhaps they would be because of their own ‘blind belief’.

 

If we question wether life is false then according to Putnam life must be true, yet by questioning if life is true we draw the conclusion of life being false. This self-refuting paradox demonstrates the blurred answer between wether life is fiction or not, this gives us the power to speculate upon everything in life, showing us that perhaps life as we know it could be false. This uncertainty is simply reassured by our ‘blind belief’ to conform to what makes us feel comfortable, a feeling driven by our instinct and sense of belonging. Yet emotions, as proven by Watson and Rayner can be manipulate, and so there is nothing preventing us from presuming that our innate drive to belong is a sense caused by the aloneness of being in a ‘vat’. It begs the question on wether or not our emotions, which can’t be hardwired, are a response to loneliness of a vat, our reaction seems just when put in this context. This leads us to believe that perhaps our perception of reality is false, like everyone else, although Pyrrhonism skepticism infers that we are all in the same boat of reality, it can also imply that if one is in a ‘vat’ then we are all in a ‘vat’. Being a ‘brain in a vat’ is perceived as a perilous scenario, yet if this is already true then there is no reason to be troubled. If one perceives themself as having free will now then to them they are free, and so regardless of reality being false or not they are free to continue living their lives as they already do. It is the greed of humans to want more that drives fear at the thought of being in a ‘vat’, people consider what they are missing out on rather than what they have. When questioning wether we are ‘brains in a vat or not’ we shouldn’t be troubled by this scenario but rather troubled by our greed which would make us feel uncomfortable if being in a vat was reality. 

 

 

References:

  1. Madeleine Albright (2012) GoodReads. Available at:  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/95683-what-people-have-the-capacity-to-choose-they-have-the  (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  2.  UN (1948) Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 1 , Available at:  https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

  3.  “Brains in a Vat”, chapter 1 of Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  4.   Wiley Publishing (2000) ‘Re: Brain in a Vat’ by Stephan Hetherington Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/42970771 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  5.  “Brains in a Vat”, chapter 1 of Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  6. Scientific American (2006) ‘Do Animals Have Feelings?’ By Klaus Wilhelm, Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/10.2307/24939403 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  7.  Society For Science & The Public (2004) ‘Fear Not’ by John Travis, Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/4014925 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  8.  Madeleine Albright (2012) GoodReads. Available at:  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/95683-what-people-have-the-capacity-to-choose-they-have-the  (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  9.  Madeleine Albright (2012) GoodReads. Available at:  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/95683-what-people-have-the-capacity-to-choose-they-have-the  (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  10.   “Brains in a Vat”, chapter 1 of Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  11. Scientific American (2006) ‘Do Animals Have Feelings?’ By Klaus Wilhelm, Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/10.2307/24939403 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  12.  Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2010) ‘Ancient Skepticism’, Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-ancient/ (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  13.  Albert Einstein GoodReads. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/skepticism (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

  14.  Society For Science & The Public (2004) ‘Fear Not’ by John Travis, Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/4014925 (Accessed: 08 April 2020) 

  15.  The Royal Society Publishing ‘The origins of belonging: social most I action in infants and young children’ by Harriet Over, Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4685518/ (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

 

 

 

 

[1] Madeleine Albright (2012) GoodReads. Available at:  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/95683-what-people-have-the-capacity-to-choose-they-have-the  (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

[2] UN (1948) Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 1 , Available at:  https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[3] “Brains in a Vat”, chapter 1 of Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[4]  Wiley Publishing (2000) ‘Re: Brain in a Vat’ by Stephan Hetherington Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/42970771 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

[5] “Brains in a Vat”, chapter 1 of Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

 

[6]Scientific American (2006) ‘Do Animals Have Feelings?’ By Klaus Wilhelm, Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/10.2307/24939403 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

[7] Society For Science & The Public (2004) ‘Fear Not’ by John Travis, Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/4014925 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

[8] Madeleine Albright (2012) GoodReads. Available at:  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/95683-what-people-have-the-capacity-to-choose-they-have-the  (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

[9] Madeleine Albright (2012) GoodReads. Available at:  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/95683-what-people-have-the-capacity-to-choose-they-have-the  (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

[10]  “Brains in a Vat”, chapter 1 of Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[11] Scientific American (2006) ‘Do Animals Have Feelings?’ By Klaus Wilhelm, Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/10.2307/24939403 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

[12] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2010) ‘Ancient Skepticism’, Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-ancient/ (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

 

[13] Albert Einstein GoodReads. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/skepticism (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

[14] Society For Science & The Public (2004) ‘Fear Not’ by John Travis, Available at: https://www.jstore.org/stable/4014925 (Accessed: 08 April 2020)  

[15] The Royal Society Publishing ‘The origins of belonging: social most I action in infants and young children’ by Harriet Over, Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4685518/ (Accessed: 08 April 2020)

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