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Maybe We Actually Are Brains In Vats




Maybe We Actually Are Brains In Vats


   The approach of skepticism takes its most extreme manifestation when it aims at questioning all that we appear to know. That is, all that we perceive by our senses and thoughts. As an application of such skepticism, Putnam offers the concept of Brains In a Vat and claims to have proven its impossibility.

    The concept of being a brain in a vat suggests that rather than actually experiencing all that we presume to witness first hand, we are actually isolated brains, carefully placed in a highly sophisticated vat that feeds our brains with what we mistakenly take to be our empirical sensory input. As startling as the concept sounds, it actually is; yet Putnam assures us that it is an impossible occurrence due to the problem of direct reference.

    In presenting the problem of direct reference, Putnam argues that in order for an object to make sense, or to merely be recognized, a direct referential knowledge of the object has to be held by its viewer. As a vivid example, Putnam describes a wondering ant that traces the contour of an image that by pure chance resembles the portrait of Churchill. The ant, of course, lacks direct reference to the actual known person, and therefore could not in any way conceive the line as such a representation.

    Applying the same principal Putnam argues that when we refer to anything, it is for the fact of a prerequisite knowledge (prior to the first time that we recognize it) of the thing that we are capable of understanding and discussing it. The same prerequisite knowledge can only be obtained through direct reference.

    Having established that, he further argues that in case that we actually were brains in vats, we would have lacked the direct reference that makes our argument possible. That is, by being locked in a vat, deprived of any direct capability of gathering our data, we could only refer to what is not actually there. A contradiction that implies that were we actually in this dire state we could have not come up with such a concept for questioning.

    Putnams idea of direct reference actually sets at calming our fears. He argues that the mere ability that we have to raise such a question is the proof of its impossibility. The argument is rather simple: we refer to the objects brain and vat within our initial question; we obviously know what the objects represent; it follows that we must have direct reference to those objects (otherwise we could not have understood or likely even grasped what they mean); if we were actually confined in a vat we would have lacked the direct reference; therefore, we cannot possibly be brains in vats.

As much as I would have liked to share Putnams confidence in our reality, I find his argument to be unsatisfactory. The initial claim for the necessity of direct reference is quite self explanatory and agreeable. It is rather on the definition of its directness that I strongly disagree.

    Is a picture considered direct reference? In Putnams case it must be so, for otherwise none of us could have actually known Churchill. In that case, it follows that we actually could have direct reference to the input we are being fed by the highly sophisticated vat we inhabit. If Putnams ant would have never met Churchill, yet was placed in an ants virtual reality tank and was exposed to Churchill for long enough, it might (if we disregard all the other problems it has) actually stand back and stare with awe at the drawing of Churchill in the sand.

    Going past the ant, it is perfectly acceptable that a whole set of references could in fact be wholly artificially created. Adding the capability to feed those references convincingly even to the most suspecting viewer concludes in having a theoretical ground for the possibility of the Brain in a Vat to take place. Assuming, of course, that those beings which are responsible for our vats are a highly advanced and sophisticated species, it is rather easy to picture such a predicament. Just imagine (as Putnam does) the completely
plausible idea of how we could have distorted or replaced someones reality with the right technology.

    Therefore, the notion of the lack of direct reference by virtue of a vat imprisonment only binds us from what might be physically direct, yet it leaves us with a whole world of reference that we can still manipulate in our thoughts and build skeptic concepts from. Within a whole community of brains that discuss their world with full confidence, although it is nothing but wires and electrical bursts, a skeptic individual (whatever his physical form may be) might conceive of a wild concept of total deception.

    The semantic argument regarding the possibility of our deception taking the actual form of brains within vats is a useless one; for even if the actual form of the process is radically different due to our lack of direct reference with the actual world of those masters, the same concept can still take any other shape. Whether we actually might be a speck of dust in a thought blender, a lost soul in virtual reality tank, or a mere X in a sophisticated Y, does not hold any real effect on our initial concept; in any given form which we cannot possibly refer to our skeptic concept can still take place.

    As is shown by experience, whenever we try to invent a world of fiction, we always end up relating to our reality. We can distort it, we can re-shape it, yet we are trapped with a sole source of reference: our reality, whether it is real or fake. Therefore, using Putnams system of proof we can safely assume that if we actually are deceived by a superior being, it is quite likely that brains and vats actually exist in their world in the same form. For otherwise how could they refer to those objects well enough to insert them into our world? They must actually have Brains and vats in their world (the real world) so they could refer to them while inventing our vat-world.

    Putnams argument does not really claim anything new; it is possible that the color red does not actually seem so to anyone that does not share our system of vision; it is possible that if there is a true full-spectrum color for a red-transmitting surface, we could not perceive it. Putnams vats, unfortunately, are a viable metaphor for the human condition, the former locked within a glass jar, while the latter is confined to an ephemeral body; both are solely dependent for information on what their cage allows them to intercept.

    Therefore, by means of applying the same criteria of reference, our vat-masters could have produces a vat-world that allows us to form the concept of questioning regarding our total deception in the exact way stated. Furthermore, whether the actual real world contains brains and vats or not does not really matter to the skeptic concept, which could take any form. And finally, the skeptic theoretical worry is not too far fetched for it is the actual human condition in regards to the limits of our senses.

    On the whole, Putnams argument forms a logical step that at first seems to contradict the possibility of total deception. It is only through a critical inspection that a few initial assumptions collapse: Direct reference can actually be obtained indirectly; a concept beyond our scope of observation can take a radically different shape, yet still be the same concept; and finally, if direct reference is held so dearly, it can easily skip one reality and be artificially transmitted from the original referrer to his nave little pet in a vat.


Ohad Maiman