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Brain in a what?

Brain in a vat.
I was on the skytrain when I overheard a couple students talking about philosophy. They were right behind me. Student 1 was learning in class about the possibility that we could be living in a Matrix-like world and that this is all a dream. Student 1 was really intrigued about that theory, saying we could never know if that was the case. Student 2 was totally into the idea, saying it’s like when we have lucid dreams.

It reminded me of the “brain in a vat” thought experiment.

It basically claims that there is a brain with wires hooked up that is connected to a machine to stimulate a virtual reality. All thoughts, sensations are merely the product of a machine feeding in signals to the brain.

The problem I see with that idea is its solipsistic nature. If there was a “real me” (the dreamer) outside of this dream world, then you and everything else within that dream would just be an illusion. All that would really exist is the real me. But considering there are so many of us, there can’t be only one “real” me. If that’s the case then our minds must be all connected somehow in one large network, much like in The Matrix.

The thing about all this is that there is no proof. You can’t reject or confirm what you can never experience. Even if indeed the idea of a brain in vat or Matrix is true then everything you believe would only be what the machine persuades you to believe. You are not coming to some realization that there is a “more real” world out there. You are only being fed electronic impulses, telling you what to believe. There is no original thought whatsoever. You wouldn’t be able to go beyond the nerve stimuli you receive, which cancels out the whole idea to begin with.

In response to Student 2’s comparison to lucid dreams: It is possible to realize we’re dreaming because we have reality to refer to. In our everyday experiences, we know what reality permits and what it doesn’t permit. If in the dream you have superpowers, then this could be indicative that this is not a reality, thus trigger the awareness that you are in fact dreaming.
However, when it comes to this world, since we have no way of experiencing the “world beyond this world,” we can’t make the connections that would verily affirm that we’re in a dream world.

I was tempted to join the conversation, heh.

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  1. Sumanyu
    March 14, 2011 at 12:33 am

    “But considering there are so many of us, there can’t be only one “real” me.”

    From where do you draw that conclusion?

  2. March 15, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    Ah, when I said “there can’t be only one ‘real’ me,” I didn’t mean there’s more than one copy of myself. Although having read that sentence again I can see how it appears that way. The brain in a vat argument entails you (in this world) are the mental representation of your brain’s thoughts. It assumes only you exist and every one/thing else is an illusion. If this is true then how would we know if I’m the illusion of your mind or not? Because I have my own thoughts, I’d be inclined to say you’re the illusion and it’s my brain that’s in the vat, and vice versa. That’s where the problem is. We wouldn’t know or be able to prove our existence beyond this world. One way around that is to speculate the possibility of there being more than one brain and vat out there, all connected to the same computer. Again, there is no proof.

    Hopefully that answers your question, otherwise I’d be happy to clarify anything else:).

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