This is the first blogpost on a philosophical topic of hopefully many to come.
I started taking philosophy in my last year of high school. This class has taught me so much more than I would initially have thought! After (and while) I took that class, I started to realize how much of the books that I have read and the movies that I have watched are based on philosophies that are hundreds of years old.
During the next few weeks I would like to discuss some of the philosophies that we encounter in modern day science fiction.
Back when I was still in school, the Brain in a Vat thought experiment was the topic that impressed me most, so let’s start with that.
The “Brain in a Vat” Thought Experiment
Simply put, a thought experiment is when you consider a theory, or hypothesis. You just think about it, you don’t even need the intention to actually test your hypothesis.
The Brain in a Vat thought experiment focuses on truth, meaning, and particularly reality. The theory is that a brain would be taken from a body and hooked up to a computer, which would stimulate it electronically, making it perceive a world as it normally would in a human body.
Considering the above, we could ask ourselves: how do we know that our brains are in our skulls, and not in some mad scientist’s vats? The Brain in a Vat hypothesis suggests that we wouldn’t even know.
The “Brain in a Vat” experiment is based on many theories, among which René Descartes’ “evil daemon” theory (Meditations on First Philosophy, 1641 – Descartes is most famous for the quote “I think, therefore I am”). Descartes suggests the existence of an evil daemon, that would present an illusion that would make you believe you have a body and that you experience its sensations, while in fact you have no body. The evil daemon would make you believe there’s an external world, while there is no world at all.
It’s unlikely that you haven’t seen the movie The Matrix. The Matrix depicts a future world in which (human-built) sentient machines dominate the human kind. They have put (nearly) all people in incubators (or vats) and they are hooked to the machines. The energy that the human body generates is stored and used by the machines. While in those vats, the people experience a reality that is not real – a simulated reality, created (and controlled) by the machines.
You can see how this is essentially based on the “Brain in a Vat” theory, although in The Matrix, the people are all linked to a world created by the machines. They don’t actually perceive a world that their own brains have produced through electrical impulses.
The reality the person (or, if we pay attention to semantics, ”the one perceiving”) would be in, could be called a “simulated reality”, as it would be simulated by a computer (or a brain). This is different from the better known virtual reality, because the fake (virtual) reality is easily distinguishable from the real one.
There are a multitude of modern day sci-fi movies and episodes of TV shows that are based on the notion of the “Brain in a Vat” experiment and simulated reality. From the top of my head I can name a couple of episodes of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis that were based on the theory (some subtly and some not at all subtly).
There is a German movie, called Goodbye, Lenin! (although it’s not really sci-fi), that is set around the fall of the Berlin Curtain. The mother of a family has a near deadly heart-attack and falls into a coma. When she wakes up physically and mentally weakened, the Wall has already fallen. Her two children are afraid that the shock of this news is too great for her to bear, and create a world around her that obscures the news. They even create fake news broadcasts to maintain their illusion.
This is a simulated reality, but I’m not sure if you could say it’s a Brain in a Vat.
I’ve seen this movie many times and I would recommend it to everyone! It’s good to move away from Hollywood at times, and Germany produces great movies (Das Experiment, although totally unrelated, is a good German movie as well).
Another great example is the more recent movie Inception, where the main characters have to be careful not to be pulled into the simulated reality of a person’s dream.
I have often thought about the “Brain in a Vat” hypothesis. It started when I was following the philosophy course in high school.
In my opinion, the “Brain in a Vat” hypothesis as I outlined it cannot be real. There are too many instances where I think “there is no way I could have made up all this myself”. There is no way that I could have made up Descartes “evil daemon”, or for instance, rugby. Or the thousands of movies out there.
Perhaps I’m seriously underestimating the capability of my brain, but I simply can’t make myself believe that it’s capable to do that on its own. However, that does make me wonder if our reality (or my reality) isn’t an assembly of realities, created by multiple brains.
Please share your thoughts on this topic, I would love to hear what you think about it!