Monday, May 27, 2013

Philosophy: Brain in a vat argument – truth revealed

Brains in a vat… That sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? Brain in a vat argument is one of the newest thought experiments in philosophy of mind (discussed by John Pollock). Many people raise objection to the brain in a vat theory but are there in fact any arguments against brain in a vat? Can you argue against it? Brains in a vat are used to support sceptical perception of the world and solipsism theory. You should know that this argument is not a real novum. A brain in a vat problem bears a striking resemblance to older theories such as the dream argument by Zhuangzi.

But what is brain in a vat? Imagine an evil scientist whose advanced knowledge enables him to remove your brain and put it in a vat with all nutrients which are necessary to maintain the organ alive. Before your brain was removed it had been receiving electrical signals via neurons in your body. Now it is placed in a vat in the evil scientist’s laboratory and receives signals by electrical stimulation coming from a laboratory computer

Brain in a vat was the inspiration
for science fiction and horror movies
(The Brain That Wouldn't Die, 1959)
The scientist is able to stimulate your brain in whatever way he wants to – he is able to create an impression that you are reading Mind and Philosophy blog as if it were the neurons carrying this information to your brain. He may create an impression that you eat your lunch, read a book etc. There is no way you could realise that you are a brain in a vat since your world perception is limited to your brain. If it is damaged or under narcotic influence, you may experience hallucinations or have a distorted vision of your environment.

René Descartes provides an argument which is often used to refute the theory of the brain in a vat. Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. However, this argument has often been criticised for its hidden premise: “All that thinks exists”. Neither did Descartes justify the premise, nor did he mention it. It should be stressed that it is impossible to justify or (dis)prove this premise. If you (as a brain in a vat) thinks – does it mean that you exist?

 How much of your body can you lose to still be yourself? Are you the same person when you need to have your leg amputated? Most will agree that you are. If you have all four limbs amputated, are you still the same human being? Undoubtedly you are. What would you have to lose to stop being who you are? Does the fact that the brain is kept alive in the laboratory means that it has any consciousness or is it justified to refer to it as to the same person from which it was removed? What about organ donors? If you need a transplantation and, say a liver, is introduced to your body no doctor will tell you that another person is living in you. Why? A liver is not conscious, it is not a person. Why do so many philosophers attribute consciousness or self to this one particular organ – brain?

This brings up the unsolved mind and body problem which lies at the heart of philosophy of mind. What is the relationship between mind and body? Are they interdependent? There is a hidden monistic assumption in the brain in a vat argument. It assumes that consciousness is material and may be explained in terms of neurochemical transmission. If one assumes dualistic perspective and states that not everything is material, then the brain in a vat argument proves nothing as it limits consciousness merely to one, and from medical perspective the most important, organ. Can consciousness exist outside the body? What are your opinions?



1 comment:

  1. On the basis of existing knowledge, I think most people would argue that the conscious mind inhabita the brain. However many people might feel that the brain is just the seat of a consciousness which exists beyond the body, and there is some evidence to support this (scant perhaps, but see Rupert Sheldrake, and the less contestable incidents of paranormal psychology.) I don't know whether to argue that this evidence outside the scientific mainstream suggests that the mind simply makes connections beyond what is traditionally expected or extends beyond the brains material base.

    My concern is that themodel of science we have constructs a theory of the mind which, whilst being themost plausible theory on the existing knowledge, would be discarded if we had greater knowledge - and could contain damaging limitations. I more or less accept that I my consciousness and behaviour function in a mechanistic way, but if that is true can I really say I have a mind at all?

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