Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Brain in a VAT

Subsequent to the suggestion made by Susan Marie a few days ago I am in the process of designing a book synopsis for my publisher. It is my intention to write a book discussing the philosophical underpinnings and subsequent implications of CTF. We have touched upon this subject many times on this blog and I am of the opinion that a really fascinating book could be written on this subject.

As part of my research I have started to re-read the fascinating The Matrix & Philosophy book edited by Professor William Irwin of Kings College Pennsylvania. (I know that Bill is an occasional reader of this blog so if you are out there in cyberspace, Bill, maybe post a comment). As we are all very aware The Matrix movies are profoundly itladian in their philosophy so a book on this subject will be full of fascinating parallels. One that particularly caught my attention last time I read the book is a thought experiment suggested by retired Harvard philosopher professor Hilary Putnam.

Professor Putnam's 'brains in a vat' proposal can be found in his "Reason, Truth & History" (Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp 1-21). He proposes a scenario:

"Imagine that a human being (you can imagine this to be yourself) has been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. The person's brain (your brain) has been removed from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. There seem to be people, objects, the sky, etc.; but really, all the person (you) is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings. The computer is so clever that if the person tries to raise his hand, the feedback from the computer will cause him to 'see' and 'feel' the hand being raised. Moreover, by varying the program, the evil scientist can cause the victim to 'experience' (or hallucinate) any situation or environment the evil scientist wishes. He can also obliterate the memory of the brain operation, so that the victim will seem to himself to have always been in this environment. It can even seem to the victim that he is sitting and reading these very words about the amusing but quite absurd supposition that there is an evil scientist who removes people's brains from their bodies and places them in a vat of nutrients which keep the brains alive. The nerve endings are supposed to be connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that..."

Putnam then adds an interesting twist on this scenario. He adds:

"This time let us suppose that the automatic machinery is programmed to give us all a collective hallucination, rather than a number of separate unrelated hallucinations. Thus, when I seem to myself to be talking to you, you seem to yourself to be hearing my words. Of course, it is not the case that my words actually reach your ears — for you don't have (real) ears, nor do I have a real mouth and tongue. Rather, when I produce my words, what happens is that the efferent impulses travel from my brain to the computer, which both causes me to 'hear' my own voice uttering those words and 'feel' my tongue moving, etc., and causes you to 'hear' my words, 'see' me speaking, etc. In this case, we are, in a sense, actually in communication. I am not mistaken about your real existence (only about the existence of your body and the 'external world', apart from brains). From a certain point of view, it doesn't even matter that 'the whole world' is a collective hallucination; for you do, after all, really hear my words when I speak to you, even if the mechanism isn't what we suppose it to be. (Of course, if we were two lovers making love, rather than just two people carrying on a conversation, then the suggestion that it was just two brains in a vat might be disturbing.) "

Is this not exactly what I suggest is happening in my Bohmian IMAX? However unlike Putnam (and, by implication the writers of the Matrix - the Wachowski Brothers) I suggest a neurological scenario by which this may be an actuality and not a speculative fiction. I present evidence that for most of those reading these words (specifically those who experience deja vu) this life, this 'phaneron', is an illusion, a Maya, created by the brain itself.

I do not need bizarre 'brains in vats' or malevolent aliens to bring about my thought experiment - just observed neurological science and subjective experiences as reported by many of my readers and thousands of others around the world - and in doing so present not only an alternative paradigm of existence but also a potential explanation of why mortality may be an illusion.

Of course, as I continue to stress, this is just a theory ......


Athamandia said...

Gurdjieff talked about personal buffers and Kundabuffer. Robotic illusions, giving the impression we are living a "real" life when in fact we're insulated from "real" by associations and fantasy. I guess we all see what we're familiar with (it's a buffer!) When I saw The Matrix in the theater all I saw was pure Gurdjieff, but lots of other people saw lots of other philosophies.

Putnam's proposal could pass for Kundabuffer, though. An organ implanted in ancient humans to stop them from leaving the planet (suiciding) once they found themselves localized in a human body. It's long been removed, but we haven't noticed. Kundabuffer prevents us from seeing ourselves. All our selves.

susan marie said...

Also reminds of the Cartesian soliloquy, leading up to the cogit (ergo, sum): that all we see or seem is but a dream sent us by a Deceiver. Descartes had something far more important that he was fighting for with his hyperbolic doubt, than most people care to know. At least it always seemed so to me.

Anthony Peake said...


Thanks for your comment. I have to admit that although I have read a good deal of Ouspensky's writings I have not had the opportunity to read any Gurdjieff (another synchronicity by the way - I was chatting to a Georgian/Armenian lady yesterday and Gurdjieff came up in our conversation).
Clearly his ideas and theories will need to be included.

Susan Marie,
I agree with your observation with regard to Descartes. It certainly is a frightening idea that reality is not as it seems. When I first read Descartes I was reminded of the character Roquentin in Satre's "Nausea" and how he suddenly loses his ability to perceive things as real things but as fabrications. As Satre writes (as Roquentin) " "nothing seemed true; I felt surrounded by cardboard scenery which could quickly be removed".
Indeed that last quote could have been taken from the movies "The Truman Show" when the central character discovers that his world is really an elaborate TV set - a place that he has lived all his life. He is the subject of the ultimate 'reality' TV show.

Of course I would argue that the movie the Truman Show was an adaption of a short-story by Philip K Dick called "Time Out Of Joint". Written in 1959 this has an almost identical story line but with the most wonderful Dickian twist at the end. As I will argue in my next book, Dick was, yet again, using fiction to explain his TLE-accessed perceptions of what we know as the Bohmian IMAX.

Athamandia said...

Tony -- this is personal bias -- Ouspensky's "In Search of the Miraculous" offered a great introduction to Gurdjieff, but after that, Ouspensky's work stayed too much in the intellect. There's a crossing to be made, into 4 dimensional experience, and Ouspensky rejected the task. Can't blame him. Gurdjieff deliberately cloaked the crossing in darkness, and pushed O's buttons to see if he'd flinch. G and his crafty teaching style. As a result, again IMHO, O's knowledge only went so far. I like John G. Bennett --"Gurdjieff: Making a New World". For straight introduction, it doesn't get any better than Kathleen Riordan Speeth's little book, "The Gurdjieff Work". As to G himself, "Meetings w/Remarkable Men" is a book and a film. "Views from the Real World" a record of G's early talks, lots of interesting things there.

Anthony Peake said...

Athamandia - I was introduced to Ouspensky's writings via Rodney Collin's book "The Theory of Celestial Influence". In fact in the original version of ITLAD I discuss Collin's theories in some detail (I may put a posting of this for debate). I had known about Gurdjieff but only through the movie you mention. I will check his writings out in more detail.