A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Cartesian Externalism

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on May 13, 2008

I never saw anything contradictory with the idea that we might be subjects trapped in Matrix type scenario – a brains in vats scenario. Really, given the developments of things like computer generated virtual realities, in which we immerse ourself through gaming, it is easy to imagine the possibility of the simulations being so good that they are indistinguishable from our experiences in real life. And I can’t see anything contradictory with the idea that my body when I was a baby was hooked up to some virtual reality.

Now, there are arguments like Putnam’s one against brain in vats, which are related to certain theory of meaning of the words, but the possibility of virtual reality is so clear, seems to me, that denying the possibility that we are brains in vats on base of that argument, seems to me on par with denying that there is movement based on Zeno’s argument. Certainly there is value in Zeno’s paradoxes, but the value is not in proving that motion is impossible.

Anyway, not just that I don’t see anything contradictory in me being brain in a vat, which is placed within a virtual reality controlled by machines, but I don’t see anything contradictory with the idea that my brain was put in a vat, and that what it was and is getting from the inputs are signals generated by a random process, and that only by mere chance those inputs ended up such that I’m under the illusion that I’m a subject with a life I have, with wife, with kids, with all those experiences.

I think that even this turns out to be true, and every individual thing to which I was acquainted in my life turns out to have been an illusion, I will still have idea of wives, bachelors, chairs, books, philosophy, vats, brains, language, and so on… And, if by mere chance, it also turns out that these illusions were fully inline with what is there really in the world, my intended meanings in the virtual reality, will be fully inline with the meanings in this real world. I will be able to express my previous thoughts (the same thoughts I already had) about bachelors, about books, about brains, language, and so on…

What is interesting to me is how to relate my thinking that those kinds of scenario are possible with some of my externalist inclinations.

As I said, I believe that there is no such thing as ‘phenomenal experience’, and that ‘experience’ properly (and traditionally) refers to the events in the world in which we participate, and by which we are affected or from which we learn, OR (in alternative sense) it refers to the knowledge gained in that way.

Further, related to this, I don’t think there are concepts, if by concepts we mean some constituents of our thinking which would be some things in our heads. As said, I think that words like ‘bachelors’, ‘chairs’, ‘books’ and so on, refer to multitudes of things which are part of certain (and real at that) phenomenon in the world – a phenomenon of which we are aware. (I don’t think that concepts are Platonic ideas neither.)

I would also take externalist position on words meanings also, as I think they only have meaning in the context of language as part of the practices in the society, so again, would take externalist stance on this also.

So, I guess there is some kind of tension between those views. A very interesting dialectic here.

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6 Responses to “Cartesian Externalism”

  1. Clark said

    I think in the context of virtual reality that one can’t neglect that the virtual reality is virtual of something. Let’s say they have horses. Well if you woke up from the matrix and then saw a real horse you’d recognize it and say, “ah, that’s what they were mimicking.” But let’s say in your virtual reality there was a dragon. You might, upon reading history, realize there were no dragons and that the term has no referent.

    The point is that meaning can be either to something real or something purely mental. But we’re able to make the distinction. Just because we may not be able to at one point doesn’t meant the distinction is irrelevant. (Which is what I take certain classes of internalists to be asserting) Of course some internalists can just say that meaning is holistic to deal with this. i.e. the meaning of horse as I learn it is contextually related to the concept of a real world. If we find out that we’re not in the real world then clearly what I once used the terms to refer is now recognized as the improper reference.

  2. Hi Clark,

    I fully agree that in the cases of usual virtual reality scenarios, externalist can point to the relations between what is presented to the subject within the virtual reality, and the outside world. In those cases, we could say that virtual reality is creating illusions of things which are either mimicking real things (or real kinds of things) or maybe fictional things. In both cases, they will be related to the reality, and hence externalist can tell a story about how the meaning of the words of a subject within this virtual reality is connected to the real phenomena (or imagination of real people).

    But, I think the case where one is brain in a vat, and where the illusions are result of pure chance (so, they are not deliberate illusions created by other people) , make such stories impossible to tell for externalist. And I think those scenarios are also possible. I don’t see anything contradictory about the idea that every experience in my life, is nothing but result of random inputs which by pure chance resulted in an illusion that i have had the life that I think I have had. And still, if I’m now in such situation, I would still hold that what I write on this blog, is meaningful (while it would be true that I wouldn’t be in any kind of relation with any society, and while I wouldn’t have had seen any human, or object, or house, or tree, or water, etc…).

  3. Clark said

    This issue of chance seems merely a different way of retelling Davidson’s swampman thought experiment. I’m confess that I find both a bit unconvincing simply because I don’t think that by chance something coherent like that could happen. Put an other way I have a hard time thinking these thought experiments without thinking about entropy.

  4. Yes, I guess you are right about that thought experiment being similar to Davidson’s swampman. Though, it seems to me that this ‘virtual reality by chance’ doesn’t go as far, as the subject is not created at a point at time, the memories are subject’s memories, and so on… just that the subject is subject of perpetual illusion created by chance. That’s why I think it’s possibility is easier to accept.

    Of course, it isn’t plausible that after connecting random generators to a brain in a vat ‘virtual reality by chance’, especially one that lasts a lifetime, contains other people, and so on could happen. But I don’t see why would one think that it isn’t possible.

    The whole system consisting of random input generators, the brain and the vat, might of course be kept in working state by humans in real world, machines or whatever, so I don’t see how entropy would make it impossible.

  5. Clark said

    BTW – relative to the swampman there is the interesting debate in science about Boltzman brains which end up being the same thing.

  6. Thanks for pointing to those Clark. I myself am skeptical of the possibility of the Boltzmann brains or swampman, or at least, I don’t think I have enough knowledge of what we are in order to be able (given that I’m not a physicalist) to say that those scenarios are possible or not.
    However what makes the perpetual illusion scenario different for me, is that it takes a body or a brain as we know it and put it in the situation which is, seems to me, fully possible. As from the virtual reality scenarios, it is pretty clear that there could be illusions of visual or auditory experiences. Of course, there are some problems, like experiences of drinking alcohol, but I think nothing which can’t be provided to the body or brain in the vat.

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