A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Doing Metaphysics In A Vat

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on May 18, 2008

Starting with the scenario from previous posts…

A baby’s brain is put in a vat, and connected with wires to a generator of random electrical impulses. By mere chance, though random, those electrical impulses happen to be such that the subject which is related to the brain is under an illusion of living what we would call normal life within a society. (If you think that other parts of the body are needed for such an illusion to be possible, just imagine the whole body in the vat, like in Matrix)…

I don’t see anything contradictory with the possibility that I, myself am subject related to such brain (or body) in a vat.

Accepting this means that I accept that whatever I said, has same meaning, unrelated to the fact if I am living real life or pure-chance-random-generators life. And that I can think of this issue, unrelated to the fact if I am subject of illusion or not. (Though of course, there are some problems with the details here. First there might not be any electrical force in the real world, or there might be no such things as brains, but I think that what is important that the general idea of being a subject of perpetual illusion is the same thing be I subject of perpetual illusion or not.)

As one, if I am subject of illusion the things I’ve seen are not real. So, the people, objects, animals, etc… were not real. But for me to be able to think and say this, I need to have a valid notion of ‘real thing’, to distinguish those from ‘illusions’, and so on. The problem is of course, if nothing I’ve seen is real, how can I have notions like those.

In the past post, I presented the idea, that while I never became aware of anything real while subject of perpetual hallucination, I’ve become aware of possibilities of different things. It is interesting, relating to the issue of what kind of notions I need to have in order to be able to say that I might have been subject of perpetual illusion, to think about what kinds of possibilities I might be aware… So, here is some list of important notions, I think I am having, unrelated to the issue if I was subject of perpetual illusion or not…

I must have had become aware of the possibility of objects, multitudes of things, kinds of things, perceiving things, others perceiving things (by ‘others’, I don’t mean necessarily people, at least not in biological sense, as there might not be such things as people), possibility of open possibilities in the world and acting in order to actualize a possibility, possibility of communication as a way of acting (in different ways – like to communicate what one knows, to ask, to order, and so on), possibility of all kind of different social relations.

We can contrast those things with a)I have simply been wrong in using name to refer to the illusionary thing, as there wasn’t anything there to which I was referring – I was simply wrong. It was similar to fictional things, and as such as much something in real life is alike that illusionary thing, I can’t say that I meant that real thing, by using the name. b)Also, to some amount when talking about multitudes of illusionary things sharing some similarity, as much the similarity can be seen as possibility, it is questionable how much to this notion it is critical that the multitude is seen as a real multitude, about which we can figure out more truths. So, I would be inclined that in lot of cases to say that if we referred to illusionary kinds, those words can’t mean real kinds, like lemons, water, and so on…

Given this contrast, I want to propose this principle (let us call it… metaphysics while in illusion principle, or maybe better just P1):

P1: We can think a priori about (and only about) things of which we can think of, even if we were subjects of the perpetual illusion scenario.

This will include notions like object, multitude of objects, kinds, possibilities and acting, society, practices, communication, numbers, change (also time and space), good and evil, and all those other notions, that a subject could think about even living life under perpetual illusion, and which are the same things that we (living real lives) are thinking of.

So, what would be the argument for P1. Let me attempt to give an argument…

Given that I can think of something while subject of perpetual illusion that other people which live real lives are thinking about, there is nothing which would determine the reference to that thing which is not already there, when I have the thing in my mind

Given, that we have this thing (this notion) clearly before our mind, we can then try to figure out possibilities and necessities within or related to that notion.

OK, that was I guess kind of a bad argument (in the sense that I don’t think it is very convincing), but besides the argument let me also point to one case of notions on which lot of people might agree with P1. That is the case of mathematics… While I would think it is pretty straightforward that science done under illusion can’t be real science or tell us anything about the world, the case with mathematics seems different. I can think about triangles, angles, sums, and so on while in ‘hallucination-world’, about the same triangles people think in the real world. But also if I become aware of the proof of Pythagorean theorem, because some illusionary guy on illusionary place seemed to teach it to me, it won’t make the knowledge I gain in such way wrong. What is important that I understood and comprehended the Pythagorean theorem (even as it happened – as a result of very peculiar events). So, while specific case, I think this can nicely pump your intuition into accepting P1.

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2 Responses to “Doing Metaphysics In A Vat”

  1. Gary Williams said

    The idea of doing science while in a vat is pretty stimulating. The very idea of doing science while under perpetual illusion seems to invalidate the idea of being in a vat, because if you are able to study the origins of the cosmos and the physical constants of the universe, then wouldn’t the illusion-reality be the same exact experience as the real-world?

    For instance, if you can do science in the perpetual illusion-world then you can investigate the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle states that if the universal constants were any different, we wouldn’t exist, so wouldn’t the universal constants have to be the same if we were in a vat, because either way, there would have to be an underlying substratum of physical matter for there to be vats at all.

    So, I would say that if you can do science while under perpetual illusion and trace a causal history stretching back from the big bang to the current day, then strictly speaking, there couldn’t be any existential difference between the two realities due to the anthropic principle.

    Does that make sense?

  2. Hi Gary, that is very interesting!

    I was thinking for a while on what you are saying and I think it is neat issue.

    I see no problem in a person becoming aware of the anthropic principle while being in a vat… it is pretty abstract principle, and doesn’t depend on becoming aware of real individual things or kinds.

    One problematic thing would be however the existence of the exact physical laws and types of elementary particles which we “find” while under perpetual illusion. Though given those exact physical laws, and types of elementary particles, the physical constants have to be as they are for life to appear, the issue is still there if maybe there could be some different physical laws and elementary particles. Further, is a world possible, where there wouldn’t be physical particles, and physical laws at all?

    Thinking about it this way, maybe we could include the anthropic principle in those things about which we can think a priori (even if in the vat), i.e. add it to our metaphysical conclusions.

    I’m very interested in this line of thought, because I’m interested in this relation between the becoming aware of real things (in the external manner), and what further can we become aware of about those things. While it seems to me that this first – becoming aware of real things, is something which we can’t have while subject of perpetual illusion (by definition), the further we go away from this direct acquaintance with individuals, we in fact deepen our understanding. But it is interesting that the further we go from this direct acquaintance, it also seems more possible that we could become aware of the same things even if subject of perpetual illusion (so without direct acquaintance).

    So, yes, your words made sense, and I can now only hope what I said made sense too! :)

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