A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Perpetual Illusion And Abilities

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on May 21, 2008

I keep thinking about the perpetual illusion scenario. That is the scenario where baby’s brain is put into a vat and connected to a sources of random electrical impulses. It so happens that by mere chance, the impulses happen to be such that the baby is under illusion of living normal life within society. So, in few last posts I was defending the possibility that I am such brain, and I also was discussing different issues related to this, like:

  1. How is this possible? I pointed that while the subject doesn’t become aware of anything real while subject of perpetual illusion, she may become aware of different possibilities. For example, she may become of the possibility that there are things, movement, multitude of things, possibility for there to be certain number of things, and so on…
  2. Related to this, I pointed to the principle that if she can think of those things, she can also think a priori about those things. The easiest to point to was the example with the numbers, where proofs of mathematical theorems that she learns (comprehends) while being subject of perpetual illusion, will be the same proofs that we comprehend in real world.

Here, I want to discuss another issue related to the scenario, and that is, if we become aware of those possibilities while not being presented with real instances of those possibilities, does that mean that we have innate ideas of those possibilities (e.g. possibilities of things, motion, numbers, language, colors, and so on)?

It is pretty attractive idea I think. We would say that because in the illusion those notions were not present, it can’t be that those notions came from “outside”. So, those ideas must have been in “our minds” even before we became aware of them. I guess, for the last sentence to make more sense, we would be inclined to say that we remember them, or recognize them. That would take care of the issue of how could they be “in our minds” but we weren’t aware of them.

I don’t buy this story. When I become aware of something new, I don’t remember it. It is a fact that I was never aware of it before. And in the phenomenology, I don’t experience it as something that I recognize, but I’m usually mesmerized – I feel that my awareness of the world is getting bigger – I’m now aware of something that I wasn’t aware of, something which I had no idea of before, something that I wasn’t expecting before also. Take a case of the subject of perpetual illusion for the first time seeing an illusion of red thing. From that experience she becomes aware of the possibility of there being red things (even not seeing a real red thing), but is she really remembering the possibility that there be red things? I think not, I think this new color is that – new color for this subject. It is not something which was there in her mind the whole time, it is something which she became aware of only in virtue of this experience.

So, the phenomenological description doesn’t imply at all that we are remembering or recognizing in some way those notions. We become aware of those in virtue of the experiences. But, we are back to the problem that those notions (or as I said possibilities) are not there in the experience itself.

To me it seems that good way to approach this issue is to relate this to innate abilities. While we might not have those notions in ourselves as such, we might be born with the abilities to become aware of those things (‘be born with’ should be taken in a loose way, as those abilities might be developed also automatically later in life, e.g. in early childhood). It seems that this is pretty common-sense approach. We aren’t aware of things before we are born, but when we are born we can become aware of the things through our perception. It is our perception which is this ability to become aware of things. We also have the abilities to become aware of colors, sounds, movement, multitudes of things, numbers of things, and so on…

This can be related to this different approach to the issue of other minds, that I’m pointing to from time to time. One of the approaches to other minds issues (the issue of how do we know that other people are conscious) is analyzed through the idea of theories which relate the behavior of the people as a thing that we see directly to the “invisible minds” which are behind those actions. But, why not say in this case also that we are born with the ability to see subjects qua subjects. To see them as acting with intentions, to see them as aware of things that we are aware of, and so on (one can point to the researches here which show that we can be very precise in figuring out where the other person is looking at.)…

Anyway, back to the topic. The general idea is then, that our abilities are such that we easily become aware of some things. Be that the objects around us, where they move, what other people look at, what they are doing and so on. Simply said, we are born as beings which can become aware of things. And this our ability is limited, and focused – we become aware of some things more easily than of another things.

But we are not out of the woods yet, as even we allow that we are born with abilities to become aware of those notions, it doesn’t answer the question of how come we become aware of those, when they are not even there (in the case of perpetual illusion)

I will think/write on it in the next post I guess…

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7 Responses to “Perpetual Illusion And Abilities”

  1. Gnomon said

    I have seen several posts about the “perpetual illusion scenario”. You have described it as a scenario where a baby’s brain is put into a vat and connected to a sources of random electrical impulses, so that “by mere chance”, the impulses happen to be such that the baby is under illusion of living normal life within society.

    I have a few thoughts about this construction that you may or may not wish to consider:

    1. Our everyday experience is not constructed from “random impulses”. The things we think we see are coordinated with the things we think we hear, feel, touch, smell, taste, etc. For instance, an object that “looks roundish” also “feels roundish” when handled. If all impulses were random, something could look roundish while feeling angular. I’m sure you can think of many more experiences where the sensations are coordinated, not “random”. Since this is so for the apprehension of a simple object, it becomes more so for the apprehension of systems, societies, etc. So the premise of randomity in the thought experiment is neither germane to the creation of illusion nor to the conditions under which a baby learns anything. You may be tempted to adjust your scenario to make it work by semantic illusion, but then it becomes an artful surrealism, not a thought experiment.

    2. “Illusion” is a concept that can only arise if there are degrees of illusion to distinguish from not being so illuded. For instance, we may awake from a dream feeling certain that the dream was “real”, but that feeling soon fades as we stir and rise to our everyday reality. There is no clue from the perpetual illusion scenario how any illusion would be created by the baby, and if the electrical impulses are truly random, the idea that they would give the illusion of a comprehensible reality is itself an illusion, as the previous item explains.

    3. A brain in a vat, even in a fantasy thought experiment, needs a physical reality in which to sit. The vat takes up space, contains liquids that must be circulated, contains electrical conductors connected to some source of signal generation, needs controls for maintaining conditions conducive to the survival of the brain, needs a structure for supporting and sheltering the vat, etc etc. All these items don’t spring full blown from a “vat-big-bang” but are necessarily constructed through the agency of other brains which apparently are not confined to vats. If one is to concede such a reality for the vat construction, why not just dispense with the vat (Occam’s razor) as an unnecessary added device. After all, the human skull is a sort of portable “vat”, and all the usual arguments about the gap between whatever might be “real” and the experiences that are presented to our awareness by our sensory apparatus are still available for consideration.

    4. A baby, or any person, learns slowly how to coordinate their vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell and use thinking to make deductions and predictions, by being immersed in a reality that is constrained to operate in certain coordinated ways. Added to this reality are many other individuals who have learned to manipulate the objects of reality, and have learned to manipulate the emotions of persons they come in contact with. As a result of benign or harsh learning conditions, some persons may learn the benefits of charity while others learn the fleeting advantages of deceit. The complex interactions of people learning about reality make the reality and the learning more complex. Thought experiments are an interesting way to study possibility, but only if they are constructed to respect the requirements of possibility. It is not possible to eat your cake before you have received it.

    (Btw, i found your site because the irc chat room on undernet called #philosophical had a link to it in its welcome message.)

  2. 1.

    Our everyday experience is not constructed from “random impulses”.

    I’m not saying that it is. I’m just saying that by mere chance full illusion of living a normal life within society is possible. By mere chance the illusion is such that illusionary objects that seem roundish also feel roundish there. By mere chance, it is such a perfect illusion that everything is “coordinated”. Yes, it is even bigger coincidence in case of more complex things, but there.. in that thought experiment, it all happened by mere chance… all those coincidences

    2.
    Not sure that I understand your second point. The illusion is not created by the baby. The baby is a subject of a perpetual illusion. Somebody else fixed the whole random-matrix-thing.

    3.
    Of course there is an underlying reality, I’m OK with other sentient being taking the baby and putting it in the vat, connecting it to the generators of random impulses taking care of the liquid with the chemicals, food, and whatever it takes.
    The question I am raising by the thought experiment is can we become aware of things while being subject of illusion. The role of the perpetual illusion there is to remove any “contact” to real things, and make this issue more salient. So, while we can find similar cases in our normal life to discuss, I think put in this kind of extreme form, more interesting issues pop-up.

    4. Same as in 1. Everything you say IS present by mere chance in that illusion in which the baby is. So, “there are” illusionary constraints, illusionary other people, illusionary teachers, all that coincidentally “coordinated” as in real life.

  3. Trey said

    The ‘brain in a vat’ thought experiment rests on the notion that experience is fundamentally representational in nature. The idea of a ‘brain in a vat’ experiencing itself living in an illusory world implies that experience is something that happens inside a brain. As you touched on in another post, the very idea of the ‘phenomenal’ is a dogma of our age (and under the category of the dogma ‘mind’ in general). So much so that it is actually difficult to imagine how it could be otherwise (from a representational system). For most people (in my experience) you can articulate the standard Cartesian position to and will reply with an unequivocal ‘so what’s the problem?’

    The problem is simply that experience is not something that happens in a brain. This is a purely linguistic construction of how experience is. I am not saying that the brain does not play an intregal role, nor that perhaps the brain is something like the ‘motor’ behind it all, only that unless experience is something that literally happens inside of a brain then the brain in a vat experiment is….well very improbable I think.

  4. Hi Trey, thanks for the comment!

    I’m not sure that the brain in vat thought experiment rests on the idea that experience is representational in nature. As you’ve pointed I’ve argued against the very notion of “phenomenal experience” in several posts, but I don’t see why the scenario would be impossible. I mean… what is impossible with it? I don’t see anything impossible about connecting the sensory organs to some random generators, or that those generators by pure chance are generating the same inputs as the sensory organs of some real person living normal live happens to receive.

    Anyway, I don’t think that this possibility needs to get us back to the dogma of “phenomenal experience” as something which happens in the head. I think it is a genuine issue for externalists, and that in attempt to solve it, interesting conclusions should follow.

  5. Trey said

    The BiaV rests on the idea that there is stimuli that effects the brain in which turn the brain then forms an image based on the information sent by that stimuli. I don’t think this is what happens. For example, when I see something (and that is extremely abstract..because we never just ‘see’ something, we are always engaged in a full blown experience) I don’t think what I am seeing is a mental image resulting from my brain caused by some stimuli out in the world. However,

    I want to backtrack, as the model of experience is not the issue here. I see the experiment as ‘improbable’..not impossible. I think the closest thing we have to a comparison are dreams. I am wary of the analogy because dreams are not something that happens as a result of something hooked up to the brain sending in information (presumably). The problem with virtual reality is that one is actually using eyes and ears and skin…so it’s actually not a ‘virtual’ experience…it’s just a different kind of experience. Anyways, to make the long story short and my original point…

    for the brain in a vat to work it seems to me that you would need a model of experience in which something (call it noumena, stimuli, whatever) causes something (neuron transmissions) that result in the brain actually forming an image / experience (the representation). If experience doesn’t happen like this…they why would we really think a brain in a vat is a serious possibility? Of course, if you do think experience happens like that…then you have something to think about. But, my point in the post was to point out the dependence on this model of experience for the experiment…I haven’t read anything that I can think of where someone has brought this out in their discussion of the experiment…but I haven’t spent a lot of time looking around either…

  6. Trey said

    so, I guess I wasn’t really making debate or challenging anything specifically. I am just bringing up a discussion point that I personally find interesting about the brain in a vat experiment.

  7. You say: “The BiaV rests on the idea that there is stimuli that effects the brain in which turn the brain then forms an image based on the information sent by that stimuli. I don’t think this is what happens. For example, when I see something (and that is extremely abstract..because we never just ’see’ something, we are always engaged in a full blown experience) I don’t think what I am seeing is a mental image resulting from my brain caused by some stimuli out in the world.”

    And I’m fully in agreement on that. But I don’t think that we must be internalists to accept the possibility of BiV, at least possibility of the abstract idea. We can put it in another way – two different experiences (where “experience” is taken in externalist sense – or as I usually take it – as events in the world in which the subject participates, and in which the subject is affected somehow), can be subjectively indistinguishable. I guess that is the whole point of something being an illusion – the two events are of different kind, but because of the limits of our perception, they ‘look’ the same to us. It is what magicians use to trick us.

    Also I agree that it is extremely improbable, especially in the form in which I put it, where what is there is merely generators of random inputs. But even it is extremely (and ‘extremely’ is understatement) improbable, it is logically possible, and as such I think it brings up genuine issues.

    Your point about the ‘virtual’ not being the right word… I agree that still it is kind of experience, and that it can’t be brain in vats all the way down. But, in some BiV scenarios I think still ‘virtual’ works, as we could use it to refer to the nature of the events in which the subject participates. And if the nature is such that somebody built machines which would create a intricate illusion, then I think THAT is what we can mean by ‘virtual’.

    Anyway, I’m thankful for your bring up those issues :)

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