A Thought on Distinguishing Pure from Empirical Notions

In the past posts I described a Matrix (person in a vat) scenario with a twist.

Neo’s body which is identical with my body is put in a vat. His sensory organs are connected to random generators. By pure chance it happens so that Neo’s sensory organs are affected in exactly the same way as my sensory organs are affected through my life.

After some number of years, Neo is disconnected from those random generators, and is “returned to real world”.

I want here to propose that the scenario is interesting in the sense that it can help us make a distinction between two groups of concepts (or notions).

In the first group we have things like individual entities, for example people I met in my life, and also natural kinds which I become aware in the world.

While Neo, when he comes out of the Matrix will seem to know all those people and natural kinds, we are aware that he has never in his life seen them, or became aware of them. I compared this to a situation where some fictional character happens to be described with exact properties that some real person has. Even this might be the case, the fictional character won’t be that real person, and only given this distinction can the sentence “the real person has all the same properties as that fictional character” make sense. Same goes for fictional natural kinds, which by pure chance happen to have same properties as a real natural kind. So, whatever Neo is thinking about while in the pure-chance-Matrix, it isn’t those individuals, nor it is those natural kinds. I’m not sure if the name is good, but we might call those “empirical notions”.

In the other group are things like numbers, math theorems, and concepts like THING, CHANGE, MOVEMENT and so on. It seems to me that if Neo while in Matrix thinks about numbers, or thinks about proof of some math theorem, there is no distinction to be made as the distinction we made for individuals and natural kinds. There is no reason to say to Neo “We have a Pythagorean theorem, and it has the same properties as the theorem you thought you know by the name of ‘Pythagorean theorem’, but which was not a real theorem!”. At least I can’t see what we could mean by saying such thing.

So, in general the criteria would be this: pure notions are those things of which we are aware and of which Neo can be aware too while in the pure-chance-Matrix. Empirical notions are those of which we are aware, but of which Neo can’t be aware.

I guess this is not something that will be readily accepted, but given that (by pure chance) someone accepts this, there is an interesting question – which of our notions are pure, and which are empirical?

There is a list of notions which I’m not sure where to put. Take for example artifacts – can Neo be aware of notion of chairs while in pure-chance-Matrix? From one side I’m inclined to think – yes, mostly on the base that someone in the history did thought of chairs, even before any chair was made – namely the first person that invented chairs. So, any relation to actual chairs doesn’t seem required in order to have a notion of chairs. Also, it seems normal to say that there is a possibility for two societies to have chairs, even they were never in any contact with each other. (E.g. if we go to another planet, can’t we find that they have chairs too?) But from other side, chairs are real phenomenon in the world, they have actual history – there are facts about chairs, and surely whatever a pure notion is, there can’t be facts about it? I guess we could think of chairs in terms of possibility – that is in terms as the inventor of chairs thought of them, but also think in terms of actualized possibilities – that would be the phenomenon of chairs. So, in both cases it would be about a possibility, just in one case we would have actualized possibility. We could then say that Neo can be aware of possibility-for-chairs, but not of actual-chairs.