philosophy: brain in a vat

One of the theories I find most interesting, is the brain in a vat, or the newer version of it: the simulation.

Ever since I watched the first matrix, the possibility of living in a simulation intrigued me and thanks to Elon Musk, this theory has been given some credibility. A lot of researchers believe in the theory that we live in a very sophisticated version of a computer simulation, not in our exact time period, but in a simulation build by people 10 000 years from now.

This theory of a simulation has been discussed by the ancient greeks, by Plato. He called it the allegory of the cave, or how would we know if we lived in something other than a simulacrum of reality.

Later descartes thought of it in the form of a demon that controlled your reality, which helped him create his most famous sentence: “Cogito Ergo Sum”: I think therefore I am.

There is also a version that sprang from this, called the brain in a vat theory, from which the computer simulation theory comes forth by Nick Bostrom.

There is an article I recently read, that tries to refute this theory. I must admit, this is a theory I have spent much time thinking and philosphising about, and I have found no argument that can refute the theory.

Their flawed logic is that they only focus on what we see, There are other senses as well, like taste, touch, smell,… So, if these computer programmers can copy your sense of sight to make things appear real for your senses (let’s think of our brains somewhere in a vat in a laboratory, hooked up to a computer), can’t they by stimulating our brain in other ways, give us a sense of touch, smell and taste as well? Would that be so difficult to simulate? And by (and I’m only speaking for the brain in a vat theory), would it be so difficult to feed our brain the necessary nutrients to keep us alive, outside of a body? Creating a complete computer simulation is even easier than this, so why is it completely nuts? What if a perfect simulation is possible? Would it be indistinguisable from reality?

This has been a philosphical debate for ages. What is reality? This goes back to one of the most difficult to answer questions in philosophy. What is materialism and what is phenomenology? I answered the answer on an exam a few years ago by looking at a bar of chocolate (I live in Belgium, this was by far the easiest example). A materialist would look at the ingredients and the chemicals in the chocolate bar, while a phenomenologist (try to say that 10 times very fast, I dare you!) would feel what his senses are telling him and deam that the most important. Both have their merit, for me, I would rather taste a piece of chocolate than completely dissect it to know what it is.

I thought of something while writing this article, spawned by one of the images in the article. There is on notion, most of the philosophers before, and now, have not added to their philosophical thinking. Hypnosis.

Hypnosis, inherently, helps the hypnotist create a simulated reality (only for the moment) in the spectators mind, and defines the boundaries of that reality, for example, he makes them forget their name. Other uses for hypnosis are used to make them not feel pain, so they can get blood drawn without tranquilizers. So, if it is possible by using just linguistic constructs, to make the brain do other things, than in a “normal” everyday world, why can’t a computer simulate this reality then?


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