The ‘Brain in a Vat’ thought experiment

The ‘Brain in a Vat’ thought experiment

7 March 2018

Arguably the most famous thought experiment on knowledge and reality, this exercise asks you to imagine that a mad scientist (or another entity) has taken your brain from your body and placed it in a vat of some life-sustaining fluid. Electrodes have been connected to your brain, and these are also linked to a computer that generates images and sensations. So the brain can still think and act as if it were still in a skull, but all the information it processes comes from the computer, which has the ability to simulate your everyday experience. Assuming this was scientifically possible, how would you ever know whether the world around you was real, or just a simulation generated by a computer? From the point of view of that brain, it would be impossible to tell.

The experiment – also called ‘the brain in a jar’ – has been discussed both amongst philosophers and more widely, in film and literature. The Matrix is a well-known example. In philosophy, the exercise reminds us of Descartes’ Meditations, where he questions whether his sensations were really his own, or just a dream, or an illusion caused by an “evil demon”. (Note that this is only a stage in Descartes’ line of interrogation and not the conclusive one).


  • What view of reality and knowledge can this thought experiment be used to support?
  • If someone told you today that your brain was removed at birth, put in a vat and attached to electrodes, and that nothing you’ve seen, heard, or done was real – it was all simulated, what argument could you invoke against this?
  • What if we don’t even know if our brains are real? What if our minds are stimulated directed by an evil demon? What could we say against that?
  • Now, think about the version of scepticism presented in The Matrix. Is it more similar to –
    • Plato’s cave,
    • Descartes’ dream or demon hypothesis, or
    • The brain in a vat scenario?

What would you do if you were Brian? An ethical dilemma

What would you do if you were Brian? An ethical dilemma

15 January 2018

Brian is an expatriate manager working in Shanghai and is in the process of approving the contract for a new recruit. On reviewing the paperwork he notes that the recommended candidate is not the most qualified. He calls the local assistant manager who is a Chinese national to ask for further information. The assistant manager uncharacteristically provides vague and unsatisfying answers to Brian’s questions. Frustrated, Brian says that he is unwilling to sign the contract and asks the recommendation be changed to another candidate.

The assistant manager is clearly agitated and suggests that it is likely to have negative consequences for the company. He explains that the recommended candidate is the son of an important business partner of the company, and that by not selecting this candidate it would likely be difficult to do business, not only with the candidate’s father’s company but with a number of other companies. Brian, and therefore his company, would be seen to be disrespectful of the locals and their business culture.

What action should Brian take?

(Global Business Ethics, 2016: 120)

Truth to Power

Truth to Power

17 December 2017

It’s been 28 years since the start of the Revolution, which ended the half-a-century long communist dictatorship in Romania. A total of TWO torturers have been sentenced to jail so far. Ion Ficior, the former chief of Periprava jail, was responsible for the deaths of 103 political prisoners. Alexandru Visinescu was in charge of the Ramnicu Sarat prison between 1956 and 1963; 12 out of the 138 political prisoners held there at the time died. In both cases, the prosecution showed how prisoners were physically and mentally tortured, denied food and medicines, and kept in conditions below the minimum threshold required to ensure a person’s survival. Both were convicted and received 20-year jail sentences.

Two torturers convicted, out of the thousands active over a 45-year period. Their home was the Securitate – short from Department of State Security, the Romanian secret police agency set up in the 40’s, which became the most notorious of all the secret police forces in the former Soviet bloc.

Two convictions. Is this how we speak truth to a long-defunct power? How we honour the memory of those who died at its hands? Or do we live with some ghosts of that power still?