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?

Reality check

Reality check

4 February 2016

At the beginning there was wonder. Or so the story goes, according to ancient wisdom, about the beginnings of philosophical enquiry. Then, there was one question mark – followed by another. A dialogue, or a disagreement. Two words, or maybe three. An eyebrow or a pair of shoulders raised. A laughter. An excuse. Some severe looks, a frowning here and there.

Our Intro gang meets twice a week in the airy ground floor classroom, looking out to the quod, and we have a cocktail of everything – from wonder to laughter.

One of the latest topics on the menu – reality. We spent a glorious first hour discussing what it may be, and how it might differ from being, or existence. Yael offered the cherry on the cake, when she said that, by contrast to being, reality is “almost an interpretation”. Luca and Aasim chipped in, with suggestions about what a difference perception makes, and how conscience differs from consciousness.

It was, all in all, quite a feast. If only Sophia had been there, the joy would have been complete. But didn’t we all feel, at one point or another during the session, the touch of an angel negotiating its way amongst our chairs and desks?!

18 February update

Since then, we’ve travelled to Plato’s cave, which some of us rightly compared to the post-apocalyptical world in The Matrix, we covered our eyes and ears, trying to see beyond appearances and the noise of every-day life experience; we wondered if Brat Pitt knew from the beginning whether he was fighting for the truth or for an illusion (in Fight Club); we pondered, with Descartes, whether the source of our perceptions might be within ourselves or somewhere outside our mind (and body), and if it could be a God or a demon [the jury is still out on that, but there is unanimity with regards to the various substances and their degree of self-sufficiency]; finally, we’ve been following the path towards Heidegger’s hut, wondering what might happen to Being on a cloudy day…

TBC, one hopes

Doris Lessing and the ‘war of the sexes’

Doris Lessing and the ‘war of the sexes’

15 February 2016

On Valentine’s Day, the traffic of feelings (and their symbols) is so intense, as to make it hard to imagine that any shadow of a doubt, regret, or conflict could ever affect the territory between genders. Everyone seems to forget all the pain and misunderstandings caused by the “animal of the heart”, to quote Herta Muller. Either that or they mistake them for something else.

But the opposite is also possible – and it actually happens quite frequently: we sometimes see only conflict between the sexes. A consequence of this is that whole volumes are referred to as ‘feminist’ or ‘misogynistic’, just because they may touch upon one or the other side of the ‘conflict’. This is what happened with Doris Lessing’s 1962 volume, The Golden Notebook. (In what follows, all references are to one of its recent editions, London: Harper Perennial 2007). Indeed, the book is perceived as a feminist one – despite the author’s repeated protests.

For sure, feminism as a social movement is part of the book’s historical background – i.e. the mid-20th century society, which Lessing knew well. She remembers, for instance, that in the ‘50s, British women were struggling – with no jobs and no education, many of them led more difficult lives than their counterparts in the colonies. Ten-twenty years later, when the women’s liberation movement intensified, their situation changed for the better. And some of the paragraphs in the book might, indeed, suggest that feminism is meant to be the main theme, like when she says that the Russian or Chinese revolution are not much, the real revolution is that of women against men (p. 198). And the ‘war’ she is talking about seems to be wide-spread, the resentment – a generalised one, almost impersonal (p. 299). Also, ‘the other’ (sex) is often seen as the manifestation of evil: (s)he hurts us ‘just to see what happens’ (see p. 438). And this ‘just to see what happens’ is something inherent in so many of us, that it is almost woven into who we are (p. 439).

Read more…

On Meaning

On Meaning, this little animal growing up inside until it eats us up or runs away

26 January 2016

There is something deeply alive and partly independent about meaning – and the way it occurs in our life – which never ceases to amaze me. And the idea that we can have theories on it, which we can construct, defend, apply and revise, seems as naïve as it is arrogant and unnecessary, for – if we do make sense of things, artworks, texts, and the world, then why would we need a theory for? And if we don’t, how is a theory going to help us?

That is why I’ve always resisted referring to hermeneutics as a ‘theory’ of interpretation or a set of theories about meaning. I prefer to see it as a practice, which one can be interested in and get better at by doing it, the same way one is interested in carpentry or philosophy, not out of conviction that one would learn a theory and how to successfully apply it.

Last year at a conference in Perth, I spoke about the role of the transformational experience which occurs in genuine hermeneutical events, involving the full-bodied self, with all its fears, memories and desires. I started by looking at existing views concerning the relation between interpreter and meaning, discussing whether any of them succeeds in capturing how understanding actually occurs, and what happens when we make sense of things. Then, I suggested an alternative to these views, in the form of a transformative account of the hermeneutical event mentioned above. Heidegger’s ‘hermeneutical circle’ and Kierkegaard’s ‘recollection’ were some of the concepts I mentioned, in support of this ‘view’ of hermeneutics as practice, rather than theory. But mostly I spoke about the myth of Actaeon, as an illustration of any genuine (and therefore transformational) hermeneutical event. That proved more genuine – as a philosophical exercise – and promising, in terms of its potential to lead to suggestions concerning the role of such transformative events in everyday life, both public and private, than most of my previous – rather more theoretical – attempts on the subject.

At the Margin

At the Margin

25 January 2016

There is something of great potential (and valuable as such, in itself) at the edges of things. Economists talk about marginal cost or benefit and the value of thinking at the margin. But what I mean is more than that. Not only is it worth trying to add value to what we do by going about it in the most efficient way, but it may also be deeply rewarding to explore what is in-between well-established borders (of thought, norms, culture, or country). Truly interesting new ideas spring out from that kind of no-man’s land that lies at the peripheries of something. Take Lev Shestov, for instance, or St Augustine, Simone de Beauvoir or Camus, Nikolai Berdyaev or Unamuno – not quite ‘official’ philosophers (in the way that we might regard Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, or Hegel), but how infinitely poorer would philosophy be without them.

There is a place in the Greek agora, and an inscription next to it, which I’ve always found deeply intriguing – ‘I am the margin of the Agora’, the inscription says. And it would make a fascinating start of a seminar as to what that means