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    1. #1
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      Lightbulb Discussion: "Brain In A Vat" Theory

      Hello everybody.
      I have recently been reading up on variuos philosophical theories on wikipedia. This morning, I stumbled upon an article about the "Brain In A Vat" theory. The basic idea is that someone or something has a human brain in a vat/jar of proteins and chemicals. This brain is fed electrical impulses that cause it to have sensations and experiences vision.

      The article is below:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_in_a_vat

      I, personally, don't have any belief in the idea but I thought I'd post it here for discussion and whatnot.
      Last edited by Super Duck; 09-30-2007 at 12:13 PM.

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      Member Bonsay's Avatar
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      Well if this is true or not, it doesn't change anything. We are just a brain in a vat fed by impulses even when we are in a human body.
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      That's true, although as it occurs in our human body, it is a natural process. However, if we are literally a brain in a jar of chemicals there is something choosing our life for us. I suppose in some respect this could be seen as another approach to a God.

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      Member Bonsay's Avatar
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      Only if you believe in souls, free will etc. When we look objectively at the universe - we are just molecules, then it doesn't matter if you are in a jar or a skull, something is choosing our life for us in both cases.
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      Science is not about the truth. Science is about creating practical models of the world around us which are capable of predicting phenomena.

      With that in mind, even if we are just a brain in a vat, unless there is something which would be testably different about the world around us then it doesn't matter. If the impulses being fed to the brain in the vat are perfectly modeled after the 'real world', then it makes no difference whether or not the world the brain experiences is actually real, practically speaking.

      The theory is not wrong or right, it is simply irrelevant either way.

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      Nobody said that science is about a truth. But now that you've started, then yes science is about the truth. If science wasn't out there to find the true nature out there then what's the point? Speed goes at c not some other x speed. So those practical models are true or false when looking at it from the same point of view.

      All theories aren't right or wrong. But if you get proof they certainly aren't irrelevant.
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      Quote Originally Posted by Bonsay View Post
      Nobody said that science is about a truth. But now that you've started, then yes science is about the truth. If science wasn't out there to find the true nature out there then what's the point? Speed goes at c not some other x speed. So those practical models are true or false when looking at it from the same point of view.

      All theories aren't right or wrong. But if you get proof they certainly aren't irrelevant.
      Science is not out to find the 'true nature'. Science is out to create models which help us predict phenomena. A great example of this is Newtonian Physics - it's now known to be inapplicable at certain orders of magnitude (and therefore clearly not representative of the 'true nature' you speak of) and yet, it's still very useful as a method of predicting phenomena, so we keep it.

      This theory of a brain in a vat IS irrelevant. It's irrelevant because you can't get proof of it, inherently. Anything you 'discover' to prove it wrong could theoretically have been fed into your brain which is in a vat. The theory does not help us predict any phenomena, it does not make any testable predictions. Therefore, it is irrelevant.

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      Member Bonsay's Avatar
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      But it does represent the true nature, to a certain degree (newtonian physics). If it is correct enough, or if it predicts phenomena well enough to satisfy our needs then we could say it's true. If it's just a theory without proof and it doesn't predict phenomena, then it's not true for our universe, so not true at all. Newtonian physics is false.

      The brain in a vat does predict phenomena. It's just more complex than "why is the sky blue" or "what happens to the sun...". Although you're right that it's irrelevant, since you can never be sure. But it could still be important to a "branch" of science, if they want to know what's really going on. In that case it would stop being irrelevant, it would be came the object of study, the most important thing of all.

      True or false is if something is correct or not. Lets say my equation predicts that the ball I throw will create a black hole. If that happens then this theory is now true, if it doesn't it's false. What I did was science. We are talking if something can be scientifically true or not. In our case nature is the truth.
      Last edited by Bonsay; 10-03-2007 at 05:51 PM.
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      Quote Originally Posted by thegnome54 View Post
      Science is not out to find the 'true nature'. Science is out to create models which help us predict phenomena. A great example of this is Newtonian Physics - it's now known to be inapplicable at certain orders of magnitude (and therefore clearly not representative of the 'true nature' you speak of) and yet, it's still very useful as a method of predicting phenomena, so we keep it.

      This theory of a brain in a vat IS irrelevant. It's irrelevant because you can't get proof of it, inherently. Anything you 'discover' to prove it wrong could theoretically have been fed into your brain which is in a vat. The theory does not help us predict any phenomena, it does not make any testable predictions. Therefore, it is irrelevant.
      I disagree with the argument of irrelevancy. With the eminent push for the creation of fully-autonomous artificial intelligence, it is just this very concept that science will have to investigate. When creating artificial intelligence that operates on a science-fictional (as of now) standard, it would be irresponsible for the scientists to create a fully autonomous robot, that operates to a level of human intelligence (which I seriously doubt scientists will be able to resist trying) without first putting the brain-in-a-vat and measuring the reactions to artificial stimuli that will be will be tested upon it.

      And on science not being out to find the true nature of things; I disagree on this also. Simply because (to use your example) "Newtonian Physics are known to be inapplicable at certain orders of magnitude" does not mean the research shall, forever, end. Science must admit that, as of now, it may not be able to define the true natures of many things but, as research and technology progress, I would argue that it shall continue to search for that very thing.
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    10. #10
      Xei
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      I think most of us are missing the whole point of the brain in a vat theory...

      Basically it's Descartes' argument of ultimate scepticism but with a real life example.

      The science behind wiring up neurons to a supercomputer is irrelevant, really (although I personally believe that that is certainly possible in theory and quite possibly possible in practice, although obviously not in 2007).

      But the point is, as Descartes said, we cannot have any certainty that this world is real.

      If we made a 'brain in a vat' and simulated an exhaustively convincing virtual reality, that person would believe the virtual reality to be real.

      This may even be a quite plausible activity in a possible future. I recently saw a proposed solution to population growth which involved everybody having a living space of a single small room; to stop everybody going insane, a virtual reality seems like a reasonable idea, however dystopian.

      We extend this to argue that we could be in exactly the same situation as these vat brains. Everything you see is an illusion protecting you from a worse or perhaps more boring alternate environment (for example).

      The idea is definitely possible in my opinion. Bear in mind that technology or indeed reality could be completely different in the 'extraverse'. It would also help explain how this universe seems inexplicably designed yet totally without answers; mystery is a beautiful thing in my opinion. Living somewhere where everything made sense wouldn't be so much fun.

    11. #11
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      Quote Originally Posted by Bonsay View Post
      But it does represent the true nature, to a certain degree (newtonian physics). If it is correct enough, or if it predicts phenomena well enough to satisfy our needs then we could say it's true.
      No, it's NOT true. That's the very point. It's a method of predicting how things will act, but it is clearly not a method which includes all of the complexity of the true nature of the world. It is a simplified model of the physical world which allows us to make predictions, not a representation of the true physical reality.

      Quote Originally Posted by Bonsay View Post
      The brain in a vat does predict phenomena. It's just more complex than "why is the sky blue" or "what happens to the sun...". Although you're right that it's irrelevant, since you can never be sure. But it could still be important to a "branch" of science, if they want to know what's really going on. In that case it would stop being irrelevant, it would be came the object of study, the most important thing of all.
      The brain in a vat makes no testable predictions - it does not predict any phenomena. A quick thought experiment confirms this - assume for a minute that it is TRUE. The entire world around you is 'fake', and you are just a brain in a vat somewhere.

      So what? There is nothing that this knowledge would help you do. As a brain in a vat, you cannot affect the REAL world that the brain is actually in, only the imaginary one that's being fed to you. Your everyday life would go on as usual, a happy fantasy.

      Then, assume that it's NOT true. Well, obviously that doesn't change anything. The point is, even if we are just brains in a vat, that doesn't help us in any way, practically speaking. And practically speaking is what science is all about.

      Quote Originally Posted by Bonsay View Post
      True or false is if something is correct or not. Lets say my equation predicts that the ball I throw will create a black hole. If that happens then this theory is now true, if it doesn't it's false. What I did was science. We are talking if something can be scientifically true or not. In our case nature is the truth.
      That would only apply if the brain in a vat theory was expanded upon. For example, if you worked out the program that the NPCs (lol) that are being fed into your brain-in-the-vat are operating on, and tested it. Say, for example, that everyone you met froze in midair and started to flicker when you said 'howdy doodle dee da' to them. Then the theory would make a prediction about the world around you. However, assuming that the virtual world being fed into your brain is flawless and identical to a real world, there are no repercussions if this theory is indeed true. It's simply irrelevant.

      Quote Originally Posted by Oneironaut View Post
      When creating artificial intelligence that operates on a science-fictional (as of now) standard, it would be irresponsible for the scientists to create a fully autonomous robot, that operates to a level of human intelligence (which I seriously doubt scientists will be able to resist trying) without first putting the brain-in-a-vat and measuring the reactions to artificial stimuli that will be will be tested upon it.
      Fine, but what does that have to do with the theory that YOUR brain is in a vat? The theory does not include the details of how the brain is preserved or what sort of impulses are fed into it, it's just a generic theory which is comparable to solipsism. The basic idea of the rest of the world being 'fake' does not come into play when creating AI in this world.

      Quote Originally Posted by Oneironaut View Post
      And on science not being out to find the true nature of things; I disagree on this also. Simply because (to use your example) "Newtonian Physics are known to be inapplicable at certain orders of magnitude" does not mean the research shall, forever, end. Science must admit that, as of now, it may not be able to define the true natures of many things but, as research and technology progress, I would argue that it shall continue to search for that very thing.
      Yes, but -

      We aren't looking for the truth. We are looking for how to predict the truth. Imagine for a moment that somebody comes up with a unifying equation which explains the behavior of EVERYTHING. I mean EVERYTHING, quarks, quantum entanglement, time travel, teleportation, black holes, EVERYTHING is explained by this model. Then say that the model is wrong. For example, if it's based on string theory, say that matter is actually composed of doughnuts instead of strings.

      It wouldn't matter. As long as we can predict how things will act, it doesn't matter what we base our predictions on. Nobody rejects Newtonian Physics, although they're clearly not representative of the real world - why not? Because they work. Science is about the gathering of knowledge, but I extend that to practical knowledge. If you know something (like that you are simply a brain in a vat), but this knowledge doesn't help you do anything at all, then it's useless knowledge. By that reasoning, the truth is only useful if it helps us predict how the world will act, and lies are equally useful if they do the same thing.

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      Quote Originally Posted by thegnome54 View Post
      No, it's NOT true. That's the very point. It's a method of predicting how things will act, but it is clearly not a method which includes all of the complexity of the true nature of the world. It is a simplified model of the physical world which allows us to make predictions, not a representation of the true physical reality.
      I contradicted myself there. Newtonian physics is false. If we were perfection loving robots we wouldn't accept it. Doesn't matter how close it describes a certain situation.


      Quote Originally Posted by thegnome54 View Post
      The brain in a vat makes no testable predictions - it does not predict any phenomena. A quick thought experiment confirms this - assume for a minute that it is TRUE. The entire world around you is 'fake', and you are just a brain in a vat somewhere.

      So what? There is nothing that this knowledge would help you do. As a brain in a vat, you cannot affect the REAL world that the brain is actually in, only the imaginary one that's being fed to you. Your everyday life would go on as usual, a happy fantasy.

      Then, assume that it's NOT true. Well, obviously that doesn't change anything. The point is, even if we are just brains in a vat, that doesn't help us in any way, practically speaking. And practically speaking is what science is all about.
      So what? Well you could say that for any other discovery. We know how the sun works! So what? It could help you build a fusion reactor...so what? You'll be dead before anything even starts to happen. Science isn't about helping anything. It's just observing the reality from an observers perspective. We want to know if we are a brain in a jar because we want to know. That fact doesn't make it irrelevant. We could help ourselves till the day the universe collapses... what will we gain or lose? Nothing at all. The same thing with vats. Discovering the truth is all we do, even if we do it badly.


      Quote Originally Posted by thegnome54 View Post
      That would only apply if the brain in a vat theory was expanded upon. For example, if you worked out the program that the NPCs (lol) that are being fed into your brain-in-the-vat are operating on, and tested it. Say, for example, that everyone you met froze in midair and started to flicker when you said 'howdy doodle dee da' to them. Then the theory would make a prediction about the world around you. However, assuming that the virtual world being fed into your brain is flawless and identical to a real world, there are no repercussions if this theory is indeed true. It's simply irrelevant.
      What you quoted didn't really have much with the vat thing. Although you are correct. It still doesn't mean it's irrelevant to find the truth , well no more irrelevant then anything else we do.
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      Quote Originally Posted by Bonsay View Post
      So what? Well you could say that for any other discovery. We know how the sun works! So what? It could help you build a fusion reactor...so what? You'll be dead before anything even starts to happen. Science isn't about helping anything. It's just observing the reality from an observers perspective. We want to know if we are a brain in a jar because we want to know. That fact doesn't make it irrelevant. We could help ourselves till the day the universe collapses... what will we gain or lose? Nothing at all. The same thing with vats. Discovering the truth is all we do, even if we do it badly.
      I can see where you're coming from, but you're not taking into account the fact that we are inherently limited by our perspective. Humans will NEVER be able to fully understand the 'true nature of things', because our observations are inherently subjective. We cannot see an apple. We see the light bouncing off of it. There is always a 'middle man' between us and the 'real world' we observe.

      Since we can never fully know the true nature of things, the best we can do is create models which we can apply to predict the behavior of the things we can know.

      Knowing how the sun works is important because it affects our world. Things like 'brain in a vat' and solipsism do not affect the world, they merely create another world which our world exists inside of, complete. Since they do not affect our world, they do not affect us, and therefore they are useless.

      I think we can compromise here by more carefully defining 'useful' knowledge. When I say that it's useless to know that we are a brain in a vat, I mean that this knowledge will not help us predict how the world works, and will not help us DO anything. I do not by any means imply that this knowledge would be psychologically immaterial. It would undoubtedly change the way some people look at the world, but that doesn't mean that it's useful information.

      Also, when I say useless, I don't mean "not immediately useful", like knowledge of the sun because of technological or temporal limitations. I mean that it will never affect the world we experience, and therefore can never be put to any sort of use at all.

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      Depends on your world view. If you give yourself a meaning like that, ok... But if you view it as that existence has no meaning at all, that we're all going to die anyway and it really doesn't matter if you want to discover a cure for something or if you want to discover the jar your brain lives in. Useful or not is totally subjective. Without humans usefulness doesn't exist, so it shouldn't exist for the observer we create for scientific purpose. So again the vat thing is the same as trying to figure out how the sun works.

      If we want to talk about usefulness of the vat thing... Tell me, wouldn't it change the world if "god" gave you eyes to see out of the jar? Perhaps you persuade him to do it by researching the possibility. A useless theory no doubt. But as probable as the unlimited number of other theories (about the universe) out there, which have or haven't been thought up yet.
      Last edited by Bonsay; 10-03-2007 at 10:08 PM.
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      Quote Originally Posted by Bonsay View Post
      Tell me, wouldn't it change the world if "god" gave you eyes to see out of the jar?
      It would, but God is not a part of this theory. The point I'm making is simply this: there's no point in discussing the likelihood of this theory, because even if it is true it wouldn't make a difference. I'm reluctant to compare this to knowledge of something physical which actually affects us, because the brain-in-a-jar theory will literally never affect us in any way, while the sun is and does.

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      Xei
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      Ok, science is the study of what is seen to happen, and philosophy involves the questioning of why we see that to happen and the nature of such happenings. Great, we've got it. And the vat theory is irrelevant to science, ok, we get that too.

      But some of us are actually interested in the reasons for and nature of the universe, and such things are obviously incredibly relevant to philosophy, so can we please talk about them? This is a philosophy forum after all, not a science one.

      I'm personally hugely interested in the issue of whether or not everybody I see is actually real. But if you're not, fine, just step out of the conversation.
      Last edited by Xei; 10-03-2007 at 10:30 PM.

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      Quote Originally Posted by Xei View Post
      I'm personally hugely interested in the issue of whether or not everybody I see is actually real. But if you're not, fine, just step out of the conversation.
      I'm pretty sure you're missing the point here.

      There is no way to tell if everyone around you is 'real'. Ever. You are limited by your subjective viewpoint. What is there to discuss here? Sure, it's a neat idea and everything, but there is no conversation to be had. What do you want to talk about? The possibility of me being fake? If the brain in a vat theory is true, there would be no difference in the world you perceive. Therefore, you have absolutely no way of ever telling whether or not it's true, and wondering about it will be a fruitless endeavor.

      I'm not trying to stop the conversation here, just re-focus it. I'm asking an honest question - what is there to discuss about a theory which, if true, would make no tangible difference in the world, and makes no testable predictions to begin with? It's like solipsism, it's a dead-end both scientifically and philosophically.

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      Perhaps if you could find real evidence of being a brain in a vat, you could gain access to the over arching brain vat network and bring about a brain vat uprising. Maybe you could manipulate 'real world' machinery to implant the vat brains into cybornetic bodies and over throw the real world oppressors.

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      Quote Originally Posted by Xaqaria View Post
      Perhaps if you could find real evidence of being a brain in a vat...
      You couldn't. The theory inherently involves a seamless reality being inputted into the brain.

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      If the theory doesn't matter as you project it doesn't, could anyone actually communicate? would anyone else exist? is everyone else just a false image created by the chemicals? and if whatever type of organism is running this experiment can control our entire world and our thoughts, wouldn't they make us shy away from the topic of this theory, seeing as it might lead to consequences that would compromise the experiment? It seems highly unlikely to me that this theory is at all viable. I personally am a christian and believe that there is a god who chooses to let us act on our own free will and impulses. If there is no god, as many people believe, how did any matter come into existance? I refuse to believe that it was just "there".
      Anyway, back on the brain thing. If there were just brains, there would have to be functioning, intelligent, organisms with brains, therefore the brain experiment would be useless, seeing as they could only test themselves, and if they wanted to do that, they could just observe a regular person without soaking their brain in chemicals. No offense to anyone who believes the theory plausible, but I think the whole idea sounds idiot-esque, which does not come as a surprise to me because it comes from wikipedia where any half-wit can post whatever he/she wants. That's all.
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      Quote Originally Posted by Rafeofhyrule View Post
      If there is no god, as many people believe, how did any matter come into existance? I refuse to believe that it was just "there".
      Dude, don't go there. You're not willing to accept that matter was 'just there', but you ARE willing to accept that an all-powerful, sentient being was 'just there'? I don't believe you've thought this through very much.

      Quote Originally Posted by Rafeofhyrule View Post
      No offense to anyone who believes the theory plausible, but I think the whole idea sounds idiot-esque, which does not come as a surprise to me because it comes from wikipedia where any half-wit can post whatever he/she wants. That's all.
      The point has nothing to do with an actual experiment, or brains. The idea is very comparable to solipsism, in that you're supposed to question the reality you're observing. It is indeed possible that you are simply in a very advanced virtual reality universe. However, my point is that as long as nothing compromises this virtual reality, and reality itself in no way affects the virtual reality we experience, it really doesn't make a difference at all.

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      Quote Originally Posted by thegnome54 View Post
      You couldn't. The theory inherently involves a seamless reality being inputted into the brain.
      So?

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      Quote Originally Posted by thegnome54 View Post
      This theory of a brain in a vat IS irrelevant. It's irrelevant because you can't get proof of it, inherently. Anything you 'discover' to prove it wrong could theoretically have been fed into your brain which is in a vat. The theory does not help us predict any phenomena, it does not make any testable predictions. Therefore, it is irrelevant.
      I disagree that the theory of a brain in a vat is irrelevant. It negates any predictions we have made using our sensory input. If everything we know about the universe has actually come to us through a machine, then what is to stop this machine from sending us messages that conflict with our current model of the universe. This theory highlights the fact that no matter how much we study our world there is always the possibility that our predictions will be completely wrong.
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      Quote Originally Posted by thegnome54 View Post
      This theory of a brain in a vat IS irrelevant. It's irrelevant because you can't get proof of it, inherently. Anything you 'discover' to prove it wrong could theoretically have been fed into your brain which is in a vat. The theory does not help us predict any phenomena, it does not make any testable predictions. Therefore, it is irrelevant.
      Dude, that's why it's called a "thought experiment." It is a philosophical idea, and philosophy is hardly "irrelevant."

      No offense to anyone who believes the theory plausible, but I think the whole idea sounds idiot-esque, which does not come as a surprise to me because it comes from wikipedia where any half-wit can post whatever he/she wants. That's all.
      I'm guessing you didn't notice that a google search would find hundreds of reputable sites concerning brain in a vat outside of wikipedia. Don't call ideas "idiot-esque" because you don't understand them.

    25. #25
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      Quote Originally Posted by M-Cat View Post
      Dude, that's why it's called a "thought experiment." It is a philosophical idea, and philosophy is hardly "irrelevant."
      Not all philosophy, no. But this particular philosophical idea is a dead end, don't you agree?

      Pray tell, how could knowing that you are a brain in a vat and the world is 'fake' ever be useful or relevant? If the illusion is perfect, it might as well be reality.

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