Are we Brains Floating in Vats??!?!?!?

Well are we???  I couldn’t possibly tell you, because maybe I don’t know it.  This is a classic scenario designed by philosophers to put forth the question: can we know anything?  There are many who would argue that we can and provide many examples, ‘I’m sitting at my desk typing this blog post.’  Because I can verify it, and it is true, then I have clear knowledge of it.  Right?  Well, not according to the skeptical hypothesis which is “a scenario in which you are radically deceived about the world, yet your experiences of the world is exactly as it would be if you were not radically deceived” (Pritchard, 169).  This states that you as an individual feel as though you were living in a reality, but in actuality, it isn’t reality and you are being suspended in a state of belief as though it were reality.  This also means that if you were to consider something knowledge in this virtual reality, it wouldn’t be considered knowledge in actual reality because it isn’t true.  Hence my title.

Nozick thought of this before and used this example in his argument against Feldman.  “If someone is floating in a tank and oblivious to everything around them and is given electrical and chemical stimulation to the brain, the belief that he or she is floating in a tank with his or her brain being stimulated cannot be known by that person.” (Nozick, 2)  Although he uses this tank floating idea to support a different argument, it shows philosophers have thought about the idea before.

This is similar to the movie The Matrix (Pritchard 169-170) where an individual, Neo, has lived in a virtual reality oblivious to the fact that he is being controlled by supercomputers.  He feels and thinks as though he is in reality, yet as it turns out, he hasn’t been.  Now Neo has obtained experiences and different personality traits that all contribute to his knowledge of everything, yet as it turns out everything in Neo’s world is false.

This thought process can also be referenced from Inception where the main character Cobb is trying to redeem his past illegal failures by infiltrating the subconscious of an individual and implanting an idea without the individual ever knowing.  Later, that individual will continue through his life never knowing that this idea that stands out so fresh in his mind was never his to begin with and was secretly implanted in his mind by foreigners unbeknownst to him.

My question then is that if we were to be under the influence of some supercomputer, or a brain floating in a vat, or have ideas implanted in our minds, would the knowledge that we gain (or think we gain) in those situations truly count as knowledge?  If I were to type this blog post, and have knowledge of having done so, but as it turns out, only have done that because I am in a virtual reality brought on by an Oculus Rift kind of technology, would I truly have knowledge of having typed this post?  Or would it not be considered knowledge because I’m not in a definable, physical reality?

4 thoughts on “Are we Brains Floating in Vats??!?!?!?

  1. I don’t think it would technically be considered knowledge, since a requirement of knowledge is truth, and if we are radically deceived about the world, nothing we believe is true. However, if we are brains in vats, it doesn’t really matter what is true, since that’s outside of the world that we experience. For our sake, truth might as well be what is true in the world we experience. But if we are going with the true and technical definition of knowledge, it has to be true in the actual world, which we could never experience anyway if we were brains in vats. Therefore, we can never have actual knowledge in the real world, but for the sake of the world we experience, I feel that we should be allowed to call it knowledge.

    1. Answering your question you posed in your last paragraph. I do not think the person in question would have knowledge. It goes against my intuition to grant someone as knowing if they do not know that they are being vastly deceived. According to the knowledge definition by Nozick, the person in question would fail the first and third claim to know something. There are many possible worlds where the person still believes that they know one certain thing when actually they are being deceived and do not know it at all. They also fail the first claim because what the person believes to be true is not actually true thus the proposition is not true in the actual world. I also disagree with Julia because it seems wrong to allow people to say they have knowledge when in fact they do not. The line becomes blurred for me when we allow someone to have knowledge and when we allow someone not to have knowledge. Just because it is seems to be true in their world does not mean the person in question actually has knowledge. For instance, what if someone believed the earth was flat because all they have ever heard and read about said the earth was flat. Do we classify this person as having knowledge that the earth is flat? I do not think grant this person knowledge, so this also applies to the person in question. They truly do not have knowledge because what they believe to be true is vastly different from the actual truth.

  2. There would be no way to distinguish experiences if you were a brain in a vat or under the control of a supercomputer from real experiences. Thus, how would we be able to have knowledge of anything if all our experiences are artificial. If our experiences are exactly the same under the control of another power as they are in real life, then we can never distinguish actuality from illusion. If this is the case, then it is impossible to confirm that we have knowledge of anything because there is no evidence that we are not a brain in a vat or under the control of a supercomputer. According to this radical argument, we don’t have knowledge of basically anything.

  3. haha ‘this radical argument’ eh?? But I see your point Julie, If we were to have lived in a Bostrom-like scenario where our “civilization didn’t go extinct before reaching a post-human stage” (Bostrom 1), then we would be in the scenario you described in your comment. Even though the simulations are different in my post and your comment, my question still remains, although slightly altered, “If I were to type this comment, and have knowledge of having done so, but as it turns out, only have done that because I am in a virtual reality brought on by a computer simulation, would I truly have knowledge of having typed this comment?” (Wolters Post) I disagree however with your statement that I’m saying we don’t have knowledge of basically anything. I certainly feel that I have knowledge of concepts in our physical world, yet I don’t know if I am simulated or am a brain floating in a vat, so if I was in a false world, and still felt as though I had knowledge of concepts, would we as ‘supposedly’ real individuals consider me to have knowledge in those situations?

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