“Consciousness Explained” by Daniel Dennett ©1991 - Little Brown Publishers
Prelude: How Are Hallucinations Possible?
Chapter 1- 1 The Brain In The Vat
“… Might you be nothing but a brain in a vat? Might you have always been just a brain in a vat? If so, could you even conceive of your predicament (let along confirm it)?
The idea of the brain in the vat is a vivid way of exploring these questions, but I want to put the old saw to another use. I want to use it to uncover some curious facts about hallucinations, which in turn will lead us to the beginnings of a theory - an empirical, scientifically respectable theory - of human consciousness.”
Dennett starts by looking at various aspects of the generations old Thought Experiment of the “Brain in a Vat.” Philosophers have offered idealized versions and interpretations of it for hundreds of years.
Before continuing I want to mention that I’m glad Dennett made a point of warning us to be leery of “it’s possible in principle” declarations. Many things are possible in principle but impossible in reality.
“Logic” is a bit like that. Correct reasoning and good argument are fine and the rules of logical are excellent guidelines. Still, a lot of mischief can be inflicted within propositions and inferences while remaining true to the rules of logic. Just have to look at the work of climate science contrarians.
Logic is a process for making a conclusion and a tool you can use.
- The foundation of a logical argument is its proposition, or statement.
- The proposition is either accurate (true) or not accurate (false).
Premises are the propositions used to build the argument.
- The argument is then built on premises.
- Then an inference is made from the premises.
- Finally, a conclusion is drawn.
It’s a small detail, still, it’s worth mentioning in such a philosophical explorations.
Beyond that, from an Earth Centrist perspective, the whole premise of the Brain in a Vat, that is trying to imagine the brain disconnected from the body, doesn’t resonate on any level.
All it does is remind me of musings that I graduated out of with childhood, when I started recognizing I was a self, a real person having to accept and interact with the reality of the city and people around me. If I closed my eyes, the world around me wasn’t going anywhere, no matter how much older friends tried to fool me into believing otherwise, and I also realized I had better learn how to deal with it.
By and by the question that settled it for me was: Do I have the imagination to conjure up this city, Chicago, or the lake, or the sand dunes on the other side? What about all the people around me? How could I? It was ludicrous, utterly impossible for my child’s mind to imagine.
By and by, as I learned ever more about Earth’s Evolution and the rise of life and creatures, I came to realize that simply the fact of my existing on this planet and being capable of contemplating the vast panorama around me, was proof positive that Earth’s Evolution was a real thing that followed down one and only one particular path, any deviation and I simply wouldn’t be here. How well we understand the details of that history is totally beside the point to the fact of the material history of Earth along with the life she created.
Sure, at one time there was infinite potential, but Evolution, like me and you, can only go down one path at a time and there are no redo’s. How well we understand that heritage, that’s an altogether separate matter.
What stumps me, especial when this Brain in a Vat is brought up: Why is the “Consciousness” being investigated seldom defined with any detail?
Nor do I hear the lessons of Earth’s Evolution truly incorporated within modern philosophical musings which too often seem intent on rehashing its own historical arguments, rather than taking a fresh look at the flood of biological and neuroscience findings coming in.
I’m told the mind doesn’t exist, or its connection to the brain’s biology hasn’t been proven enough. Then I see the images from the Human Connectome Project and wonder, who’s kidding whom? How does one explain away those images? Sure, lots left to learn, but how about some effort into absorbing more of what we’ve already learned?
Then start afresh by looking at consciousness from within living creatures, rather than thinking about us thinking about our mind.
Within our real world, single celled organisms display awareness and intent. A realistic Theory of Consciousness requires starting with that foundation and working up. A theory would also acknowledge that consciousness is an interaction between living creatures and the physical environment it exists within, including the host’s physical body.
Studies of color perception, optical illusions, and hallucinations are about understanding the human mind and brain architecture and how that produces our self-awareness. I don’t dismissing any of that, because all of that is certainly valuable and important to figure out.
But it belongs to psychology with little to offer an all encompassing Theory of Consciousness, since creature awareness and consciousness started in the Ediacaran and Cambrian and has been evolving ever since.
Our human mind is the cherry on top of the consciousness sundae that a half billion years of Earth’s biological research and development created.
The Brain in a Vat thought experiment will always be blissfully oblivious to the reality of “consciousness’s” evolutionary continuum, making it irrelevant.