Brains in Vats

In which Carrie inquires on empiricism…

Let’s pretend that all whales are mammals and that gravity works as predictably as it is experienced and measured until a non-mammalian whale comes around and gravity reverses its course.

Empiricism aligns with what is believed to be certain facts about the world.  “World” here means the natural world, not society.  Humans in the world are sensing organisms and derive knowledge from outward inputs.  These inputs are traditionally called “sense data.” Sense data experienced in repetition and which can be predicted to occur in a reliably patterned manner is considered true general knowledge by the method of induction.  I am excluding, for now, sense data which are not the five senses, such as hunger, pain, balance, anxiety or any other ‘sense’ which is not readily repeatable (until every home is equipped with its own MRI technology and we can thereby observe our loved ones’ inner states) or verifiable by another human.

I notice a particular input several times and give it a general stamp of knowledge.  This then becomes an approximate truth.  I cannot give it a stamp of Truth because I need to account for metaphysics.  The metaphysics of concern here are Mind and Matter.  What is the mind?  What is physical reality?

Human Error:
The natural world is seductive; I can’t possibly escape its tempting assertions of what reality might be or what my mind might be within it.  It is almost too exciting to stand.  We might even consider  what would happen if all senses were suddenly to become absent* from an individual?

Reports of sensory deprivation tank experiences lead one to understand (albeit, from reports) that the mind is still attempting to understand its world, is still thinking, though there are significantly limited sense data inundating the individual undergoing the sense-less experiment.  This suggests that the mind is independent of the body in its capacity to know. “To know” means logically true or false inductively and functioning as a knowable potential, or knowledge possibly out there to be found.  I am choosing not to address the given that this body and mind immersed in the tank also existed outside of the tank and already has prior experiential knowledge.  It is perhaps that the backlog of known things are causing the mind to think while the individual is immersed in the sensory deprivation tank, or suspended in a non-sensing experience for awhile.

The thought experiment which provides an easy answer (I think)is if a body was born with no senses, would it ever know?  It is not possible to know this as far as I can tell, so I’ll leave it to the presumed answer: no.

“The map is not the terrain.”
Let the terrain be the world in which the individual body and mind walk.  Without a map, or some orienting device, the walker cannot know what the terrain is.  Without a system of knowledge already in place(cognitive map) I could not even point at a tree or a rock and name it, or later derive some truth about its function in the larger picture. “Empiricism has its roots in the idea that all we can know about the world is what the world cares to tell us; we must observe it neutrally and dispassionately, and any attempt on our part to mould or interfere with the process of receiving this information can only lead to distortion and arbitrary imaging.” (“Empiricism” defined in Oxford Guide to Philosophy.)

Knowledge would become circular without this map.  I would believe certain things about the world as experienced but would have no checks for verification that something is so.  Scientific practice acknowledges this problem and again tries to address gaps in knowing through repeatable experiments, but it has to admit it also needs a map, or a guiding theory in order to interpret posed results.  I, too, must be content with partial knowledge, or an approximate truth about the world.

One consequence of pure empiricism is that it leads to the conclusion that the knowing mind is only a sensing machine with no knowledge whatsoever.  Surely we are more than that!  When I simply take in input and then let the imagination play, I’m never really going to affirm any truths except those similar to senses which are apparent only to me (i.e. hunger or pain).   My truths would never align with yours and I’d be guilty of circularity in the first place and be forced to call you a zombie in the second!   Fundamentally, I would  have no checks to know that I know something; all is vague speculation, untethered information which doesn’t inform.  Or, if I claim to have knowledge of phenomena, I have to concede that the knowledge is also derived from a map of the terrain.

Gilbert Ryle writes in The Concept of Mind (1949): “Physicists may one day have found the answers to all physical questions, but not all questions are physical questions.”  The non-physical questions, or questions relating to the other senses after the five, are what I’d like to understand better eventually.

*“Become absent” is a strange locution ripe for more inquiry.



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