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Brain in a Vat: or How Do We Know What Is Real?

A long time ago I remember reading a book containing a number of thought experiments. The thought experiment that struck me the most carried the intriguing title “Brains in Vats” and its humble purpose was to explore the very nature of reality and perception.

This particular thought experiment challenges the reader to prove that they are indeed a real flesh and blood person and not merely a brain in a vat. This may seem simple enough at first, but as you delve deeper into the thought experiment you realize just how much of a challenge it really is.

For instance, you are sitting in a room right now, reading this very story. The room, the computer screen and the story all seem real enough, but how do you really know that you are not a computer, or a “brain in a vat” that has been programmed to perceive the very room in which you now find yourself? If you were in fact a brain in a vat, you would perceive the room, the computer screen and the story just the same as you would if it were really real.

Every time I watch a movie that explores the nature of existence and reality, I always think back to that brains in vats experiment. Sometimes I find myself thinking of ways to prove that I am not in fact a brain stuck in a vat in some bizarre thought experiment, but so far I have been unable to find a way to definitively prove what on its face should be an obvious thing. After all, you know that you are not a brain in a vat, so it should be easy to prove it, right.

Movies like the Matrix, Vanilla Sky and Jacobs Ladder, and popular television programs like Lost, Fringe and Flash Forward play on this type of confusion and the difficulty of proving the nature of reality. The very popularity of these pop culture icons prove that other people are just as interested in determining the true nature of reality as I was way back when with the brains in vats thought experiment.

Modern science even lends some credence to the idea that the reality we perceive is not all there is. The multi verse theory holds that every possible consequence exists in some alternate universe, and that there are in fact an infinite number of universes instead of just one. According to this fascinating theory, there is a universe in which the Nazis won World War II, another in which Kennedy was never assassinated and yet another where John McCain and Sarah Palin won the 2008 presidential election. Simply thinking about these unique outcomes and the branching of reality is enough to create your own thought experiment. Whether what we perceive is all there is or just one of an infinite number of possible realities, we may never know for sure whether we are real or just so many brains in vats.

By Andy. Andy writes for several online magazines, websites and portals like Free Online Insurance, Virtual Grub and Save Kepler’s. If you want to get in touch with him, feel free to contact me through the contact form.

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