Envatment – Brains and Vats

Perhaps you have heard of the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment. Such fanciful “intuition pumps” are supposed to tell us something about the mind, knowledge, and reality, but how much can we learn from such a mad science fairytale? According to Evan Thompson and Diego Cosmelli, not much. Thompson and Cosmelli address the thought experiment head-on, and in a lively manner, tackle just what it would mean to actually be a “brain in a vat”. They come up with a surprising answer:

Any truly functional “vat” would need to be a surrogate body subject to control by the brain. By “body” we mean a selfregulating system comprising its own internal, homeodynamic processes and capable of sensorimotor coupling with the outside world. In short, the so-called vat would be no vat at all, but rather some kind of autonomous embodied agent.

This supposition has an important implication. It implies that our default assumption should be that the biological requirements for subjective experience are not particular brain regions or areas as such, but rather some crucial set of integrated neural-somatic systems capable of autonomous functioning. This assumption is one of the core working assumptions of the enactive approach.

If you are interested in learning more about the enactive approach, check out Embodiment and Philosophy of Mind by Andy Clark.



Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

6 responses to “Envatment – Brains and Vats

  1. The vat wouldn’t need to include connections to the actual world, but connections from the brain to the simulation, and from the simulation back to the brain. E.g., the brain in a vat doesn’t lift things, but the neuronal effects of lifting things would be simulated in the vat and fed back to the brain.

  2. Ooops left out the first sentence:
    I think the vat only needs to include simulations of the world, not connections to the actual events being simulated.

    If I am right, does that mean the enactive people are wrong?

    I could never get around the Stephen Hawking problem for the enactivists.

  3. The whole point of the paper was to show a “brain needs to be seen as a complex and self-organizing dynamical system that is tightly coupled to the body at multiple levels”.

    That is to say, the brain would need to be supported by various support and regulatory processes and that if these processes could *really* support a brain they would necessarily count as some primitive form of a body.

    They go on to make a stronger claim that:

    “The total realizer for consciousness (including subjectivity or phenomenal selfhood and specific states of phenomenal consciousness) is not the brain or some neural subsystem, but rather a whole living system, understood as an autonomous system made up of some crucial set of densely coupled neuronal and extraneuronal subsystems.”

    So, the point(as I take it) isn’t that *in principle* a brain-in-a-vat simulation of “neuronal effects” is impossible, but rather that, in practice, any “vat” capable of supporting a real, live, brain would necessarily be a complex brain/body system that” will have to exhibit a level of complexity at least as high as that of a living body with respect to bodily systems of life-regulation and sensorimotor coupling.”

    What is the stephen hawking problem for enactivists?

  4. OK I misunderstood your original synopsis where they talked about being hooked up in the world as an autonomous agent. That evoked weird images.

    Of course it would need to have the appropriate neuronal feedback as well as nourishment to be tricked into thinking it is in a real body. Of course this will invovle lots of extraneuronal subsystems. The same is true for the bladder. It would need to be hooked up to enough of an artificial circulatory, digestive, urinary, systems to be tricked into thinking it was still in a real body. The main difference is that the nervous system also requires a simulation of a world because of the difference in the function of the CNS versus the bladder.

    The Hawking problem is the problem of a paralyzed person who sees, things, feels, i.e., has a rich perceptual and cognitive life. No use of tools, no directed interactions, no skilled motor intentionality. But still quite a mental life. I’m sure the enactivists have something to say about this, but I never could get over this hump when I considered it in grad school. Of course the sane ones will say the interactions are necessary for the development of the appropriate cognitive structures. The insane ones will say that such a paralyzed person with rich mental life or perception isn’t possible (perhaps pointing out some studies of paralyzed eye muscles or something equally superficial).

    Thanks for the Dreyfus post. I can’t believe I was was a big fan of Heideggar for a year of my life. Those first two lectures really brought back memories of what it was like to have to act like I cared about crap like that just to survive the classes. 🙂

  5. Yeah, I think I would go with the “sane” answer that some kind of interaction with the environment is necessary for *complete* cognitive development. Although I can’t find the article, I could have sworn I read something awhile ago that quadriplegics have a smaller emotional range than paraplegics, so it isn’t that paralyzed people don’t have a rich perceptual and cognitive life, but rather, they don’t have *as rich* of a life as fully embodied people. I wish I would find the article…

    I seem to be in a Heidegger phase right now,lol. I see a lot of similarities between the phenomenology of Heidegger and the ecological psychology of James Gibson, an intellectual hero of mine. I understand though that Dreyfus is one of the most “extreme” Heidegger scholars so I am not sure that by listening to his lectures I am getting the most balanced interpretation. Nevertheless, I think Being and Time is a fascinating intellectual project. Rorty was a big fan of Heidegger 🙂

  6. I found the best resonance between Gibson and not Heideggar, but Merleau-Ponty. Though Ponty uses some Heidegger stuff so it is probably (a little bit) helpful to have read MH before MP. Merleau Ponty actually does substantive philosophical psychology, as opposed to MH.

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