Cartesian Dualism and Brains In Vats

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 16 Comments

If you could put your brain in a nutrient bath so that it could keep on functioning outside of your body what would it (or would it still be you) experience? Would it still have your memories in it? Would it remember that they were yours? Would it still experience itself as you? Would you experience yourself as it?

This image of a free-floating brain is one that occupies the imagination of neuroscientifically aware philosophers and philosophically minded neuroscientists everywhere. Human understanding about how the brain functions grows seemingly everyday. And as it does so the idea that our experience of the world exists exclusively in our brains gets stronger – at least in the eyes of some.

If we want to uncover the philosophical roots of the notion that the world exists in our heads we can go back to Rene Descartes. Descartes can be identified as the point of origin of what we would recognize as modern philosophy. He was a scientist and mathematician who questioned what was real and attempted a daring experiment in radical skepticism.

Descartes sat down, on his bed I have been told, and decided to doubt everything so that he could find whatever it is that he could be absolutely sure of and then build up a picture of reality from there. His famous treatise called The Meditations is his account of his thought process in this experiment.

One line of inquiry that he followed rested on the common experience of dreaming. In dreams we experience the world and ourselves very convincingly. While we lie in bed asleep and unconscious to the ‘real’ world we are running around and acting in the ‘dream’ world as our ‘dream’ self. And so Descartes wondered if his experience of waking reality and waking self might also be a kind of dream created in his mind. This line of thinking is so common to us today that almost every young child has had this thought at one time or another. And it is hard for us to recognize how far out a thought this was when it occurred to Descartes in the 16th century.

One of the conclusions that Descartes came to was that reality was split into two realms – a realm of inner experience or mind, and a realm of outer extension or matter. This split between mind and matter, inner and outer has become so habitually how we see the world today that it is hard to imagine that it was at one time a novel idea.

Almost any thoughtful person today wants to distance himself or herself from this split which is commonly called Cartesian dualism. Fast-forwarded a few hundred years, sprinkle in a scientific revolution or two and you come to the controversial understanding held by many and refuted by many others that our entire experience of reality exists entirely in our brains. What we experience as the world and as ourselves is simply a bi-product of electoral impulses in our brains. And confidence in this view increases as modern neuroscience proves ever more convincingly that understanding the neurological activity in our brains explains how our experience of reality is created.

Now back to the Saturday afternoon horror movie image of a brain in vat. A brain that is removed from its original body in such a way that it continues to experience and think about the world. This image brains in vats is worth thinking about because reveals some deeply ingrained assumptions about reality and a whole host of problems with those assumptions. Two recent books that I have read both use this image although from somewhat opposing points of view. One is Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel that I mentioned in my last post and the other is Alva Noe’s book Out of Our Heads that I read a couple of years ago and has become a favorite of mine. I will explore both Metzinger and Noe’s points of view in my next post. And eventually I want to loop this all around to a discussion about William James’ views from over a century ago that is a precursor to this whole discussion.

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carlbinder
carlbinder
8 years ago

I always liked Skinner’s point that the “whole organism” learns and behaves, not just the brain, or any other part. And beyond that, the whole organism is just part of the environment/organism whole, which is actually what is behaving/experiencing, here and now — perceiving itself from this set of eyes of the Universe pointed at Itself. He didn’t talk about the peep holes — that’s my addition. But it’s the closest I can get to answering “Who’s the who, anyway?”

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
8 years ago

Carl – I am totally with you on this as you know. You would really enjoy Alva Noe’s book I think – it is all about the environment/organism whole being the learning agent.

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

This brings to mind a disturbing conversation I had the other day with some people when we contemplated what it might look like to have our consciousness “housed” in forms other than the human body… even temporarily… say for long distance space flight or during the transfer process from a body to a different body as imagined in the movie “Avatar.” Really taking a look at how future technologies could effect our consciousness is important so that our “assumptions about reality” are as wholesome, healthy, grounded and well thought out at as possible. Thank you so much for this great… Read more »

portailevolutif
8 years ago

Hello Jeff and Carl, many thoughts. On Descartes, Jeff you know my position. Descartes comes just at the beginning of the modern revolution and , as such, he has not yet collapsed the Spiritual world into the materialist one ( this will come later, fully fledge modern times and the use off irony, like in Voltaire). So when Descrates talks about the Mind he talk sabot Spirit and not “ the brain”. His famous stance “ I think therefore I am ‘” has been wrongly understood as the motto of modern materialism; it has been wrongly interpreted as a reduction… Read more »

portailevolutif
8 years ago

Sorry for the typos…. fortunately for me the action of “typing” is essentially different from the action of Thinking, if one believes Descartes. That’s why powerful Spiritual Teachers like Andrew Cohen will always be very careful with Thinking and always emphasize that clarity of Thinking is essential on the spiritual path. Intuitively they already know what Descartes discovered….

liesbeth3
liesbeth3
8 years ago

Dear Catherine, great to read your post. There is one thing that immediately came to mind and that is that in the time of Bergson there wasn’t such advanced brain reseach as there is now. As far as I understood from Newberg and D’Aquili in their book ‘ why God won’t go away’: they described how the brain evolved and made it possible to experience and create the world; creativity, insight, inspiration. Mind is what comes directly from functions in the brain, like the ability to focus, the ability to locate etc. The brain is a bunch of the physic… Read more »

carlbinder
carlbinder
8 years ago

I think it’s fascinating that we are all talking about these different “parts” of the human/human experience, as though there were truly separate parts where thought, or feeling, or awareness could “reside.” Reminds me of polytheistic religions, in a way.

portailevolutif
8 years ago

Hi Carl and Lisbeth, I am ready to defend the Bergsonian perspectives as one which give an alternative to the materialism of our time. It is widely used in quantum mechanics as well. As I was saying to me Thoughts are part of the Interior and of the exterior of the Universes. The physical brain is part of the exterior. When I said thoughts out outside the brain, it should have been said maybe the opposite, that the brain resides outside thoughts and chooses from them. It doesn’t affect the discoveries of modern science at all that such and such… Read more »

portailevolutif
8 years ago

In my viewpoint, to say that the brain produces the thoughts is the same thing as to say that since the brain sees the tree the brian has produced the tree. In this sense it would be the opposite as pantheism. Think of it a minute. I don’t’ claim it is the Truth, I simply claim that the hypothesis is valid and extremely elegant. I hope that one will be able to test it one day. Now for the difference between the tree and the Thought, I am Cartesian here, int he way I explained previously and in the way… Read more »

carlbinder
carlbinder
8 years ago

My comment about polytheism, not pantheism, was a little flippant, but I was pointing to cultures in which the various functions or activities in the Universe were attributed to or associated with different gods, e.g., the sun god, the moon goddess, the god of war, etc. I was drawing a relationship between that kind of dualistic thinking and the idea that there IS something called “matter” as opposed to … what? Or that there is a brain that does something separate from the whole organism, or an interior vs. an exterior, etc. These all seem to me to be to… Read more »

liesbeth3
liesbeth3
8 years ago

It is great , Catherine, you are right. The writers gave the example of the Internet, the computer is necessary to create, change and communicate ideas, but it is a shared thing..and Carl, as long as there is no prove where awareness comes from, truth is still open..

liesbeth3
liesbeth3
8 years ago

In this I follow Wilber and Cohen. Wilber talks about evolution as leading from personal to universal care. Cohen talks about the soul as the highest personal which is connected to the ability to evolve to universal care. If one looks at the really great ones like Gandhi or like now this woman Suu Kyi, giving up her personal life to care for democracy in Burma; or Obama, these people did not develop that out of their environment, there is a personality there, which cannot be explained out of any behaviorist theory.

carlbinder
carlbinder
8 years ago
Reply to  liesbeth3

Read Obama’s autobiography. There’s plenty in there to explain his commitments.

portailevolutif
8 years ago

Carl the way I see things is precisely the opposite as yours. You know in the Renaissance Revolution, what happened ( from what I learned) is that for the first time humans knew how to distinguish the three Big Platonicians : the Great, the Beautiful and the Good. At the same time appeared perspective. To tel th etruth I have no clue about what you call non duality in a scientific sense. It would be nice if you could define it ( but this is really tough on you because as soon as you will define it you will loose… Read more »

portailevolutif
8 years ago

And Carl really, before reunite things one must separate them. Not everything is equals and just saying great nest of interlocking causes doesn’t solve nor explicit the conundrum posed to us by what you call non duality. One must be very careful, define terms, and see in which sense things are separated and do relate to each other. To me the world of the Relative is the world of distinctions, hierarchies and thus a certain amount of separation is necessary. Science is all about this, all about hinting these separations clearly. Now if we talk about the Infinite, about the… Read more »

liesbeth3
liesbeth3
8 years ago

A few more words about soul strength. Cohen is not sure yet about his concept of soul. I remember about a year ago seeing the good in behaviorism, but what I see now is that without an I awareness, my ‘thoughts are who I am’ . I think we will agree that thoughts are quite mechanical, and that the I is central, it is just how it works, and inertia is central Now I am reading Daniel Brown’s ‘Pointing out the way’ and he explains how important ‘ faith’ is. I have seen what that can do with people in… Read more »