Tuesday, July 21, 2015

If it is possible that we are plugged into the matrix, or a brain in a vat, does that make knowledge a meaningless concept?

A Brain in a Vat

 I just sat down and watched an debate between Matt Dillahunty, the host of the Austin, TX-based public access TV show "The Atheist Experience", and Sye Ten Bruggencate. It's not a very even match-up, as Sye is merely a presuppositionalist, and his argument boils down to "God exists, therefore it is unreasonable to not believe in god". He dresses it up in a secondary premise that the only way to know anything is true is if you presuppose god, but building a syllogism with this premise still starts with "God exists, therefore..."

This debate is probably not going to be very entertaining if you want a stirring debate to make you think, as Sye's argument is so childish, but it might be entertaining if you enjoy this sort of debate in particular.

There was one thing that the discussion brought forth that I think is interesting, though. See, Sye, early in the debate, harped on an element of Matt's position on "Solipsism". This is generally a philosophical concept that our knowledge of he world around us is entirely dependent upon our senses, and if those senses were being faked in some way, we would then be wrong about everything we think we know. This historically has been described as "You're a brain in a vat of liquid, and you're imagining everything in your experience". Another common form has electrodes being fed to the brain, spoofing stimulus like sight and sound to produce a fake world. A convenient modern analogy is The Matrix, a film in which the lead character discovers that the world he believes exists is actually a computer simulation, and the bodies of everyone around him are plugged into a giant computer called The Matrix, which provides the simulation to them.

Sye puts it that Matt, since he does not claim knowledge of the world around him, cannot make any statements about the world at all. This is true to a degree, of course. If we're all brains in vats, networked together or something, or if I'm the only brain in my own personal computer simulation, then nothing I appear to be seeing or hearing or feeling around me would be true.

For some, this leads to kind of an existential fugue state, the same one many people had when first seeing The Matrix had, where one grasps the concept that their existence may be at question, but for most who have grappled with this possibility, it becomes obvious that if we can't demonstrate or "get at" this external reality (Or "unplug ourselves from the Matrix") we are stuck with the reality that we appear to be experiencing.

Sye wants to know, if Matt doesn't know the true "external reality", how Matt can claim to know anything at all. Matt answers simply that he <i>doesn't</i> claim to know anything, at least not in an absolute way. Matt says that instead he <i>believes</i> things. This is fair enough, but then, Sye also rightly points out that Matt often uses the language of knowledge.

"It is"

"It is not"

"I know that"

I am one with Matt on the topic of "hard solipsism", this inability to "get at" the possible external reality outside the Matrix or the vat. I don't think it is a big problem, but it is a problem, one that philosophy does not and might never have an answer for. Also like Matt, I use language that seems to indicate claims to knowledge all the time.

"It is raining".

"It is not a dog"

"I know that the moon exists".

Matt, I feel, did not do a very good job of handling this line of attack that Sye was making, and left a significant opening for Sye to repeatedly challenge Matt when he ever used language that implied knowledge. Personally, I avoid it by pointing out early on that if, in the future, I ever say "I know X", there's an implied asterisk after "know", which leads to "within the confines of the reality that I seem to be experiencing", and I'm just saying "I know" because it's shorter and works pretty well for general conversation.

This leads to kind of a etymological vacuum, though. If I say that I never mean the sort of ultimate knowledge Sye means, doesn't that mean the word itself has no practical meaning for us? The answer to that is complicated, but I think it ends up with "No, it's not meaningless". Because there are some things for which I can be certain of: my own thoughts, as I think them. My memories may be false, and the conceptual links to the outside world may be falsified, but the processes themselves are certain. That's just Descarte: <i>I</i> think, therefore <i>I</i> am. My consciousness exists in some reality, even if it's not in the form that my understanding of reality perceives it to be (a brain's chemical operations). So when I say "I know that I like to discuss philosophy", there's no problem, since I'm making a statement about my own consciousness. So some level of knowledge can be claimed, that's all well and good.

I can propose a distinction between absolute and practical knowledge, where absolute knowledge pierces the solipsistic veil, and practical knowledge is restrained to what we know.

Doesn't this leave room for the idea of subjective reality? Well, sort of. We can discuss our experiences, and our perceptions, and try to come to an agreement about what reality we live in. This is the basis for all discourse, really, the evaluation and comparison of our perspectives on the world. If someone makes a claim that something is true <i>to them</i> (as opposed to <i>for</i> them), like a rock that exists for one person but not another, then we can test the contradiction and validate whose perspective seems to better align with reality. If they "pick up" the rock and throw it at me, then will they see me react while I am not feeling myself react? Can they kill me with the rock? If so, do I die to them, but stay alive to me? Or will I realize the rock exists, or them that the rock doesn't exist?

We aren't always aware of it, but we do this sort of testing all the time. When you ask someone to change the state of the world in one moment, then perceive them making the change, then confirm the change, it demonstrates that some part of your world is shared. So far, it seems like every experience I have with the world matches the experiences others have. Some exceptions exist, like people remembering details differently, but usually even then the differences are often reconcilable in discussion, or at least agreed to be differences in our recollection, rather than the event themselves.

In science, we examine things through a presumption of "methodological naturalism", which is not to be confused with philosophical naturalism. Where methodological naturalism says that in experiment and scientific conjecture, we must assume that all phenomena are natural, philosophical naturalism says that only natural phenomena are possible. This presumption is what allows us to operate in a shared confirmed experience space, because once you start to posit things that are not in our shared experience, things become dependent upon personal revelation, or subjective experience, and can no longer be tested as confirming to the shared reality we agree on.

Sye's position hinges heavily on an assertion that the truth of god was revealed to him, but if we can't examine that in discussion, its truth is not distinguishable from falsehood. He says that all atheists secretly believe in god, and while the debate didn't make this very clear, he seems to think that anyone saying otherwise is lying.

I admire his conviction, but conviction doesn't make truth, and the assertion that someone who says they disagree is lying and really agrees means that one has discarded with intellectual honesty and prefers to argue against a straw man instead of actually deal with the discordance in our perspectives.

Oh, and the link to the debate is here:


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