Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2009
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 1A


Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber


Matrix 1

"What is 'real'? How do you define 'real'?
If you're talking about what you can feel,
what you can smell, what you can taste and see,
then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
This is the world that you know.
The world as it was at the end of the 20th century.
It exists now only as part of a neural interactive simulation
that we call "The Matrix." You've been living in a dream world, Neo.
This is the world as it exists today."

- Morpheus, THE MATRIX

Hilary Putnam wrote about brains in vats in 1982. An even more up-to-date version of the Cartesian skeptical challenge can be found in the movie, The Matrix, that was released in 1999.

Neo's predicament in The Matrix is something along the lines of what one might imagine it would be like to be a Putnam-like brain in a vat.

But now . . .

Imagine you are a brain in a vat.

To help you imagine that you are a brain in a vat, imagine the following, adapted from a tale told by John Pollock, Regents Professor of Philosophy and Research Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Arizona:

It all began on a cold Thursday night.

You were sitting alone in your dorm room, in your apartment or room in your parents' house, listening to the rain come down outside when the phone rang.

It was Alice and she sounded terrified.

She said she and John - you remember John; he went on a botany expedition not so long ago in the deep reaches of the Amazon She said she and John - you remember John; he went on a botany expedition not so long ago in the deep reaches of the Amazon (see Paper Topic Number One)) - anyway, she and John were having a late dinner alone at their place when there was a knock at the front door. John went to answer the knocking or perhaps Alice said "the banging." Yes, I believe that's what she said. She said, "who's that banging at the front door?" and John got up to look and came back into the dining room surrounded by six hooded men with automatic rifles and camouflage outfits. Alice said she liked the outfits but thought the men looked mean, even though she could not see their faces cause their faces were hooded. The men forced John and Alice to lie face down on the floor, blindfolded them and went through their pockets, apparently looking for some form of picture ID. . When they found what appeared to be John's driver's license, Alice said, one of them appeared to study the photo and mutter, "It's him all right."

They, then, Alice said, injected John with something. One of the men said "this needle is big, but it won't hurt" and he jabbed John with what Alice believed was a gigantic hypodermic needle. John cried "ouch," she said.

"The six men," Alice said, "then took John out on a stretcher." "How do you know that?" you ask (Alice was lying face down on the floor and had been blindfolded, remember?) and Alice said one of the men said, "go and get the stretcher."

Once the men left, Alice said, she managed to loosen the rope and free herself and the first thing she did, she said, once her hands were free, was to call you. You tell her you'll be "right over" and leave within ten minutes of having received her call.

As soon as you arrive at the house, you suggest to Alice call the police.

But when the police arrive, they act strangely. They do not investigate the "crime scene." They do not check for fingerprints or look for clues, they ask questions and make statements. They ask Alice if she recognized any of the men, but when she said she did not, that their faces were hidden because they were hooded, one of the officers said, "good, that's good," nodding his head and exchanging winks with one of the other officers.

Then one of the police said, "look, there is nothing we can do, but I can tell you this much: this is a top-secret operation. It's best to keep your mouth shut, pretend you never knew what's his name. What was his name? John? Pretend you never knew John, o.k.? If you do this for me, we won't be back here, you'll see. Just keep your mouths shut, both of you" and he gave you an especially hard look.

Then the police left.

And then both, both of you - you and Alice - slump down on the sofa and stare at the ceiling, not knowing quite what to do.


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