Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2009
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 1A


Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber


Matrix 1

As you slump on the sofa, Alice suddenly remembers something. She slaps her forehead gently with the open palm of her right hand and says, "why didn't I think of that?"

She turns to you and says she remembers one of the men used the phone to call someone. She heard him dial and say, "we got him."

Alice leaps up from the sofa and goes to the phone and is able to retrieve the number. She then goes to her "reverse directory" and looks up the number and the address. She scribbles down the address and comes back to the sofa and says, "o.k. let's go."

You look at Alice and say, "no way. I'm going, not you; if you go, they'll just kidnap you, too."

You leave the house with the piece of paper with the address. Alice had traced the phone number to a private clinic on the outskirts of town.

When you arrive at the clinic you are surprised to find it looks more like a prison or fortress than a lab. There are guards at the gate and it is surrounded by a massive wall. Your commando training, however, that you did last summer, will now (finally) come in handy. You scale the 63-foot wall, avoiding the barbed wire, and silence the guard dogs on the other side by tossing them chocolate covered espresso beans left over from class and that you had stashed in your back pocket. Once you are in the inner court yard you find the windows of the two bottom floors are all barred. You climb up one of the drainpipes onto the roof and do a somersault through a window on the top floor that just happens to be open and take the back stairs down.

You find yourself in a laboratory. Hearing muffled sounds in a small side-room nearby you peek through the keyhole and see what appears to be a fully equipped operating room and a surgical team laboring over John. He is covered with a white sheet from the neck down and the doctors seem to be connecting tubes and wires to him. You stifle a gasp when you realize that they appear to have removed the top of his head.

You watch as one of the surgeons reaches into the opening at the top of John's skull and eases out his brain, placing it in a stainless steel bowl. The tubes and wires you had noticed earlier are connected to John's now disembodied brain. Another surgeon carries the cortical mass with wires and tubes sticking out of it and carefully places it in some kind of tank or vat and lowers it down.

"What are they doing with John's brain?" you wonder.

But before you can even begin to speculate or say the words "Rene Descartes" you are interrupted. The lights in the space where you have been hiding suddenly comes on and you find yourself confronted by the scariest group of medical men you have ever seen. They grab you, pick you up and take you into the next room and buckle you down onto an operating table, and you think, "Oh, oh, I'm in for it now!"

After they have securely fastened you to the table, the doctors step back and huddle at one end of the room, but you can't turn your head far enough to see what they are doing. They mumble amongst themselves, probably, you think, deciding your fate. Then you hear someone's voice.

It's the head of the surgical team, the chief surgeon.

"Well," she says, "you thought you were so smart, tracking John here to the clinic. But, you know, it was all a trick just to get you here. You saw what happened to him. He's not really dead, you know. These surgeons are the best neuroscientists in the world today. They've developed a procedure whereby they remove the brain from the body but keep it alive in a vat of nutrients. The Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved the procedure and they say they are not likely to, but we believe we'll be able to gain their approval in the not-so-distant future.

"You see all the wires going to John's brain? They connect up with a powerful super-computer. The computer monitors the output of his motor cortex and provides input to the sensory cortex in such a way that everything appears perfectly normal to John. It produces a mental life that merges perfectly into his past life so that he is unaware that anything has happened to him.

"He thinks he is taking a shower right now, getting ready to go to the movies.

"But actually he's just a brain in a vat.

"Once we have our procedure perfected we'll go again to the head of the Food and Drug Administration, but we need more experimental subjects first.

John was easy. In order to really test our computer program we need someone who leads a more varied and complex life and you, you just happen to fit the bill!"

You are starting to squirm. The other surgeons have drawn around you and are looking at you as if they were mice and you were a piece of cheese.

But then the chief surgeon says something surprising. She gazes down at you and whispers in your ear, "I bet you think we're going to operate on you right now and remove your brain just like we removed John's, don't you?

That's what you think, isn't it?

"Well, you have nothing to worry about.

We're not going to remove your brain.

"We already did.

We removed it and placed it in a vat between August 23 and August 30 during Orientation and the first few days of classes, about two months ago. You may wish to go back and check the Brandeis University Fall 2009 Calendar if you have any doubts about the date."

With that, she turns and leaves. The surgeons unbuckle you and let you go.

And now you're back in your room in a bit of a daze.

"I am back in my room."

You haven't told anybody about this. Yet.

"I haven't told anybody (yet)."

You did tell Alice you would call her back as soon as you found out something about John but you haven't called her and now, quite frankly, you are, at the moment at least, less worried about John and more worried about yourself.

Are you a brain in a vat?

"I am not a brain in a vat.
Do I look like a brain in a vat?"

You're not sure.

Maybe you are a brain in a vat and The Cafe in USDAN and Sherman Dining Hall and Chomondley's as well as Lauren Leydon-Hardy, Wesley Mattingly, Derek Leonard, Holger Thiel and Professor Teuber are not real, but just figments generated by some computer.

Then again maybe you're not a brain in a vat. The pizza or yogurt you had the other day in USDAN tasted real enough. You did have pizza or yogurt the other day, no? And Professor Teuber? He's real? A computer could not make him up?

But how would you know?

"I know."

You haven't called Alice yet in part because this question is bothering you: "How do you know you are not a brain in a vat?"

AND if you can't know that you're not a brain in a vat, then you can't know that any of your beliefs about the external world are true. No?

"Well, . . . "

Perhaps there is "no way out of the cage of your own mind."

"That's ridiculous."

Is it?

"Yes, . . . completely."

SO how then do you know you are not a brain in a vat?

Drawing on the reading and your own sound judgment, make a case for your knowing or not knowing you are not a brain in a vat, think of several powerful objections to your argument, and respond to them.

"How much time do I have to give you an answer?"

November3rd. The paper is due, November the 3rd, in class.

"That's not a lot of time.
Is there any reading I might do?"

Your efforts are likely to be given a boost by the organization of the readings in the Perry, Bratman and Fischer text:


Arranging the readings in the way they have, Perry, Bratman, and Fischer have created what might be called "a space" for debate, But you also realize that it would help to sort out what you think before reading any of the readings if you hope to be able develop anything like a view of your own.

Again, to paraphrase what one, very good contemporary philosopher, J. R. Lucas, has said:

"Philosophy has to be self-thought, if it is to be thought at all. It is an activity rather than a set of positions. You need to think out the problems and solutions for yourself, and although another person's philosophizing may help you in your own, you cannot accept their conclusions, or even understand their arguments, until you have already argued a lot with yourself."

As with the other topics you should fell free to talk to others in the class as well as to talk to family and friends, to show your parents the paper topic, to brainstorm and consult with them. If you feel confident about your answer, it may help to ask others what they think is wrong with your answer as well as to ask if they think you may have overlooked something and if so, what?

In making your case draw on at least two of the readings for support or objection from the Perry, Bratman and Fischer Introduction to Philosophy text, one of which at least challenges your view and say, in your own words, how you think the author would criticize the position you take and offer your own best response.




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