you and a brain in a vat

The idea that you are your brain has fascinated intellectuals at least since Descartes. Francis Crick, a co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA and a Nobel Laureate, described the “astonishing hypothesis”:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

That’s obviously true. The whole of you by weight is mainly water, but you also include some hot air. You might leak out some tainted water, and subsequently be slightly lighter and happier. But lose your brain, and you’re dead.

Neurons evocatively named “mirron neurons” have generated considerable excitement recently in neuroscience. Mirror neurons have the same pattern of discharge when an animal sees an action performed, and when the animal performs the action. V.S. Ramachandran, a leading neuroscientist and an important contributor to the controversial field of neuroesthetics, has declared that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.

The film The Matrix popularized the idea of a person as a “brain in a vat”. William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer popularized the idea of “jacking in” — connecting one’s brain directly to an alternative reality. I’ve argued that these ideas obscures much of how a living body makes sense in interacting with things of the world, especially other persons. In a recent essay, Ramachandran seems to take a “brain in a vat” and “jacking in” quite seriously.

Well, at least for awhile. Towards the end of his essay, Ramachandran emphasizes relations between persons:

We are all merely many reflections in a hall of mirrors of a single cosmic reality (Brahman or “paramatman”). If you find all this too much to swallow just consider the that as you grow older and memories start to fade you may have less in common with, and be less “informationally coupled”, to your own youthful self, the chap you once were, than with someone who is now your close personal friend.

So much for simulating a person with a brain in a vat. We’re all in this vat together. Either simulate us all, or forget about it.

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