Why you are not your Brain

Philosophy Science Musings 3 min read

It is logically incoherent that you are just your brain. Here’s why.

Is this it?

My best friend is a robot

If you are just your brain, then you can run the following ‘’brain in a vat’ argument. This will lead to a contradiction which undermines the claim that you are just your brain (and nervous system).

This runs something like:

  1. Your sensory ‘data’ is a set of inputs into your brain (or nervous system)
  2. From what Neuroscience teaches us (etc, etc) we ‘know’ that this information is in the form of stimuli to neurons
  3. This could be simulated in a ‘vat’ like situation
  4. It would be impossible to know the difference in the situations, as the sensory inputs which your brain processes would be the same
  5. Hence, you don’t know whether your brain is in a vat or not.

The mere thought of this probably sends a shiver down your spine. You don’t want all your relationships just to be electrical impulses sent by one mischievous scientist who’s captured your brain! Don’t worry, I throw a large vat through the whole argument in a second.

Don’t be impulsive!

Yet the brain in vat hypothesis is flawed.

Let us review the argument. It argues that our sensory data is dependent on inputs which can be replicated. This view is not a priori obvious. I mean, we experience the world, and we don’t immediately think of neurons firing and electrical impulses. In fact, this view is based on empirical (i.e. Scientific) observations, and hence on experimentation. For these observations and theories to carry weight, the experimental data must be valid.

However, if Scientific theory then implies that our observations are not reliable because they are not necessarily (mostly accurate) representations of the world and we don’t know if that data has been falsified that then undermines the empirical data was originally based off. I.e. experiment-based evidence cannot be used to support a thesis which then implies the experiments had no validity. Frankly, it is more coherent that you are a coco pop than a brain in a vat.

A nice analogy is a snake eating its tail to feed itself. This clearly cannot work. Likewise, the use of the Scientific method here undermines the justification for the Scientific method.

That’s impossible because I don’t like it

Yeah I know, it goes against many reductionist world views. Sorry, I guess. Maybe you’d prefer to deny all meaningful relationships in your life to hold to a view of Science which is contradictory.

A Final Word — the consequences for your life.

This is all very interesting, I hear your say, but how is this relevant to me?

I was recently at a Philosophy festival, called How the Light Gets In, where the Neuroscientist in a debate seemed completely unaware of this contradiction. It seems like many people accept Scientific results but forget their origin and justification, leading them to make logical fallacies. I suspect that I am guilty of this too in other areas.

Think also about the consequences of the fact that a Scientific explanation of consciousness is incoherent in this way. If you were worried that you had lost your agency or free will, then fear not! (Unfortunately, we are also back at square one in trying to understand what consciousness actually is).

My argument strictly says that if a determinable set of inputs determine our experience, if those set of inputs can be replicated and our justification for those inputs causing our consciousness is based on empirical data, we end up in a contradiction. The snake has eaten its tail. We have undermined the evidence which led us to make the claim. If a set of inputs can be measured and determined, then if those inputs have regularities (like physical phenomena do) then you can manipulate them. Thus, there cannot be a physical account of consciousness, or at least one which is based off of the principles of Science and the Scientific method.