Rene Descartes should be symbolically thanked by the creators of The Matrix for propagating the idea of ’a brain in a vat’ in Western culture. Descartes, often called the father of modern western philosophy, begins his magnum opus, Meditations on First Philosophy, with a famous thought experiment that might lead one to think that we are not in control of our minds, and therefore cannot trust our own judgments that suggest that we exist. Descartes puts it as follows:
“Nevertheless, the belief that there is a God who is all powerful, and who created me, such as I am, has, for a long time, obtained steady possession of my mind. How, then, do I know that he has not arranged that there should be neither earth, nor sky, nor any extended thing, nor figure, nor magnitude, nor place, providing at the same time, however, for [the rise in me of the perceptions of all these objects, and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I perceive them?” (First Meditation)
Given the interest that this imagery elicited nearly four hundred years later in The Matrix trilogy, it seems clear that humanity is at times both troubled and fascinated by this possibility.
Even though this is usually used to imply that we have no control over our lives, or live in a world of illusion, I want to consider the imagery on another level. For some of us, easily recognizable among philosophers and other academics, I think it is not far from the truth that we are just brains in vats. We just happen to call the vats ‘bodies.’ Consider that for many, one of the main goals of one’s life is to strengthen the muscle that is one’s brain, either for its own sake or for some instrumental purpose. On this view, what is the fundamental difference — absent the implications of illusion — between carrying a brain around in a vat, nurturing it along the way in the company of other brains and their products (e.g. books, conversation, etc.), and living the life of an academic?
I don’t see this as being inherently negative. The moral judgment, if attached to this image at all, has much more to do with the instrumental purpose this knowledge is being put to, or not being put to. Some people simply desire to strengthen the muscle between their ears instead of the various muscle groups focused on by athletes and fitness buffs.
Or, as Smith puts it, I am an “idealist”