Sunday, October 23, 2011

Brains in a Vat

You probably know it from “The Matrix”;  the basic idea goes back to Plato at the very least.   Having often alluded to the philosophical issues involved, we won’t mention them here.  (Executive summary  for those pressed for time:  All the truth ye need   is in the Nicene Creed.)

Our quarry here  is,  rather,  literary.   In a philosophical context, “Brains in a Vat” refers to the very hypothetical situation in which we are now, and have always been,  and (crucially) unbeknownst to ourselves:  brains in vat.  All we see is an illusion;  cf. “The Truman Show.”  (Believers in the Creed need not fret about that scenario.)

Quite different is the situation presented in a classic episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, which I watched long ago, as an impressionable lad  in (possibly) ass-flap pyjamas.  (Do these even exist anymore? -- Not sure how long ago it was;  Google didn’t help;  reader clarifications  welcome.)  For better or worse, it has quite tenaciously  stayed with me.
Here, a man conventionally alive in our familiar reality, is facing death.  We get but a glimpse of him, short-tempered with his wife for her incessant smoking.  Rejecting our appointed time of circa threescore and ten, he arranges for his brain to be kept alive in a beaker:  thus seeking eternal life, not on God’s terms, but on Satan’s.  (These deals usually do not turn out well.)

His wish is granted -- as it was for that Cumaean Sibyl, who later was found hanging in a jar.   All we can see is a brain and a single eyeball;  and all that eyeball can see is a cylinder of optics above its liquid home.  Bubble bubble bubble go the oxygen blobs; a beeper monitors its brainwaves.   And now we see the venomously smiling figure of his wife, as she leans over into its field of view.  She promises to take ve-ry good care of him;  and slowly, voluptuously, voluminously -- as the beeper shrills furiously --  blows into that helpless lidless eyeball,  a curling plume of smoke.

~     ~     ~

Again, for the benefit of readers who may have just joined us, this reminder:  We are not, in fact (Donald Trump to the contrary), brains in a vat.  But increasingly, some Americans are acting as though they were, and by their distortion of the culture, drawing others in with them. 
Thus consider this Author’s Note prefacing The Crazyladies of Pearl Street (2005), a fine memoir --  umm, novel, by the exiled American Trevanian:

Although the characters and incidents of this novel are set in a closely observed and carefully described block of Albany, New York, during the Great Depression and the Second World War, a lively desire to thwart the litigious impulses for which Americans have become renowned  obliges me to declare that all the characters and names are products of my imagination and exist in no other reality than my own.

~     ~     ~

A contemporary update to the old brains-in-a-vat idea  is a particularly foul exudation of that already-malodorous  brain-fart of physics, is that our entire cosmos might be merely a simulation run by some supersmart aliens with these like, really big computers, in some parallel universe.  This fantasy  has stained the name, in particular, of Martin Rees.

Freeman Dyson points out, in his essay "Many Worlds" (2004; collected in The Scientist as Rebel (2006), that Rees was anticipated in this by the sci-fi writer Olaf Stapledon.  Stapledon enjoys a high reputation among those who don’t generally read schlock science-fiction;  personally  I found him unreadable.


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