Could I conceive being a brain in a vat?
Collier (John D.)
Source: Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Volume 68, Number 4, December 1990, pp. 413-419(7)
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Hilary Putnam considered whether, in the light of contemporary theories of meaning, the theory that we are brains in vats1 could be true. His conclusion that it could not has caused consternation among realists, since his conclusion implies that an ideal theory satisfying all of our methodological and theoretical constraints could not be false. So far there has been no really effective reply. Most attempted refutations have either tried to show that Putnam's argument is unsound, or else that one or more of his assumptions is unjustified. I will accept here that Putnam's argument is sound, but argue that even then his conclusion allows a robust realism. This realism is relativistic in much the same way as Putnam's internal realism, but it allows the possibility that an ideal theory could be radically wrong about the world.
  2. My strategy will be to distinguish between our ability to state a theory and our ability to conceive its possibility. I will argue that even given Putnam's assumptions, and despite Putnam's arguments, we can conceive being a brain in a vat2, and that this is all we need to retain a robust realism. Conceivability, not statability, is required by metaphysical realism.
  3. Putnam's conclusion is part of his larger argument against metaphysical realism. Metaphysical realism involves
    … 1) a correspondence theory of truth,
    … 2) bivalence of properties, and
    … 3) the existence of a world independent of our representations.
    Its important consequences are that truth is radically non-epistemic, and that an ideal theory might be false. Although traditional metaphysical realism has opposed relativism, there is nothing intrinsic to Putnam's characterisation of it that rules relativism out. In particular, the correspondence theory of truth allows that different representations can correspond to the same reality, as long as the mode of their correspondence is different.

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