As we are in search of a confirmation of our existence within a space, the closest thing to arriving at certainty can be established when studying Putnam’s ‘Brain-in-a-Vat’ theory (Baghramian, M., 2013). This theory can be summarised as follows:
- If an evil scientist got hold of a body and conducted an experiment where a person’s brain was removed and placed inside a vat or jar full of nutrients that keeps it alive, and within the jar the brain’s nerve endings are connected to some form of electrical impulses permitting the sensory experience of living to occur within in the living brain. This then leads to an illusion within the brain that makes it believe that everything is as normal.
This should generate feelings of unease for anyone. It generates questions within us about what reality actually is. If ‘real’ is what we can touch and feel, then real is only electrical impulses that have been transmitted into our brains through nerve endings. If one can manage to ward off the scepticism of this theory, it allows us to realise that there is a possibility – in principle – that it could happen. Putnam drew this theory from the great philosopher Rene Descartes, on discovering his story of the Evil Demon from 1641.
- ‘I shall suppose […] that some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all of his energies to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement’ (Descartes, R et al, 1988, pg.79).
Putnam welcomed the sceptical arguments this theory drew from his audiences. His realisation that the theory is simply incoherent and the brain in the vat would not be able to realise itself as a ‘brain-in-a-vat’. Whilst we have to recognise it as a ‘possibility in principle’ – much like there is a ‘possibility in principle’ that we could build a ladder to the moon – we can agree that it is highly unlikely that we are existing in the space that we perceive which comes from electrical neurons within a jar.
Daniel Dennett agrees, explaining that the amount of information needed to obtain the human experience successfully would be too infinite to comprehend, despite the vast boom of virtual reality and state of the art electronics.
As we still are in search of a foundation for truth, Putnam retreated back to the words of Descartes once more. ‘‘Cogito ergo sum’ (Original Latin), other wise published as ‘Je pense, donc je suis’ (‘I think, therefore I am’) (Descartes, R., 1637). The seemingly critical view of Western Philosophy is that if one has the ability to doubt something, then one must be in existence to doubt. We look for a confirmation of ourselves that is existing within the space in which we live. This thought is far more comforting than the possibility of only our brain surviving inside a jar with no more life than an electrical impulse.
Simply the fact that thinking can assure you of your own existence was drawn upon by many artists with a desire to expand their visual experience; a more vivid view in which a sensory immediacy had the potential to cause a heightened consciousness in which to activate the viewer.