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Brains in Vats

Edited by Tim Button (Cambridge University)
Assistant editor: Krista Hyde (Saint Louis University)
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Summary Putnam's brain-in-vat argument is an attempted transcendental argument against the sceptical hypothesis that we are brains in vats (BIVs). A simple construction of the argument runs as follows: My word "brain" refers to brains; A BIV's word "brain" does not refer to brains; So I am not a BIV. An alternative reconstruction ends with the (perhaps weaker) conclusion that my sentence "I am not a BIV" is true. On either reconstruction, however, the argument seeks to use semantic means to refute some kind of radical, global, scepticism.
Key works Chapter 1 of Putnam 1981 contains the fullest statement of Putnam's argument, and helps to set the dialectical context of Putnam's interest in the BIV scenario. Putnam then clarified the argument in response to criticisms, particularly his 1992 reply to Anderson, and his 1994 reply to Wright. Here, Putnam makes clear that the argument involved only two premises (disquotation and some kind of causally constrained theory of reference), thereby favouring the first of the reconstructions suggested above. (The second reconstruction seems better suited to Davidson's 1986 anti-sceptical argument, which is closely connected with Putnam's.) Wright 1992 is one of the fullest and strongest defences of Putnam's argument; however, Wright ends by suggesting that Putnam has failed to refute certain ineffable sceptical concerns (similar worries were voiced by Nagel and van Inwagen). Button 2013 devotes several chapters to the BIV argument, seeking to defend it in its own terms, address Wright's ineffable concerns, and assess the overall limits of BIV-style argumentation. Brueckner & Ebbs 2012 collects a three-decade exchange which begins with Putnam's BIV argument and connects with the wider question of how scepticism and content externalism should interact.
Introductions Putnam 1981 (ch. 1). Wright 1992. Button 2013 (chs. 12-16).
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  1. Jon Altschul (2011). Reliabilism and Brains in Vats. Acta Analytica 26 (3):257-272.
    According to epistemic internalism, the only facts that determine the justificational status of a belief are facts about the subject’s own mental states, like beliefs and experiences. Externalists instead hold that certain external facts, such as facts about the world or the reliability of a belief-producing mechanism, affect a belief’s justificational status. Some internalists argue that considerations about evil demon victims and brains in vats provide excellent reason to reject externalism: because these subjects are placed in epistemically unfavorable settings, externalism (...)
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  2. David L. Anderson (1992). What is Realistic About Putnam's Internal Realism? Philosophical Topics 20 (1):49-83.
    Failure to recognize the "realistic" motivations for Putnam's commitment to internal realism has led to a widely shared misunderstanding of Putnam's arguments against metaphysical realism. Realist critics of these arguments frequently offer rebuttals that fail to confront his arguments. Simply put, Putnam's arguments --the brains in a vat argument as well as the model-theoretic argument -- are "reductios" that are intended to show that "metaphysical realism itself is not sufficiently realistic". If that claim can be substantiated then Putnam can go (...)
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  3. Yuval Avnur (2011). An Old Problem for the New Rationalism. Synthese 183 (2):175-185.
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  4. Yemima Ben-Menahem (2005). Putnam on Skepticism. In , Hilary Putnam. Cambridge University Press. 125--55.
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  5. T. Black (2002). A Moorean Response to Brain-in-a-Vat Scepticism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 80 (2):148 – 163.
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  6. Michael Blome-Tillmann (2006). A Closer Look at Closure Scepticism. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 (3):381–390.
    The most prominent arguments for scepticism in modern epistemology employ closure principles of some kind. To begin my discussion of such arguments, consider Simple Knowledge Closure (SKC): (SKC) (Kxt[p] ∧ (p → q)) → Kxt[q].1 Assuming its truth for the time being, the sceptic can use (SKC) to reason from the two assumptions that, firstly, we don’t know ¬sh and that, secondly, op entails ¬sh to the conclusion that we don’t know op, where ‘op’ and ‘sh’ are shorthand for ‘ordinary (...)
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  7. Jessica Brown, Proof.
    Davies and Wright have recently diagnosed the felt inadequacy of Moore’s response to the sceptic in terms of a failure of transmission of warrant. They argue that warrant fails to transmit across the following key inference: I have hands, if I have hands then I am not a BIV, so I am not a BIV, on the grounds that this inference cannot be used to rationally overcome doubt about its conclusion, and cannot strengthen one’s epistemic position with respect to the (...)
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  8. A. Brueckner (2011). Debasing scepticism. Analysis 71 (2):295-297.
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  9. A. L. Brueckner (2000). Klein on Closure and Skepticism. Philosophical Studies 98 (2):139-151.
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  10. Anthony Brueckner (2008). Reply to Coffman on Closure and Skepticism. Synthese 162 (2):167–171.
    E. J. Coffman defends Peter Klein’s work on epistemic closure against various objections that I raised in an earlier paper. In this paper, I respond to Coffman.
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  11. Anthony Brueckner (2006). Johnsen on Brains in Vats. Philosophical Studies 129 (3):435 - 440.
    This is a response to a recent Philosophical Studies article by Bredo Johnsen, in which he makes a number of criticisms of Putnamian anti-skeptical arguments.
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  12. Anthony Brueckner (1995). Scepticism and the Causal Theory of Reference. Philosophical Quarterly 45 (179):199-201.
  13. Anthony Brueckner (1992). Conceiving One's Envatment While Denying Metaphysical Realism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 70 (4):469 – 474.
    J.D. Collier sees Putnam as arguing (in the 'Brains in a Vat' chapter of [4]) that metaphysical realism is false.' He sees the argument as proceeding from the background assumption that metaphysical realism has the consequence that truth is 'radically non-epistemic', so that 'an [epistemically] ideal theory could be radically wrong about the world' [3, p. 413]. But, according to Collier, Putnam argues that 'an ideal theory satisfying all of our methodological and theoretical constraints cannot be false' [3, p. 413]. (...)
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  14. Anthony Brueckner (1992). If I Am a Brain in a Vat, Then I Am Not a Brain in a Vat. Mind 101 (401):123-128.
    Massimo Dell'Utri (1990) provides a reconstruction of Hilary Putnam's argument (1981, chapter 1) to show that the hypothesis that we are brains in a vat is self-refuting. I will explain why the argument Dell'Utri offers us is, on the face of it, quite problematic. Then I will provide a way out of the difficulty.
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  15. Anthony Brueckner (1985). ``Skepticism and Epistemic Closure&Quot. Philosophical Topics 13:89--117.
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  16. Anthony L. Brueckner (1986). Brains in a Vat. Journal of Philosophy 83 (3):148-167.
    In chapter 1 of Reason, Truth, and History, Hilary Putnam argues from some plausible assumptions about the nature of reference to the conclusion that it is not possible that all sentient creatures are brains in a vat. If this argument is successful, it seemingly refutes an updated form of Cartesian skepticism concerning knowledge of physical objects. In this paper, I will state what I take to be the most promising interpretation of Putnam's argument. My reconstructed argument differs from an argument (...)
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  17. Anthony L. Brueckner (1985). Losing Track of the Sceptic. Analysis 45 (2):103 - 104.
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  18. Anthony L. Brueckner (1984). Why Nozick is a Sceptic. Mind 93 (370):259-264.
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  19. Anthony Brueckner & Gary Ebbs (2012). Debating Self-Knowledge. Cambridge University Press.
    Machine generated contents note: Introduction; 1. Brains in a vat Anthony Brueckner; 2. Scepticism, objectivity, and brains in vats Gary Ebbs; 3. Ebbs on scepticism, objectivity, and brains in vats Anthony Brueckner; 4. The dialectical context of Putnam's argument that we are not brains in vats Gary Ebbs; 5. Trying to get outside your own skin Anthony Brueckner; 6. Can we take our words at face value? Gary Ebbs; 7. Is scepticism about self-knowledge incoherent? Anthony Brueckner; 8. Is scepticism about (...)
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  20. Keith Butler (2000). Problems for Semantic Externalism and A Priori Refutations of Skeptical Arguments. Dialectica 54 (1):29-49.
  21. Tim Button (forthcoming). Brains in Vats and Model Theory. In Sanford Goldberg (ed.), The Brain in a Vat. Cambridge University Press.
    Hilary Putnam’s BIV argument first occurred to him when ‘thinking about a theorem in modern logic, the “Skolem–Löwenheim Theorem”’ (Putnam 1981: 7). One of my aims in this paper is to explore the connection between the argument and the Theorem. But I also want to draw some further connections. In particular, I think that Putnam’s BIV argument provides us with an impressively versatile template for dealing with sceptical challenges. Indeed, this template allows us to unify some of Putnam’s most enduring (...)
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  22. Tim Button (2013). The Limits of Realism. Oxford University Press.
    Tim Button explores the relationship between words and world; between semantics and scepticism. A certain kind of philosopher—the external realist—worries that appearances might be radically deceptive; we might all, for example, be brains in vats, stimulated by an infernal machine. But anyone who entertains the possibility of radical deception must also entertain a further worry: that all of our thoughts are totally contentless. That worry is just incoherent. We cannot, then, be external realists, who worry about the possibility of radical (...)
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  23. Roberto Casati & Jérôme Dokic (1991). Brains in a Vat, Language and Metalanguage. Analysis 51 (2):91 - 93.
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  24. David J. Chalmers (2005). The Matrix as Metaphysics. In Christopher Grau (ed.), Philosophers Explore the Matrix. Oxford University Press. 132.
    The Matrix presents a version of an old philosophical fable: the brain in a vat. A disembodied brain is floating in a vat, inside a scientist’s laboratory. The scientist has arranged that the brain will be stimulated with the same sort of inputs that a normal embodied brain receives. To do this, the brain is connected to a giant computer simulation of a world. The simulation determines which inputs the brain receives. When the brain produces outputs, these are fed back (...)
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  25. David Christensen (1993). Skeptical Problems, Semantical Solutions. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (2):301-321.
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  26. John D. Collier (1990). Could I Conceive Being a Brain in a Vat? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 68 (4):413 – 419.
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  27. Diego Cosmelli & Evan Thompson (web). Embodiment or Envatment? Reflections on the Bodily Basis of Consciousness. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne & E Di Paolo (eds.), Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science. MIT Press.
    Suppose that a team of neurosurgeons and bioengineers were able to remove your brain from your body, suspend it in a life-sustaining vat of liquid nutrients, and connect its neurons and nerve terminals by wires to a supercomputer that would stimulate it with electrical impulses exactly like those it normally receives when embodied. According to this brain-in-a-vat thought experiment, your envatted brain and your embodied brain would have subjectively indistinguishable mental lives. For all you know—so one argument goes—you could be (...)
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  28. Marian David (1991). Neither Mentioning 'Brains in a Vat' nor Mentioning Brains in a Vat Will Prove That We Are Not Brains in a Vat. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 51 (4):891-896.
    In Reason, Truth, and History Hilary Putnam has presented an anti-skeptical argument purporting to prove that we are not brains in a vat. How exactly the argument goes is somewhat controversial. A number of competing "recon¬structions" have been proposed. They suffer from a defect which they share with what seems to be Putnam's own version of the argument. In this paper, I examine a very simple and rather natural reconstruction of the argument, one that does not employ any premises in (...)
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  29. David Davies (1997). Why One Shouldn’T Make an Example of a Brain in a Vat. Analysis 57 (1):51–59.
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  30. David Davies (1995). Putnam's Brain-Teaser. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 25 (2):203--27.
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  31. Massimo Dell’Utri (1990). Choosing Conceptions of Realism: The Case of the Brains in a Vat. Mind 99 (393):79--90.
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  32. Keith DeRose, Externalism and Skepticism.
    A few years back, I participated in the Spindell Conference in Memphis, and gave a paper, “How Can We Know That We’re Not Brains in Vats?” (available on-line at: http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/Spindell.htm). The bulk of that paper concerned responses to skepticism. I pursued an unusually radical criticism of the often-criticized “Putnam-style” responses to skepticism. To put it rather enigmatically, I argued that such responses don’t work even if they work! And I compared such responses with the type of response I favor – (...)
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  33. Keith DeRose (2000). How Can We Know That We're Not Brains in Vats? Southern Journal of Philosophy 38 (S1):121-148.
    This should be fairly close to the text of this paper as it appears in The Southern Journal of Philosophy 38 (2000), Spindel Conference Supplement: 121-148.
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  34. Michael Durrant (1991). Scepticism: Three Recently Presented Arguments Examined. Philosophical Investigations 14 (3):252-266.
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  35. Adam Elga, Why Neo Was Too Confident That He Had Escaped the Matrix.
    According to a typical skeptical hypothesis, the evidence of your senses has been massively deceptive. Venerable skeptical hypotheses include the hypotheses that you have been deceived by a powerful evil demon, that you are now having an incredibly detailed dream, and that you are a brain in a vat. It is obviously reasonable for you now to be confident that neither of the above hypotheses is true. Epistemologists have proposed many stories to explain why that is reasonable. One theory is (...)
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  36. Frank B. Farrell (1986). Putnam and the Vat-People. Philosophia 16 (2):147-160.
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  37. Richard Foley (2003). Three Attempts to Refute Skepticism and Why They Fail. In S. Luper (ed.), The Skeptics: Contemporary Essays. Ashgate Publishing.
    One of the advantages of classical foundationalism was that it was thought to provide a refutation of skeptical worries, which raise the specter that our beliefs might be extensively mistaken. The most extreme versions of these worries are expressed in familiar thought experiments such as the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis, which imagines a world in which, unbeknownst to you, your brain is in a vat hooked up to equipment programmed to provide it with precisely the same visual, auditory, tactile, and other sensory (...)
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  38. Graeme Forbes (1995). Realism and Skepticism: Brains in a Vat Revisited. Journal of Philosophy 92 (4):205-222.
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  39. A. N. Gallois (1992). Putnam, Brains in Vats, and Arguments for Scepticism. Mind 101 (402):273-286.
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  40. Alan H. Goldman (2007). The Underdetermination Argument for Brain-in-the-Vat Scepticism. Analysis 67 (1):32–36.
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  41. John Greco (2007). External World Skepticism. Philosophy Compass 2 (4):625–649.
    Recent literature in epistemology has focused on the following argument for skepticism (SA): I know that I have two hands only if I know that I am not a handless brain in a vat. But I don't know I am not a handless brain in a vat. Therefore, I don't know that I have two hands. Part I of this article reviews two responses to skepticism that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s: sensitivity theories and attributor contextualism. Part II considers (...)
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  42. Xiaoqiang Han (2010). A Butterfly Dream in a Brain in a Vat. Philosophia 38 (1):157-167.
    Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream story can be read as a skeptical response to the Cartesian Cogito, ergo sum solution, for it presents I exist as fundamentally unprovable, on the grounds that the notion about “I” that it is guaranteed to refer to something existing, which Descartes seems to assume, is unwarranted. The modern anti-skepticism of Hilary Putnam employs a different strategy, which seeks to derive the existence of the world not from some “indubitable” truth such as the existence of myself , (...)
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  43. J. Harrison (1985). Professor Putnam on Brains in Vats. Erkenntnis 23 (1):55 - 57.
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  44. John Heil (1987). Are We Brains in a Vat? Top Philosopher Says 'No'. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 17 (2):427 - 436.
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  45. Mark Heller (1988). Putnam, Reference, and Realism. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 12 (1):113-127.
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  46. Stephen Hetherington (2000). Re: Brains in a Vat. Dialectica 54 (4):307–312.
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  47. Lance P. Hickey, The “Brain in a Vat” Argument. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  48. Michael Huemer (2001). The Problem of Defeasible Justification. Erkenntnis 54 (3):375-397.
    The problem of induction and the problem of Cartesian/brain-in-the-vat skepticism have much in common. Both are instances of a general problem of defeasible justification . I use the term "defeasible justification" to refer to a relation between a piece of evidence.
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  49. Michael Huemer (2000). Direct Realism and the Brain-in-a-Vat Argument. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61 (2):397-413.
  50. Leo W. Iacono, A Defense of Moderate Invariantism.
    This dissertation is a defense of moderate invariantism, the traditional epistemological position combining the following three theses: invariantism, according to which the word ‘know’ expresses the same content in every context of use; intellectualism, according to which whether one knows a certain proposition does not depend on one’s practical interests; and antiskepticism, according to which we really do know much of what we ordinarily take ourselves to know. Moderate invariantism needs defending because of seemingly powerful arguments for contextualism, the view (...)
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